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Original Issue

A western discovery in Mar Caribe

Times have not been the same for the Turneffe Islands since Bill and Dolly Haerr got down from Canada

Sportsmen seeking angling adventure in the tropics have concentrated almost entirely on the eastern Caribbean, roughly from the Bahamas south through the Leeward and Windward Islands and on down to the northern coast of Venezuela. The vast expanse of the western Caribbean has long remained in limbo for all except a few adventurous souls who have, in the company of mosquitoes, sand fleas, fer-de-lance and iguanas, fished for tarpon and snook in the remote jungle rivers of coastal Central America.

Now, as if they had arisen out of the warm, blue sea only yesterday, new islands in the sun are being "discovered" in the western basin of Mar Caribe, and fishermen need only look at the charts, sketchy though they may be, to see the vast potential. Between the southeastern tip of Yucatan and Punta Gallinas, Colombia there are hundreds of uninhabited cays, surrounded by bonefish flats and laced with natural channels and cuts chock full of tarpon. Barrier reefs, like the 118-mile-long reef paralleling the coast of British Honduras, swarm with snappers, jacks, albacore, grouper, cobia and barracuda. On the outer edge of the reefs, in the deep blue, there are bonito, dolphin, king mackerel, blue marlin, sailfish, school tuna and wahoo. Yet, until Bill and Dolly Haerr came down from Canada's Northwest Territories in 1966 to open the first modern fishing camp in this part of the world on the Turneffe Islands, 30 miles southeast of Belize, British Honduras, few of these game fish had ever been taken on tackle more sophisticated than handline and strip bait trolled slowly in the wake of a native shoulder-o-mutton sailing smack.

The Turneffe Islands are actually a chain of low-lying cays some 35 miles long, surrounded by a barrier reef. Yet on the U.S. Navy's hydrographic chart No. 1498 they are depicted as one large cay or atoll in the shape of a left foot arched to windward. The notation—"Innumerable islands and lagoons—Good Passages for boats"—is of little consequence, since none of the passages that wind through the maze of mangroves are marked. Furthermore, the chart offers this blunt warning: "Lighthouse Reef and the eastern side of the Turneffe Islands are enlarged from a British survey in 1830 and must be approached with caution."

But Bill Haerr is not one to be stopped by anything as insignificant as outdated marine charts. "You learn to run a boat in waters like these more by personal experience than by charts," Haerr says. "As for hurricanes, the records show that this part of the Caribbean gets a bad one only every 30 years or so. What's more important is the fishing potential here, and it's fantastic. On the strength of that, my two partners [trucking executives Art McCue of St. Paul and Sy Harlan of Des Moines] and I have sunk $150,000 into Turneffe Island Lodge. We are trying to make a go of a fishing camp on a tropical island that few people ever heard of. I guess you could say that all it really takes is a lot of guts and no brains."

What it really takes is what Bill and Dolly Haerr have to offer—nearly 20 successful years in a business fraught with uncertainty. They started out in 1948—two newly married kids from Mankato, Minn.—at a camp on Cormorant Lake in Manitoba, Bill working as a dockhand and guide, Dolly cooking and making beds. For the next 13 years they moved from lodge to lodge, absorbing experience, saving what money they could and raising two daughters. The big break came in 1961, when the Haerrs took over the management of Great Bear Lake Lodge in the Northwest Territories. Four years later they opened their own place, Arctic Circle Lodge, on Great Bear Lake. "It was a gold mine," Haerr admits. "We sold it this year, simply because the price was right and because the money would come in handy for Turneffe Island Lodge."

During the winters, when his Canadian lodge was closed, Haerr prowled through the Bahamas looking for a spot to open another camp, but property was sky high and most of the good beach access was owned by speculators. Then a longtime friend, Tom McNally, outdoors editor of the Chicago Tribune, told Haerr about the Turneffe Islands. McNally had fished there with Vic Barothy, a guide who had been chased off Cuba's Isle of Pines by The Beard and had established a fishing lodge on the Belize River and a rustic outcamp on Cay Bokel in May 1966. Haerr spent three days exploring the flats, the barrier reef and the mangrove-lined channels and was sold. He put a down payment on the camp and 10 acres of land, most of it tangled mangrove, and made arrangements with a Belize contractor to modernize the existing facilities and to build new cottages, a laundry, staff quarters and an outboard shop.

During the months before Turneffe Island Lodge opened in December 1966, there were times when the Haerrs seriously considered chucking their island in the sun. British Hondurans do not consider themselves Latin American, but they are still Latin enough to put everything off until mañana or, more accurately, until two weeks after mañana. "Our first guests were due on December 3," Haerr recalls, "but when I got back to Cay Bokel in October the contractor wasn't even half finished." The fact that Haerr took over and met the December 3 deadline must be some sort of efficiency record for mañana land.

To encourage foreign investment, the British Honduras government removes all duties and taxes on new enterprises for the first 10 years of operation. Considering the freight that Haerr shipped to his island, the saving was considerable. In all, 42 wooden crates, each of them six-feet square and packed with plumbing and electrical fittings, mattresses, springs and bedding, wheelbarrows, deepfreezes and refrigerators, tools and eight 16-foot fiber-glass skiffs and outboard motors, were brought to Belize by boat. There, the crates were loaded into barges and towed by tug to Cay Bokel.

