March 01, 2012
White Sands Forever
Battalions of bones await on Exuma's vast wading flats.
Georgetown overlooks Elizabeth Harbour, a protected anchorage, and site of April's Annual Family Island Regatta, and many homesites, marinas and inns.
If you want privacy, you'll find it only a few miles by boat out of Georgetown.
If you stay at Master Harbour Villas, just out of Georgetown, be sure to ask proprietor Jerry Lewless to introduce you to George, their resident barracuda.
“Strip it now. Strip, strip…..” says Exuma guide Garth Thompson.
Wading for tailing bones is the name of the game in Exuma.
A lemon shark smiles for the camera.
Best Exuma bonefish food includes Gotchas, Crazy Charlies, and Bonefish Bitters.
Garth steadies the skiff while Angie casts…
…gets her fly moving…
…feels the take…
…sets the hook and enjoys the blistering run…
....the rest of the story:
…of another Exuma bonefish.
I doubt there were two blades of grass between me and Angie Chestnut, some 50 yards away. She was tiptoeing like a heron so as not to put the bones on notice. The water was ankle-deep, so the fish swam on a tilt, backs out, tacking right, then tacking left. Their fluttering, translucent tails and dorsal fins looked like little Saran Wrap jib sails catching a breeze.
After a couple of hookups apiece on No. 6 and 8 Gotchas and Charlies, Angie and I were suddenly being snubbed by schoolies—something rumored to never happen in the Bahamas—perhaps because the tide was dropping as fast as stock prices in a bear market. I figured they were scrounging up nondescript little somethings from the sugar-white sand, so I stooped to sift the stuff through my fingers. It looked like salt and coarse-ground black pepper, the pepper being the tiniest of tiny black snails. I feared that these micro-crustaceans were the breakfast entrée, and I sure didn't have a fly in my box that came anywhere close. No fly on Earth does, except for maybe a No. 20 Black Gnat that I cast at Smoky Mountain rainbow trout. Matching this snail hatch was not an option.
Our guide, J.J. Dames, knew the well was quickly going dry, so he struck out for the skiff, staked out a quarter-mile away. That gave us more time to fuss with these fish, so long as we kept pace as they moved out to deeper, cooler water. And, so long as the lemon sharks didn't get any more aggressive. Sharks put bones on edge big-time. No surprise there--I imagine it's hard to concentrate on eating when you're trying to avoid being eaten. Sharks with an attitude put wading fly fishers on edge, too. At one point, two juiced-up 75-pound lemons squeezed into my territory, to check out my trailing mud. They got a little close for comfort before turning at the last second. I would have happily traded my 7-weight fly rod for a bang stick.
Once I reached water a few inches deeper, up popped a more relaxed and happy bunch of dorsaling fish. Since my Gotcha wasn't gettin' it, I tied on an extra sparse No. 6 Bonefish Special--that out-of-fashion old favorite that nobody uses, that still catches bonefish. It served me well for fussy fish in the Turneffe Islands, so I had faith. I laid it in their path, and let it sink. The leaders of the pack raced over and pounced, but the taker dropped the fly five seconds into its run. The rest of the bunch took off in a panic, so I turned to watch Angie, crouched over, stripping her fly, as an armada of tails closed in. She was mouthing some words, totally zoned in, talking to the fish, or, perhaps to herself, like we bonefishers do when things are a struggle. Her body language suggested rejection, that is, until her fly line twanged tight. She let out a little victory cry as the fish roostertailed across the flat, but toward the dry crown, slowing as it ran out of water.
“It's gonna beach itself!” she laughed, but the fish found a deeper pocket and her drag screamed anew. The spunky 20-incher swam off in good shape after a bit of resuscitat
ion. The water was getting hotter now, and apparently just about as low as it would get. I looked around to find a new school. But our bonefish had left the building.
The morning's new moon tide range was astounding. In fact, there was so much water at 8 a.m. that there were no fishable flats. Just a waist-deep world of white, with not a hint of a bonefish anywhere.
