May 16, 2011
Check out Grand Bahama for a spring getaway.
"We couldn't have done any better,” I told my son Kyle, raising my voice above the pitch of the diesel engine on his 28-foot boat. However, I should not have said it because within a few miles I would have to eat those words. We were returning from an early summer Bahamas fishing trip, heading for Hillsboro Inlet and home.
Skipjack tunas are very abundant in summer on this side of the Gulf Stream.
It had been a super couple of days. We'd visited a lodge on the west end of Grand Bahama Island, an area reminiscent of old Florida, where fish are plentiful, anglers scarce, people friendly and prices reasonable. We'd battled cobia, grouper, snappers—including gray, yellowtail, mutton and silk. Also, we caught cero mackerel, barracudas, sharks, triggerfish and so many other species that I lost count.
Suddenly Kyle cut back on the throttle and began backtracking to a floating board that he had just spotted atop a wave nearby. He eased us up to what looked like a small, wooden pallet. What I saw below looked almost surreal as at least 75 to 100 bright green-and-golden bodies circled. Lit up and ready for action, they swam about beneath the structure, contrasting vividly against the rich blue waters of the Gulf Stream.
Our action was far from over. Here beneath our boat was a new battle, a new challenge! We wasted little time grabbing light tackle and casting jigs and cutbait to those willing takers. Our baits had barely settled into the water when pandemonium broke loose. We hooked one dolphin after another and brought them aboard. It got so hectic with fish jumping about on the boat that Kyle opened the hatch to the fishbox on the bow and nudged some fish into the box with his foot. During the excitement, he warned me:
“Don't step back, Dad, the fishbox is open!” However, I got so carried away during the frenzy that I took a step backward after a wave struck our bow. Off balance, I fell into the fish box and suddenly found myself flopping around amidst a half-dozen flipping mahi-mahi.
Bloody (mostly fish, fortunately) and slimy, but unbowed, I climbed out of the well, continued fighting my fish, got it aboard and was soon casting to other hungry dolphin that darted in to compete for my bait. It was a great and unexpected climax to the trip and I vowed to return.
One year later, I headed back. This time, we were even better prepared. We brought along a friend, Kinzy Jones, a skilled offshore angler, like Kyle, who could help catch fish and gaff. We brought an electric reel for some deep-drop action, and also planned to do some trolling, anchoring, chumming and freelining live bait for yellowtail snapper and other species. Also, drift fishing was on our agenda.
Unlike the last year's smooth crossing, the seas kicked up unexpectedly to five or six feet and pounded us all the way down to the Bahama Bank, where we found our first calm water. Furthermore, we hit two unavoidable storms on the way down and got drenched. I felt secure knowing that Kyle had an inflatable life raft aboard, along with an EPIRB and other safety gear. The fact that my son is a commercial airline pilot—a good navigator who reads instruments well—adds to that sense of security.
After arriving at Old Bahama Bay—itself a great destination for visiting anglers—we checked in with immigration and then motored down the island a few miles away to Bootle Bay Fishing Lodge, where we were greeted by the owner, amiable Vida Hepburn, and his friendly staff. Vida grew up fishing at this same site with his Uncle “Baby Doc” Grant, who taught him how to fish in his old Chris Craft boat. Vida still talks of his uncle's exploits—of Bahamas record tuna weighing up to 845 pounds back in the '70s. They both loved fishing and Vida, in turn, took his uncle fishing one last time, just before “Baby Doc” died a few years ago.
Marinas in the lee of Grand Bahama--such as Old Bahama Bay, shown here--recovered quickly from huricane season.
Vida runs the lodge and the fishing while his wife, Lashanda, a gourmet chef, manages the kitchen staff. They turn out some of the best seafood and chicken souse you'll find anywhere. Their steamed fish, lightly fried and served in a sauce, tastes nothing like its name and will melt in your mouth.
We quickly checked in, and then picked Vida's brain about the fishing before unloading some of our gear. Hotspots change from day to day, especially for trolling. Eager to drop our lines, we ventured just offshore and began deep-dropping with an electric reel outfit and a 6-hook rig, weighted with a 6-pound sash weight. We used squid, cutbait and whole baits.
