The Global FlyFisher
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Trust me, Mon!
How would you like a story that features blue sky, clear water, bonefish galore - not to mention The Mother of all hangovers and the greatest fishing spot on the face of this earth? Well, you get it all here in Paul Slaney's fantastic three piece story from the Bahamas. Trust me, Mon!
A three part harmony about a fantastic trip for Bahamas bonefish
Part 1 - the place, the guide, the first bonefish
The Joulters Cays are a long, long way from Wales. Or some would say its not so much the distance as the difficulty in actually getting there. I can tell you though, that from Caerwent to Nichols Town on the Island of Andros takes the best part of two days and three flights and a hell of a lot of patience. The fun doesn't start until you hit Nassau AKA The Island of New Providence. I prefer the latter name, it has a more romantic ring and for my way of thinking, travelling always should hold a certain romance. But that's not where the story starts...
"Trust me Mon!"
Many years ago, a bunch of Spanish seafarers, or were they Portuguese? Happened across a group of islands somewhere waaaaay out west of the Costa Brava, located on the Tropic of Cancer. They took a good look around and named the whole area the Baja Mar or, to you and I, the shallow seas. And its exactly those shallow seas, the nearby Gulf Stream and the warm Trade Winds, that make the Bahamas one of the best bonefishing destinations in the World. And for a guy from a temperate, northern climate like me, December is a hell of a fine time to go and try to catch one.
If you should ever find yourself with a night to spare on New Providence as I did recently, you should book yourself into the Sun Fun Resort for the night. They will give you the number at the airport and it's only an $8 taxi fare away. The place itself is clean, cheap and friendly. What's more, if you take a walk to the left of the resort, take the first left after that and go into the first bar on the right (I never did get the name of the place) you will get first hand experience of how friendly the folks of the Bahamas can be.
While there, I met Harvey, a retired policeman and his wife Betsy, a larger than life pair of characters if ever I've met them. They introduced me to a drink called the Godfather (it should come with an attached health warning) and were partly responsible for a hell of a night out and a near miss of my connecting flight to San Andros the following afternoon. Yes, afternoon!
It was only the hostess on the plane that asked "are you going to Abaco sir?". That gave the game away and introduced me to my second experience of just how friendly and accommodating these folks are. When I answered "eh?" Bahamas Air sprang into action and much to the amusement of the Abaco Christmas shoppers in the queue, dragged my baggage out of the hold, escorted me to the correct aircraft and wished me a happy holiday in the Bahamas. They didn't even ask to look at my ticket. I could almost hear Harvey's booming laugh as we took off on the final leg of the journey.
The father of the hostess on the second plane was a taxi driver (the spitting image of Morgan Freeman) and it was he, Alex, that drove me to the DayShell Motel, Bar and Restaurant in Nichols Town and gave me a potted low down on the Island along the way.
At 100 miles in length and 40 miles wide at its widest point, Andros Island is by far the largest Island in the Bahamas. About 60 % of its area is heavily forested in pines, not dissimilar to Scots pine. The palms that you dream about in such places are few and far between and mainly situated around the coastal areas. It is rich in natural, fresh water springs and is very green and lush. Indeed, it is so rich in water that some millions of gallons are exported by water barge to Nassau twice daily. The main industries are farming and fishing (not the fly fishing kind) With seasonal harvests of pepper, banana, watermelon, peas, and god knows what else. From the sea, Andros exports Conch, Lobster, and Pilchards etc throughout the Bahamas.
The population of Andos is less than 2000 and falling, the Bahamas Government it seems has no plans to develop the island for tourism or anything else for that matter. Indeed, as a designated "family island" It receives no support other than the local industry that already exists. It's all wonderful for us as solitude seeking bonefishermen but a major worry for the islanders who have to make a living. It's an issue that came up time again in conversations I had with the folks there.
Presently we arrived at Nichols Town, the largest Settlement on the north of the island. The sort of place that went to sleep a hundred years ago and is still snoozing. Alex dropped me off at the DayShell, we made arrangements for the return trip and parted company.
That evening I met up with my fishing guide for the next six days. Phillip is a native of the island, in his mid thirties (at a guess) and as I was soon to discover, held an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Joulter Cays and their bonefish! A week with Phillip, which went from client/guide to teacher/client to fishing mates to firm friendship, has left me all the richer. It went something like this...
The sun had barely risen when we launched the skiff at Morgans Bluff and I had my first lesson in bonefishing. That is, the Joulter Cays ain't that close to shore and requires a bone jarring, high speed ride of about 20 minutes to get to the first of the Cays. Riding a shallow draughted, 19 foot boat with a 90 horsepower outboard going full tilt in the open sea is an interesting experience to say the least.