Alan Erickson, Angie, guides J.J. Dames, Garth Thompson, Reno Rolle and I could have slept late and eaten a leisurely, respectable Bahamian breakfast in Georgetown before launching, and not missed a thing. But you don't sleep in (or sleep that much) on a 3-day bonefish trip, so it mattered little. Better to be in a skiff talking bonefish and waiting on bonefish than watching the clock and twiddling your thumbs on the couch back at the inn.
By noon the action was over, and the dry flats looked like the Mojave desert, though I would imagine the Mojave has more plant life than Exuma's White Bay flats, and sand not nearly as blindingly white.
The afternoon rising tide got cranking around 2 p.m., and schools of bones, small barracudas and the ubiquitous lemon sharks (though much, much smaller this time) came out of the woodwork. With but a few hours of light left, Alan and Garth motored off to a flat a couple of miles away, and Angie and I bailed out with J.J. to wade a long shoreline with a big cove that was still largely high and dry. But it wouldn't be dry for long given the way the water was gurgling around my ankles. J.J. gestured out toward deeper water, where wakes and tails appeared in virtually every direction. After I hooked a couple of fish, he broke off to join Angie, a bit closer to shore where tails were sprouting like mushrooms.
There would be plenty of casting to come, so just for grins, I held my cast and froze as a school closed in. The ravenous fish raised a dense mud so I went to my knees, and a couple of them actually bumped into me before exploding off the flat. But the next school would act squirrelly, and reject my fly. I thought, oh no, tiny snails again? But, the lower the sun sank, the more turned-on they became, and fly choice mattered little. I did especially well with No. 6 Gotchas, and with a similar-size white-and-tan yarn crab that failed me earlier in the tide. Angie had plenty of hookups with her crab-like Bonefish Bitters as the action peaked before dusk. We begrudgingly headed for the skiff only when the light failed. As they say, we left ‘em biting, and may have pushed our luck a bit, but as it turned out, J.J. easily found his way back to the roadside ramp in the dark.
Exuma offers what we've all come to equate with classic Bahamas bonefishing--endless, hard white flats teeming with small to medium bones. The occasional big fish up to 8 pounds or so is reportedly caught here, but if you land a legitimate 5- or 6-pounder, it may be your big fish for the day. But the numbers of 2- to 4-pounders more than make up for that. Most of the fish that our party caught were in the 14- to 24-inch class. If you're not accustomed to seeing a length classification for bonefish, if you ask me, it's a better way to represent size. I think bonefishers everywhere, in their moment of triumph, and depending on how far they travel, tend to overestimate the weight of their fish. It's only natural, but I'm just leery of reports about Bahamas trips where the fish caught averaged 5 to 8 pounds. That can certainly be said of Florida, but not the Bahamas, with the exception of some Andros and Grand Bahama flats. And of course, like anywhere in the Bahamas or the Caribbean, you can find yourself surrounded by 10- to 12-inch “banana” bones, or “buzzers” as J.J. Dames calls ‘em, but then it's just a matter of moving on to find bigger fish.
I certainly have no complaints about the spirit of Exuma bones. They have a lot of spunk, and fight admirably even through the heat of the day, possibly due to relatively cool water temps over the white sand bottom. And at times, they become selective enough to test your skills and patience. So Exuma is a great destination for beginners, and even seasoned bonefishers looking for wonderful, barefoot wading and lots and lots of shots at tailing fish in the shallowest water imaginable.
The flats we fished are among the most productive in the 36-mile-long string of Exuma Cays. They lie on an east-west axis where the land mass is widest, from roughly Georgetown south to the northern tip of Little Exuma. During my trip, we fished White Bay (and you'll understand the name when you see the vast, white endless flats for yourself) and the “airport” flat, close to Georgetown, and other flats a bit farther to the west, none of which involved a long skiff ride. With the exception of an hour or two of skiff fishing when the water was too high for wading, we hoofed it, barefooted it in fact, everywhere we fished.
Bones on the Airport flat (and it seems most Bahama islands have an “airport” flat) are a bit warier than others, as should be expected on a flat that is close to town and most accessible. Yet, even the wisest of Exuma bones are pushovers in comparison to big Florida fish, and that's the main draw, and reason enough for bonefishers to pack up and go to The Bahamas at least once in their life.
