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Bill Smith photo.

Wild Side: Trip to the tropics causes self-induced thermal shock

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Carol and I have enjoyed winter escapes to the tropics of Central America for more than 20 years. This year we had another great time in Belize.

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We left early one February morning when the temperature was 10 degrees below zero. A couple two-and-a-half hour jet flights and a half-hour single-engine plane flight later, we were in humid 80 degree air under the coconut palms in southern Belize.

We met our tanned friends Bill and Susan Smith of River Falls, who had been there since January. After changing into shorts and sandals, we enjoyed some cold Belikin beers on the veranda of their cabana on the beach. I could feel my freeze-dried skin soaking up the warmth and humidity.

We spent the next day walking down the long beach and catching up with Belizian friends in the village. We had to be careful of the intense sun there just north of the equator to avoid burning our fair skin that had been bundled up all winter.

During the heat of days on shore we retreated to the shade of the veranda to hang in the hammock and read or watch the sea. The east-northeast trade winds blew at 10 to 15 knots most days, keeping us comfortable in 85 degree weather.

I enjoyed snorkeling expeditions in front of our cabana and the nearby cayes, checking out the sea grass flats, mangroves, and many species of tropical fish around the coral. I was treated to the sight of a big spotted eagle ray flying gracefully through the water trailed by a remora fish. I was able to stay reasonably warm for a half an hour in the 78 degree water.

We went fishing with our Belizian guide friends and caught a variety of fish. We brought back some snappers, groupers and snook to have cooked for dinner by our friend Magda, who has a restaurant overlooking the harbor. Our friend Jeff Cudd of River Falls exclaimed several times, "This is the best fish dinner I've ever had!"

I went fly fishing with local guide "Polo" Leslie. With his expert assistance I managed to catch permit, bonefish and tarpon in the same day. None were huge but it was a treat for me to be able to catch those hard-fighting fish on a fly rod.

Wading on the flats looking for permit is like hunting, a very intense sport. The sun and reflection off the water is also intense. It's important to cover up to avoid being cooked.

I went fly fishing again with our good friend Eloy Cueavas. We searched the flats for permit that day but the tide was low and we only saw a few wary ones. I caught bonefish incidentally when fishing for tarpon with a streamer fly and then hooked into a nice 15 to 20 pound tarpon that jumped six times before I got it to the boat for a release.

Carol and I went fishing with Eloy outside the barrier reef. The sea was a bit rough. We trolled big lures in deep water off the drop-off while looking for seabirds diving on schools of baitfish. We didn't encounter any schools of tuna, king mackerel or wahoo but we did catch barracudas, black grouper, some yellow jacks and a number of good-sized mutton snapper. Carol, as usual, caught most of the fish.

We left early one morning and drove to the Coxcomb Basin Jaguar Reserve in time to do some bird watching. We saw keel-billed toucans, aricaris (a small kind of toucan), big turkey-sized crested guans that croak, chicken-sized chachalacas that make all kinds of noise, small white-collared manikins that sound like a toy machine gun, nesting boat-billed herons and many flights of screaming parrots.

Hiking on trails through a remarkably diverse rain forest festooned with vines, ferns and bromeliads, we saw jaguar and tapir tracks. Leaf-cutter ants were busy carrying pieces of leaves along cleared trails to their underground fungus farms. On the way out, we found ourselves between three troops of black howler monkeys roaring at each other to declare their feeding territory.

We flew home in March to lots of snow and suffered thermal shock. The winter is hanging on much longer than last year, but we feel fortunate to have had a few weeks in the tropics.

Please send any comments and suggestions for this column to me at rfjsports@rivertowns.net.

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