Updated: Feb 3, 2019
The first time I met Sammy Dawson I had just flown into Dandriga a few hours earlier with everything I thought I would need for a year of living in Belize packed into two suitcases and a carry on.
I had agreed to take a job running Blue Horizon for Bill Poston, my new boss. He asked me to run his fly-fishing operation headed by the legendary Lincoln Westby even though my saltwater experience was limited to walking the beach a few times at dawn in Cozumel and casting a 6 weight RPL at bonefish strung up with some wooly buggers and zonkers out of my trout box. (They work by the way.) The only reason I believe that I had gotten the job in the first place was because of my involvement with Project Healing Waters, and the fact that I have guided in Vail, Colorado for many years and seemed to know the same customer that Blue Horizon coveted to book trips in Belize. Other than that, I have no earthly idea why I was there and yet something told me inside that I would come to belong.
As soon as I landed at the airport, I was told that we needed to go pick up Sammy Dawson, one of the guides for Blue Horizon at his house in the jungle 20 miles to the west. He was scheduled to do a trip the next day and didn’t have a car and didn’t want to get a cab as the cost would cut into his bottom line for doing the trip. I agreed, and we made the drive along the many orange groves and small houses tucked into the jungle along the Hummingbird Highway.
We pulled up just opposite a large orange juice refinery into a small dirt road that led back into the jungle. There he stood, having probably been waiting for some time. My first impression of Sammy on appearance alone was that he was going to eat me. He is a hulk of a man with broad shoulders, a long black and grey beard, and smart, brown eyes tucked back behind folds of wrinkled and sun darkened skin. He had a pack of colonial cigarettes tucked into his faded guide shirt and one hanging from his lips. I was riding in the front seat and he took his gunny sack filled with some gear and a few flies for his trip. He slid into the back seat and I could feel him sizing me up and casually staring a hole through the back of my head. After a few niceties, he began to break me down psychologically.
Sammy is not one to mix words nor does he ever wait to tell you what is on his mind. Even though we had just met he launched into a diatribe about what was wrong with Blue Horizon and why he was pissed off. “Dis is what I am telling you, they are doing it all wrong. Dey treat me like I am a common worker Scott. They tried to make me rake the sand at 5 in the morning, they tell me I cannot have a beer on the Caye, they feed me food that is bad for my cholesterol and make me eat it on a stool in the back away from the guests.” He went on “I don’t think dat I can stay with a company such as dis”
This went on for the entire ride back to Hopkins. At first, I tried to fix it all at once. Saying a bunch of placatory things that I didn’t really understand, nor should I have said in the first place. “Well Sam, I will get to the bottom if it and we will fix it.” I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. Eventually I picked up on the fact that Sammy knew I didn’t know what I was talking about and he dug the knife deeper into my psyche until eventually I just listened.
I got a brief reprieve from the barrage when we arrived, and I checked into Hopkins Bay resort and met all the people that would come to be the dearest of friends to me. Sammy, who was to stay with me that night waited patiently while they showed me around and eventually led us back to Villa 6 where I would be living for the next year. That night we sat on the deck and he told me all the things in his heart that bothered him. He even threatened to quit and kind of scared the hell out of me as we only had two guides at the time. I finally just offered him a raise and he said “dat would help me out a lot”. I often wondered if all his complaining was all along just a measured strategy to get a raise out of me. It worked.
A week later I arrived at Thatch Caye where Lincoln Westby and Sammy were staying while they were guiding trips. I walked into the small guide villa and noticed Sammy’s bed neatly made with a small amount of clothing stashed at the foot. Lincoln’s bed was not so neatly made. I dropped my suitcase and looked around. There were 3 phone chargers plugged into various sockets around the room. Just outside was a small wooden deck that overlooked the East side of the Caye. There was a long aqua colored flat that stretched the length of the island to the north, I could see several bones tailing just about 30 yards out. I sat on a wooden chair and took in the sun. Eventually a small school of jacks wandered by and seemed to be eating everything in sight. Off in the distance was bird island, a mating refuge overrun by cormorants, red footed boobies, and frigate birds. I could hear them from a half mile away. I imagined it was covered in poop.
That afternoon, Lincoln and Sammy pulled up to the dock and let their clients off the boats. As soon as the clients left, they slipped into speaking Kriol, a combination of English, West African, and Bantu. Its very hard to understand and locals only seem to speak it when tourists are not around. I didn’t understand a word of it.
I was excited as Sammy was going to take me out the next day in search of Permit. It was to be the first of many days we spent on the water together. That night, we went to the kitchen to eat with the rest of the staff in the back on simple stools. There were flies buzzing around everywhere. Dinner was a pot of beans and some delicious homemade rolls made by Alberto, the house chef. Sammy and I sat next to each other with all the resort staff checking me out and probably a little surprised that I was eating with them instead of at the main table with Lincoln and the guests. “I do not like to eat with the guests” Sammy said. “when I am done on the boat, I want to eat in peace. But dis food is bad for my cholesterol. I need a nice piece of fish. In the old days we would go out and catch fish for the guests and they would pay us for dem. But since they don’t pay me for da fish, I don’t bring them back anymore. “Then as we finished and got up, out of nowhere Sammy said “so what are you doing here Mr. Scott. Why do you think you should be here?” He said it in front of all the staff and things got very silent. I paused and looked back at him, he had a fire in his squinted eyes. I paused not knowing how to react. “Are you challenging me?’ I said to him. I looked back hard into his eyes. He paused and then started to laugh. Everything went back to normal and the staff was eating again. Sammy had challenged me and apparently, I had passed his first of many tests.
