May 16, 2011
This place offers way more options than most islands.
Anglers head out of Cargill Creek at the Andros Island Bonefish Club.
Pete's fly rod was bowed up witha yellowfin tuna, as our 24-foot flat-bottom skiff drifted in 4,000 feet of purple water. We drifted quietly, not far from one of the moored Navy buoys in the Tongue of the Ocean, very deep water but only a few minutes from dry land. As the tuna sprinted around like an oversize bonito on amphetamines, our guide Ricardo glanced at the buoy 100 yards away, where prowled on the surface a half dozen fat sharks in the 7-foot range. Lazy brutes, they hung around the buoy like gargantuan cobia, and seldom ventured far. Fish too close to the buoy, and they grab your fish for lunch. Topple in the water there and it really gets exciting. As much as I wanted to shoot underwater photos under the buoy, I was advised against it. Three local fishermen are missing limbs after a bad day with sharks, and I doubt they even made the Discovery Channel.
Hordes of skipjack tuna continued to blast and free-jump around us, but this yellowfin took its sweet time getting landed on a 10-weight rod. Though tuna aren't big in winter, my new friends assured me the average tuna is 80 or 90 pounds and bigger each summer. (A July e-mail from the lads said they were using live jacks and hooking awesome yellowfins from the same skiff.) That's why I made a mental note to book another trip.
And not just for tuna: The guides at nearby Fresh Creek assured me mutton snapper are plentiful on the flats during May, something I've always wanted to see. Casting to a school of cherry red tails on a protected, inshore flat has a certain appeal. Bonefish guides and fly rodders have been known to grow weak at the knees at the sight of even a single mutton tailing in thin water, almost a rarity in Florida these days. Though I was to cancel two trips to Andros in May and June because of inclement weather, the guys were tearing up the big muttons inside the creeks at night, though they said the mosquitoes were amazing. (Andros is just like Florida many years ago, and that includes not spraying for mosquitoes. The bugs are gone in winter, however.)
You always know where you stand here.
As for deeper water, our quiet drifts and occasional slow trolls with small, diving plugs on spin gear produced a handful of tuna that day, if we kept a respectful 100 yards or more from the buoy's sharks. We had hoped for more fish, including mahi, where many had been caught the week before—even though a persistent, large blue marlin kept feeding on the mahi and spoiling the action. On the weekday we fished there, two other Bahamas boats appeared with Florida captains, and immediately began live-chumming with large pilchards, like they were fishing for snook in the mangroves. My Bahamian friends were disappointed with that.
“It shuts down the action every time these guys show up and do that,” said Ricardo. “A mahi eats a few free pilchards, and that's it, he's done for the day. I've seen boats slinging out buckets of live chum at these buoys. Why do they do that? These fish are hungry, or they wouldn't be here. The fish aren't stupid; they see pilchards out here that don't belong in deep water, and motors rumbling overhead, and many of them figure out something's not right. But if you drift quietly, tossing artificials, watch what happens. And it doesn't spoil the action for other boats.”
It should be noted that smaller boats that don't carry live chum have a tough time competing against those that do. On the other hand, we caught the only fish landed this day. When the two chum boats roared away empty-handed, (one was a 75-footer returning to Nassau), another boat, a 25-footer, appeared. They made several drifts too near the buoy, but refused our advice to shut off their motor. They appeared to be concerned about deep water and getting their motor started again. They finally caught one oceanic triggerfish and left. So, our flat-bottom boat certainly outfished three much bigger offshore vessels.
Larry Kinder nabbed this runaway bone on fly during the trip.
Back inshore over the huge barrier reef, laden with healthy coral and incredible dropoffs, we shook out a couple of lipped diving plugs—trolling up and down about a mile. Tiger grouper were the dominant predator, as well as barracuda. Our tally was eight grouper and four 'cudas. Few people, especially the locals, ever troll this reef, preferring instead to anchor and use handlines.
Depthfinders are relatively unknown here; the locals judge the depths by studying the water's shades of color, the bottom visible far below.
We also tried pulling bigger plugs that dive to 30 and 40 feet, the kind used so much on Florida's Big Bend for gag grouper, but without luck. I left Ricardo a few of these plugs to try later, and he reported finding one spot where he couldn't stop the grouper, even with heavy tackle. The neon-color plugs worked best, and he did power a 63-pound black grouper away from the coral and into the boat, before running out of plugs. Chances are good I'll have a shoebox full of these plugs under my arm, next time the plane lands.
Andros in general reminded me of The Bahamas 40 years ago—very quiet, with little possibility of spring breakers or cruise ships looming on the horizon. All harbors appear to be far too shallow for bigger vessels. That's a saving grace for Andros, an island that surely would have become the capital of the Bahamas 200 years ago, if it only had a deep and protected harbor for British warships. If it had, Andros' vast tracts of dry land would likely have a large population now, instead of rush-hour crowded Nassau. Much of Andros reminds you of driving to Flamingo in the Everglades, with not a single structure on that savannah-like horizon. Only tiny communities of a couple dozen homes or so, along that well-paved road. This place seems locked away in time to, say, 1965.