Phillip stopped the engine and came to a halt at the windward end of a small island (later we named this place Needlefish Island) the boat was rocking wildly in a six foot swell. He said, "Got your sea legs yet? Stand up there Mon, pull off some line, I'm going to pole from this end" and with a few strong pushes of the pole towards the leeward side, we were transported from the open sea onto the flats and an environment I'll remember till the day I die.
To my left, a small, low island. It's carpeted in vegetation, small pine trees and a few tall palms to the northern end. Its leeward side has mangroves right down to the water, you can't see where the land starts. Sounds of insects and birds replace those of wind and waves as you gently glide down the tide and the early morning sun reminds you it's going to be a real hot day.
And then there was the water, the clarity was simply stunning. Indeed, at no more than 3 feet deep at high tide, you could make out every detail on the bottom of white sand. I started to see fish. Bright, silvery and near the surface, Needlefish. I took a cast and caught one. It bit my fly off. Lesson learned. Phillip ignored the incident and as I was tying on a new fly said, "Shark Mon, 11 o'clock, two rods out. Don't cast!" And sure enough a 3-foot Lemon Shark lazily swam by on my left.
I was still laughing to myself about his sense of humour when he quietly said, "Hey! bonefish! Dead ahead. 60 feet, cast Mon, CAST NOW!"
What the hell? I can't see a thing. Where's my flyline? Where's my fly? It's on the wrong side! I heard, "40 feet, CAST MON, CAST" I threw one, a perfect beauty of a cast. I was pleased. Stripped the line a couple of times and nothing, not a sniff. Phillip had gone quiet. I looked over my shoulder and he's looking hard right. "They gone man, spooked! It ain't your fly that spooked em either! Wind in, we're going somewhere else". And I still couldn't tell you what a bonefish looked like.
"This guy is a fucking comedian!" I thought to myself. But then, the truth of the matter is in the catching eh? Second lesson. Concentrate!
As I was winding in my line, I saw a fleeting something off to my right. I cast, felt resistance and pulled hard on my line hand. For an instant I was connected to something that pulled back. And then it was gone. "What was that?". "Bonefish" came the reply from the back of the boat. The motor started and I had to sit down before I fell down.
We went further into the Cays. The scenery became even more breathtaking. Idyllic. Little desert islands on the horizon in every direction surrounded by water of every shade of green and blue you could imagine and some you couldn't. The whole lot topped off by a brilliantly blue sky studded with cotton wool clouds. The engine stopped. "We'll fish here awhile". "OK mate, if you say so". A featureless flat extended off in every direction, I mentioned this observation. "Trust me Mon!" came the reply. Third lesson received.
The morning stretched into a nightmare of invisible fish and fruitless casts. Behind me the boat was silent apart from the occasional, excited whisper that would direct another useless cast to the huge shoals of bonefish I couldn't see. My eyes strained by continual searching, mouth dry and thirsty from the salty atmosphere skin starting to burn from the relentless sun.
And then, I saw some bonefish, way off to my left. I called to Phillip who saw them immediately and swiftly poled the boat to give me the wind to my back. I cast, it was a good one. I saw a fish accelerate and take. The line started to disappear from my reel at a rate I've never before experienced. And then it was gone, the line fell slack and I was gutted. The voice from the back of the boat said, "Nice eyes Mon! good cast" I felt better. We stopped for lunch at another island that was to become known as the Honey Hole.
Over lunch Phillip gently explained that I should look on the bottom for shadows. Bonefish, he said, are highly reflective and will be generally the same colour as the bottom, "its their shadow that gives them away Mon". Hmnnn! But, that the flat along the Honey Hole would be different to the flats we'd fished that morning. The bottom has grass on it; it's much darker and interspersed with lighter patches. If anything, the fish will be harder to see. Oh Great!
He also explained that this place was good for big bonefish and they travelled in ones or twos, not the shoals of smaller fish I hadn't been seeing all morning. We started to pole the flat and lo and behold I started to see shadows. Trouble is, those shadows could just be a dark patch on the bottom and I'd make the cast. A seagull overhead casts a shadow that could be a bonefish. Id make the cast. And now and then I'd actually see a bonefish, big bonefish and yes they cast a shadow and yes they can be easy to see. But no, I didn't catch one. "Too busy looking Mon, not enough seeing" said the back of the boat! This guy is taking the piss!
Time to move again, the tide is dropping fast and Phillip is taking me wading for Tailing Bones in a good fishing hole he knows! What the hell are tailing bones?
