Bibbling Bonefish

Separating the schoolies from the trophies is the name of the game on Andros.

Twelve o’clock,” exclaimed Andy, our Bahamian guide. “A hundred feet—school of bibblers.”

I had no idea what a bibbler was, but I could see a school of small bonefish swimming around with their heads just breaking the water, like maybe they were eating something on the surface that I couldn’t see.

Andy poled his skiff closer to the fish, then kicked the bow to the right, giving me a clear opportunity to place a fly in front of the fish. Instantly a fish darted ahead of the school and grabbed the fly. He wasn’t big, but like all bonefish, he fought big. And fast. I kept maximum pressure on the feisty two-pounder, so as to bring him in quickly. I could still see the school out of the corner of my eye, and wanted this fish in so Hawk Pollard, my fishing partner, would have his chance at the school.

It didn’t take Hawk long to hook and land his fish. Unfortunately, the action finally spooked the school, and the fish took off to bibble elsewhere.

With no bonefish in sight, we started quizzing Andy about what all this “bibbling” is about. To me, it appeared the fish were bunched up in a tight school, sucking on the surface as schools of Florida mullet do. Andy’s theory is that they are feeding on tiny jellyfish, so small you can’t even see them. Later, back at the lodge, we heard the theory that bibbling bonefish are engaged in some sort of spawning behavior. Considering the small size of the fish, Andy’s explanation made more sense.

Those two fish we caught out of the school might have been small, but they were a good start for our second day of fishing on Andros. The first day had bordered on disaster. To begin with, Hawk and I are not super fly casters, but on the other hand, if the wind isn’t in our face, we are both very capable of dropping a fly in the general vicinity of a bonefish 60 feet from the boat. The problem we had the first day was not with our casting, but with hooking the fish. Andy proved to be a superb guide. During the morning hours I don’t believe we went five minutes without seeing fish, mostly cruising singles, doubles or small schools. That day, seeing and catching were a world apart.

I had an even dozen bonefish take my fly. I would feel the fish, set the hook, and he would be gone. When the day was over, I ended up two for 12, which was really embarrassing. Hawk’s total was just as bad. He had six fish eat his fly, and landed a grand total of zero. Finally we turned to Andy for help. After watching us all morning, he knew exactly what we had been doing wrong and what we needed to do in order to start catching more fish. We listened carefully to his advice.

“Keep the rodtip down, right to the water’s surface,” he advised. “When a fish takes the fly, and you can for sure feel the fish has the fly, pull with your stripping hand to set the hook, keeping the rod down. Sometimes, if the hook doesn’t sink in, he’ll dash after the fly and take it again.”

I had been attempting to set the hook by pulling with my left hand and lifting the rod with my right hand. It took a while for me to adjust to not lifting the rod, but I soon got the proper hooksetting technique wired.

Hawk took to Andy’s instruction in a hurry. The next morning he caught eight bonefish in a row, and the eighth included a beautiful 7-pound-plus fish. The bigger fish left no doubt that it was a different animal from our bibblers. His first run took over half the backing, and our guide had to pole like a madman to keep the fast-moving bonefish within reasonable fighting distance. One hundred yards out, after the first long run, we could see the fish struggling on the surface in an effort to escape the pressure Hawk was putting on him. The pressure soon had the fish to within 50 feet, where he changed tactics, darting here and there, sticking his nose down into the soft mud and sand.

“Rodtip up. Tip up!” yelled Andy. “He’s trying to rub the hook out on the bottom.”

Hawk held the rodtip high, and expertly worked the tiring bonefish to the boat and to Andy’s waiting hand. He was one happy angler when Andy grabbed the fish and held him up.

“Get the camera, this is a photo fish,” Andy told me.

It wasn’t a 10-pounder, but it was a big fish that fought hard and deserved the freedom we gave it after a couple quick clicks with the camera. The three of us, two anglers and one guide, sat back and relaxed for a few moments, happy with our fish, happy with where we were and what we were doing, and recharging ourselves for more action.

There were four of us on this bonefishing trip to Andros. Our guides were Andy Smith and Simon Bain. These guys were terrific—not simply great fishing guides, but also perceptive and considerate in the way they took care of us. One member of our group had recently broken his hip and was on crutches. No problem. Simon dug up a comfortable chair which fit nicely in front of the console for Al to use, then made certain his runs and fishing spots were in enough of a lee that Al didn’t get bounced around.

We caught bonefish every day, and had shots at several double-digit fish, but unfortunately didn’t connect. Our guides both emphasized October, November and into December as the months for big fish. March, April, May and June are top fishing months, and you’ll see some big fish then, but just not in the size or numbers as during the fall months.

