First part of a three part harmony about a fantastic trip for Bahamas bonefish Introduction to the article
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.
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.