It was a long ride to the Fishing Hole but along the way Phillip pointed out many sharks and big sting rays, fascinating! He also started to explain a little about how the tides affected the fishing. It seems that we'd fished Needlefish Island at high tide and its best at high tide. The middle flats we fished at the ebb and were also in perfect condition. We fished the honey hole as the tide started to drop because it never gets too low to fish, though later in the week we would be able to hit it at high tide when it fishes best. Confused? I was. And the fishing hole "Mon, dis place is good, fishes best at the low tide, you going to catch bonefish. Question is, how many?"
I started to like this guy as he flashed a huge, white-toothed grin in my direction. I also started to realise that he wanted to me to catch bonefish as much as I did, probably more. "Can't this tub go any faster?" I asked. It could. I sat down again. Quickly.
When we arrived, Phillip stopped the boat. We couldn't go any further. We got out and the water was a little under calf depth. He went into my kit bag and came out with a box of flies, some tippet and my camera. We started slowly walking. The bottom was firm, white coral sand and littered with big, red starfish, strange looking sponges and panicky little puffer fish. We walked about 500 metres in water that was getting gradually shallower, to just over ankle depth. He then stopped and pointed out the fishing hole.
It amounted to an expanse of water perhaps a half of a mile in diameter with another small Cay at the far side. It was perhaps 2 inches deeper than the water we were standing in, which earned it the term 'hole'. He pointed out the extent of the hole by the slight difference in colour. Next lesson. Flats are far from flat. "Quiet water Mon! Don't make a sound, not a splash" I peeled off some line and off we went, Phillip scanning the water ahead and me bumbling along off to one side and behind.
After about a half hour of what seemed like aimless wondering along the flat, Phillip stopped abruptly, crouched down and motioned me to do the same He slowly crawled alongside and used my rod to point into the distance "Can you see em, bout 150 yards, tailing fish, lots of them" I stared hard, then all of a sudden a light switched on in my brain and I realised I was looking at a whole shoal of bonefish, hundreds of them, lazily feeding, heads down in the 8 inch deep water. Their tails and dorsal fins in thin air, waving about like iridescent, sickle shaped flags in the sunlight. "I see em, I see em!"
"Easy Mon, quiet water Mon" came the reply and we gingerly started forward, each step carefully placed in front of the other. Then came what felt like an hour of patient stalking. Slowly, ever so slowly we inched forward, closer to the fish. I realised that Phillip was positioning us so I could have an easy left shoulder cast. All they way he was giving me information. I learned that the size of the tail doesn't necessarily relate to the size of the fish but the distance between the dorsal fin and the tail does. Now I could see big and small fish. Not that it mattered, one, would be enough. I learned to stay low and slowly ease one foot into the water before I made a splash. I learned that the sun could be a real hindrance when low in the sky; you have to keep the shoal out of the glare.
Some might say that stalking bonefish is an exercise in trigonometry. Speed and direction of angler vs. speed and direction of fish vs. direction and distance of cast directly affected by wind direction and position of the sun. Or as I prefer to think of it you have to get your ass down to snake height and sneak right up on the buggers. I was starting to realise that this was some of the most exciting but difficult fishing Id ever encountered. And I hadn't even made the cast yet.
We stopped. I knew I could make the cast. "All yours Mon, cast across their front, not on their heads" and I hauled out a line.
The fly settled on the sandy bottom and I stripped in a bit of slack line. Phillip to my left was muttering "wait, wait!" The shoal slowly moved into the area where my fly lay. "Now strip Mon, slowly!" I did exactly what he said.
Something changed in the behaviour of the fish, the water became agitated and I thought Id spooked them but then I realised that 3 or 4 fish were actually chasing my fly and the splashing was their acceleration to grab it. Indeed. I think they were actually competing for it. Again I felt a resistance, again I pulled hard on my line hand to set the hook and then all hell broke loose.
The fish started to take line, his sudden fear crazed rush terrorised the rest of the shoal. They turned tail and ran hell for leather for the horizon. You could clearly see the push of water as they moved. My fish stayed with them for over 100 metres then changed direction. All I could do was hold my rod high and watch my backing disappear from the reel at an alarming rate. I was amazed at the power and speed of the fish, I was laughing out loud; Phillip was laughing and leaping about, still giving advice. We chased after the fish for a short distance getting soaked with the splashing water.
After that initial run, I managed to recover my backing, I felt like the fish was getting under control and relaxed a little. Big mistake. Next lesson, you haven't caught a bonefish till it's in your hand. The fish ran again just as strongly as the first time. Phillip, still laughing, shouted, "He, saw you Mon, he don't like your ugly face!" More determined than ever I backed out onto a sandy bank and started to wind.
