I knew what I was seeing the moment that glorious sight caught my eye. For a split second, the doubting side of my brain blocked the transmission, but then the adrenalin kicked in. Tailing bones, the sight I had been dreaming of for the past five months, were within 50 feet. Fortunately for the fish, they were directly upwind, safe from the reaches of my uncannily novice casting ability.
Slowly I circled around the pod of five fish to get between them and the Bahamian breeze that seemed to blow constantly in my face. The gin clear knee deep water revealed an abundance of holes in the talcum powder sand where bonefish (Albula vulpes), the elusive grey ghosts of the flats, had been furiously routing out crabs and shrimp that lay just beneath the surface. After a long arduous few minutes of stealthy tip-toeing, I made my cast. The excitement engulfed me as I tried my best to land one of my meticulously tied Gotcha’s a few feet in front of the small school of fish. Forward, back, double haul, forward. As my line made its graceless loop, the wind carried the fly ten feet beyond the fish, with the thickest part of my fly line crossing the tails of one of the fish. They scattered like cockroaches, leery after a long season of harassment from the incessant casts of like minded fly-fishermen.
The impetus for this trip had come back in December, on a flight back from the Lesser Antilles where I had spent Christmas with my wife and her family. She showed me an article in the airline seat-back pocket magazine about bonefishing in the out islands of the Bahamas, and instantly I was stricken. Thoughts of monster bonefish, regaled for their fighting strength, taking me into the backing filled my mind for the rest of the plane ride. Back in the real world of Maryland, I worked feverishly to infect my fellow intrepid anglers Mike and Steve. The way I saw it, a Bahamas trip was a must. I quickly saw that the idea was not going to take hold without a fight, so I dropped the A-bomb. “We are all turning 40 this year,” I pleaded, “if not now, when?”
It worked like a charm. As the daily foolishness of work slowly sucked the life from me, Mike and Steve picked up my enthusiasm and a plan began to incubate in our collective minds. Being a naturally frugal bunch, we quickly ruled out the all-inclusive lodge route, and having had a less than ideal experience with fishing guides along the central Belize coast a few years back, we were hesitant to rely on paid fish finders to make the trip a success. Above all, after years spent seeking fish, we were acutely aware that if we relied solely on creel counts to gauge our success, we would be destined to pine away our remaining years as miserable failures. After all, it is the quest that makes the journey worthwhile. So it was decided, out of pure cheapness, mistrust and bullheadedness, that we would make this a truly do-it-yourself experience. With that decision, we inherently asked the question, “Is it possible to travel to a previously unknown place, undertake a type of fishing with which one is minimally familiar, and come home with undeniable bragging rights?” And so began the planning of the bare bones Eleuthera experiment.
The preparation began, and immediately we hit our first roadblock. We would all be rounding the 40 corner in August, so the initial inclination, naturally, was to schedule the trip around our birthdays. August, it turns out, is the absolute worst time of year to stalk the flats for bonefish in the Bahamas. Most guides and lodges actually shut down from July through September for two reasons. First, the warm water keeps the fish off the flats, in deeper water where fly fishing is impractical. Second, hurricanes tend to strike in the heat of summer. So the date was changed. With October and May/June as our options, we all opted for the earlier date. Now all we had to do was figure out where we were going.
After countless hours spent poring over websites, fishing forums and Google Earth, it was decided that Eleuthera Island, one of the “out islands” of the Bahamas would be our destination. At a little over 100 miles long, and an average of one mile wide, Eleuthera was everything we were looking for. No crowds of tourists, no fishing lodges, few guides, and supposedly, a plethora of flats upon which schools of bonefish were abundant. Most importantly, to satisfy the frugal nature of the experience, Eleuthera has gained a reputation as a place where many flats fishing opportunities can be accessed without the relatively large expense of a boat.
By the time we set out on our trip, we had a group of six, having added my fishing fanatic brother Paul from northern Idaho, and two other fellow mid-Atlantic fishing friends, Matt and Paul T. As a base of operations, we selected the conveniently located Bahamas Castaway house in Double Bay. The house option seemed like the best choice since it would provide more room to scatter our (always overabundant) gear and would prevent the need to spend money in restaurants for every meal. Since Steve is a professional chef, meals eaten in the house were hands down better than anything we found in the local culinary establishments. For transportation, we rented two vehicles from John Gibson, who also enthusiastically managed the Castaway house.
In the months leading up to the trip, we amassed an enormous cache of literature, maps, satellite images and brochures. We held several pre-trip fly tying and planning meetings in the basement man cave, discussing much and accomplishing little. We tied and bought enough flies to supply an army of flats fishermen for months of sunup to sundown fishing. We settled on focusing our fishing efforts on the southern, less populated portion of the island. Mike, Steve and I decided to stick to the pure DIY ideology while Paul and Matt contacted Paul “Pico” Petty, one of the few local guides, to take them out for a day.
