Pointing absentmindedly to our right, Norman said the word in the same bored tone that one normally hears from airline pilots and classical-music deejays. But I was eleven years old when “Jaws” came out, and that animatronic great white had made an indelible impression on my developing psyche. Plus, I was a trout fisherman just fifteen minutes into my first day on a remote Bahamian flat, in knee-deep water, fifty yards from the boat. So when my guide said, “Shark,” I heard “SHARK!”
I whipped my head around to scan the water where Norman had indicated, and there was the cold-blooded, dull-eyed beast—all twenty-four inches of it—headed right for us. My friend Sandy smirked at me and snapped a couple of shots of the man-eater before it swam through his legs. But before I could bring my blood pressure down, the shark swam into a small “mud” in front of us and spooked out a bonefish.
“Cast. Ten o’clock, twenty-five feet,” Norman barked.
I couldn’t see the fish, but I followed orders and made a blind cast. Norman said, “Strip,” so I stripped. Then “Set.” I gave a hard strip set and immediately felt resistance. As I raised my rod, the fish took off across the flat at an astonishing speed, and I had to crank down on the drag knob to slow the run. I had plenty of faith in the 12-pound test Norman had suggested, so I could put the screws to the fish to keep it out of the mangroves. Within a couple of minutes, I held my first South Andros bonefish. Perhaps sharks weren’t so bad after all.
This was only my second trip for bonefish, and my first—to Belize a few years earlier—had been somewhat of a disappointment. The country was spectacular and there were tons of fish, but we just happened to hit a spell of bad weather. Overcast skies and fierce wind had made stalking the flats impossible, so we ended up fishing to large schools of bones in deep water. Instead of the guides issuing classic directions, such as “Two fish, eleven o’clock, sixty feet,” they’d say, “See that smudge in the water? That’s a thousand bonefish. Cast in the middle.” That kind of took the challenge and the romance out of the whole enterprise. Sure, we caught lots of bones, but we didn’t catch them right.
Less than a half hour into my South Andros experience, I knew this trip would be different. I hadn’t yet developed my “flats eyes,” which would allow me to pick out the ghostly torpedoes against the marl bottom, but I had cast to and caught a lone fish and had felt the surging power of a bonefish on the run in shallow water. That day, I hooked three more fish and landed two, but Norman assured me that there’d be plenty more shots and that my ability to spot fish would improve in the coming days. He was right on both counts.
North and South Andros together make up the largest land mass in the Bahamas, but almost all the people—and almost all the bonefish lodges—are on North Andros. South Andros is mostly uninhabited, with just a single highway connecting the small settlements along the eastern shore. This is no tourist Mecca—no white-sand beaches, no casinos, no shopping—so there’s not much to do if you aren’t a fisherman or a diver.
But what you can’t see from the road is the incredible network of bights and tidal creeks that make most of the interior of the island a watery maze. In most places, a short boat ride up one of the many creeks exposes an intricate web of lagoons, bays, cays, and flats that seems to go on forever. A guide who knows what he’s doing can motor from the eastern side of the island through to the virtually unexplored western shore at many places via this network. At its southern tip, well beyond the end of the road, the island seems to shatter into thousands of cays, with flats as far as the eye can see. In five days of fishing, we never hit the same flat twice, and we covered an infinitesimal portion of the available water.
We were there in early March, which is just before the prime big-fish time, and the weather was fantastic. We lost only one day to clouds and rain. The rest of the time, we enjoyed hot, sunny days and cool, breezy nights.
The Agony and the Ecstasy
On our second day, we headed inland, toward “the west,” in Josie’s boat. We were to learn later that Josie is the guide whom many anglers both love and fear because, although he’s incredibly good at finding and spotting fish, he can also be a harsh critic of anglers who don’t live up to their end of the bargain. He’s not mean, but he certainly doesn’t go out of his way to make you feel better when you blow a shot.
Because the wind was blowing pretty hard, we motored for quite a while before Josie found a big flat in a lee. I hopped up on the bow, and he began poling us around the edges of the mangroves. I was staring off into the distance when he hissed, “Three o’clock, thirty feet.” Again without seeing the fish, I made the cast, and the fish was on and into the backing in a flash. It reversed course and charged the boat, as I cranked frantically to pick up the slack. The fish see-sawed back and forth behind the boat, and I had to keep bringing the line over Josie’s head before I finally got the fish to hand. It was a gorgeous four-pounder, and I was already feeling pretty good about myself.