Gradually, ever so gradually the fish came under control, I could clearly see him now, making short powerful runs to the right, then to the left, in water not deep enough to cover his back. 10 metres to go, 5 metres to go, 2 metres to go. I knelt bent the rod and reached for the fish. My first bonefish, the reason I went all that way, a beautiful, streamlined fish with mirror silver sides.
I still don't understand how it happened, the hook hold gave, my rod sprang back and after a second of stunned shock the fish tore across the flat heading for Cuba as fast as his fins would carry him. We stopped laughing. The fish had been so close all I had to do was clip the fly into the keeper ring and stand up. I looked over to my left; the setting sun was low in the sky, the clouds, fantastic shades of purple and red. All around me the exposed areas of sand glowed flamingo pink and as we started the long walk back to the boat.
The stars came out just as Phillip started the engine and we powered back towards Morgans Bluff and the first beers of the day. On our right the low, forested coastline of Andros. We passed the lights of Lowe Sound, then Knolls Landing and as we slowed into the put in at Morgans, Phillip said, "We got to get up early in the morning Mon, I've been watching you. You've caught the bonefish bug, we need all the light we can get, we going to get lots of bonefish tomorrow".
He was wrong of course, about catching the bonefish. The only time he was wrong on the entire trip because I didn't really start to catch lots of bonefish till the day after that. But that's another story.
Part 2 - The Mother of all hangovers and the greatest fishing spot on the face of this earth
So where was I? Yep, it was a couple of days later, on the third morning of the trip, about 8'ish in the morning. I was standing in the shallow water bordering a flat that was to become known as Moletown. It was pouring with rain, I mean pouring with rain. The small mangrove island behind me offered no cover at all and despite my rain jacket I was rapidly getting soaked. Phillip was moving the boat up tide so we wouldn't have to walk far after fishing the flat, I could just make him out in the distance. And I was hurting...
I was hurting for several reasons, firstly I had sunburn. Despite liberal applications of factor 30, the left hand side of my face, and left ear had caught it bad. So bad the skin had blistered and split in several places. Secondly, I had been bitten by some bug on the foot. It had swollen grotesquely, and ached like a bastard. That morning I had slipped on the dock and cut my hip, elbow and the palm of my casting hand. The inside of my right forearm had a bruise the size and colour of a plum from the fighting butt of the rod and the 3 bonefish I had landed and the several I hadn't the day before.
I tell you! Bonefishing ain't for the faint hearted. And to cap it all, I had the Mother of all hangovers!
A flat just south of Moletown, that we named the Bonefish Bank had been very kind to me the day before and with some spotting help from Phillip we'd managed to hook into several fish. This happened late on, after a fruitless day. Sure, I hooked a lot more fish than the day before. One at Needlefish Island, my leader broke. Another two down at the Honey Hole. One broke me again, the other, the tippet knot gave way (bloody sun cream) These two were the biggest fish of the trip, both would be in the 8-10lb class. At the Fishing hole, we managed to spook two large shoals of fish after serious time spent stalking em. I was kicking myself, I was fishing like a novice, tangles, duff knots! "What you doing Mon, stop goofing about!" said the back of the boat on more than one occasion.
Bonefish Bank is a long exposed sandbar at low tide, perhaps a mile long and starts at the Northern end of the Fishing Hole. You can get out of the boat onto dry land, walk up the bank and spot tailing fish moving up wind from a mile away. It was just perfect, I could relate to this, just like fishing a lake. You still had to stalk 'em when you were close, but the dry sand meant you could cover ground fast. Lots more opportunities, lots more hook ups and low and behold I actually managed to get fish in my hand. I still can't understand how such a small fish can put up such a big battle.
It's stunning! If you haven't tried it, start saving and do it! They were even coming to a fly that I use on lakes back home. The whoops of delight could probably be heard back in Nichols Town. I don't know who was happier, Phillip or I.
Enter the hangover. On the way home that night Phillip suggested stopping at a bar he knew for a celebratory drink. I knew I should have said no, but...
By 10pm the Big Shop (strange name for a bar) was rocking and Phillip and I with it. It seemed like everyone in the neighbourhood was there, all full of Christmas spirit (in more ways than one) These folks know how to party for sure, I felt as welcome as I would have been if I lived there. You know how it is? All them pretty island girls on the dance floor and you don't like to be rude. The following dawn came all to quickly.
A few minutes later, Phillip pulled up. I knew he felt as bad as I did. He was wearing his Maui Jims in the rain. "Where the hell happened to us Mon?", "Umnn? Not sure mate?"
It was a grumpy, not to mention queasy pair of bonefishermen that headed out to the flats that morning. But then I discovered Moletown and the Back Of Beyond.