So it was that I found myself knee-deep in Savannah Sound on that warm June morning scaring bonefish with my unorthodox casting technique. It was our second day of a four day trip. The first day we had spent our time on the southern end of the island, where Mike had landed the first bone of the trip in a deserted bay near Plum Creek. Matt and I harassed a small pod of bones incessantly in the same cove, with no luck. Paul T. and Steve had the same luck, while brother Paul (whose shoulder injury severely limited his fly casting ability) had the time of his life picking up a myriad of reef fish with his spinning rod. Now on the second day, four of us were scattered across an enormous flat in central Savannah Sound, with schools of bonefish taunting us.
As the tide moved in over the bare sand, the fish followed, kicking up mud as they scoured the fine sand for prey. Several of my casts (unbelievably) were nearly perfect, delicately dropping the fly a few feet from feeding fish. Somehow, my slow twitchy retrieve was either unseen or, more likely, ignored by the fish. For four hours of the incoming tide I waded back and forth across the flats. As the water grew deeper, the fish became less numerous, until finally they disappeared all together and the sharks and barracudas started showing up. We quickly learned that when the fish at the top of the food chain arrived on the scene, the bonefish disappeared almost instantly.
Over the course of four days we covered a large area of real estate, fishing the southern areas near Deep Creek, Rocky Creek, Lighthouse Point, and Powell Point, and the central areas of Savannah Sound, the Airport Flats, Ten Bay Beach, Little Bay, Governors Harbor and Double Bay. We threw crazy charlies, gotchas, puffs, crabs, grass shrimp, glass minnows – you name it, we threw it. We fished the incoming tide and the outgoing tide, searching the bare flats at low tide for signs of feeding bones. Conditions seemed near perfect, with sunshine or light overcast every day, and every daylight hour was spent pursuing bonefish up until the last day when we fished the airport flats just before catching our flight out. Most nights, dinner was eaten well after 9:00 o’clock, followed by a discussion of the day’s fishing adventures while we fervently attempted to deplete the Eleuthera Island beer supply.
In the end, when Mike, Steve and I tallied up our catches for the three and a half days of fishing, the total was two bonefish. (Matt and Paul had hit pay dirt with Pico, catching over 20 bones between the two of them in that one day.) My personal tally was zero. Make no mistake, the trip was fun. The island is beautiful, and the people excessively friendly. We had no problems, other than the replacement of a wheel on one of the rental cars, and we all left the island tremendously more relaxed than we had arrived. But to experience such a monumental dearth of success and not return home with bragging rights, was slightly disheartening. So, on the journey home, we discussed, at length, what our pitfalls had been, while continuing our quest to reduce the world’s beer stocks.
We learned some very valuable lessons on the trip, some of which I am at liberty to share. First and foremost we learned not to believe everything you read, and to trust your instincts. One web site devoted to bonefish on Eleuthera had “hot spots” marked on a map of the island. Hot spot, we learned, means “tourist go here” in Bahamian. One of the spots I had picked out on satellite imagery (not listed as a hot spot, I might add) turned out to be where Paul and Matt had spent a good part of their day of guided fishing. Another bit of knowledge that I picked up was that to successfully fish for bones on the flats with a fly rod requires a great deal of skill and casting precision. A major personal positive aspect of the trip for me was that by the time we left, my casting ability had improved significantly. As we learned during the initial planning process, time of year plays a large part in flats fishing. Our trip was at the tail end of the traditional November to June flats season, which combined with a drier and warmer than normal spring meant water temperatures on the flats warmed up earlier. Consequently, fewer fish were on the flats during the first week of June. Also, with regard to timing, fishing at the end of the season, after months of pressure from a steady flow of fly anglers, meant those fish that were on the flats were more leery of our presence, and (as we proved) exceedingly reluctant to pay attention to many of the flies we presented.
Next time - and make no bones about it, there will be a next time – I will be better prepared. I will be a better fisherman, having more “experience” with this business of stalking the flats in search of the legendary gray ghosts, and will be better able to make the most of my time on the water. Who knows, maybe I’ll even hire a guide. I may catch some fish, or I may not, but the thrill of the game will be there. And in the end, that makes it all worthwhile.
Targeted Species: Bonefish - Albula vulpes Location: Eleuthera Island, Bahamas When: November through May
The Intrepid Angler Tackle Bag:
For gear my favorite rod is a March Brown Legacy Series 8wt travel rod and Ross Rhythm reel loaded with weight forward 8 weight floating bonefish or warm water specific fly line with 10 foot Rio Bonefish Tapered leader.
Fish the incoming and outgoing tides, closer to low. Scout potential fishing areas at dead low for signs of feeding fish routing in the sand.
Bring plenty of flies. There are literally dozens of bonefish patterns out there, and some people swear by one or two. When you find one that works, stick with it.
Rinse all of your gear, especially your reel, with clean cool fresh water immediately after fishing. Tropical fishing ruins equipment quickly.