Chuck Goldenberg, an endearing septuagenarian who ties flies in his spare time, and his son John, a businessman currently in London, proved something my Marriott casting instructor had told me: You meet a more ethical class of people when fly-fishing, the sort that takes pleasure in the hunt, not the kill. Chuck dreamed of catching a bone, tarpon and permit fish, a fly-fishing grand slam, but he and John had gotten only three small bones and a 24-inch barracuda, and that was by trolling.
I had booked a three-day package, with all meals included. Jose delivered one plate after another, starting that night with delicious lentil soup, then the house specialty, grilled lobster tails, and flan for dessert. Everything was cooked in a palapa adjoining the dining room, including terrific breakfasts of huevos rancheros and French toast made of freshly baked bread from the panaderia. One afternoon, I saw a huge red snapper suspended outside the kitchen, which showed up again on my plate at dinner.
It was late by the time we'd scraped our plates and drained our margarita glasses. In pitch black, Sonja led the way to my room, which was actually a blue-hulled houseboat in dry dock under a palm tree, about 10 feet from the water. Sonja said she and Armando never got around to making it seaworthy, so they turned it into the lodge's funkiest suite.
It had easy chairs on the deck and two plywood-lined rooms, one a bath with a sink and shower dispensing hot and cold water. The sleeping chamber had generator-fed electric lights, louvered windows, a cooler of purified water and a double bed regally draped with mosquito netting. I read by flashlight, slept lightly and dreamed bizarrely. At night, the wind usually kicked up, moaning through the palms, and it rained hard off and on. But my little ship always weathered the storm, basking in first-day-after-creation sunshine by the time I awoke.
Early the next morning, I walked around the village, which was quite spread out. It has a primary school, a basketball court overlooking the water, an open-air church, offices of fishing collectives and a handful of small shops, all peaceful and good-natured. Even the stray dogs looked healthy. It struck me as a good, safe place to raise a family, though Sonja later said that Punta Allen attracted a strange crew of gringos, including the occasional on-the-lam American felon.
At breakfast, I met my fishing guide, Carlos. He was 31, with a wise look beyond his years, had a Maya grandma and had just married a gringa who had worked for a time at Cuzan. Carlos had already loaded fishing tackle and a lunch cooler into the boat, which bobbed by the pier. He started the quiet four-stroke engine and we shot south, past the lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula and across the mouth of Ascension Bay, banging against big waves all the way. I kept one hand on my hat and the other on my sunglasses, which, besides sun block, were all the gear I needed, because Carlos supplied the rod, a No. 9 line WT Redington, and the flies, Crazy Charlies and crab patterns.
Soon we were on the wide, placid bay, flying Indiana Jones-style through narrow channels between mangrove islands. Then we got into skinny water, utterly transparent shallows that are one to two feet deep, where bonefish swim in tight V-formations and root, leaving the impressions of their snouts on the bottom. Carlos turned off the motor and stood in the stern, slowly and silently propelling the boat with a pole, his eyes glued on the water. Ten minutes passed. I was watching a heron wade through the mangrove and thinking about an article I'd recently read in Smithsonian magazine on the results of experiments that apparently proved that fish feel pain.
Then I heard Carlos say, "Bonefish, 12 o'clock, 25 feet."
This was my cue, but I didn't have my rod ready and couldn't see the prey, so the fish escaped. Later I glimpsed a bone as it swam close to the boat in an arcing flash--the aristocrat of the flats, arrogant and unconcerned that anyone would have the temerity to try to catch it. Mostly, though, I cast blind, to Carlos' directions. When I occasionally put the fly where he saw a fish, he motioned for me to stay still, then to strip, a way of pulling the line in with your hands to make the fly spurt across the bottom, like that favorite bonefish delicacy, mantis shrimp.
Once I hooked a small bonefish but lost it because, concentrating on my casting, I was totally unprepared for its power when it tugged back and ran like 10 inches of silver-coated muscle. After lunch--tuna sandwiches, chips, watermelon and soda--I hooked and lost another.
So it went all afternoon. The sun disappeared, obscuring the view even for Carlos, then came out again, its rays emanating from a break in the clouds as in a Renaissance painting of Christ's ascension. An osprey soared across the water. Everything seemed silver. I zoned in and out but was never bored, caught up in the drama of bonefishing.