Moletown is a great big, tri-angular expanse of water, cornered by three small islands. At high tide it's about waist deep "But you got to hit it just right Mon, an hour each side of the low tide". At low tide a tongue of deeper water, again only a matter of inches, cuts into the flat from the base of the triangle. That's where the bonefish are. Lot's of them. Indeed I saw and caught more bonefish at Moletown than all the other spots put together. All tailers and all as spooky as they come. As far as I'm concerned it's the greatest fishing spot on the face of this earth.
It stopped raining and immediately the sun started to burn, I put on my flats hat, you know the ones with the stupid neck flap. (wish I'd worn it from day one) And looking like a sniper I started to slowly move across the flat, eyes peeled, hangover long forgotten.
The wading at Moletown is a little tricky, the flat has a different bottom again.
Imagine a million sandy molehills about a foot high and 2 feet wide, all within a foot or so of each other. In the little channels between, imagine a whole host of shrimps, funny little swimming crabs, thousands of puffer fish, millions of tiny gobies, fish fry, whatever. The tips of the molehills are exposed to the air and the bonefish are working their way up the watery channels, munching on anything that moves, digging in the sand with their snouts (you can clearly see where they have been feeding, another lesson) And imagine those tails waving in the air, shoals of fish in front of you, to your left and right, behind you even more fish. I was quivering like a gundog as Phillip waded over "What did I tell you Mon. Quiet water now, lets go catch some".
What followed was a fantastic days fishing. For the first time since I'd been there we didn't have to worry about the wind. The rain storm had put a stop to that. All that was needed was a careful, low and quiet approach. A very accurate cast, as the fish couldn't see your fly if it was on the wrong side of a Molehill and a light fly that didn't spook them as it arrived from above. Bonefish don't like things arriving from above. It took just a while to get the hang of it and I don't remember exactly when or how we got it together, but all of a sudden I was transported into fly fishing heaven. The stalk, the cast, the excited fish chasing and taking the fly (the best part of bonefishing in my opinion) the strike, that first searing run, the laughter, the preying for your line not to tangle and the tippet to hold, the long dogged fight, the beautiful mirror bright fish in your hands. Time and time again.
Just as easily as it started it stopped, not a tail in sight, nor a molehill for that matter. Immediately, I heard behind me "Time to move on Mon, we'll come back tomorrow". The voice made me jump, I'd forgot Phillip was there , they were the only words he'd said since we'd started getting hot. I felt great, the sun was shining, the scenery stunning, the sky freshly washed of clouds, we still had a whole day ahead of us. We started to laugh and joke our way back to the boat.
Phillip wanted to know if there was anywhere I particularly wanted to fish? "Nope, upto you mate" In that case, did I mind if we went right back into the Cays to an area that he didn't know that well, but had had his eye on for some time. "I reckon the tide will be just right when we get there Mon". Less than an hour later we pulled up on an immense flat somewhere out in the back of beyond. The name stuck.
The Back of Beyond is an immaculate flat, the biggest expanse of shallow water I saw on the whole trip. We hit it at about 2 feet of water, the tide was just about in. The bottom was gently rippling, yellow/white sand, no grass, no molehills, nothing. The only feature is a tiny island, perhaps 15 feet by 8, with one lonely little bush growing on its highest point. When the wind drops, the water in such places takes on a surreal quality, if you look out from the ripples of the boat it's like there is no water there, it's so clear. And on the horizon you can't tell the difference between the sky and the sea.
The bonefish look like they are swimming in thin air as they approach. You can see them 200 feet out. And there are plenty of them in the Back of Beyond.
I changed my fly to a bigger yellow one (I recall reading somewhere that you should try to match the fly to the bottom, it seems to work) and lengthened my leader from 10 to about 16 feet. This turned out to be a good move and I used this length for the rest of the trip as I spooked far less fish. I pulled of some line and settled into the gentle rhythm of the poled flats boat. The boat seems to glide across the water with hardly a sound, you can feel the pole pushing the boat rather than hear it. Both of you are quiet, tense, eyes skinned for the first sign of a fish. Spotting them is almost as
satisfactory as catching them and it developed into a competitive sport, as Phillip and I tried to outdo each other. After a few days you become so tuned into the environment that any movement catches your eye and every now and again "Hey! Bonefish, 100 feet, 11 O'clock, do you see him?"
In that sort of water, with that sort of visibility you have time to think, time to react, time to place your fly and wait for the fish to lead onto it, even time for a second shot if you goof up. Wait, wait, retrieve, that formula 1 acceleration of the fish and it's playtime again! You can watch the run and fight of the fish in the clear water, if it was two or three fish together, the other two fish will follow the hooked fish on the run. It's funny to watch, you can imagine their conversation as they tear blindly down the flat.
