After off-the-beaten-path becomes well trodden and after well trodden becomes simply beaten, it's good to know that Inagua exists. Sitting at the southern terminus of the Bahamas, this lovely island just chugs along, maybe not as good as ever, but damn close! For me that's plenty. To my mind, Inagua is a gem and still the best place to get a trip Grand Slam in the Bahamas. Yet for a sharp piece of coral that cut off a 30 lb. permit and a poor hookset on a charging 60 lb. tarpon, I would be flying home today with a trip grand slam.
For as large as Great Inagua Island is (and it is the 3rd largest island in the Bahamas), this island is still not a large fishery. Were it not for the island's only "real" guide and his forceful, if not downright intimidating persona, the island's fishery would have been depleted long ago. But Ezzard Cartwright is no pushover. (He once shot out the tires of some Columbian drug runner's plane in the early 90's. They had kidnapped two customs agents to hold as hostages when their scheme had been discovered at the Inagua Airport. Ezzard then chased them down in a police boat after they stole a getaway boat using the hostages as a shield. It did not end will for the smugglers!). Ezzard has protected his fishery (and livelihood) with a zeal one might call religious. For all of us that love Inagua, we thank him.
Inagua's north shore boasts an extensive creek system and two large exterior flats. These areas hold good numbers of larger than average bonefish and a few real monsters. In addition, permit often tail on the rocky bars and coral ledges. It is not uncommon to get a few shots at permit each day. I believe Inagua offers the best permit fishery in all the Bahamas. On our trip, we had great fishing on this north shore and had consistently good days on all the flats.
The south shore of Inagua has 4 major flats and 2 good creeks. It's mostly bonefishing on the south shore, but again the fish are healthy and some are gigantic. With our strong winds, the south side was on again, off again. As a testament to the quality of the fishery on this south shore of Inagua, Mark de St. Alban and I had a memorable day in a strong wind with no sun and intermittent rain. We had shots at fish after fish drift fishing over a soft flat. We were actually able to see fish (often too late) over one creek system's white sand bottom. We later waded another shore and picked up a number of fish in these bad conditions. Not bad for a rainy and windy day!
Between the north and south shores, lies massive Lake Windsor. Referred to as the "pond" by the locals this complicated inland saltwater lake is the only legitimate tarpon fishery in the Bahamas. On the island's west shore, Morton has a large salt producing operation that creates literally mountains of sea salt by using turbines to pull seawater through the headgates, which is then spread out onto various drying ponds until the salt is eventually concentrated into its crystalline form. The water that is not used on the drying ponds is sent through Lake Windsor. This allows the lake to be flushed daily with this fresh seawater and as a result, the pond has become a giant aquarium. Bonefish, permit, conch, blue crabs, snook, cuda's, snapper, cobia (a new addition) and fortuitously, good numbers of 20-70 lb. tarpon are found in the pond. The only drawback is most of the pond is dark bottomed so you need sun to see fish. Low winds also help! We only got one day in the pond, but on that day had dozens of shots, even if the winds were shoving us at Mach II making casting and especially hooksets difficult. We were on the fish before we knew it and a proper retrieve was difficult as the boat so quickly approached the tarpon that one could not strip fast enough. Even if we did get a take, it was difficult to strip-strike, once again, because we were moving towards the tarpon so fast. Fred Abramowitz and I, despite these conditions, had a great day and even managed to jump a real monster.
Inagua is perfect for 2-4 fishermen. Any more would put a strain on the available habitat. Are you listening any entrepreneurs looking for a quick buck? Four anglers is max and any plans would have to include Ezzard if they wanted to remain on this earth and should include Ezzard if they want to sort thru the island's complexities especially involving wind, it's direction and how it effects bonefish and their hidey-holes.
It was blowing hard this morning and by afternoon it was closing in on a gale. We had seen no bonefish on the Lighthouse Flat and it would later involve a long walk to the southwest point before we would find our inaugural day's bones. But that is another story.
