Bonacca - The Comeback
Guanaja Returns from Hurricane Mitch
On a hot April day 42 miles north of Honduras, trout bum Steve Brown sits on the porch of his fly-fishing lodge, observing the bonefish tails peeping out of the emerald flats. The lodge deck sits on stilts wading out over the flats calmly and patiently stalking the next school of bonefish or elusive permit to pass. The tiny bay island of Guanaja and its residents welcome Brown and his guests to their little slice of paradise, which also happens to boast saltwater fly-fishing possibilities that could make any angler swoon.
By 1998, the island was home to several dive lodges exploring Honduras’s reef (the second largest barrier reef in the world. The lush ecosystem teaming with wahoo, mahi-mahi, jacks, snapper and spiny lobster, had also put the island on the radar of recreational anglers with a sense of adventure. Even a few resorts were popping up to welcome discerning travelers from all over the world to Guanaja’s slice of paradise far away from many of the entanglements of modern life. Fueling Guanaja’s popularity among fly fisherman, Jack Samson dedicated an entire chapter of his Fly Fishing for Permit describing his incredible fishing experience in Guanaja with legendary guide Robert Hyde.
But by late October of that year the massive Category 5 hurricane “Mitch” made landfall. Ravaging the island for nearly 3 days, “Mitch” pounded Guanaja with winds exceeding 120mph, consuming every home in its path and stripping the island of its bountiful vegetation, leaving trees bare and an entire mangrove population uprooted or internally destroyed from the brutal conditions.
The waters rose nearly 7 feet, and safe shelter, if any, was hard to find. The promising economy and the landscape that drove it were in shambles. A once promising landscape and economy was destroyed. However, the fearless residents of Guanaja prevailed. Rankin Jackson, a stout ex marine-turned whitewater guide—turned rasta-esque fly fishing guide for Fly Fish Guanaja said, “The whole island was red. Everything [the land was stripped] was dead, but after 4 months, everything started to come back. You’d plant a watermelon, and it’d come back bigger than they were before. Mango trees were growing taller. I think it had to happen, to straighten up certain things. The hurricane made everyone start from zero, and come back together,” to start rebuilding the island.
Almost 7 years after Mitch had passed, Jackson moved to Utilla, and became a whitewater guide, he met a young fishing guide from Colorado, Steve Brown, who was traveling around the Bay Islands with his buddies searching for the permit. But this trip wasn’t just about searching for a one-time shot at a storied fish. Brown was also scouting a location that might help him fulfill his dream of opening a fishing lodge. There wasn’t much convincing needed to get these trout bums to visit Guanaja.
When Brown arrived on the island he found not only a unique fishery and locals with the kindest of hearts, but an island beaming with opportunity. Brown’s vision began to take shape as a young teenager named Edwin stepped on to the beach and naturally wanted to help Brown catch a fish. The two had never met, but it Edwin knew he could help. They waded the flats and Brown was guided to the largest bonefish he had seen his entire trip—solo, tail high, nose buried in the turtle grass. After meeting Edwin and having already established a relationship with Rankin, the tides started moving quite smoothly. “It was a pristine Caribbean paradise full of vibrant reef, mountains, people, and fish. I dreamt of a perfect place, then it appeared,” said Brown.
Edwin was a fisherman from birth and started hand lining permit at an early age to feed his family and the village of 35 people he called home, located on the northeast side of the island. He protects these fish he use to harvest and his village shows their support. "Fly fishing has helped me become a man, I love it, and if it's possible, I want to do it the rest of my life" says Edwin. He’s a local celebrity in his hometown and children jump up and down on the docks with joy and run along the beach yelling his name when they see the slender and tall figure appear on his panga--everyone shouting out locations they've seen “pompajack” (permit). The word-of-mouth fishing report has gained its popularity with the fishing guides. Everyone from the butcher to the barber is quick to tell anglers where they last saw a pompajack.
With the promise of the local guides and the help of a few friends and investors Brown began to make his dream a reality. He met Scott Duncan, who was heavily involved in the Mangrove Restoration Project, and together they formed Fly Fish Guanaja. The two began renting a salty piece of land from a Croatian couple and lured a slew of Brown’s personal clients in from Colorado. After a 2 years on the North Side of the island the outfit was ready to expand. Duncan and Brown located their ideal spot in the southern cays of Guanaja.
From this point forward Brown’s story starts to read like a Jimmy Buffet book, full of hurdles, blessings, and miracles. Perhaps most importantly, these miracles were not just granted to Brown and his investors. “Fly fishing has given my family a new life.” Jackson said. “Before we were doing nothing. There are no jobs here, maybe some construction or going out to the high seas and diving for lobster.” As curious anglers flock to the island, locals are seeing their tourism economy exceed pre-Mitch heights. . The visitors vary. Some, are virgins to the territory. Others, are return visitors, chasing the permit that got away. Every year Brown sees more fly fisherman on the “do-it yourself package,” and these hopefuls stay at various places around Guanaja with welcoming hosts.
The abundance of fish surrounding the island is no secret to Hondurans, and this has created tension between conservationist-minded anglers and locals with many netters from the mainland trying to make a living off the surrounding waters. Their netting activity is illegal, but the government turns their head the other way. Alden Ebanks, a 71 year old native of Guanaja, who wears every bit of the sea and sun on his weathered face, helped patrol the home waters for decades. However, “All the financing just stopped. I couldn’t gas up my boat and do my job. No one cared.” Jacks are their ideal catch, but for practical purposes they’ll keep anything they can wrangle.
The indiscriminate netting spells disaster to anglers searching for permit and bonefish. The community of Guanaja has rallied around their local fishing guides. Locals have seen and felt the positive impact fishing tourism has had on their community and economy. “These are the fish we’re trying to protect, and if it wasn’t for you guys [anglers and tourists] no one would do anything about it,” says Rankin.
Despite the progress the community has made, Guanaja is still rebuilding nearly 15 years after Mitch. Resorts, like Posado del Sol, a once a vibrant waterfront establishment, have been abandoned. Now the skeletons of these monuments of progress serve as ghostly reminders of the islands worst natural disaster. Perhaps the slowest to rebuild are the mangroves. On the northeast side of Guanaja lies a graveyard of mangroves, completely decimated by the fierce winds of Hurricane Mitch. An estimated 95% of the mangroves were unable to recover. As the locals are focusing more on the sustainability of the fishery, they are also realizing how vital the mangroves are. The mangroves are the heartbeat for the entire ecosystem, supplying shelter, food, and breeding grounds for endangered turtles, fish, and birds. Jackson claims that the mangroves were long taken for granted by the people of Guanaja. “We knew they were important. The best fishing was always near the mangroves. It’s not until they’re gone do you realize how lucky you were to have them.”
With help from local students and volunteers, Duncan has developed the Mangrove Project to revitalize the ecosystem. Targeting areas where they will not only flourish but also contribute most to the fish population, the Mangrove project has planted over 38,000 mangrove propagules in Guanaja. Students are quick to appreciate how valuable the mangroves are to their home, and many of Guanaja’s youngest residents are taking strides towards protecting them.
Locals, love their little island, and they’re eager to tell you that. Divers, ex-pats, vacationers, and anglers have discovered this secret little gem, but unlike many of its neighbors, Guanaja hasn’t been ruined by high rises or turned in to a cruise ship port. There’s a different vibe on this Caribbean island, and the locals like it that way. As Jackson says in his deep “one-love”-ing Caribbean accent, “We all work together. If you live here or you visit here, you know what’s important to each other. It’s the land and the water we’re all blessed with—we have to protect it—and this my friend, makes the world go ‘round.”