"Oh! Oh! what are we running from, Oh! Oh! why are we swimming so fast?"
We spent the next hour or so making two drifts down the Back of Beyond. Again we managed to take several fish, jumping out of the boat to land them. Phillip on hand with the camera, sometimes shouting advice, sometimes stopping the fish winding round the anchor rope or going under the boat by simply splashing the water in front of it. Phillip taught me to watch the fish after it was released "See how it looks Mon, watch when it turns it changes colour, see the shadow?" It makes it easier to spot the next one if you know what you are looking for.
We stopped for a late, long relaxed lunch and amused ourselves talking about our respective homes and lives a whole world apart. It always amazes me how something as simple as fishing can bring people from such different backgrounds together. I think it's the one thing I look forward to the most when thinking about a trip. A lazy old lemon shark enjoyed some of our fried chicken and hung around till we weighed anchor. "Where next mate?" "The Fishing Hole Mon! then Bonefish Bank" I couldn't agree more.
We managed one fish at the Fishing Hole. When I hooked him the sun was right in my face and I couldn't see a thing. I swear that fish had to be the biggest, meanest, toughest, fastest fish on the flats. The Big Daddy of all bonefish. It was only after he took most of my backing 6 times and I got him to my feet that he was in fact a little, skinny bonefish but he had a 2' lemon shark firmly attached to his tail.
The bloody thing was thrashing about in 6 inches of water and would not let go of the bone. Then with a puff of bright red blood and a supple but powerful twist of his body the shark took away a mouthful of tail and disappeared back where he came from. The bonefish quickly bled to death. I felt as guilty as hell. We took the fish back for Lillie Boulet, the lady who was cooking for me, who expressed a liking for bonefish. We left the shoal of fish at the Fishing Hole and motored down to the Bonefish Bank just as the sun was a foot from the horizon. "Still enough light for a few shots Mon"
By the time we set foot on Bonefish Bank we had perhaps some 20 minutes of light left. It turned out to be a repeat of the night before, a walk down the bank into the setting sun and small squadrons of bonefish pigging out on shrimp and crab along the waters edge. The cast for these fish was made over dry land, perhaps 30-40 feet back from the edge. A couple of strips with a bunny fry and of the 3 or 4 that saw it, one took it hard and headed for the horizon. Man! I love bonefishing! One more fish and it was time to wind in, we couldn't see the boat anymore.
The only downside to night fishing for bones is finding your way back, the shallow water is dangerous unless you hit it as full revs and there are small islands you can't see till you are on them. And more frightening is the first part of the run home, when there is no artificial light at all to guide you safely in. All we had were the stars, the compass in Phillips head and his knowledge of the flats. Interesting to watch him pull it off, no hesitation at all! Presently though, the lights of Lowe Sound brought some relief and a smile to my face after the mornings events.
Pulling into Morgan's Bluff I cracked open a couple of beers and thought "it's an early night for you tonight mate" Just then I remembered that at some point during the previous evening Phillips cousin had invited me out to dinner on Thursday night. She is a lovely lady that goes by the wonderful name of Melrose Divine.
But that my friends is another story indeed.
Some Boring Practicalities
Part 3 - Nothing can really prepare you for the experience you actually get on your first bonefish trip.
If, like me, you are new to bonefishing, nothing can really prepare you for the experience when you actually get there. By all means, read the books, watch the videos, spend a fortune speaking to your guide on the phone and talk to friends and acquaintances that have been lucky enough to get the T-shirt. If you do one or all of these I'm sure you will have picked out some of the following information. Its all pretty boring but "Trust me Mon" it's all pertinent to your trip.
Ok, straight in at the deep end. Learn to cast and learn to cast well. It's the single most important thing that will directly affect your success. It doesn't have to be pretty to be effective but before you go, be confident that you can handle a line quickly, accurately and with confidence in windy conditions. Of the 6 days I spent on the flats only one of them can be described as relatively calm (we are talking a stiff breeze) the rest of the time I spent battling a strong wind. Phillip assured me that it doesn't always blow like that. BUT, like a Boy Scout, you should always be prepared.
I've heard, and read a lot about the need to cast great distances when Bonefishing. On the Joulter Keys I can assure you that this is a great big steaming pile of bullshit. If you can competently deliver a 60 or 70' shot you will catch plenty of fish and I'm including the length of the rod and leader in those measurements. Ok, a full line shot might get you a second or maybe a third chance at a fish. However, in the wind, the chances are that the lack of line control and loss of accuracy is going to force you to make the second shot anyway.