The number of fish you can expect to catch at any time is directly related to your skill as an angler. Mike Dennington, from Colorado, is a frequent Andros angler, and a superior fly fisherman. Mike was top dog among the anglers staying at the lodge, landing 15 to 20 bonefish every day while the rest of us were catching from five to 10 fish a day. There were 10 people staying at the lodge, and every day they all caught fish. Three out of the four days we were there at least one 10-pound or better bonefish was caught.

Bonefishing in Andros, like any other fishing in any other place, is basically about being in the right place at the right time. On our last day, we eased into the mouth of a tiny little cove, just as the tide started rising. We couldn’t get far into the cove, for it was only inches deep. The bonefish were moving in to feed. Not real big fish, but twice the size of our bibblers, running a respectable four to five pounds.

I hooked the first fish. It was spectacular, zooming around the boat in the shallow water, kicking up a roostertail in just inches of water. I scrambled from one side of the boat to the other, with Andy ducking the pushpole as the frantic fish circled the stern. Then as I was removing the fly to release my fish, Andy was telling Hawk to get some line out so he could cast to another fish. Before Hawk landed his fish, Andy was prompting me to get on the bow to cast at a pair entering the cove. Again, by the time my bonefish was caught and released Hawk had another one on. That was one wild 20 minutes!

We left the cove and began working the edge of the bay. Hawk caught a small fish, and it was my turn again. It didn’t take long for Andy to zero me in on a pair of fish 100 feet ahead of the boat. Boy, were they big! For some odd reason, I became very calm, no buck fever, didn’t panic, simply waited a moment for the monsters to swim within range, then made a decent cast to the lead fish. My reward was an instant hookup. I didn’t understand when I saw the two big fish bolt off in one direction while my line was screaming out in another direction. Then I saw my fish and realized what had happened. A little two-pounder had obviously been tagging along with his betters, and had dashed ahead of them to take the fly. Oh well.

Minutes later Hawk was up, and a huge single hove into view, moving in from deeper water. I guess this fish was big because he was smart, for as soon as the fly hit the water he turned and bolted back where he had come from.

By then we were fishing near the west side of Andros, and I asked Andy if we could take a look around at this wild and fascinating area. The first west side fish we saw was a single tarpon cruising by. I did get a fly almost to him as he swam away, and thought for a moment, when the fish turned toward the fly, that he was going to take it. No such luck. We actually had a half-dozen shots at tarpon during the brief time we were there, but it was a bit choppy and the water a bit cloudy, so we headed back inside for more bonefishing.

Hawk and I were using 8-weight outfits, both with 9-weight bonefish taper floating line. We started with 10-pound leader, but Andy suggested we go to 12. He likes to get the fish in as quickly as possible so they will be in good shape when released. We only used three flies the entire time. I started with a beige Franklin Fly—a fluffy Craft Fur pattern of my own design. Hawk used a gold Crazy Charlie. When I lost my fly I went to a brown-and-white Clouser Minnow. The flies that caught fish were tied on No. 4 hooks.

John Parks, the fourth member of our group, was not a fly caster and was using an 8-pound spinning outfit. John was a novice at this kind of fishing, but had spent time practicing for the trip. His practice really paid off. He caught six bonefish his first morning out. John was using a 1⁄4-ounce jighead with a 2-inch pink plastic worm tail. The tails that worked best were straight and small in diameter. He found his jig worked better when cast to fish in two feet of water than in one foot or shallower. Next year he’ll have a second, lighter spinning outfit with 6-pound line to use with 1⁄8-ounce jigs for the real shallow stuff.

I love to wade for bonefish, but on this trip we only waded one oceanside flat for a short while. The fish just weren’t to be found. Most of our time was spent in the bights, where there were plenty of fish, but the bottom was too soft and sticky for wading.

Our four-day trip to Andros was the most enjoyable Bahamas fishing trip any of us had participated in. The young female Bahamian customs officer started things off for us by greeting us with a big “welcome to Andros” smile and hustled us through immigration and customs in record time. We stayed at Tranquility Hill fishing lodge, and again were greeted by big welcoming smiles. At our request, the lodge even served cracked conch three nights running. Tranquility Lodge is not the Ritz, but it is clean, comfortable, and the air conditioners all work. Also, after the day’s fishing, you can sit in the shade on the porch with a cold Kalik in hand and stare at the bight and the beautiful clear water, contemplating tomorrow’s bonefish.

FS