Now I was standing in the wind on Day 1, just wanting one good shot to start the trip off right. It was looking a bit grim as the strong wind mangled our flat. Just when I had almost written off the day, I saw the slice of a tail in the middle of some windborne spew over a patch of dark dense turtlegrass. The tail grew in size and soon two other black crescents joined it.
Permit...big permit... 25+ lb. permit... heart-stopping, cast-ruining, dream-making permit. I snipped off my bonefish fly and put on a tan merkin. My first cast caught my backpack. Ahhhh, it felt oh so familiar to screw up on yet another permit. With my fly embedded in my backpack, I kinda felt like I was on a date in junior high, when smooth would not be how I would describe my behavior. My cast had been similarly unproductive, but strangely relaxing in its familiarity.
I slipped off my backpack and unhooked the crab. Luckily the permit were still tailing, so it was time to grow up and fly right. I took a deep breath and waded slowly upwind. I tossed the crab again this time onto the noses of the tailing trio. One tipped, I struck, he was on...it was that simple. The BIG permit immediately took off for Cuba, which was 60 miles off my left elbow. I cranked the drag on my Abel Super 8 until it was just one click from pegged. The permit stopped abruptly at the reef's edge. The big fish was by now trailing 100 yards of my backing. When he hesitated, I pegged the drag. Almost immediately, the permit took off again with even more fervor and resumed his trip towards Havana. My bright blue backing was melting off my reel. It would have been pretty if it hadn't been so fraught with peril. I could do nothing. I had no boat to board and my feeble strides towards the departing fish were a gesture at best. I palmed the reel hard feeling the heat build thru my sun glove. Then I palmed harder. I knew I was only moments away from losing it all- the fish, the line, the backing...the works. Suddenly there was nothing. The hook had pulled. I could tell it didn't break off. I knew the weight of all that line and backing had finally ripped the fly from the permit's mouth.
Oddly, I really wasn't too upset. The fish had been I'm certain over 30 lbs. I had hooked him on an 8 wt. with a 15 lb. leader...while on foot. The odds were wildly stacked against me. So certainly I was disappointed, but not upset. I reeled in my line and waded to shore, I needed a rest... I was shaking like a dog on point. I was still a bit rattled after I had waded the 500 yards to join up with Fred. I was reminded that adrenaline takes awhile to break down. First came the jabbering of non sequiturs (sorry Fred), and then it was a case of the yawns, followed by finally fatigue. I experienced them all as Fred and I walked towards the S.W. Point. We would later bath my grief in some good ol' fashioned thumping of the bonefish. But, that too, is another story.
Inagua absolutely is a great spot, but if you visit Inagua and fish with Ezzard, don't expect fancy accommodations or lodge living. Do expect a comfortable air-conditioned bedroom in Ezzard's duplex, clean bathrooms, a spotless kitchen, and a great spot on the shore to enjoy a Kalik before dinner. Isabelle does the cooking and it was eggs and bacon for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch and chicken, pork chops, grouper fingers and conch for supper. Isabelle served a big supper and it was delicious, but not on any cardiologists recommended heart-healthy diet. Take you Lipitor and relax, you're on vacation at one of the best fishing spots in all the Bahamas. Ezzard got going early so we were up at 6:00 and headed to the fishing by 7:00 A.M. It was home by 3:30 or 4:00 unless we did the south side. Then it was home by 5:00. If we wanted to fish 'til supper, Ezzard would have loaned us a truck to reach the local flats, but we had late afternoon high tides so we chose to relax and recuperate instead of beating ourselves up on the flood.
That's Inagua. Eat, fish, and sleep. No nightlife, no "lodge" ambiance, no hors d'oeuvres... just a big island and a lot of fish. You must be prepared to trailer skiffs to various put-ins and then on some days, run to distant flats. On our trip, on the days we had high winds or rain, or both, our fishing was mediocre. On the days with moderate winds and good visibility, we had great fishing.