A mistake I made early on was to present to the fish at distance. I realised that once the guide sees that you can do that, well, that's as close as he'll get to the fish or, from the boat he'll be pressuring you to take the shot earlier than strictly necessary. I suspect this would be true of most guides and understandably so. After all, he's worked hard to put you onto that fish. The last thing he wants to do is spook it.
So, learn to double haul to increase your line speed and tighten your casting loop to cut the wind. It helps if you can throw a cast over both shoulders. Sweat, in windy casting practice before hand will pay vast dividends and if you need to, spend some money on casting lessons. The investment is far wiser than spending the money on a fancy bit of kit, with perhaps the exception of sunglasses.
Sunglasses next to casting need serious consideration. Good polarised glasses make life a hell of a lot easier. The fish are difficult enough to spot as it is and if you are like me you will need every bit of help you can get. I took a couple of pairs with me in two different colours (we have a saying around here "all the gear but no idea!") The best colour for me was amber rather than a grey lens but I've heard that a colour known as clearwater copper is very effective also.
I heard a Bahamian song that went something like "Sunshine, sunshine. Let me feel your warmth just one more time". Warmth is a good description, it doesn't feel that hot out on the flats, the wind has a pleasant cooling effect and it's not humid. Take tropical sunshine, a cooling breeze and you have a very pleasant climate indeed. The temptation to fish in a pair of trunks and a T-shirt is undeniable.
But, as I learnt to my cost, sunburn is a very real threat and bad sunburn can appear very quickly indeed. If your skin suffers in this way, use plenty of sun cream of the highest SPF you can obtain and keep covered up. Long trousers, long sleeved shirts and a good sun hat are essential. A couple of my shirts were short sleeved and yes, my arms got burnt. It didn't spoil my trip, I was lucky.
The wading surfaces on the Joulters are varied. From beautiful flat sands, to grassy and weedy areas to the type of bottom encountered in such places as Moletown. Which brings me onto wading shoes. Though not strictly needed on the sandy flats in weedy or molehill areas they are comforting to wear. You tend to be looking for fish, not where you are treading. Bits of coral, broken shells, sea urchins covered in grass, crabs and all sorts of stuff lay in wait. I found it reassuring, but not particularly comfortable to wear them. I used some cheap shoes of the type that scuba divers wear, they zipped up the side, kept the sand out and though not pretty, they were certainly adequate if more than a little smelly after some 60-70 hours of continual use.
I suppose I'd better talk a little about equipment. Well, compared to the lake fishing I'm used to, the equipment required is refreshingly simple. The wind will dictate your line weight not the fish. 7's, 8's and 9's I suspect would be the sensible choices for most occasions, though a 6 would be perfectly practical in calm conditions. I used 8's and 9's for all the fishing. Both on 9', 8 weight rods. One built on a Pac Bay 4 piece blank the other a purpose built bonefish rod by Steve Abel. Perhaps the Abel had the edge in the wind, but nothing to write home about.
As far as reels go, I used a Loop 2 Wide with the 8-weight line and a pretty Flylogic 789 for the 9 weights. On both I had about 250 yards of 30lb gel spun backing and both performed perfectly adequately. The loop recovers line at an amazing rate, the lack of drag wasn't a disadvantage but the purring sound of the Flylogic was pleasant to hear as the fish ran.
Far more important than your equipment is your backing, line, leader, tippet set up and knots. Starting from the reel arbour I had a couple of yards of heavy mono, Gel spun tends to spin on the arbour, the Mono 'bites' better. Then the Gel Spun was blood knotted to the mono and wound on under a fair pressure, criss-crossing the wraps to avoid bedding. My standard backing to fly line knot is an Albright. Big mistake. The first night after fishing the flats I changed this to a whipped loop to loop connection, I'm not used to fish hitting the backing, the Albright knot catching on the rod rings is not a good idea.
Another whipped loop on the business end of the line enabled my preferred loop-to-loop, line/leader connection. A surgeon's knot for the tippet and then for the fly I settled on a non-slip mono loop for the larger flies and a tucked blood knot for the smaller. I changed my leader daily and my tippet several times a day, the abrasive nature of the bottom on the flats is very hard on tippet material. Another basic mistake I made early on, before I even got there. That was tippet material; I only took 8 and 10lb, low diameter, co-polymer. I would have preferred a harder, stiffer material.
This is also too small a diameter for the hook eye on larger size 2 flies I was using in deeper water. I found a blood knot, even with a tuck could slip (maybe greasy sun cream on my hands had something to do with it, but more likely not) However, a mono loop stopped this, but It has to be tied with a smaller diameter than the width of the eyes on the fly to stop it catching and fishing off centre. I lost a couple of fish before I realised this was happening. The simple answer is to have the correct tippet diameter for the fly. Easily solved, but not on Andros. There ain't no fly shops.
