Fine people and food, And only the fish have attitudes.
There are many good bonefish guides—people who have grown up without television, with ample time to observe these fish and their tidal habits. We were lucky to be fishing with one of the best, a sharp young man with amazing patience. Blow a chance at a passing school, and Docky Smith only shrugs and hunts for more fish. He’s a cheerful fellow and doesn’t mind handing out a compliment or a backslap when a client does something right, but he also patiently educates when something goes awry. Down in de Islands, mon, we don’t yell at the clients or make them feel bad. His favorite bumper sticker says: Guide, not God.
Amy and I are wading downwind with him, pushed along by what feels like a 30-knot east wind. Frequently, I can’t even hear what he says, his words yanked away by the wind. The jig hangs from my fingertip, the short line pinned to the rod’s foregrip, spinning endlessly in fast little wind circles. Thank goodness these beautiful flats are perfectly sheltered from a prevailing wind by more than 60 miles of unbroken island. The bleak Atlantic Ocean crashes against a rocky coast only a half-mile away, carving cruel sculptures in solid rock, and dashing hopes of fishing on the ocean side of this island.
In unfavorable conditions the day produces a comedy of errors, as often happens with spooky bonefish. We had an estimated 22 chances at passing fish while exploring a half mile of mottled bottom. Three times, fish are led to my hand. In the howling wind, our near-weightless jigs fly all about the place, even tipped with shrimp or half of a small blue crab, a prize Docky chases after with a small dipnet. Local bones and permit love these crabs.
After seven hours of wading and poling along the rocky shoreline, where more bonefish are cast to in rock-and-sand potholes, we’re ready for the lodge. Wind and sun-beaten, ready for a dark refuge, ceiling fan, bartender.
Lo and behold, the folks running Stella Maris have a barbecue cookout this very evening, pitchers of spicy rum punch and a live band. They’re cooking pineapple marinated steaks on the outdoor grill. We position ourselves close to the pitchers, and then Amy coaxes me onto the dance floor. We fish hard but we play hard. The punch, reggae music and full moon overhead have stripped away our fatigue; it’s amazing. The band’s leader and drummer, who is also the local dive master, decides we’re real people and joins us until late, waxing philosophical on many issues.
The next day we found ourselves in the same body of water off Cape Santa Maria where Columbus’ ship (amazingly, with the same name) coasted around the corner and dropped anchor some years ago.
The water is rough beyond the Cape, but we dutifully troll our lipped plugs into at least 60 feet of water, judging by the coral shapes below. Wham! The 80-pound outfit doubles over, the reel briefly howls, the fish lunging deep, going the remainder of the way, lodging in coral below. As this is going on, we reel in some of the other lines to clear the way. A wahoo hammers another plug as I’m reeling, smoking 40 yards of line from the tired, old 4/0 reel. Pow! Two gone. We’re using short wire leaders in case of barracuda; so maybe his tail struck the line. Meanwhile, the other plug has been cut off in what felt like tall coral. Just like that, two big plugs have vanished.
I can tell our captain, Tim Smith, is frustrated by all this; he wants to anchor and fish the Island Way. He has huge lobster heads for chum and ballyhoo for bait. When I dangle a 6-ounce leadhead jig at him, he nods eagerly. So, we’re soon lowering a trio of these jigs down in 100 feet, while drifting sideways or stern-to in 6-foot seas. We catch jacks, sharks, cuda, yellowtails, and several big fish, likely grouper, plow into the coral.
We troll home along the shallower coast in 20 feet, where a mutton snapper slams into a pink diver, and a 40-pound barracuda gives us a fight before spitting the hooks. I’m bummed we didn’t catch a big grouper in this reefy paradise, but only for an hour.
A fast trudge back to the road and there is Sylvio and Rico wading back to their rented car, and they offer me a fast-track ride back to our house on the cliff. They’ll fetch my bicycle later. Fine-tuning our packing, Amy and I are ready when the taxi appears.
Arriving at the simple airport, we find the commuter flight has been delayed for at least two hours. After I had abandoned a flat full of bonefish not far from the runway? But there’s nothing that can be done, except pull a handy book from our heap of luggage, lay down on a wooden bench and while away the mid-day in the breezy shade. Around me, these Islanders are laughing, greeting and complimenting each other, and showing infinite patience.
After spotting a fine beach and coral reef from the boat on the previous day, we’ve decided to find it with a taxi. Our driver Miss Veronica, who raised nine kids to adulthood but only looks 45 years old, born and raised on the Island, knows the exact spot, an 8-mile ride up north. She drops us off in the morning with a pile of snorkel, camera and fishing gear, also lunch and a jug of water. We hike through what they call the bush, finding a beach that beggars belief—a mile of spotless sand, not a human in sight, nor a footprint, long brown stretches of coral, visibility underwater later confirmed at around 120 feet. Completely protected from the east wind, with a few Australian pines on the beach offering shade.
The spot is famous for mutton snapper and notorious for barracuda, and we’re well-armed with plugs, spoons and jigs. However, at low tide in the heat of the day, action is slow. Schools of bar jack go by, and graysby groupers are present. Both are more interested in my noisy, topwater plug than anything else. Big ’cudas prowl in a foot of water as the tide floods back in, but won’t strike. Out beyond 15 feet of coral, the bottom drops off to flat white sand at about 22 feet. One can easily imagine big mutton snappers crossing the sand at dusk, feeding along the reef in tonight’s full moon. It would be nice to anchor and chum here at night but the lodge, like all others, fishes during daytime hours. In The Bahamas, folks don’t move around much by water at night. Too many coral heads. After a wonderful day we hike down the dirt road, happy to see our taxi appear, right on time.
With a noon departure, I’m determined to sample the morning wade on the mangrove flat just downhill from Stella Maris. Our new friends from Switzerland, Sylvio and Rico, had explained how bonefish move along that shoreline each morning. The guides with their boats (and mobility) had scoffed somewhat, declaring these neighborhood fish to be morning commuters that get used to being cast to, and thus become hook-shy.
But I was determined to have a go at them. Jumping on one of many bicycles available, I coasted down the long hill, anxiously testing the pedal brakes with dive booties. The seven-foot spin rod and strung line hum in the breeze, and I’m thankful only one truck is winding up the road as I careen past them. Of course they honk and wave. Everyone does on this island. I could imagine what they were laughing and saying: “Dat mon in a hurry to find some bonefish!”
Which I am. Parking in the brush, I make a fast walk across sand flats that put me into clear water, just as the tide was turning. I follow the treeline downwind, scanning clean bottom around baby mangrove trees. As a school of bonefish goes by I cast in front of them, where a spirited 3-pounder grabs on and sprints up and down the flat. Woo-hoo! He is a hard and silvery prize, the Bahamas’ national treasure. He swims off looking a bit groggy, and I hope a lemon shark doesn’t find him.
Then, there they are, Sweet Mother of Mercy, 10 beautiful fish heading my way, straight up. I plop the jig and crab combo in their path, just as a huge, unwanted cloud darkens the flat. Somehow they’re missing my jig, going to wind up in my lap! I assume the position of a small mangrove bush on my knees, but they’re not buying it. At 12 feet they turn and bolt at half speed for deep water. Standing up, I reel in and belt out a home-run cast, which lands 20 feet in their path. Tap-tap! I rear back hard enough to turn a wahoo in mid-air, but nothing. A swing and a miss.
By Joe Richard