The following trip report was written by Will Rice for the January/February 2007 issue of Fly Rod and Reel Magazine. What follows is the original unedited text and includes additional information not included in the magazine's published article.
I searched the ground below as our plane made its approach to the airport. I have scouted a number of kayak and raft trips from the air in the past, but they didn't look anything like this one. Below us was a Bahamian maze of white sand flats, tidal creeks, and mangrove covered islands. I knew that we were flying over some of the best bonefish habitat in the world. I was more concerned about finding campsites.
My friend, Chuck Ash, and I had flown our collapsible kayaks down from Alaska. Chuck is a guide in western Alaska during the summer, and although we had worked together on a couple of books, this was the first time we had an opportunity to fish together. Meeting us at the Congotown airport were our companions, Scott Heywood and Eric Berger. Scott is the co-owner of Angling Destinations in Wyoming and had been instrumental in putting this trip together. Eric is a crazed fly fisherman/photographer from Indianapolis. The four of us were planning to spend a week kayaking and fishing the interior flats of South Andros, one of the finest bonefish areas in the world.
When I had called Scott a couple of months earlier to discuss a potential trip, he suggested this one. "Chuck and I have been talking about doing it for years. We are getting too old to keep putting it off. It's a great placeólots of big fish and easy wading. We should be able to get back into some spots that the guides don't fish."
After looking at the aerial photos of the island, I was glad I was going with two guys as experienced as Chuck and Scott. This was not a trip for novices. Logistics were a nightmare. There is no fresh water available on those flats, and the photos made it clear that getting lost was a distinct possibility. Mistakes would be costly.
The South Andros airport is a cinderblock box, complete with officious customs agents in starched uniforms. The baggage handlers are more typically Bahamianódreadlocked and smiling. Our kayaks were a source of much head scratching and finally a warning about trying to sell them in country. Half an hour later we were unloading gear at Mars Bay Lodge. Bill Howard, the owner, was a friend of Scott's, and had let us use his facilities as a personal favor.
Mars Bay is one of those well-run, unpretentious destinations for serious bonefishers. Good guides, good boats, good food, and great fishing. What else do you need? The stories around the dinner table that night were encouraging, with lots of nice fish being caught. I was distracted by the conch salad and grilled grouperówe would be eating freeze-dried and power bars for the next week.
Boats assembled and loaded, we headed out the next morning. The boats sat low in the water, the minor chop sliding up over the bow. There is no water in the back country, and with the afternoon weather approaching ninety degrees, we would need a minimum of a gallon per day per person. Everything that didn't fit in the nooks and crevices of our kayaks had to be lashed to the decks. Our self-image may have been intrepid explorers, but we probably looked more like the Joads fleeing dust bowl Oklahoma.
We got off to a good start when we stopped for lunch, and Scott, his mouth stuffed with a sandwich, caught a big barracuda on a popper. A hundred yards farther on, we came to Grassy Creek, a deep narrow channel leading back into the flats. Its emerald green water was a testament to the current that flowed through it on the changing tides.
Our first campsite was a patch of white sand along the edges of the mangroves and man-o'-war bushes. Tents were squeezed into a few open spaces and we managed to get in a bit of fishing before dinner. Sunset turned the water in front of camp into a burnished gold mirror, broken only by a few tailing bonefish and the twin fins of a cruising shark. Tequila and lemonade took the edge off the freeze-dried. This may be where the expression "happy campers" came from. Still, I was curious about how we would find the fish.
The interior of South Andros is a vast maze of calf-deep flatsómile after mile of ideal bonefish habitat. The problem was that there was so much country that the fish, although plentiful, were unlikely to be concentrated. It seemed a bit overwhelming. Many years ago, I used a mid-life crisis as an excuse to spend a couple of winters cruising the Bahamas in a beat-up old sailboat. I poked around in a lot of great bonefish water, but my success in finding fish was completely haphazard.
Finding bonefish without the benefit of a guide is a difficult proposition. Unlike freshwater fish, their preferred habitat changes hourly, as the tides and currents and water temperatures change. Most guides in places like the Bahamas have an anecdotal knowledge of the fishery, learned from observation, not analysis. We had to approach it from a different perspective--figuring out where the fish were most likely to be, given the terrain and tides. Fortunately, both Chuck and Scott have spent a lot of years doing just that. As the writer in residence, I planned to take full advantage of the opportunity to pick their brains.
