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Alone in a Crowd: Grand Bahama Island 01-23-2008



When I see a new area from the window of an airplane, I always think that I can forecast how good the fishing will be. Take the Seychelles for example. As you spin in on your final approach, you glance down and see absolutely nothing but perfect cobalt blue ocean, pristine coral reefs, vast bonefish flats and just one ship... your ship... bobbing at anchor. It's the only ship and you know your gonna have great fishing. How could you not, you're all alone in paradise. It's straight out of a Disney movie. You have that perfect habitat with no people, no houses and no other anglers. You are stepping into a wilderness that stands as its maker intended it to be. You are a visitor in a pristine untouched nirvana. And it doesn't disappoint. Superlatives reign, lifetime memories are made and crazy fishing things happen that you did not think were possible.


Of course, the reverse usually seems to be true as well. Last week, flying into Freeport on Grand Bahama Island, my piscatorial expectations were low. Expectations reduced by all the homes you see, partially built mini-marts, busy looking road ways and cruise ships...that's right, cruise ships. These giant ships disgorge their living cargo on the local docks, unleashing a maelstrom of commercial activities, a foreign invasion of sorts. For me, it's bad sign. A bad sign in the same way like when you see the wind turn to the north and you notice high wispy cirrus clouds slowly moving in. You know a cold front is coming and that all the bonefish will soon be fleeing the flats for deeper water and out of fly rod reach. In the case of the cruise ships, you quickly learn that their presence means loss off habitat, more people and a greater disconnection with the natural world that traditionally surrounds the Bahamian culture and its islands. The indigenous people can't help but be seduced by the potential earnings and you really can't blame them. They can make more money catering to the tourists than they can make plying the Gulf Stream currents for fish.

But for me, when I see these things, I rarely pay attention anymore. I shut down my fishing radar and kind of move into an endurance modality. In my heart, I don't think that any natural ecosystem can coexist with such a noxious force present. Usually, I just tolerate it for a night, as I'm on my way to somewhere remote and unspoiled. The truth is, like lots of other anglers, I have overlooked Grand Bahama primarily because of the hustle and bustle of Freeport. But at times like these, I remember traveling with my family when I was younger. My mom always forced me to try new foods, took me to new places and taught me to be patient when dealing with difficult people or situations. It's a lesson that has served me really well over the years and has taught me to keep an open mind, allowing experiences and people to show themselves before rendering those snap judgments that we all seem to make. Bonefishing near Freeport in January... Initial reaction... YIKES! But take a deep breath... maybe there is more to this story.

Campeche fishing pioneer and world-class angler, Cody Muchow was traveling with me and our mission was to see an old Bahamian friend, Iram Lewis and to check out his reports concerning the vast central habitat on the north side of Grand Bahama. If all went right, maybe we would consider resurrecting this lodge and installing Cody somewhere in its management. For those old timers who have been following our crazy trails over the past 5 or 6 years, you will remember that Iram was the driving force behind a failed attempt to put together a bonefish lodge in this remote section of Grand Bahama Island. He seemed to be poised for success when a horrible hurricane season hit Freeport in the fall of 2004 just after his first year of operation. That fall, three consecutive hurricanes swept over his fledgling lodge, battering both the lodge and Iram's dream. However, after 3 long years of work fueled with elbow grease and investment capital, the Lewis family has repaired the lodge, dug an entirely new well system and installed an exceptional reverse osmosis water filtration system that takes the cay's naturally fresh water and cleans it to bottled water standards. It seems Water Cay may not fall off the bonefishing map after all!

The strangest part of being on Water Cay is how remote the lodge is even with the bright lights of downtown Freeport glowing some 20 miles up the road. If you did not know better, you'd think you were camped out on the Fish Cays, lost in the middle of nowhere deep in the Bight of Acklins. And surprisingly, even though Grand Bahama sports no fewer than four excellent bonefish lodges, the size and scope of the central habitat is rarely visited by any of the other lodges. Why is this? The answer is a question in itself; why would these other guides pass up quality fishing close to their lodges to find the good fishing surrounding Water Cay. The answer is; they don't need to come that far to find great fishing so you never see other boats.

Having kept an open mind, Cody and I paired up with master Bahamian guide Sidney Thomas. Sidney has a serious bonefish pedigree. At 41 years of age, he has worked for all the other lodges on Grand Bahama as either the head guide or an every day, on the water bonefish guide. Devoted and hard working, Sidney is the "real deal" bonefish guide. He should be mentioned in the same breath as Ricardo Burrows, David Pinder, Elvis Collie and Shakey McKinney. For those of you who have fished with some of these guys, nothing more need be said. For those of you who have not had the privilege of sharing a day with these fellas, just trust me that they are the best of the best. Fishing is in Sidney's blood and having fished with some of the biggest names in the sport on a regular basis, he has honed his craft to a samurai's fine edge.

