It goes without saying that these are unusual times. We’re so used to doing, going and living as we please. This is the American way. Our freedom and rebel spirit is, in many ways, what makes us American. Yet currently, we’ve made personal compromises that represent a broader concern and more global way of thinking than what’s typical for most Americans. Many have come together and supported each other, even in small acts, that have made positive impacts.
At Zen, we’ve found ways to continue working and connecting with people even though we also have struggled in these uncharted times. This year in particular, was packed with travel, hosted trips and product testing that basically came to a halt. However, what has impacted us, often has an even greater affect on other less fortunate countries that rely on tourism and foreign money to support their economy and their people.
Our trip to South Andros in The Bahamas was cancelled. The country shut down and was closed for business. Tourism contributes about 60% of the country’s total gross domestic product and supports at least half of the work force. The Bahamas have had very few cases of coronavirus but have been greatly impacted and the people will face enormous hardships caused by closure.
Mexico is “better” off. Tourism accounts for about 18% of their gross domestic product but over 77% of service exports. They’re a poor country like The Bahamas with high poverty rates. Many Mexicans rely on the service industry and tourism to survive. The level of poverty in these countries is much more severe than in the United States. Most Mexicans don’t have any savings, no bank accounts or debit or credit cards to float on for a week or a month until times change. Many survive day to day and get paid the same way. Again, virus cases have remained low but the impact and stakes for most people in Mexico are extremely high.
As property owners in Mexico my husband and I were able to travel there the first week of May. We checked our temperatures, wore face masks, sanitized surfaces before touching them with a large supply of antibacterial wipes and set off to travel internationally in the wake of the pandemic. Airports were empty and signs were posted everywhere reminding people to maintain social distancing and the appropriate 6ft boundary bubble. People respected this and followed instructions without complaint.
While all this was required in the terminal, the moment we stepped onto the plane, social distancing was a moot point. The Denver to Dallas flight was packed. Possibly 8 seats total, were left empty on the plane and we both sat shoulder to shoulder in our full 3 passengers row, masked, wiped and curious about the effectiveness of it all. Flight attendants were huddled in the galleys (not socially distanced from each other) and they no longer were enforcing or even interested in whether passengers had their seats and trays in an upright position for takeoff or landing. This strictly enforced “safety protocol” was no longer a concern.
On the Dallas to Mexico leg of the trip there were drastically fewer passengers; a total of 19 on a plane with 350 seats. Again, no beverage or food service was offered, flight attendants were nier to be seen, and I joined a flight officer traveling as a passenger, in having a takeoff feast and enjoying my Johnny Rocket Burger with fries spread out, all over my opened (and sanitized) tray table while slightly reclined, all during takeoff. Again, this apparently no longer mattered or was an enforced safety measure.
We were picked up at the airport in a passenger van, were the only fares and sat in the way back. The driver, my husband and I, all maintained our face masks. We had been warned prior to flying that there would be roadblocks and check points to which they would take our temperature and require proof of property ownership, but all the check point stations were vacant. Our driver was friendly and gave us the lowdown on closed bars and restaurants. He graciously stopped at a grocery store so we could buy food.
Entry into the store was limited to 1 person per family. They provided hand sanitizer upon entering and were wiping down carts. Inside customers socially distanced themselves. Shelves were all stocked and there seemed to be an abundance of workers. Officials strolled the aisles overseeing that boundary bubbles were being enforced. Beyond that, the only real difference was that they had stopped all beer sales, but hard liquor was plentiful and widely available. These certainly are odd times.
Once at the property there wasn’t much to do but relax. Fishing lodges were all shut down and people were encouraged to stay home. But people are hurting for money… and for food. We had the name of a gentleman who had a small fishing boat. We connected with him. He was thrilled and eager to take us out fishing. He wasn’t a guide, didn’t know how to fly fish, but knew the waters and was keen on the opportunity to earn some money. Although he had a boat, he hadn’t been able to troll for fish because he didn’t have money for gas. We agreed on a daily price and everyone was very pleased.
The next morning, he showed up on the beach in the boat with another young man and we set out for the day. He brought us to a bay and dropped anchor. We set up our own rigs and waded the shallow flats while the “captain” chilled on the boat and the young man dove for conchs. It was a wonderful day, no other boats or angler were anywhere to be seen and fish seemed to sense that humans were holed up and off the water. Bonefish were 2 feet off the shore and I had several permit swim within 10ft of me – big ones too.
