FARAWAY CAYES, HONDURAS | MARCH 17-24, 2018 | TRIP REPORT
For about the tenth day in a row, I woke in deep darkness and checked the time: 4:30 a.m. Like the mornings leading up to this, my mind quickly engaged trying to separate reality from dream and dream from fantasy about the Faraway Cayes of Honduras. Everything I had heard about the Faraway Cayes perfectly described my wildest imagination — virgin flats full of permit and bonefish in the middle of the Caribbean, barely explored by fly anglers. The week before, four anglers landed eight permit and lost several more. Double digit sized bones. The unbelievable reports had been keeping me awake at night, but the skyrocketing expectations laced my excitement with unease.
The mastermind of the Faraway Cayes program is Steve Brown, a guide from Colorado who founded the lodge/operation Fly Fish Guanaja on Jones Caye. An avid fisherman of course, Steve is also an active conservationist. He founded the youth work program Fish for Change, which takes kids from the U.S. to destinations like Guanaja to fish and do environmental work. Not to preach, but programs like Fish for Change are our future and do not happen without men of benevolence and action like Steve.
After running Fly Fish Guanaja for a number of years, Steve began hearing reports about the “Cayes to the East” that were filled with fish. So he figured out the most practicable way to get there (by helicopter), and all the other logistics to run an operation out in the middle of nowhere. And then he limited the program to a handful of very lucky anglers per year. Conservation in action.
Various permutations of these thoughts and visions of big, uneducated fish cycled through my head in the pre-dawn blackness. Instead of the silence of my own bedroom, the difference this morning was the persistent trade wind on Guanaja ruffling the palm fronds and yurt flaps. With the trip here, my mind began to quiet as anticipation gave way to the experience, thoughts settling on rigging and organizing fishing gear. Finally.
Travel the day before was fairly painless. Rob, Dave, Brad, Will and I met at DFW and boarded a three hour flight direct to Roatan, where we met Kerry. The immigrations line in Roatan seemed long and slow by today’s standards, but would have been a miracle not too long ago in Central America. After clearing customs, Oliver (our handler) gathered us and our luggage. We barely had time to order a drink at the airport bar when we were headed to the helicopter: Bell 407GX, the same machine used to film the show Survivor in Cayos Cochinos, complete with Survivor logo.
Twenty minutes later the heli touched down on Jones Caye. Then cocktails and conch fritters, tailing bonefish and triggerfish in front of the lodge, catching up with friends and making new ones, lobster and wine, and a late night rigging session over more cocktails — which is the best kind of rigging session. Its hard to beat the vibe at Jones Caye.
Daylight set things in motion with coffee, breakfast, gathering gear, and jumping aboard a panga. Within minutes wading our first flat we had shots at several tailing permit, a school of big bones, and a couple of triggerfish. The triggers were the most interested, repeatedly chasing and eating the fly, but after a big initial run the fish would turn facing back towards us, and the hook kept pulling. Several more bonefish finished out day one on Guanaja. Everyone had multiple encounters with permit. Rob got on the board first, catching a permit that was following a shark around the flat.
Guanaja seemed full of fish, but after barely getting our feet wet the first day it was time to cull gear and re-pack for the next leg of the expedition. The heli showed up right after breakfast the next morning and we were airborne again. Peak anticipation made the 1.5 hour flight seem longer, but then reef and dry sand appeared out of the blue.
The Faraway Cayes camp is used for lobstering during other seasons, and the hundreds of lobster traps provide makeshift building blocks for the kitchen and foundations for the surprisingly cozy yurts. Not that we paid much attention when we got there, since we were focused on rigging and getting on the water.
The tide was falling by the time we were out fishing, and it was slow the first afternoon. But that changed in a big way with the incoming tide the next morning, with tailing permit everywhere on knee-deep turtle grass flats.