Armed with a remarkable sense of direction, a GPS unit for an additional brain and eyes like an osprey, he took us fishing in the labyrinth of cays near the lodge. In many ways, it reminded me of the Marls over on Abaco, only more complicated. Deep cuts, perfect flats and rocky bottom bays seemed to hold an endless supply of bonefish. Having spent 4 hours poling an area and having cast at many, many schools of fish, we'd pop out around a corner in sight of the lodge! It was almost like a magic trick. We were deceived by the vastness of the bays, creeks and open edged flats, yet, in the end, we had only moved one mile or less. Over the next two days, this process was repeated over and over again. Suffice it to say we never fished the same area twice and we never ran farther from the lodge than a few miles. When we asked Sid to take us farther a field, he ran to some offshore cays whose vast flats were alive with sharks, 'cudas, tons of big bonefish and some permit. The irrefutable fact that this quality and size of habitat is available near Freeport has sent me sputtering back to my office in Sheridan. Here I am not only intent on spreading the good word about Water Cay, but I am also rethinking some of my jaded paradigms about fisheries, people and what I may have casually dismissed over the past few years.

Admittedly, we were fishing one of the worst months of the year, January. A moderate cold front had rolled in dropping temps into the high 60's in the morning and into the 70's by mid-day. Despite this, we saw excellent numbers of fish and due to the cooler water temps, all the fish we played with were large by Bahamian standards. After all, it is the conventional wisdom that larger fish can tolerate the cooler water temps and as such they tend to be the last fish to leave the flat and the first fish to return to the flats after a severe front. Certainly our trip reinforced this theory. All the fish we saw were big! In fact, I do not think we caught a fish that weighed less than 4 pounds and we were taping and weighing fish religiously. The truth is, we caught it right and it was spectacular... better to be lucky than good.

Sid explained that as the water temps stabilize in late March, the school fish show up in massive numbers and the big doubles and triples we were seeing will integrate with these schools making the bigger fish harder to catch. Clearly your numbers will improve, but the fish size will decline into that predictable 3+ pound range. It is still possible to catch some big bonefish, but often the smaller fish are more aggressive and will charge the fly first and gobble it up. Not a trophy angler's dream situation, but all in all, not a really bad problem to have... and you can always try a visit in January or February for the big boys!

The good news is the lodge is now accepting bookings for interested anglers beginning October 4, 2008. The better news is that Cody Muchow will be managing the lodge and bringing his vast expertise, his get-it-done work ethic and his fun-loving attitude with him. If you fished at the Tarpon coast with Cody, you know what an asset he'll be to this program. Cody and Water Cay will accommodate 6 anglers a week. Guides will fish out of high-end, ultra shallow draft, Hell's Bay-type technical skiffs. Having fished this area, you can see why we are selecting these skiffs. A boat's draft is an important issue here and these boats will allow anglers to get closer to fish before they get out of the boat and wade in on them.

Water Cay will have an expert chef Roxanna (she is Cody's wife and was born and raised in Paraguay) who specializes in great seafood, as well as Argentine cuisine. Visiting anglers will have an eclectic menu to choose from that will include traditional " feel good-comfort" food with some interesting spiced entrees perfect for the adventurous eater. Typical cooler lunches will be served during the fishing day and the typical 7:00 AM "American breakfast" will be the morning standard. Water Cay has a lovely bar set up in the main lodge building complete with a huge plasma flat screen TV hooked up to American cable providers. This is the perfect place to catch the key ball games, be it the World Series or the NBA playoffs. In addition, Water Cay has a fully functional PC with complete email and web browsing, so keeping in touch with the office or family will be a breeze for visiting anglers. Each of the rooms has high-capacity A/C units that work great and will making sleeping comfy, allowing full recovery after a hard day wading the flats. A nice wooden lanai porch sits in front of the guest rooms allowing the opportunity to bask in the golden hour, swapping fish tales with your buddies while sipping a cold Kalik and nibbling on one of Roxy's fresh conch fritters. What could possibly be better?

Easy to reach with many daily flights from Atlanta, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, Freeport breaks the paradigm by offering superb fishing in some virgin habitat while still being close to the Bahamas' 2nd largest city. Crazy, but true! With great fishing and easy access, Water Cay is the perfect spot for anglers who want to get away for two or three days and don't have a week to devote to a bonefish trip. It is also a great spot to fish for a few days before meeting your significant other or family in Freeport to continue your vacation.

So even though I have been lucky enough to travel to some of the finest bonefish locations on earth in some of the most remote corners of our globe, I was reminded that great fishing is sometimes pretty close to home. In fact, you can be in Freeport from Florida in about 35 minutes. A short car ride from the airport to the boat launch and 25 minutes later you'll feel like you're a world away. From Water Cay you'll be perfectly positioned to hunt virtually untouched fish with no other boats and no other anglers to compete with. We loved this trip! We appreciated Sidney's expertise, enjoyed the fishery and loved the lodge. Congratulations Cody, Iram and Sidney, I'm sure you guys will have great success! And to our Angling Destinations clients, we'll make sure we keep you up to date on the developments as they occur between now and the October opening of Water Cay.


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