The overall leader length I settled on was about 16 feet. This length, I'm comfortable casting on my home waters, where we use leaders much longer than this. And to a certain extent I feel it can help avoid spooking fish when sight casting from the boat. It enables the caster to put a slight tuck in the cast to help the fly sink at the same time as keeping the tip of your fly line away from the fish, even if you are leading the fish by some distance.
Which brings me to fly selection. I tied flies for 6 months prior to the trip, people kindly sent me their favourites, and I even bought some my mail order from the States. All in all I went armed with hundreds of the bloody things. My greatest fear is going on a trip and having a boxful of the wrong pattern. This has never happened to me, probably never will. Over the years I've come to realise that it's purely psychological and I undoubtedly need professional help.
My experience of the Joulters proves that it's the size that counts and what you do with it. Yep, as always its presentation that counts. I settled on 3 patterns and sizes and after a couple of days used them almost exclusively. Firstly a McVays Gotcha size 2 or 4 for deeper water from the boat. For sandy bottoms and medium depth water, a Yellow, Gotcha, Crazy Charlie type of fly on a size 4. Finally, for shallow wading a size 6 or 8 bunny fry, tied upside down in pale tan. Other recommended flies for the area are a Clouser Gold Shiner Minnow, a tan Yarn Crab, a Cuz's Flats Killer from Hell (had some but didn't try em, sorry mate) a Kaufmans Yellow Sands and a most unlikely looking fly called a Bahamas Special. All tied in the size 2-6 hook range.
1. McVays Gotcha
Hook: Size 2 Partridge Sea Prince, the short shank version.
Thread: Bonefish pink 3/0. Very pretty and by all accounts crucial to the pattern.
Tail: 4 or 5 strands of pearl crystal flash.
Body: I used twisted pearl crystal flash over pink thread and a layer of cement, though there are all sorts of pearly body material you can use.
Eyes: Large, silver bead chain eyes.
Beard: Sparse bunch of pale tan craft fur. I couldn't find any of this and used pale tan calf tail instead.
Flash: A couple of strands of pearl crystal flash each side of the beard and about the same length.
2. Yellow Gotcha, Crazy Charlie Type Fly
Hook: As above but size 4.
Thread: Yellow 3/0.
Tail: As above but yellow.
Body: As above but yellow.
Eyes: Medium, silver bead chain.
Beard: Yellow calf tail with a few strands of white over.
Flash: As above but yellow.
3. Upside Down Bunny Fry
Hook: As above but size 6 and 8
Thread: 6/0 tan.
Weight: Small strip of lead wire tied along the top of the hook shank to make the fly swim inverted.
Tail: Zonker strip in pale tan, the same length of the hook shank. Tied in upside down at the hook bend
Body: Tufts of tan and white rabbit fur, tied top and bottom along the hook shank. Remember the fly is tied upside down. I.e., white on top, tan underneath.
Flash: A couple of strands of pearl flashabou on each flank.
Head: Rabbit fur, spun in a loop, wrapped forwards to the eye and tied off.
Eyes: Stick on epoxy type.
Head finish: Smooth back the rabbit fur at the head and hold to the rear of the hook. Place on the eyes. Apply a drop of superglue to the top section of the head and hold till dry (A couple of seconds) Trim the underside of the head to your satisfaction.
That's about all I can say after an all to short week of fishing this fantastic place except, the memories of unforgettable scenery, of the warmth and friendliness of the people, of the anticipation of the day as you power out to the keys, of the challenge of catching one of those spooky, supercharged fish, the successes and disappointments all conspire to make a fisherman, even a dyed in the wool trout fisherman like me, yearn to return for a re match. Only next time I'll be a little better prepared.
Finally, the recipe for the Godfather. Take a tall glass, add lots of ice, a shot of Brandy, a shot of Tia Maria, a splash of Gin and top the whole thing up with Milk. Believe me, it looks and tastes revolting. However, if you are crazy enough to drink one, do so in bed.
I would like to thank a few special friends who's help and encouragement made this trip for me. Mr Bruce Saltzburg (aka Cuz') from Cheyenne, Wyoming, whom was responsible my catching the bonefish bug in the first place and supplied much patient advise, flies and materials prior to the trip. I hope you have a great trip in March Bruce! And Mr Leon Chandler of the Cortland Line Company for his advise and generously supplying the special tropical flylines I needed for this type of fishing. Finally, Mr Phillip Rolle, of Nichols Town, Andros. For his patience, knowledge and sense of humour and who, quite simply, is one of the best fishermen its ever been my privilege to meet.