It seems like only yesterday, but in reality it was way back in the summer of 1970, that Anne Murray released her seminal hit single "Snowbird". And almost instantly became a superstar of Canadian country and contemporary music. A sad song of unrequited love where she urges the country’s iconic winter bird to "spread your tiny wings and fly away". To some far-flung "land of gentle breezes where the peaceful waters flow". Canadians in the hundreds of thousands took Anne at her word and have been fleeing the country’s "snowy mantle cold and clean" for faraway places that are warm and green. With some sand and sea thrown in too.
A fine Argentine rainbow trout.
Snowbirding has become pivotal part of our culture, language and way of life. Heck, they even have their own political lobbying group. I have some of my most mellow memories chilling on a deck with a Bucanero, Dos Equis, Kalik or Belikin beer (depending on the destination-of-choice) in my hand. Listening to the soothing sigh of the tradewinds in the coconut palms, reliving my day on the bonefish flats and waiting for the camp cook to announce that the conch salad or fish tacos are served. Bliss. Although the Covid-19 pandemic has hit the pause button on many snowbirds’ winter get-away plans and international air travel has ground to almost a standstill.
But we can still dream. With the availability of package holidays and cruise options, the standard fun-in-the-sun vacation is more or less straight forward. Other than the hassles of modern air travel, it’s pretty much a turn key operation. But snowbirding with a rod in your hand presents a whole array of hurdles not present in a standard beach vacation. Here are a few helpful hints from a seasoned snowbird angler.
Because I am a fly fisher by choice, my snowbird destinations have generally been somewhere where a long rod can be employed to advantage. There are several tour companies that offer tailor-made angling vacations. Which, of course, puts all the planning and logistics details on someone else’s shoulders. But in most cases it also locks you into a fishing-only experience. I’ve been on trips where it was obvious that the anglers were single-focused and - other than the trip to and from the airport - had experienced little of the exotic country that they were visiting. Which is not exactly a dream vacation for the non-angling partner who may want to kick back and catch some winter sun in a location that’s a step-up from a rough-around-the-edges fishing camp.
Andros Island rod rack.
At the other end of the scale is the entire do-it-yourself trip. Which can be done but it also requires an inordinate amount of research, planning and rolling with the punches - often in a foreign language - and a lot of time invested in learning the lay of the land and nature of the fishing when you are on site. Sometimes by the time you get it figured out, it’s time to head for the big silver bird home. The third option is to work out your own logistics but hire the guide locally. In most cases you will likely be fishing from some sort of water craft. So you’re going to have to shell out a few bucks anyway. And, if he/she is any good, the guide will have a pretty good handle on which fish species are active, local fly choices and where they are. What’s more, if it’s flats fishing, they will actually be able to see the moving pods of fish from the poling platform atop the outboard engine.
While the angler stands on the casting deck at the ready as the guide barks the casting instructions. Which in flats fishing are called "shots". "Give me 30 feet at 2 o’clock". "No senor, the other 2 o’clock". In all cases the internet is your friend and a vast amount of knowledge and reassurance can be gained by spending a little quality screen time doing Google searches and going on a few chat rooms. Either simply "lurking" or actively engaging with other posters. Most reputable guides and outfitters have websites these days. It’s also important that, unless you are proficient in the local language, a working knowledge of English is essential in choosing your guide.
Bonefish from Belize.
Like anything you read on the internet, all information is not necessarily accurate information. Click your mouse with a certain amount of skepticism. If you want to leave the trip essentials in someone else’s hands, there are several agencies and on-line retailers that specialize in angling holiday travel. While some tackle stores put together winter destination packages for angling groups. But again remember, someone else will be herding the cats and you will have to hand over much of your autonomy. There’s always going to be a dilemma when it comes to tackle. Do you gear-up at home? Which usually requires an investment in a new 8-weight rod and a large capacity reel. Or leave the tackle selection to the locals. Some who provide free loaners while others charge a daily rental fee. That means angling with a strange rod and reel whose maintenance you will have had no control over.
On a salt water angling holiday this becomes more critical where reels can quickly corrode if not thoroughly washed down with fresh water after every session on the water. The anxiety of lost luggage will haunt any travelling angler - especially when required to send your rod cases into that international airline black hole called "oversize luggage". Not to be seen again for several days. One way to lower your blood pressure is to invest in four-piece travel rods with salt water fittings which fit into a hard bottomed duffle bag. Salt water fly reels are also worth the investment and wind-cutter bonefish lines add to the experience. Fly choice is always going to be an issue. Especially with guided fishing.