Fly fishers should pack 6- and 7-weight fly rods for Exuma, though you might bring an 8-weight as well. For the most part, sparsely tied, unweighted or lightly weighted flies work best. You could pack nothing but light-colored No. 4 and 6 Gotchas and Crazy Charlies with beadchain eyes and catch all the fish you want, but round out your selection with some tan yarn crabs and Bonefish Bitters. If you have a few old dusty Bonefish Specials tucked in a drawer, dust 'em off for this trip. Angie and Alan swear by the Bonefish Bitters, an epoxy-headed, rubber-legged crab fly so popular in Belize and other Caribbean destinations. Angie ties hers with a ginger-colored rabbit fur wing, and dubs it the Bunny Bitters, which you can view on her Website, fish-eze.com. It also pays to have lead-eyed versions of most patterns you carry in the event that you fish slightly deeper water via skiff.
Spin fishers can score on Exuma bones, too, but the typical ¼-ounce skimmer-style jigs used for reds and bones in Florida waters can be too big in the shallowest Exuma waters. Stick with the lightest models you can find, preferably those weighing 1/8-ounce or even less, and sparsely dressed in light tan or white. With such lightweight jigs, you might spool up with 4-pound test line for extra casting distance. Angie Chestnut ties a Gotcha jig, modeled after the Gotcha bonefish fly, and it's a top producer. Again, check out her Website for more information about Exuma flies and jigs.
You can wade for hours (and miles) here, so you'll want to take a fanny pack to carry a water bottle (or two), and extra flies, leaders, tippets, and perhaps a small camera. I took along a sandwich one afternoon, and was glad I did.
Getting on the Water
Established hotels, such as Georgetown's Peace and Plenty, have in-house guides, and other hotels in the Exumas can arrange for them. However, a group of Exumian guides have joined to form the Exuma Bonefish Guide Association, presided by Allen J.J. Dames, who represents the Exumas for the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism and Bahamas Ministry of Fishing.
Floridians Alan Erickson and Angie Chestnut bonefish in the Exumas regularly, and have thoroughly scoped out the wide range of accommodations and eateries in and around Georgetown, and can offer the traveler insight and assistance in putting together a bonefishing trip. During my stay, we bunked at Master Harbour Villas, clean and comfortable cottages with kitchenettes just minutes out of Georgetown, operated by native Exumian Jerry Lewless. Lewless can clue you in on everything there is to know about the Exumas. Be sure to have hi
m introduce you to his renowned dock master, George, a domesticated 5-foot barracuda. To make reservations at Master Harbour, call (242) 345-5076 or visit www.exumabahamas.com/masterharbour.html
For more information about bonefish packages and other lodging, visit www.exumabonefish.com. Westbank Anglers also books bonefish trips to the Exumas. Visit www.westbankanglers.com for more information.
Also, you can mix things up by booking a reef/offshore charter out of Georgetown. Fish Rowe Charters, run by Florida natives Doug and Wendy Rowe, and featured in the October, 1999 issue of Florida Sportsman, specializes in bluewater angling for wahoo, blue marlin, dolphin and yellowfin tuna and other species in season aboard a 40-foot Hatteras fully outfitted with custom tackle and electronics. For information, visit www.fishrowecharters.com or call (242) 357-0870.
If You Go
At this writing, American Eagle, Air Sunshine and Lynx Air offer direct flights to Georgetown, Great Exuma from Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Flight schedules can change without much notice so call your travel agent well in advance. Other carriers can get you to the Exumas, but many flights are routed through Nassau, which can involve a full day or overnight layover.
U.S. citizens entering the Islands are required to carry a passport, or a certified (raised seal) birth certificate and driver's license, or other photo ID.
You will also be charged a $15 departure tax prior to departing.
Baggage restrictions are tighter than ever, so it's advisable to consult with your chosen airline concerning both checked baggage and carry-on limitations.
Florida Sportsman Classics, 2003