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Marls for Miles

Marls for Miles
Marls for Miles

From this Abaco bonefish club, it's a short hop to flats long on bonefish.

“They're going away, Mike,” Jeff offered.

“Ten o'clock, 50 feet, goin' right,” Pedro added.

“Still see 'em, Jeff?” I whispered.

“Uh, I did,” he responded.

Guide Pedro Thurston steadies the boat as Mike Stern's bonefish makes a brisk run over white, sandy shallows.

I moved my eyes toward the noon position, and bam! The whole bunch turned straight away. Fifty dark backs materialized where there was nothing. Nearly 30 years of bonefishing taught me that a cast over the backs of Florida bones rarely has a happy ending. But I had no choice, so I cast to the rear of the school. My leader settled over them but they didn't flinch. Yes! I was still in business. My Gotcha sank in their midst, I stripped once, and went tight. Nice, dumb bonefish. That spunky little bonie actually took a little backing before coming alongside.

After my second fish, Jeff hopped to the bow and caught a bigger fish, one of a pair, and within a minute of releasing it, hooked another from a school of over 20. The tide was rising as fast as the sun was setting, and our light was failing. Tailers weren't an option in the deep water, so we headed for the ranch. We rendezvoused with Mike and Jim on the run back, and they gushed about tailers everywhere, plenty of shots and eight or nine fish landed between them. In short, they kicked our butts. Not bad for two guys with only a few years of saltwater fly fishing between them.

Before returning to the launch, we stopped at a big “house mud,” catching a half-dozen spirited schoolies on heavy-leaded No. 4 Gotchas and pink skimmer jigs. Not classic sight fishing, but Pedro and I agreed that a short session with these mudding herds would provide a raw novice fly-casting practice, and, more importantly, a chance to practice clearing line to the reel after the hookup. A perfect primer before heading to a flat to sight fish conventionally.

The weather was on our side for the next two days, and we were in fish a good deal of the time, mixing wading with skiff fishing. Banyan guides either prefer wading to poling or vice versa, but will do whatever you prefer.

It seemed that the flats adjacent to basins with numerous muds held the most fish, and the biggest specimens I saw were over mixed grass-and-sand bottom on flats that had abrupt dropoffs. Jim O'Brien and I had a good go of it on our first morning of the trip. Guide Darrin Russell poled us along a large cove ringed with low mangroves. Small crabs scurried along the shore, and little mojarra and glass minnows flashed over the marly bottom, which was peppered with numerous bonefish “blow holes,” much like most Marls flats. A few faint muds appeared ahead of us. A pair of fish swam out of the first one and I put a bead-chain Gotcha on their nose and the lead fish ate before it sank. I strip-struck, but my fly pulled as I raised the rod. As we approached the next mud, Darrin suggested bailing out. Jim and I waded into position, but failed to spot a few pairs of fish in the silty water before they slipped between us. And these were not little “bananas” by any means. A few appeared to push eight pounds. As new muds formed ahead, Darrin poled up and we hopped aboard to catch up and gain some elevation to spot fish sooner. Jim took the bow first, and had successive shots at a few fish in the 6- or 7-pound class, but was off target, rushed one cast and didn't stick the hook on a fish that ate.

When conch is available, Pedro Thurston whips up a mean conch salad shore lunch.

“That old buck fever, I still get it,” he laughed nervously. “Take the next shot,” he said, offering me the bow.

Truth is, when you stop getting occasional buck fever, it's time to check your pulse.

Another pair of fish zigzagged our way, and I cast a little conservatively, giving more lead than necessary. With heads down, they stopped and sampled the bottom, so I picked up, shortened my line on the backcast and shot it a bit too close, I thought. Forgivingly, one spun, pounced and hooked itself as it bolted. It was my biggest fish of the trip—about a 6-pounder, although others in our group caught a few to seven or more. I landed the fish thanks to Jim, who went overboard to provide interference (to Darrin's amazement) when a shark closed in for the kill. If Darrin suspected stateside bonefishermen are a little fanatical, we confirmed it.

It's a short car ride to the launch where Banyan guides keep their boats.

To finish out the morning, we waded a bleached-white sand flat with a distinct dark edge of grass and marl where it dropped off to two feet. The biggest fish ran the deep side of the edge where Jim was wading. The fish looked darker there, and Jim spotted and hooked five or six in a row while I picked off a few smaller fish that crossed white bottom against the shore. Jim has caught a few wise, old Biscayne Bay bones on fly, but he packed more bonefish action into one hour than he could in a month back home. So much for his buck fever. I enjoyed the show.

In time, the fish quit coming as we reached an abrupt dropoff. We had the entire group's lunches aboard our skiff so we reluctantly loaded up to meet Jeff, Mike, and the other guests and guides for a shore lunch of sandwiches and a fantastic conch salad prepared right on the spot by Pedro Thurston.

The afternoon was hot and the fishing much slower (a lot of fish retire to the muds in deeper water) but we each picked up a fish or two before heading back to the resort to clean up and head out for dinner at a restaurant between the Club and nearby Treasure Cay. There's nothing like freshly prepared conch chowder, conch fritters, cracked conch (anything conch), peas-and-rice, homemade bread, Johnnycake and cold Kaliks to recharge your batteries.

We rotated guides the next day, which became windier, which I don't mind, but overcast by mid-morning, which I do. It made things especially frustrating on a couple of guide Bertram Brown's pet flats, where he had been putting guests on lots of bigger fish. Glare from white cloud banks ringing the horizon combined with the high overcast made it impossible for Mike Stern and

me to see fish before they detected the boat, leaving us with going-away desperation shots. Bertram had only slightly better visibility from the platform. That shoreline contained pairs and schools of three to five fish, easily the biggest bones I'd seen the entire trip. I would've killed for some sunlight, which we didn't get until afternoon when high tide peaked. But the fish had vanished. To kill time, we ate lunch and played around in some active muds just off the flats, hooking 10 or so 2- to 4-pound fish on Gotchas, and skimmer jigs on spin and light plug tackle. Barely a mile away, Jeff and Jim finished up strong, hooking and landing a half-dozen or so each. As we motored up, Jim was just landing an 8-pound fish out of a double hookup on fly with Jeff while wading.

That pretty much was the pattern during our stay. There is so much territory, you can't expect bonefish to be everywhere at once. You can fish a hot flat one moment and one devoid of fish the next. But that's not a problem because there are literally hundreds of islands and shallow flats to check. Banyon's guides run Flatsmaster tunnel boats and conventional skiffs with ample power to cover a lot of ground quickly. A couple of independent guides work the same Marls, but at most, you'll see another boat or two while fishing.

Fishing patterns are like Florida's in general. From March through early June, it's an all-day affair, while from July through September, the action is best early and late because fish retreat to deeper water through the heat of the day. October and November are top months, but be aware that cold fronts pass through from December through February, and can shut the fishing down temporarily. Between cold fronts, however, things can rebound quickly. Big fish are most common in the spring and fall, much like South Florida and the Keys.

Fly fishers can carry nothing but No. 4 and 6 Gotchas and catch all the fish they want. Crazy Charlies in light shades for fishing over sand and many smaller Florida-style crab and shrimp patterns work here too. Small fish fight for your fly, and the larger fish are just wary enough to demand a more precise presentation, which pleases the more experienced fly fisher. Six- to 8-weight rods rigged with floating lines are perfect, as is spin tackle in the 6-pound class for tossing light bonefish jigs in pink, tan and white. Some big barracuda show up in the cooler months and will take a tube lure with gusto, and occasional permit are spotted on the deeper outskirts of the Marls.


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