For the fly tier, one of the pleasant build-ups to a winter getaway fishing adventure is to tie up a fresh box of flies. The dilemma comes when the guide looks at your rows of shiny new Gotchas and Crazy Charlies, sniffs and plucks a ragged clump of well-chewed feathers from his hat-band and knots it on your leader. So do you resist and insist on one of your own? Or go with the flow? There’s always going to be dynamic tension with guided fishing. One certainty is sun protection. There’s no place for pasty-faced northerners who have been wrapped in fleece and flannel for months on a salt flat. Where the tropical sun is merciless. A severe fist day sunburn can ruin a trip. Long sleeve shirts and pants with high UV protection rating, sun block, a hat with neck protection. A buff, especially when running the boat and flats gloves round out the outfit. Save working on your tan for the resort afterwards. If the trip includes spot-and-stalk wading, a quality pair of flats boots are also worth the investment. And because it’s strictly sight-fishing a good pair of polarized sunglasses it goes without saying, is essential equipment.
It would be impossible to provide a comprehensive list of alternate cold-weather angling vacations. But here are a few places where I was able to beat the mid-winter blues and bring a few fish to the boat. Ambergris Caye, Belise - This is a bonefish paradise with a chance of completing salt water Grand Slam with a permit and baby tarpon. There are numerous small resorts that cater to flats fishing and a good supply of experienced guides centered around the small city of San Pedro. The fishing takes place in the myriad of cayes and mangrove flats in the Hol Chan Marine Reserve on the sheltered Chetumal Bay side of the peninsula. And because Belise is an English-speaking country, language is not an issue. North Andros, Bahamas - I fished out of a lodge run by Big Charley Neymour, whose uncle of the same name was the inventor of the legendary Crazy Charlie bonefish fly. The fishing was in the flats, bights, bays and tidal creeks that separate the two big islands from polled flats boats. Great fishing by day and Bahamian cooking and culture at night. Ya, mon.
Playing an Ascension Bay bonefish.
Ascension Bay, Mexico
Only a couple hour’s drive but a million miles away from the Cancun resort strip, Ascension Bay bonefishing out of the sleepy Mayan village of Punta Allen takes place in a pristine nature reserve. After running the choppy waters of the bay in a classic Mexican panga and blowing through the three island barrier called the Tres Marias, you enter a bonefishing wonderland. Here you can wade the flats for cruising bones or spot fish the lagoons from the boat. Then return to the village and eat Mexico seafood and freshly-squeezed lime juice margaritas under the coconut palms of the little beach restaurants.
Not all winter getaway fishing vacations are tropical. In the temperate countries south of the equator, our winter is their summer.
The Land of the Long White Cloud has a worthy reputation as a winter angling destination. But not for bones and tarpon. The main attraction are Kiwi trout, browns and rainbows, that were imported by enthusiastic settlers to the other land down under. Both north and south island offer an amazing array of big rivers, small streams and spring creeks where the fish grow large under ideal conditions. But it’s not quite as easy as it sounds. Sight fishing is the way to go in these crystal clear waterbodies and having a pair of local experienced angler eyes along is often worth the investment.
New Zealand trout stream.
Patagonia is the epicenter of Argentinian trout fishing, where the sprawling estancias in the foothills of the mighty Andes offer angling on numerous rivers. I fished out of San Martin de los Andres, which is the service centre for Lanin National Park with a local guide. And floated four famous Patagonian rivers from sturdy rubber rafts for rainbows and browns. Plus a bonus trip down south to Tierra del Fuego for the famous sea-run brown trout in the island’s Rio Grande. Staying at an estancia where we ate the iconic Argentinian lamb barbecue, called an "asado", washed down with excellent Mendoza melbac. The trout ran to 10 pounds and were fished with double handed spey rods.
Trout Stream in South Africa’s Drakensberg Mountains.
Believe it or not the Rainbow Nation is also a winter trout fishing destination. Even though summer temperatures can hit over 40C, there are numerous cool little rivers that come bubbling out of the Drakensberg Mountains and several other highlands that hold thriving trout populations. For larger fish there are numerous farm ponds and reservoirs that contain stocked rainbow and brown trout populations. Plus for more exotic fly fishing species there are yellowfish, toothy tiger fish and even yellowfin tuna in the Indian Ocean. South African fishing is based on the British beat model, which makes access more complicated. But there are several angling associations that aggregate access rights and manage them for the landowners. Plus numerous guiding services.
At first cut Scotland as a winter angling destination may seem like an outlier. But the tail end of the warm Gulf Stream brushes against the west coast gently modifying the winter weather and spring comes early to the Land of the Thistle. Scotland’s Big Four salmon rivers - Tay, Tweed, Spey and Dee - begin opening up in February (the Tay season starts on Jan. 15 believe it or not). With spring salmon expected in the rivers any time after the opening date. Getting onto some of the famous beats - which cost a king’s ransom in the summer - can be a relatively inexpensive exercise in the shoulder season.
There are stretches of the rivers that are managed by local angling associations where the fishing permits are even more affordable. Many local hotels also hold fishing rights and offer fishing packages. The more pricey beats come with an experienced guide and boatman called a "gillie" to help you with the flies, lies, etc. Of course the Atlantic salmon is one of those "fishes of a thousand casts". So be prepared to put in the river time. But if you can tear yourself away for a few hours, there’s usually a scotch whisky distillery nearby.
Salmon fishing on Scotland’s Spey River.
In Anne Murray’s lands of gentle breezes where the peaceful waters flow.