author: Geoff Mueller photography: Shannon Vandivier

On a gridlocked planet of 7.5 billion people, it’s a safe bet that your hush-hush fishing spot is not such a big secret after all. Many of the best permit and bonefish nooks for instance have by now been mapped, lapped and digitally snapped. But five years ago, Austin-based filmmaker Shannon Vandivier discovered an anomaly in the matrix. Off the Caribbean coast of Honduras, 160 miles east of the Bay Islands, there was rumored to be a remote permit fishery that had never seen a fly. According to nautical charts and satellite imagery it didn’t exist. Worse, according to local claims it was situated in the center of a cocaine ferrying corridor. At the time, Vandivier was visiting Steve Brown’s Fly Fish Guanaja operation, and it was on a panga, poled by guide Rankin Jackson, where he first heard about the destination that would launch an obsession. “Next thing I knew we were in a helicopter, flying in a general direction without any specific coordinates,” Vandivier says. The unveiling of this group of lonely cays culminates on screen this winter with the F3T premier of the Beyond the Horizon—a film about discovery and redemption, revealed through the lens of a former cartel member turned flats guide. Here we catch up with Vandivier and learn what it takes to put a traceless place on the map.

SIMMS: What drew you to this story?

Shannon Vandivier: Five years ago I visited the island of Guanaja, in Honduras, for the first time. And when I got there I was blown away by the place and the people, including Rankin [Jackson] and Steve [Brown]. Rankin’s story is really one of redemption. In that part of the world there’s so much turmoil, so much more than I’ve ever experienced. The person he is today is a product of that struggle. The empathy and compassion he has are also products of that. Just to hear his story unfold, and to hear his aspirations of going to and exploring this remote area was incredibly inspiring. 

At that point I knew this was something I wanted to be tell. Last year a helicopter showed up and it all became possible.

SIMMS: First impressions?

SV: You get there and you can’t believe what you’re looking at. You just spent an hour in a helicopter, traveling over deep blue water, and suddenly you’re hovering over pristine turquoise flats.

It’s an awkward sight, because the area is so unattached. There are no large islands, it’s just a series of sand spits, and not one of them is bigger than half a football field. You can also literally spot fish from the chopper. When we landed we were right next to a 500-fish school of bones. After overcoming all the challenges of just getting there, that was the most rewarding moment for me.

When we landed we were right next to a 500-fish school of bones. After overcoming all the challenges getting there, that was the most rewarding moment for me.

— Shannon Vandivier

SIMMS: What were some of the hurdles you encountered in making the film?

SV: Out of the gate there was the fact that the fishery was mostly unproven. Other than what we knew from speaking with Rankin, it was a total mystery. Before JK [fellow filmmaker Jon Klaczkiewicz] and I left for the cays, we all rendezvoused at Fly Fish Guanaja. It was total chaos. Steve [Brown] had lost 10 pounds from pure stress since I’d seen him last. He was constantly on the phone, rambling in Spanish.

We were supposed to board a chopper in two days, but we didn’t have the government permissions we needed to go. That’s when the whole situation became very tense. The doubt was crushing us, and it was really crushing Steve who was dealing with politicians, lawyers, and Honduran military officials to make the trip a reality.

SIMMS: What permissions did you need?

SV: We needed to secure permission to move back-up jet fuel for the chopper by boat to the cays. And you have to understand that in parts of Honduras jet fuel is a more valued resource than water. The reason is because the cartels carry a lot of clout here, and jet fuel [made from kerosene] is one of their primary ingredients for turning coca leaves into cocaine.

We were trying to transport about a thousand gallons of the stuff, 160 miles over unregulated waters that are known cartel thoroughfares.

To compound matters, there were no Google Earth images of where we were going, and the nautical charts we had also didn’t provide a location. So our pilot was just going off of blind faith in that Rankin was not only telling the truth, but that he was also accurately telling us where we should be.

SIMMS: But Rankin was telling the truth. Did the fishing live up to the hype?

SV: Due to political complications, our first trip was stalled by almost three days. When we arrived the weather was awful and we hit a bad tide. We did manage to capture some permit footage, but it wasn’t ideal. We knew we’d have to make a follow-up trip.

SIMMS: What were some of the take-homes you learned from the experience?

Ultimately, the challenge of discovering a new fishery is only the beginning. Beyond that you have to learn the habitat and how permit and bonefish use it to their advantage. This place is so untapped. There’s no fly shop out there with a local guide tying his special flies, so there’s a learning curve. We had to get the program dialed, which we eventually did.

In total we have eight permit caught on film over the course of five days of fishing spread across two trips. Not bad at all.

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