A bonefish cloverleaf. That’s what it was. Bones buzzed us from all directions at a busy crossroads in a boundless forest of waist-high mangroves in the Marls of southern Abaco. This creek intersection looked just like countless others we passed on the way in, but obviously, this was a major boulevard.
“Looks like rush hour on I-95, brother!” quipped Matt Bagley, as he came tight on a fish. “Hey, no talk about civilization ’til we have to go back to it. That’s my rule!” I shot back.
But his comparison was dead-on. Narrow, winding one-lane creeks and even tighter cuts served as on-ramps and off-ramps to the main highway where we were parked in a staked-out skiff. And the bonefish were as aggressive as big-city freeway drivers. They streamed out of the mangroves, merged without yielding, hugged the tight corners, and made hairpin turns back into the foliage. Once there, they tailed and splashed noisily among the prop roots, where casts were simply out of the question. Wrong-way fish approached those going with the flow, games of chicken ensued, and the whole lot would spook briefly before continuing their commute to God knows where. The lower the water got, the more manic the fish became, but they gladly ate on the run. If your fly got wet, it got ’et. I could have enjoyed the show without a rod, though I wasn’t about to put mine down.
Ismael Williams, a senior guide out of Nettie Symonette’s Different of Abaco, chuckled and took the bedlam in stride, explaining that in the southern Marls, the falling tide forces thousands of bonefish from the dense interior out into small bays and creeks such as we were fishing. They have to come out sometime, especially during extreme spring tides, but it looked like the whole gang was already here. But Ish promised the numbers would increase.
“Hey, these numbers ain’t bad now, Ish!” I laughed. Ish the Fish, as he is known, winked and said, “Just wait.”
And sure enough, a half-hour later Matt and I were casting from opposite ends of the skiff, see-sawing our back casts to avoid midair crashes, hooking doubles throughout the tide. The fish were small, mostly 2-pound schoolies, but they were spunky. Upon feeling the steel, it was roostertails and smoke trails. Great fun on our 5- and 6-weights. A few schools contained one or two individuals a bit bigger than the rest, and especially adept at finding nooks in the mangroves that made mincemeat of a light tippet. The challenge was to get your fly to those bigger fish, then keep ’em out of the woods, which added a “snooky” dimension to the game. After a decent fish disappeared around a bend with my fly line and cut me off, I beefed up to 12-pound fluorocarbon, a move that saved me a few fish, allowed me to leave some flies with Ish, and return home with a few in my box.
Ishmael finally grabbed a rod at our urging and enjoyed a half-hour busman’s holiday, landing a few fish before poling us out to some bigger bays where occasional 3- to 4-pounders milled along either in pairs or alone. We landed a couple on crab flies, and were intent on finding more, but it dawned on us that we needed to idle out under power to avoid spending the night. Daylight was dwindling once we emerged from the labyrinth, so fishing the Marls’ outer cays was out of the question this time, though we had honestly intended to reserve some time to do just that. Most regulars who fish out of the Different report that the biggest bonefish come from those hard-bottomed, more oceanic flats.
But the numbers game was a hoot, and can definitely be played throughout much of the year in the southern Marls. After having fished various Bahamas bonefish destinations, I suspect there may not be a better place in the entire Bahamas for novice fly casters to hone their skills, or rack up eye-popping numbers. We were fishing an idyllic May day, but dependable bonefishing can be had here year-round, though the strongest cold fronts from December through March can usher in temporary windy, overcast conditions that can make the seeing and casting part a bit tougher.
A quick glance at a chart of Great Abaco Island reveals that the Marls line most of the western shore in the Bight of Abaco. Though there are a handful of lodges in Marsh Harbour and in Treasure Cay that have in-house guides, or that can arrange for independent guides to get you into the northern or central Marls, the Different has by far the best access to the southern Marls, where the greatest concentration of fish exists. To gain access to the Marls, proprietor Nettie Symonette had a canal dug from the end of a dirt road off the main highway in 1993. Now lodge guests can be casting at bonefish after a short car trip and 10-minute boat run from the launch, where the guides keep their skiffs ready to go.
Fishing here is an interesting diversion from the typical wide-open Bahamas flats you may be used to, and it’s a perfect place to unrack a 5- or 6-weight fly rod, or even smaller, if that floats your boat. Even at lower ends of the tide, you can hook fish with their backs out and bellies rubbing bottom. Small unweighted flies such as No. 6 bead-chain Gotchas, Charlies, yarn crabs and snapping shrimp are gobbled up, but in deeper water, or at high tide, you might cast a fly with the smallest lead, brass or tungsten dumbbell eyes to get down to cruisers a little quicker. Spinfishers should bring a light, 7-foot rod and a reel spooled with 6- or even 4-pound-test line. Be sure to tie in a 3- or 4-foot double line with a Bimini twist, and perhaps a foot of 12- or 15-pound-test between that and the lure; otherwise, you’ll leave lots of jigs in the woods. Cast tan, white, pink or brown 1⁄8- and 1⁄5-ounce skimmer-style jigs, though round-headed jigs work, too, because so much of the interior Marls bottom is bare, with occasional turtlegrass patches.
When you get your fill of smaller, easy-to-fool fish, you’ll find bones of a different breed on the Atlantic side of south Abaco. Cherokee Sound is a 5-minute boat ride from the Different’s doorstep at Casaurina Point, and the bones are definitely not pushovers. They are bigger on average, and warier as you would expect. They’re fished regularly by a handful of guides from nearby Cherokee, as well as those from Nettie’s place, so you’d better bring your A game. We had a number of shots at singles in the 5- to 8-pound range as well as a couple of schools of 10 to 20 fish during a short afternoon outing on Cherokee, and th
ough enough fish inspected our flies, I only managed to fool one fish. Our guide, Joseph Bodie, said it was not surprising, largely due to the tide. No matter that we did our part—the fast-falling water had the fish on edge. We also cast to a few honest-to-goodness 8- to 10-pounders in smaller bays we accessed via winding creeks off the main Sound, but lemon sharks were milling about, and the water was about gone. Those fish were more interested in getting out of Dodge than eating our flies. Matt did get one pair of big fish to turn and light up on his fly, but a lemon shark popped into view and put them off. I would have given up a basket of Nettie’s conch fritters to see Matt battle one of those bad boys in that tight little bay. I’ve waded Cherokee Sound in the past and found the fish approachable and easy to feed, so ask your guide to let you wade when the fish are spooky and slow to eat.
During your stay, mix things up by fishing both sides of the island, and take advantage of the fact that you have a lee shore no matter which way the wind is blowing. For anglers wanting a changeup from bonefishing, Nettie Symonette reports that by March she expects to have an open fisherman up and running that can accommodate four anglers for reef-fishing trips, something to consider for anglers interested in bringing along the entire family.