The Faraway Cayes are part of a massive reef system that runs for hundreds of miles offshore of Honduras (and eventually Nicaragua). The outer side of the reef is solid coral dropping into deep blue. It is cut through with channels, and by larger gaps of deeper water separating sections of reef. The coral has also risen to meet the surface in select spots, forming cayes, sandbars, turtle grass flats, and other shallow terrain on the back side of the reef.
The enormous scale and sprawl of the reef makes the shallow water seem isolated by the space in between. These are not the endless flats of the Bahamas or Florida Keys. But vast flats can seem frustratingly empty after hours of searching for fish. Smaller flats make it easier to locate the fish, at least at the Faraway Cayes. The shallow turtle grass is full of permit, bonefish, and triggerfish. We saw permit of all sizes — the sign of a healthy fishery — tailing in skinny water, cruising the flats, hanging just off the flats, poking around the coral, cruising with rays.
We witnessed several unique permit behaviors. For instance, on the falling tide we looked for “fish on rays.” Hearing the guides talk about it, I assumed that they meant fish following stingrays, which permit do at other locations. But here, we were looking for eagle rays. At first I was confused when the guides called for a cast to an eagle ray, because there were clearly no permit following or riding on top of the ray. But upon a properly placed fly on the ray’s nose, permit would suddenly appear chasing the fly. They were tucked right up to the rays’ bellies and invisible until they emerged from underneath. A bit of a mystery, since eagle rays do not stir up food on the bottom, but presumably the permit were using rays as shade/camouflage to sneak up on prey. Not only a wild, unique phenomenon, but the fish with rays tend to eat aggressively and accounted for several of our permit.
I also had an unforgettable encounter with permit doing their best trout imitation. I was on a small patch of turtle grass that had an almost imperceptible current flowing from the reef over the top of the flat. On the backside was a small shelf where the water dropped from knee to waist deep. After seeing a fish in the area, I eased over to locate it and noticed one, then two, then three, and ultimately six nice permit sitting with their noses on the shelf facing into the current, motionless. I don’t know whether they were waiting for food to come to them, or waiting for the tide to rise before prowling the flat, but it was a sight I’ll never forget.
The answer to the question of whether permit are dumber in a virgin flats environment: NO. If you think about it, wild animals in any pristine environment are more attuned to anything new or out of place. Fish in established destinations are accustomed to outboard motors, a bump on the boat, the sound of a push pole or wading boots crunching the flats. But fish that are not used to human presence notice such things right away. Plus, permit are permit. They are smart, selective, and tough to catch anywhere they exist — hence the mystique surrounding this amazing fish.
But while Faraway Cayes can’t deliver dumb fish, it does deliver plenty of opportunity. Each angler in our group had dozens of daily encounters with tailing permit on the incoming tide, while wading in knee-deep water. The falling tide brought many more shots at fish under rays. Our group landed four permit and failed to convert a number of other eats. Rob was the team MVP with the most permit landed. We were also not taking it too seriously, with several afternoon naps and the more experienced permit anglers giving away some of their shots. That kind of mindset on a permit mission is a testament to a great group of guys and a fun, relaxing trip.
Almost every shallow area also held big schools of bonefish. While we did not focus on bones, we still had sessions of one-after-another medium sized bonefish. Trophy bones are there, but proved harder to land in the coral-filled environment. If the permit fishing had not been so good, this would have been a ridiculous bonefish report!
The fishing for triggers was a huge bonus, especially since it was not promoted or even talked about. The triggers at both Guanaja and Faraway Cayes are plentiful, big, and they will eat flies. Their teeth and hard mouths make landing them a different story, but that did not take away from the fun. Big fish that tail on the flats and get to your backing in seconds — thats what we’re looking for, right?
Schools of tarpon reportedly hang at certain places around the reefs at Faraway Cayes, but we did not look for them. Some lucky angler is going to discover a tarpon bonanza. Giant barracuda abound at both Guanaja and Faraway Cayes but we did not mess with them either.