I got the first lesson in camp that night, and it gave me some insight into the depth of Scott's knowledge of bonefish. Scott grew up fishing and exploring the Bahamas, and is easily the best bonefisherman that I have ever seen. As Eric put it, "He could see a bonefish in a dark closet".
I had always assumed that bonefish came on the flats to feed, but felt safer in deep water. Scott quickly put me straight. "Their biggest asset is all that slime that gets on your legs when you land one. It eliminates the turbulence that occurs when the fish is in very shallow water. Have you noticed how much harder it is to paddle the kayak when there is only an inch of water under the hull? Same thing with fish. The slime eliminates the ground effect, so a bonefish has a real advantage over a predator in very shallow water.
"They are not up on the flats just to feed. The same crabs and shrimp are available in three feet of water. They are up there because they are adapted to a two dimensional world, and sharks and 'cuda require three dimensions to be at their best. Bones feel much safer when the water is barely covering their backs. That is why they hang on the flats until the last possible second. If the water is knee deep, you probably won't find many fish, at least on a rising tide.
"And if they can find some structure to protect one side of them, even better. At the peak of the big tides, they will move right up into the mangroves. That is why we came a few days after the full moonóthose extreme tides let the fish get way back in the bushes, where they are safe from us and the sharks.
"As the tide falls they will hold next to structure that can protect one side of them from being ambushed. The configuration of the land will also concentrate fish. We'll look for them along the edges of the channels, and on the points. When the tides change they will move through the cuts coming off the flats."
We put Scott's observations to the test the next morning. A pure white sand bar ran out form the edge of the island, narrowing the neck of the next large flat. The kayak towed easily behind me, held in place by the winds and current, noticeable only when I dropped my backcast too low. Far to the right, I could see Chuck, similarly encumbered. Eric and Scott were working up one side of the flat. A school of half a dozen nice bones moved toward me, right where Scott would have predicted, and I dropped the Pink Puff in front of them. A few short strips and I was tight to my first big fish of the trip.
Chuck headed off into a side channel and disappeared. I worked my way across the flat, scanning for those telltale moving shadows. I spooked a good fish and then behind it came the biggest bonefish I have ever seenówell over thirty inches. I dropped a Gotcha a few feet from his nose and he followed it, but didn't take. A second cast got another inspection and refusal. By this time the fish was so close that I was sure that it would spook. Instead it simply changed direction and continued to cruise slowly while I made a dozen fruitless casts. A couple of those shots lined the fish, but it seemed oblivious. If I had not had the closeup view of it, I would not have believed it was a bonefish.
During lunch, I mentioned its behavior to Scott, who said his theory was that bonefish start out young and stupid, eating everything. As they get larger, they become incredibly spooky. But when they get old and really big, they have no fearóthey just won't eat a fly.
Chuck had wandered up a back channel that opened out into a large flat which probably saw very little pressure from the guides. He said there were a lot of fish coming out the channel and suggested we hike back in there for the afternoon.
I picked up some fish on the way in, and dawdled behind the rest of the guys. They were already heading back by the time that I got to the inner flat. There was plenty of sign that it was heavily used, but the fish Chuck had seen earlier had completely disappeared.
"Too warm." Scott said. "These shallow flats are heating up too much in the afternoon sun. That is why you hit those fish as we were coming in. They were moving off the flat.
"I was concerned as soon as I stepped into the water back there. Your lower legs are pretty good sensors of both depth and temperature. If it feels like a bathtub, you are probably not going to find fish. This time of year [early May] water temperature is the first consideration. This flat would be great in the middle of day if this was March and the fish were looking for warmer water instead of cooler. "
It was obvious that if we were to find fish on our own, we needed to pay attention to the conditions. Most flats fishermen become guide-bound, as Scott put it. They cast where they are told to cast, without ever putting the pieces together. If we were to be successful, we needed to think like the fish.
The next day we moved camp farther back into the maze, plotting a course on the aerial photos and entering the waypoints into the GPS. The two-way radios that we carried malfunctioned, but nobody seemed to care. Too much reliance on electronics takes the edge off things.
Chuck and Eric fished one side of the channel, while Scott and I moved up the other. We stopped alongside a tiny bay that we had looked at the evening before. There were fish cruising the outer shoreline and I decided to work them while Scott explored the inner bay. He suggested that if I was walking the beach, I should stay on dry sand. "Wet sand will carry the vibrations of your footsteps to the fish."