The year before, we'd launched our first half-day of fishing in the same area, using conventional tackle and anchoring up in 90 to 100 feet of water. Then, we put out some chum and soon had yellowtail, mutton snapper, cero mackerel and other action right away.
This trip, though, we motored out deeper to 900 to 1,200 feet where we dropped our first rigs. We weren't getting much action, so we moved in to 500- to 700-foot depths and soon began reeling in yellow-eye snapper, grouper and silk snapper. Also, we caught a couple of sharks and barracuda, which cut some of our fish off before we could get them aboard.
When deep-dropping, anglers must become conservationists and decide when enough's enough. Most of the fish you catch—besides sharks and barracudas—must be kept because they don't survive the ascent from such depths. This was unlike the fishing we did on the first trip in shallower water where we could be selective and return fish we did not want to keep.
Shallower still, we anchored and broke out conventional tackle to catch yellowtail snapper, mutton snapper, gray snapper and groupers. We enjoyed the variety.
Bottom and drift fishing proved very good, but trolling would be the highlight of the trip for Kyle and Kinzy. On the second day, they ventured offshore while I stayed on the island for some shallow water angling on fly and spinning gear. I caught lots of snapper, blue runners, mackerel and hooked some bones, but lost several that broke me off in the mangroves. My pals had better luck on dolphin than I had on bones.
In fact, Kinzy and Kyle had awesome luck. They should have known it was going to be their day when they found a very large cooler bobbing along the surface early into their trip.
“We pulled the cooler aboard,” said Kyle, “and when we opened it, we found it filled with cans of drinks. That was right before we found the long stretch of weedlines and the dolphin action.”
I asked Kinzy about his favorite part of the trip.
“Filling our newfound cooler with dolphin,” he said with a grin.
Kyle and Kinzy trolled between Bootle Bay and Great Isaac to the southeast. Plastics and tuna feather rigs enticed fish when they located sargasso weeds loaded with dolphin. The fishing was awesome during each run by the weeds. They both caught big dolphin, in the 20-pound class, picking up fish on almost every pass along a 2- to 3-mile stretch.
After all the dolphin action the two headed toward Great Isaac to catch grouper, yelloweye snapper and hefty margates. When they returned, we spent the next hour or so cleaning fish and washing down the boat and rinsing the reels. We took some fillets to the kitchen and when we finished our work, we retired to the dining room for a scrumptious fresh catch of the day. FS
Grand Bahama and Bootle Bay
Grand Bahama Island has been steadily gaining favor as a cruising and sportfishing destination for Florida anglers. Fourth largest and second most populous of the Bahamas archipelago, up until a few years ago the island was better known for shipping and industry, with some resort facilities for gambling, golfing and honeymooning. More recently, investments in marinas on West End and the Freeport/Lucaya area have attracted serious attention from weekend sportfishers and tournament anglers.
We found lodging at Bootle Bay Fishing Lodge to be a real bargain, especially since the fee for entering and fishing The Bahamas had risen to $150 for boats up to 35 feet and $300 for boats larger than 35 feet. It's expected to be the same in 2005 (check www.bahamas.com for updates, or call 1-800-32-SPORT). Bootle Bay rates for a suite with kitchenette and jacuzzi were $123 per night. Dockage was $20 with a room and $50 without a room. Some shore power is available. They have a restaurant and bar on the premises. Vida advises to call two to three weeks in adance for a room reservation, especially during May, June and July. Bootle Bay Lodge is 65 nautical miles from Hillsboro Inlet. The lodge can arrange guided bonefish trips.
Bluewater fishing is good year-round. May, June and July are probably the best months for most species, including marlin, wahoo, yellowfin tuna and mackerel. Bottom fishing seems to be productive almost every month. Fishing pressure is light in winter—but then again so is boat travel, due to the constant prospect of rough Gulf Stream crossings on northerly weather. A recent phone conversation indicates Bootle Bay—as well as other marinas and resorts in the area—has recovered from hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, and is eagerly awaiting business from traveling sportsmen. For more information, call (242) 349-4010. Contacts for other destinations on Grand Bahama Island—as well as fishing regulations and protocol for customs and immigration— can be found through the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism: www.bahamas.com, or 1-800-32-SPORT.