That didn’t last long. The next shot was absolutely classic—a lone fish quartering toward us from left to right in very shallow water over white sand. No more blind-casting for me. I made a decent cast, and fish charged the shrimp pattern. I didn’t set the hook, and the fish spit the fly. Then, unbelievably, the fish pounced again, and I made the one mistake I’d promised myself I wouldn’t: the dreaded “trout set.” Instead of stripping, I raised my rod tip, thus pulling the fly right out of the fish’s mouth. Total buck fever. Twice was enough for that bonefish, and it spooked across the flat.
Sheepishly, I turned to Josie who was looking at me like I’d peed in his boat. “Gotta strip set,” he said.
We hopped out of the boat and began to walk the flat, and the next three hours were fast and furious—although I continued to earn my share of clucks and deep sighs from the guide. The highlight was when we came across three fish feeding, with their tails out of the water, right at the edge of a mangrove island. I’d seen pictures of tailing bones, but the reality of those fish feeding lazily in water not deep enough to cover their backs was enough to get the heart pumping.
Josie slowed us down, and we approached very cautiously. I made a cast, and with a single flick of its tail one of the fish was on the fly. By the time I landed that one, Josie had spotted more tailers on the other side of the island. To get me in position for a downwind cast, we cut through the mangroves to the other side and circled the island. Again a single cast was all it took.
Suddenly, there were bonefish coming at us from all directions in one and twos, but I just couldn’t get the presentations right in the stiff wind. We watched perhaps two dozen fish swim by within twenty yards of us, and I didn’t get a legitimate shot at one of them. I was fast learning that one of the maddening aspects of bonefishing is that just when you think you’ve got the game figured out, the conditions change on you. It’s both frustrating and exhilarating.
On day three, we headed to the southern tip of the island, which was about an hour-long boat ride from Deep Creek, where we met the guides each morning. When we arrived at the bottom of the island, it seemed as if we had reached flats-fishing heaven. The Water Cays looked exactly like the fantasies of the Bahamas I’d been entertaining for the previous few months, featuring gorgeous tropical islands, white-sand beaches, and seemingly endless flats. This part of the island is known for its huge schools of bonefish, numbering in the thousands, and I was certain that a banner day lay ahead.
Strangely enough things started off slow. The fish seemed very skittish and choosy, and we got a lot of follows and refusals. Then we ran into one of those famed schools and all hell broke loose. At first, I couldn’t see what Freddie was describing. I thought I was looking at the bottom, when it was, in fact, a school of thousands of bones streaming toward us across a shallow flat. Over the next twenty or thirty minutes, Sandy and I each took several fish, and we had three doubles.
Toward the end of the day, I mentioned to Freddie that I was interested in catching a barracuda, and his eyes lit up. He poled us along some bays in the mangroves, where we could see small ’cudas lying in wait. I wasn’t having much luck stripping my baitfish imitation past the fish until Freddie taught me a cool trick. He instructed me to cast, make a strip, and then pick up the fly and put it right back down in the same place. The theory is the ’cuda sees the baitfish disappear, like a fish jumping, and when the bait reappears the predator nabs it before it can escape. I caught two small guys this way, and it was a real blast.
Two days later, Freddie guided me to my first “real” barracuda, which put up a fantastic fight. At one point, it almost jumped in the boat before tearing off across the flat and leaping several times. I have no idea why the barracuda is not a more sought-after fly-fishing quarry.
Motivation for the Future
Although my first bonefishing experience had left me somewhat indifferent about the species, my time on South Andros left me craving more. What makes casting to flats fish a completely different game from trout fishing is the element of time. When you’re fishing to a holding or rising fish on a trout stream, you usually have the luxury of planning your presentation—your approach, the type of cast, etc. But when there’s a five-pound bonefish forty feet off the bow of the boat, you’ve got perhaps two seconds to make the cast, and you might not get a second chance. It’s maddening and addictive.
The one South Andros fish that sticks most in my memory is the clichéd “one that got away.” We were fishing the southern tip of the island with Josie (of course), when he pointed out two huge fish—an eight-pounder and a six-pounder–cruising past us about sixty feet away. Josie wanted me to cast to the bigger one, but the fly landed right between the two. Luckily, the larger of the two pounced first, and I got a good hook set.
As the fish tore off across the flat, I held my rod high and tried to clear the line at my feet. In horror, I watched the line—which seemed to move in slow motion—ride along my left forearm and hook on one of the buttons on the cuff of my shirt. That was all the resistance the fish needed, and the line went immediately slack. I’ve gone over that scene in my head a hundred times since. I’ve got to get back to South Andros and replace that memory with one that would make Josie proud. I can’t wait.
For information about fishing The Bahamas, visit Orvis Travel.