The problem of maintenance on a salty tropical island has proved formidable. Haerr and his men are forever prowling around under the raised cottages with flashlights, checking the plumbing for the saltwater toilets. The camp's generators require constant scrutiny. "If the power goes off for a day in this heat," Haerr says, "we could lose $1,000 worth of meat and other perishables." There are additional headaches, not the least of which is the freshwater supply. Haerr's only source is rainwater collected in four 20,000-gallon storage tanks. If the supply gets low he has to bring in barrels of water from Belize.

Fishermen who insist on miles of manicured beaches and lawns, air-conditioned rooms and mariachi serenading while the four-page gourmet menu is being studied, can forget about the Turneffe Islands. Not that Haerr's guests are exactly reduced to roughing it. There are beaches, which Haerr created by building coral-rock seawalls and letting the shifting tides fill in the sand, and green grass—the seaweed used to fill in the low spots around the camp proved to be a fine mulch. Dolly Haerr brought in seedlings and now supplies her kitchen with homegrown tomatoes and pineapples. The prevailing easterly trades provide natural air conditioning, and the food, prepared by Benny Martinez, the shy, barefoot cook, is far from ordinary. Among Benny's specialties are conch chowder, a salad made with raw cubed conch spiced and marinated in lime juice, fried red snapper, broiled lobster and coconut-cream pie.

And there is the fishing, which is, in a word, exceptional. Says Haerr with a smug grin: "You can see that for lots of people the very variety is frustrating. Here comes a guy from Chicago who is raring to get at it, but where does he start? Should he hit the passes for tarpon, or work the bonefish flats first? While he's mulling that over, someone mentions that he got a big wahoo the day before just outside the reef. Then there is the yellow bonefish at Calabush Cay. It swims right in with a school of normal bones and looks to be about four pounds. It would be a rare trophy."

Haerr's pitch is as true as it is unusual, but most fishermen are inclined to concentrate at first on the bonefish, and they need go no farther than 300 yards from camp to find them standing on their snouts in eight inches of water, broad V tails waving slowly above the water as they grub for crabs, worms, clams and grass shrimp. Although it is possible to catch as many as 50 or more bonefish in a day by blind casting chunks of fresh conch into the trenches that border the flats, the sportier method is to stalk them on the flats. It is not unusual to find bonefish tailing right up against the barrier reef, but the surf washing over them makes the fish spookier than usual, and the plop of a tiny ‚⅛-ounce lead-head jig enhanced with a piece of conch often results in a great whoosh of water as the panic-stricken bonefish streak off across the flats.

After a long, suspenseful day of sneaking around the flats, chasing elusive fish that are scared of their own shadows, one can always switch to plug casting for tarpon in the mangrove-lined channels and passes. The tarpon are always there and, except for occasional fish of 100 pounds or more, they run in the 20-to-40-pound class. The time to fish for tarpon is at sunrise or in the evening, when they are chasing schools of pilchard and balao. In the company of wading herons, ospreys and pelicans, you can drift lazily with the current, casting into likely looking holes. When a school of tarpon is spotted rolling on the surface things happen fast, especially if Burley Garbutt is acting as official guide and interpreter.

First off, you make several casts with your brand-new, scientifically designed, torpedo-shaped, perfectly weighted plug. Nothing. Then Burley, looking properly apologetic, will offer you his favorite plug, an ancient jointed-minnow creation full of impressive tooth marks and clusters of rusty treble hooks. On the first cast a tarpon swirls under the plug.

"Dat tarpon, 'e git vexed at de bait," Burley shouts in singsong Creole. " 'E come now, mon. MON, 'e git it."

For every 10 tarpon hooked, a fisherman will manage to bring one to the boat, if he is lucky. The other nine will make several high, twisting leaps and throw the plug.

" 'E rid de bait, mon," Burley says. " 'Nother tar-pon. Cast dere. Ah, 'e come to de bait. 'E GIT IT. Oh, 'e rid it, mon." And so it goes until the school finally sounds and the fishing is over.

The Gulf Stream, which flows past the Turneffes just outside the barrier reef, has not yet been seriously fished, but Haerr plans to bring down experienced charter-boat men from Florida or the Bahamas to work the stream for sail-fish. Whether it is actually the Gulf Stream or a similar body of warm, moving water formed by the winds and the equatorial current is something that oceanographers are still arguing about. If the sailfish are indeed there in numbers, Haerr can offer fishermen virtually every species of Caribbean game fish, with the possible exception of giant blue-fin tuna and white marlin.

In the meantime fishermen who spend a week at Cay Bokel (Haerr offers an eight-day, all-expense package deal from Belize for $550) can get ail the action they want with the bonefish and tarpon. They can also take side trips to the lagoons for small snappers, jacks and barracuda and to the barrier reef for big red snapper and grouper. The inside edge of the reef teems with small fish and startling formations of brain and staghorn coral.

The cays are also full of promises for the amateur naturalist. There are all sorts of wading birds, wild pigeons, woodpeckers that feed on the fruit of the night-blooming cereus, huge nests of termites that are reputed to be capable of devouring a large palm tree in one year and the red-footed booby, a rare species that nests only on Half Moon Cay, 32 miles east of Cay Bokel. Among the other attractions on Haerr's list of "exotic wildlife" are key coons, iguanas, horned lizards—which the guides call "bush willies"—and a few alligators. Haerr prefers not to include the boa constrictors in his list, since the chances are his guests will never see one even if they want to. The guides consider the boa "bod poison" (which it is not), and they religiously avoid any place where one might conceivably be hanging out. Their reasoning, according to an old Creole proverb, is simple: "Coward mon keep 'soun bone."