The guides were awesome, both to hang with around camp and fish with. They all speak good English, in addition to Spanish and Honduran Creole. (While Spanish is the official language, apparently in the Bay Islands of Honduras speaking English is a sort of status symbol.) At Faraway Cayes, there are two guides per boat, which optimizes wade fishing as each angler is paired with a guide. The guides not only know the water and fly fishing, but have that passion, enthusiasm, and good humor that separates good from great guides. Several in our group thought they were the best fly fishing guides they had ever fished with.
The operation at Faraway Cayes employs a snapper fishing captain and boat, who is a family member of one of the guides. The snapper boat serves to store and transport supplies like drink ice. It also ferries anglers, guides, and pangas to the “Further Away Cayes” making the crossing to more distant flats comfortable.
The snapper boat also serves more subtle functions. It is part of a small, informal fleet of fishermen who are all buddies and are basically the only other human beings out there. The support boat and its access to this floating network means security and nearby aid despite the remoteness. Add the two Honduran Navy servicemen stationed at camp, plus the heli parked 30 minutes away, and safety never crossed our minds.
The commercial fishing boats also supplied fresh table fare. Each day we would radio a nearby boat for the catch of the day, and we ended up feasting on cobia, wahoo, tuna, and other fruits de mer. Breakfasts included eggs several ways, bacon, beans, fry jacks, fresh fruit, and more. Our bellies were very happy.
Just to complete the picture, the other aspects of the trip also went way beyond expectations. The beds were comfortable, with nice pillows and linens, and when combined with waves lapping just feet away, we slept better than at home. The rooms at Jones and yurts at Faraway have bedside tables with lamps, ceiling fans, and drinking water. The internet service on Jones Caye was the best I have experienced at a fishing lodge, ample for Facetime with my wife and daughter. Jones Caye has nice private bathrooms, while the full bathroom/shower at the Faraway Cayes camp is shared and a bit more rustic. But it was perfectly adequate and far more than we expected on a tiny piece of sand in the middle of the ocean. Free daily laundry service at both Jones Caye and Faraway Cayes allowed us to pack light and not smell like a fish camp.
Jackie the one-eyed rooster made sure we knew when to wake up. He also kept the hens bred — several times per day, just to make sure.
Will Graham (@willgrahamphoto) made his second trip with Tailwaters. As you can see, he is a maestro behind the lense. His imagery always blows me away. He is also one of best dudes I can think of to have along on a fishing trip.
All in all it was an adventure that seemed almost unreal. Transportation by helicopter added to the sensation of passing through a portal to another dimension. On the heli flight home over endless blue, with the sun’s rays streaming through clouds floating to all horizons, we actually commented that it felt like a fairytale. A rough-around-the-edges fairytale full of fish.
Perhaps the best part of all, every angler will have the same unadulterated experience due to the exclusive program being run by Steve Brown and Fly Fish Guanaja. The flats of Faraway Cayes will get fished less than forty days this entire year. That level of dedication to caring for a fishery — rather than the bottom line — is extremely rare and special. But the corollary to such limited traffic is not many available spots, and the anglers each season will have first dibs on next year. Every one of our group loved the trip and plans to return; two are headed back next season.
Final thoughts: dedicated permit fishermen should make this trip, without passing GO or collecting $200. While the permit may not be easier to catch, they are there in numbers. There is plenty of opportunity. Plus, it is worth it just to witness such unique permit behavior in an environment completely different than any other fishery. With some permit experience under your belt, and having visited other fish and fisheries, you will appreciate the Faraway Cayes that much more.
And as a reminder, do your part for conservation by visiting fisheries like this one. Catch and release fly fishing operations are the front line “boots on the ground” ensuring the protection of the fish and environment they inhabit. These programs are only made possible by the support of anglers going fishing. #flyfishingconservation
Our webpage for Faraway Cayes is HERE