It was early morning of the fifth day, the air was still, no chittering of birds at sunrise, and at the same time the atmosphere seemed to be filled with something. It felt like tension. The light was different too, seemingly devoid of vibrancy, of life – there were no edges to things, it was all flat.
Bunkie and I got up and went outside and walked down the shallow slope to the beach in front of our cabin and looked across the flats to the horizon. The sky was ominous and dark from one corner to the other. We both knew what it meant. Some heavy weather was heading our way.
At breakfast we found our host sitting alone over a cup of coffee. He said during the night that the cook and both of the guides had fled to the mainland. Somehow, they knew what we were just learning. A massive hurricane was brewing in the Caribbean basin, swirling north directly at us. It was so huge there was no safety zone. The radio messages sent to all the outlying islands, fishing camps, ships, everyone was: go now. But we couldn’t. The large, outboard-powered Valcros were gone with the help that had left before daybreak, paddling out before starting the engines. We were smack in the bullseye of the hurricane’s path.
Bunkie said, “Pard, it doesn’t look good. What do you think?” I agreed. Then offered that we might get in some time on the flats before things got really nasty.
The three of us threw together some breakfast and afterward Bunkie and I grabbed our eight weights and started out for the area of the flats our host pointed us towards.
Now the air was filled with birds, thousands of them swirling in huge flights, all escaping the incoming blow. The water that seeped into our flats boots felt warmer than before and that ‘something’ in the air started to feel like electricity. Under the heavy clouds that dominated the distant edge of what we could see, flashes of lightning bloomed inside the broad front as Bunkie and I spread out and began searching for tailing bonefish. There were several pods scouring the bottom further in front of us. My partner was soon hooked up, hooting as he held the rod against the powerful first run of the fish. Bonefish are fun, for sure, but usually good for only one run or two before they give it up. I had hooked up also and soon we were both catching and releasing the ‘bones’ sucking up our pink flies. It was a feeding frenzy, almost like the fish knew this could be their last meal for a while.
It was the wind that drove us off the flats about two hours later. It had been so calm as to be spooky – black sky, the approaching drumbeat of thunder and accompanying lightning flashes – then the wind rushed in over us. Casting became pointless, like trying to fire a BB into a wind tunnel. We turned around and walked back through the now deeper, choppy water. The tide had turned in more ways than one.
That night the storm landed on us with an eighty-mile-per-hour wind. All we could do was hunker down. We packed all our stuff and covered our bags with a tarp. Every big gust tore at the corrugated roof panels, and they had started to leak. We pushed our beds together into one corner where we hoped they’d stay dry. But it would get worse. Sometime in the wee hours a big breadfruit tree crashed onto our cabin, and we had to move into the adjoining bungalow.
The next day the storm surge overwhelmed the island. We waded to the breakfast shack with the butt sections of our twelve weights in hand. We saw snakes in the water. However, fortunately, I never encountered one. Nevertheless, I couldn’t get the idea of that big, sea-going croc lurking in the water out of my mind and coveted the safety of the cookshack porch.
Hurricane Mitch stayed on top of us for three days before moving inland. It developed into a category 5 monster out at sea and destroyed almost the entirety of Honduras when it moved ashore. Seven thousand people died. The country’s economy would take years to recover.
We finally managed to get a radio message out and were told a plane would be available if we could get back to the village from which we departed – they had flown all the airplanes out of Honduras ahead of the storm. We declared we’d be there, somehow, and threw in the promise of some extra cash. It worked. A boat came out to get us – we never saw the guides again – and we made all our connections back to the states. On the plane out of the country Bunkie and I and four other fishermen were the only Anglos aboard. The rest of the passengers were locals flying to relatives with their meager possessions, having lost everything else to the storm. We had the memories of big fish, and big trouble, and the knowledge that we were very, very lucky.
On the flight home, Bunkie asked me, “You think we’ll ever top this trip?” And he grinned, already knowing my answer.
“Maybe,” I said. “You never know.”