They seemed so relaxed and came in so close it was surreal. I made many “perfect” shots, seemed to do everything right, but they simply weren’t interested in what I was serving up. I moved with them and eventually had several chases, but they were so close to start with, and the cast relatively short, that I would run out of line striping and when my fly stopped moving, they lost interest. I did this too many times to believe but they never got spooked. I even left the water, ran down the beach about ½ mile and retrieved my husband so he could give them a shot (I’m a generous wife), and we both tried from different angles, slowly and gently herding, then casting to them. It was like a permit oasis.
Even though we didn’t hook into any permit that day, it was exhilarating to watch and be so near them, both of us calm and present. They’d swim away for a while, then come right back and hang. Just being there in the water with them, moving slowly, taking their time. Eventually I stopped casting to them and just enjoyed watching, observing and admiring them – such magnificent, huge fish in their element.
We ended the day at 4pm having landed many bonefish and other species. We had brought food along and stopped at midday to share our lunch with our companions and admired the conchs that the younger one had collected. He was very pleased. On the boat ride home, he explained to me how his wife prepared them. Two days later we were picked up again for a second outing.
This time the captain of the boat brought two others along. On our way to our fishing spot, they put out lines and we trolled. About 45 minutes in we hooked into something that we initially thought was a rock. After maneuvering the boat and messing with the rod, they determined it was a fish. The water was too deep and choppy to see the bottom. We were in about 40ft of water.
One of the guys put on a mask and jumped in. They asked if I wanted to come too and of course, I said yes. I’m a strong swimmer and used to scuba dive as well as do some pretty decent free diving. The fish had found a flat ledge on the bottom of the sea floor that was almost impossible to recognize. Tucked under the flat shelf was a big grouper that was about 25lbs. We pulled and pulled but made no progress. Eventually, we went all the way down and speared it. A 25lb grouper is a big fish. I’m a catch-and-release kind of person, but this fish would be turned into food.
We fly fished while the guys dove for conchs and spear fished. For lunch they made fresh ceviche on the boat with part of the grouper we had brought up. It was spectacularly delicious and another fantastic day. When they dropped us off and we paid them, they started to give us the remaining grouper. We told them to keep it. They were very appreciative. The captain made money for gas, was able to take friends out to fish and dive to bring home food, got about 20lbs of grouper and still had cash to spare. This was fishing for us but had a big positive impact on them.
For the most part we all kept our distance, stayed safe, and we were able to put some money back into their economy. For the remaining days in Mexico, we fished from the beach, swam and relaxed. As I walked the shoreline again, bonefish were 2 feet away, jacks and even a few small permit were spotted 15ft from shore. Fish that are rarely seen in this particular bay were now numerous and in plain sight. The lack of humans seemed to be having a positive impact on ocean life and fish appeared to be re-inhabiting areas that are typically disrupted by beach goers. Never before had I seen bonefish or permit in our bay, but here they were, right off shore. Very strange times these are.
The flight home was exactly the same as the flight there, but in reverse. Tray tables were left down, seats were reclined during take off and the guy next to me brought his own Pabsts Blue Ribbon beer which he enjoyed during the flight while simultaneously vaping.
I’m not sure how to interpret all of this. As I said, these are strange times for sure. But I do know that in a small way, we helped out. As our world begins to reopen and travel once again becomes “safe”, I encourage you, if you have the means, to take that fly fishing trip or vacation to Mexico or The Bahamas. These countries desperately need the influx of cash. Their poor is so much poorer than our poor. Fishing guides all over the world work hard. It’s not an easy job and they truly want you to catch tons of fish and have an incredible experience.
Our trip to Andros Island, The Bahamas will be rescheduled for February. We still plan on returning to Rapids Camp Lodge in King Salmon, Alaska in July. And again, as long as we feel safe, we’ll head to Iceland in August and Las Pampas Lodge in Patagonia, Argentina next April. These are spectacular locations, lodges and outfitters that need to be supported. Zen is committed to helping our global fly fishing industry while remaining safe and responsible. If you’re interested in joining us on any of these wonderful excursions, feel free to contact us