Another Andros tuna taken on fly.
The only troubling factor is that Andros is only 35 miles from Nassau, which has a lot of hungry mouths to feed. One wonders how hard it would be to keep a string of fish traps along the Andros reef, for marketing in Nassau. It's too bad the islands aren't 200 miles apart, but then we wouldn't have had such a short flight (52 minutes from Fort Lauderdale). While Bimini attracts a lot of boating attention from Miami, Andros is a nice 140 miles from the mainland, which is self-limiting and again, good for fish of a great many species.
The old-timers who pioneered bonefishing had it right, when they began visiting Andros so many years ago. The island has always had a reputation for hosting the biggest bonefish in The Bahamas. With 1,400 square miles of shallow flats, many of them protected inland (as compared to ocean flats), it certainly should. On our first day we spent many hours casting at bones in a February north wind, and still caught a few. We were mere rookies compared to some who have fished here. A favorite picture I saw while visiting the Andros Island Bonefish Club, opened 17 years ago, showed a group of well-recognized anglers on the front porch, including David Goodwin, Billy Pate, George Hommell, Lefty Kreh, Mark Sosin, Al McClane, club founder Rupert Leadon, Duncan Barnes and Warren Brewster. There were a lot of years fishing time, among that bunch.
Back on the beach, we waded ashore. Pete filleted the tuna and we carried it down the country road that very night, to Miss Sheila's restaurant and bar at her little motel, Love At First Sight. It's on Stafford Creek by the metal bridge, where tarpon wallow like hogs on many nights, and some sizeable mutton snapper and horseye jacks are frequently caught. Pete, who likes his fish rare, seared the small tuna chunks for less than a minute, and then we dredged them around in his mix of wasabe and soy sauce—very good while sitting at the bar with an icy Kalik, the local brew. The regular crowd shuffled in and sat around us, but they quickly became mesmerized by American television. That's when I eased outside with the spinning rod and began casting from the spacious patio deck. While catching small mutton and mangrove snappers, I watched across that fast-flowing tidal creek a single Bahamian man, sitting in moonlit Australian pines, handlining jacks that would weigh around eight pounds. For some reason, the tarpon were absent that night, and we found out why the next day.
Back at the beach, visitors are trying to decide which boat
to use that day.
A class of visiting students from Ohio paddled kayaks up the creek, which runs for many miles, with a good incoming tide sweeping them along. Two miles up is Tarpon Blue Hole, and the school of feeding tarpon there spooked some of those kids, who first thought they were surrounded by sharks in the 5- to 6-foot range. No one had a fishing rod, and the rolling, splashing fish appeared to be feeding on small crabs or shrimp. The group turned around with the outgoing tide and had an easy ride back. This happened on my last day at Andros, with the report reaching me by lunchtime; a little too late to jump in a kayak and paddle against the tide, with a plane departure at 3 p.m.
Anyway, it would have been too much catching bonefish on the flats, deepwater tuna, trolling for reef grouper and barracuda, and then fighting river tarpon on only a three-day trip. A guy can only take so much, right?
This island is the blue hole capital of the world, or so they say, with geography much like Florida. Sinkholes abound and many carry saltwater fish. Some are actually just offshore in shallow water, inside the reef. Others are landlocked, but connected underground to the Atlantic and subject to tidal flow.
The population of huge Andros, biggest island in the Bahamas, has been slowly dropping, which is a rarity these days. Folks get restless and move off to the cities, leaving their country gardens and the quiet life. What's good for the fish is good for fishermen, however. A few north Andros motels are available. We stayed at Love at First Sight at (242) 368-6068 and Small Hope Bay Lodge at (242) 368-2014. Four weekly, non-stop flights originate from Fort Lauderdale, thanks to Continental Connections (Gulfstream). According to their official, they fly to and from Andros on Friday, Sunday, Monday and Wednesday. The flight scheduling is available on the Continental Airlines website. Or (800) 523-FARE.
Camping in The Bahamas is a foreign notion, so to speak, for Bahamians. They've always depended on motel, gambling, fishing or diving tourists for revenue. But after touring huge Andros Island, which is 130 miles long and almost empty—with only a tiny town or hamlet every so often, one wonders about the feasibility of a camping or national park, complete with kayaks, campground and grocery store. After all, not everyone can afford beachside motels. Would it be possible to create such a campground?
Only Andros has many miles of unfished flats, deep salt and freshwater creeks running far inland (protected from the wind), many blue holes, the biggest barrier coral reef in the entire country, and the deepest bluewater dropoffs. Imagine a well-placed park with rental kayaks, that can access all of that within only a mile or two. And only a 52-minute plane flight from Florida, without going through Customs in Nassau. They can sign me up any time.
Florida Sportsman has been making tentative inquiries about this, with the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism. It certainly seems worth a try, and we're hoping someone in Nassau is interested on a trial basis. Limit the fish-taking to only what you eat while there and protect the bonefish. FS