Scott's report of the bay was interesting. "I saw about thirty fish that would have gone about five pounds or better and ten that would have been pushing eight. There wasn't a fish in there when Chuck and I stopped here yesterday. It's a good example of why generalities are a trap when you are looking for bonefish. Conditions change constantly."
A few hours later, we found a campsite near a channel leading to a huge back flat, and I could see schools of bones moving through the channel. There were a number of sharks and 'cuda lying in wait for them, though, and hooking a fish meant turning it into food. I decided to put up my tent. I wandered back after camp was set up and discovered that the water coming off the flat had that bathtub temperature to it, and the fish had disappeared. We knew where they would be in the morning, though.
The next morning Chuck and I set off to explore the big flat behind camp. Chuck is a long time deer hunter, and it showed in his approach to finding bones. His eyes scanned the water looking for sign, and he was as helpful as Scott in pointing out what to look for.
"Sight conditions are more important than the number of fish on a flat." He said. "If possible, you always want to fish with the wind and sun at your back. Keep your eyes moving. Sweep closeówithin easy casting distanceóand then look farther out. You need to look into the water, not just at the surface. Don't look for fishólook for anomalous shadows, for flashes, any kind of motion or nervous water. The fish will change color depending on the bottom. When you are on white sand like this and looking down light, you need to look for more subtle signs. Their silver sides are just like a mirror.
"If you see a blue cast to the water in an area of white sand, it often means that the bottom is covered with scarfle holes, where the bones have been rooting in the marl for food. Milky water is a good indication that fish have been feeding recently. You can pick out the bonefish holes because they are shaped like a deer's hoofprint and they have no hole in the center. The more loose sand surrounding the hole, the fresher it is and the larger the fish that made it. You can actually track the fish from the direction of the sand plume. They squirt the sand out their gills, so it is down hoof from the direction that they are traveling."
We moved around a small island in the center of the flat. Chuck cautioned me to wade slower when I was wading into the wind, because my legs would make more of a splash going into the chop than wading with it.
"The downtide side of the island is not as good as the corners, where the current brings food. The same thing with the center of a flatóit is usually a dead zoneóyou want to be along the edges, where there is some water movement. Bones aren't like trout. They don't need shelter from the current, but their prey is primarily filter feeders, and they need the current, so that is where the fish are going to be."
Chuck's techniques seemed to work. He hooked a good fish that immediately turned and swam between us, not yet sure what was happening. The pod followed, and I managed to fool the last fish in line. We were feeling pretty smug about the double until the two fish began to weave around each other, leaving us to untangle ourselves as they both swam off scot-free.
When we returned to camp, we had garbage strewn everywhere. Our first thought was to blame the four or five large iguanas that were sharing our beach and wandering through camp, oblivious of their place on the Bahamian food chain. The tracks told the true story though. The vultures had found usóa somewhat disconcerting sign.
Over the next few days, the fishing continued the same pattern, very good in the morning, but going dead in the afternoon, once the flats got too warm, and then picking up again in the evening. On the high tides, the fish would be well back in the flats, working the edges of the mangroves. We could ambush fish leaving the flats, but we weren't the only ones that knew they were coming. The sharks were omnipresent in the cuts, and at one point we flushed a 'cuda that Eric referred to as "a telephone pole".
Our last full day meant a return to our original camp, where we had stashed some of the water, fishing the promising spots along the way. A long flat caught my interest, and when I saw one of those big 'cudas, I started to switch to a popper. That is when the first of four big schools of bonefish came into sight. I took the first fish holding the popper in my mouth, like some piscatorial caricature of man bites dog. The fishing was so hot that didn't notice a large lemon shark that twice came within a foot or so of my ankle before turning away. When he made a third, and then a fourth, pass I decided it was time to move down the beach a ways. The fishing continued to be good, but I was looking over my shoulder the whole time.
South Andros is made for bonefishing. There are lots big fish, and, although I only saw the one real monster, most of the fish were in the four to six pound range. Small pods of a half dozen fish were the most common, but we saw schools that ranged up to thirty or forty fish. Most of the flats that we found were ideal for wading. They had a soft enough bottom that the fish would feed slowly, but firm enough that it was easy walking. There is a lot of food on these flats, and bonefish sign was everywhere.
Having said that, we obviously would have caught more fish if we had gone with the guides from Mars Bay, who grew up on these flats. But there is a special satisfaction with catching fish completely on your own. And those tropical beach campsites could get addictive. I'm ready to go back.
Written by Will Rice
January/February 2007 issue Fly Rod and Reel Magazine