That night I asked Lincoln and Sammy if they wanted to watch a movie on my laptop. I put on Sasha Baron Coen’s “the Dictator” for them and tried to go to sleep. It came to be one of my favorite memories of my life, my head under the covers and Lincoln and Sammy laughing as hard as two men could laugh. Laughing so hard they had tears in their eyes, I was laughing too, under the covers.
At about 3:30 in the morning I wandered out onto the deck to pee, and there was Sammy sitting in the dark with a cup of coffee, staring out at the full moon. I sat next to him without a word and we shared a long silence. The waves were gently rolling in at our feet. He lit a cigarette and breathed it deep. I asked what he was thinking about. “Tomorrow,” he said. “I am thinking about where we will go and when we will be there to run into the fish. I was to learn that “the fish” was a term of respect for permit and only permit. All the others were called by their names. Tarpon, bone fish, cuda, jack. But Sammy never gave a damn about them. He would grudgingly stop occasionally on a bad tide and let his clients throw at resident tarpon or jacks, but he always was disinterested unless the quarry was the permit. “I dedicate my life to tricking the fish, “he would say. “to know when they will be where they will be, to know why dis tide is better here and dat tide better over there.” Then he turned and looked at me directly and pointed his giant finger into my chest and said, “If you want to catch the fish, you have to harden your heart, and soften your prick.”
The next day, and every day I fished with him it seemed as if every flat we passed was devoid of permit and each one we stopped at had tails. We talked and talked about his life and my own.
Sammy had grown up in Dandrigatown and had been on the sea since he was a little boy. He started working at Blue Marlin lodge in his 20’s alongside greats Lincoln and David Westby. He always told me, and Lincoln agreed that David, Lincoln’s brother who died some years later of cancer, was the greatest of them all.
In 1997, Lincoln grew tired of his treatment at Blue Marlin and began his own operation on the island that he and his wife Pearline had homesteaded over the previous 2 years. When Lincoln left, Blue Marlin, all the other guides, Sammy, David, Lloyd, and a young Ransom all followed him. It was in effect the end of Blue Marlin Lodge as a permit guide service. A blow from which they never recovered.
Sammy was willful and defiant at times and when he first started at Blue Horizon, he crossed Lincoln one day. The next day Lincoln came to him, handed him his check, and told him to come back when he was ready. It was 3 months until Sammy returned and from that moment forward, he and Lincoln were a team. They not only developed a lifelong friendship, but they also developed a great rivalry.
Sammy used to say, “Blue Horizon was built on my back my buddy.” “If there was no Sammy, there was no Blue Horizon.” Then the very next day Lincoln would tell me “Sammy thinks I don’t know all his spots. But what he doesn’t know is that I stopped fishing those flats years ago,” he would say with a chuckle. They both took the pursuit of permit very, very seriously and just like all great athletes, had the great rivalries to motivate each other. I likened it to Michael Jordon and Scottie Pippen. Without each other, they never would have grabbed 6 rings.
One of Sammy’s great secrets in life was that he could not read. I first noticed when I handed him a contract and he said, “you read it to me my buddy, my eyes are burned from the sun”. I eventually figured it out and would go out of my way to protect him from embarrassing situations. I know he knew that I knew by then and even though we never spoke of it, I knew he appreciated that I protected his secret. He had grown up very poor and without much supervision and probably only attended school until the 3rd grade.
My greatest moments with him involved making him laugh, and him making me laugh. I would say outrageous statements to him on the water and sometimes even make him blush. (My Colorado guide friends gave me the nickname “filter less”, so you can imagine.) Sammy’s sense of humor was different, it was always rooted in some great truth that he had discovered in his 65 years on the sea. Often, we would sit on that deck at 4 in the morning and tell stories about crazy guided trips and things that had gone wrong. We always had a mutual respect as guides for each other and so the stories were often parables about what to do and not to do and how it changed our programs going forward. I miss those times very much.
After I came home to the states to do marketing for the company, I heard through the grapevine that Sammy had mentioned to one of my friends on his boat that things were never the same again after I left. I had always brought him down gear and cell phones and flies that I paid for out of my own pocket when I returned from a visit home. Over time I knew he really appreciated it. It was the least I could do for all that he had given me. One day he threatened to quit because his check was not ready on time and he had taken a cab all the way into town to pick it up. I opened my wallet and said take whatever you need. I don’t care about money and never asked him to pay me back.
Four months later I got a call from his wife saying that Sammy had something wrong with his lungs and that he was in the hospital. I was in Atlanta with Lincoln at the Fly-Fishing Show. I called him, and he told me that the doctors were not helping him and what could I do to help. I put in a call to some friends in the industry asking if they knew a doctor that could see him if I flew him to the US.
A week later I got word that he was in no shape to travel and that lung cancer had taken its toll on him. I called him the day before he died and when his wife put the phone to his ear it sounded like he was talking from down in a tunnel. He could barely breath. We spent some time reminiscing about how many casts I had fucked up on the flats. He said “ I never wanted to pick up your rod because that thing is cursed. There is not enough holy water in the world to save you Scott.” We laughed and laughed. My last words to him were, “I love you Sammy”. He replied softly “I love you too my buddy”.
About the author:
He is also a filmmaker. His last film "Breaking Through, the Larry Fivecoats Story" was featured in the Fly Fishing Film Tour and the GI Film Festival in 2015. To Book a fly fishing trip with South Water Adventures send him an email to firstname.lastname@example.org