I don't know why I did it. In hindsight, it was a stupid thing to do. For some reason, I had set off intent on making it to the back of this small bay. It had looked so good but I knew that it would most probably be soft. After a few initial steps on firm bottom I had to climb up and over mounds that were in very soft marl. Soon, I was sweating and as I got deeper into the bay, the flat got softer. It became increasingly hard to be quiet and I almost fell over a few times. My thighs were burning and my knees were getting sore as they twisted hard when I slipped off the top of some soft mound and slid into an even softer furrow.
But I knew there just had to be fish here. One shot might make all this effort worthwhile, no shots would mean that in addition to being sweaty, I was also stupid.
By the time I got deep into the bay, the tide was dropping fast. Jim and I had talked about hitting the creek at low tide so I turned north to wade the edge of the mangroves, which would lead me back to the skiff. As the water got skinnier, the wading got even tougher. I now had to pull a foot hard out of the muck to begin each new step. Each step was either up or down, and sometimes eventually both. After struggling for 50 yards, a solitary mangrove bush had made its stand well out from the bay's shore. This bush stood directly in my way. It's root-scaffolding spread out across eight feet of the mucky marl. Pneumatophores, the respiratory snorkels of the mangrove, rose above the water surface and spiked at right angles to the mud and away from bush, like the spokes of a wheel. While these spikes were busy carrying oxygen back to the mangrove mothership in six inches of crystal-clear water, I was busy mucking up the water quality and collecting my own oxygen as I floundered trying to lift yet another foot clear of the sucking bottom. I could have used a few pneumatophores of my own as I breathed harder and harder trying to make my way around the mangrove bush.
If I stopped to rest, I felt like my feet were sending out roots. I knew I had to keep moving or I would spend the next tide cycle here. It would be just me and the mangrove bush both of us planted deep in the muddy marl.
Sweat was running down my face pushing sunscreen into my eyes when I saw the tail. It was big and attached to a busy little unit that was hoovering in the mud. The bonefish was churning up the soft marl, oblivious to the red-faced idiot in front of him. I immediately pivoted to cast (since I couldn't move my feet to turn and face the fish). I twisted my upper body hard and lofted a cast. My line just cleared the mangrove bush, but was completely surrounded by snorkeling pneumatophores. I let the fly sink. The bonefish vacuumed unaware directly towards my fly. When he was six inches away, I stripped my fly. He pounced, pinning my fly to the soft mud. I could see the marl swirl up from the bottom and cloud his snout. He then tailed hard on the fly and I stripped firmly. The big bone was stuck and he dashed away from the shallow mud. The line rooster- tailed delightfully, but then made a series of sickening ping-pings-pings as it cleared each successive sturdy pneumatophore.
I was lucky. I landed the fish and he was a solid 7+ lb. bone. During the entire fight I did not move my feet. So after quickly releasing the fish, I began the process of releasing myself from the muck. I wiggled my toes, then my feet. I twisted, lifted and pulled. When I was able to take my first step, I did so with purpose. Ignoring any noise I might make, I now wanted out. There would be no more detours. I was skiff bound and clinging to the thought that the big bone had made it all worthwhile. I think it was, but all I could really think about was what a strange bunch we fishermen are!
Despite some bad weather, we had great and at times, spectacular trip! We got plenty of shots at bones and a few shots at permit and tarpon. Everyone either hooked or landed a very big bone. Thanks to Ezzard, Austin and Isabelle... we appreciate all your efforts!!
So to Mark de St. Alban, Jim Dean and Fred Abramowitz, I say thanks fellas for a wonderful trip. I really enjoyed fishing with you guys and especially enjoyed our apr's-fishing evenings out by the water. To Mark "Don feel so sorry for de fish mon." To Jim "Don't wade so deep!" and to Fred, I promise I will continue to get trapped by the lead-in to your jokes if you promise to find it so amusing!
Written by Scott Heywood