Editor's note: Some of the place names in this report have been changed to protect the location's secrecy!
After arriving on the rock they call Ragged Island, I wandered over to a simple, little red roofed shack. Nobody was there to greet me. I asked my pilot if "Phenol" was coming to pick me up, and he replied, "Ya Mon, I saw his truck while we was flying in, he knows we're 'ear mon, don' worry." And sure enough, before I had all my bags out of the plane, his blue truck pulled into the airport . I quickly learned his name is Phicol, (pronounced Phi-co), he is native to the island and he is one of Ragged's most important men. An employee of the Bahamian Electric Company, Phicol is solely responsible for the island's two diesel generators that supply all electrical power. If Phicol has a bad day at the office, everyone on the island knows about it!
Tiny Ragged Island sits at the southern end of the Jumentos Cays, a 100-plus mile string of small rocky cays dotting the western edge of the Bahamas. Ragged is 62 miles east of Cuba and has a landmass of approximately five square miles. Duncan Town is the only "settlement" in this string of cays and home to a population of roughly sixty brave souls. They are a tight-knit community that spans generations of island life, passing down colonial names like Maycock and Lockhart. The relatives of the current population can be traced back for almost two hundred years! They love sharing stories of working the salt flats and fishing. On Ragged, almost everyone plays a mean game of dominos. The people of Ragged Island are some of the nicest, most trustworthy people I have met in the entire Bahamas. These folks are full of life and their smiles are genuinely contagious.
Being on this island is like stepping back in time. Ragged Island existence is a paradox in that the island has received many of the comforts of modern living, such as cell phones, internet service, diesel powered electricity, and reverse osmosis systems for fresh water, yet the people still live a subsistence lifestyle, fueled by the ocean's bounty.
I was on a 12-day mission to fish this pristine, untouched area in the Southern Bahamas and by day two I was in awe. Phicol and I started by fishing an area known as Billy Ray's Flat on the north west side of the island. Billy's is a big white sand flat. In spite of the moguls along the mangroves, this flat offers surprisingly easy wading. I was shocked at the number of bonefish on this small flat! During the last hour of the ebbing tide, we probably saw four different schools of 40+ fish all milling about within easy casting distance. The bones on this particular flat were smaller fish, one to four pound critters, but I was certainly not complaining. We also saw a few bigger singles and doubles in the four to six pound range. The bonefish's reaction to my flies was absolutely amazing with several of them peeling off to chase my bonefish scampi fly from over six feet away. Clearly these fish had not seen many fishermen! I caught twenty-some fish and was broken off by six or seven more. After three hours of hot and heavy action and in desperate need of sweet water (as I had left the guest house without any), I reeled up my line and we made our way back to Duncan Town.
Wanting to fish more, I asked Phicol if he knew of anyone heading out to the flats that evening that I could tag along with. After making a few calls, it was down to the dock to meet Myron. Myron has lived on the island for most of his life and is the island's "handy man". He also maintains the reverse osmosis system that keeps fresh water available to the island's residents. Myron suggested we go catch some jacks just north of Dick's Cay. Dick's Cay lies close to Ragged so after a short run, we anchored up. I had no idea what I was in for.
Myron chopped-up some fresh lobster heads and began throwing them overboard. This chum line attracted jacks, groupers, sharks, and even bonefish. After only two casts, I hooked a nice jack. The third jack I hooked gave a typical fight until a six-foot shark made a meal of it. I then grabbed the big rod, rigged some wire, and tied on the biggest fly I had. On my second cast, the fly stopped and all hell broke loose. Fortunately, after a few jumps and crazy runs, the shark broke me off. Being the "slow learner" that I am, I re-rigged and cast again. This time it was a spinner shark that ate my offering and proceeded to jump six to eight feet out of the water like a twisting and turning black trident missile. I had always heard stories of the acrobatics these spinner sharks were capable of, but until you see it in person, you never fully understand! This spinner was a smaller specimen at five to six feet and definitely "landable". After thirty minutes, I had my fly line back in the last guide and was in good shape to land this toothy critter. With his gloves on and pliers out, Myron was ready. As we got the shark's head up, Myron pulled the fly out. After releasing our captive, it was high-fives all around. Now I understand why they call 'em spinner sharks!
The next day I explored the flat that is found on the other side of the island's small runway. This flat lies between Ragged Island and Little Ragged Island. This was a tougher flat to fish on this day due to the dark color of the turtle grass and the high morning tide. Phicol and I walked the azure edges and saw a fair number of bigger bones traveling in packs of four to six. There were a lot of bones feeding out in the middle of the flat creating a mud, but this section proved to be a bit too deep to wade, so we headed south. As we walked around the southern side of Ragged, we spotted a big barracuda that was laid up. Motionless, he was on the hunt. With an ambush position perfectly established, I couldn't help but offer this big fish a meal. After handing my fly rod to Phicol, I grabbed the spinning gear and fired out a 20 foot or so cast beyond the 'cuda. I Turned the crank snapping the bail closed and burned the bright green tube lure right under the 'cudas nose. With murder on its mind, the cuda closed a twenty-foot gap in milliseconds and hammered my fake needlefish lure. After a hearty battle and some lofty acrobatics, I released the predator back into the channel a bit worse for the wear, but certainly healthy and ready to again take up her ambush position.
The next day dawned bright and windless and I headed back out to Billy's Flat. On this day, there were fish everywhere and on all stages of the tide. So plentiful were the bonefish that I began experimenting with flies. I was able to try new patterns that I hadn't fished before. I tried new color schemes, big vs. small and heavy vs. light. My research showed that these fish ate just about everything. The day flew by and the fishing was intoxicating. All alone, hundreds of miles from anything that resembled civilization, I talked to myself and laughed out loud at my good fortune for I was surrounded by bonefish in one of the Bahamas' last untouched frontiers.
For the next several days, I eagerly did more exploring. By this point, I knew where the fish were to be found around Billy Ray's Flat and had a feeling there might be bigger fish further out along the edges of the yet to be explored Rock Creek Channel. So, I blew up my kayak, found an anchor and paddled out. On each side of the channel, I found extremely fishy habitat. As I paddled along, I knew it was just a matter of time before I struck silver. After finding a few fish, I got out of the kayak and began to slowly wade. My wake faded behind me into the afternoon sun. This particular area was loaded with fish and I was happy to discover that the size of the fish were notably bigger than those on neighboring Billy Ray's Flat. While I stood like a statue, the fish swarmed around me lazily tailing and eating fleeing prey. There were several big schools around, but by this point, I was head-hunting, and was soon seduced by some of the huge silver tails that sparkled in the late day sun. I changed my fly to a smaller, lighter pattern and lengthened my leader. After an hour or so, I had landed several nice sized bones that were tailing on the edges of the channel. With tails still in sight, I decided it best to head back to tiny Duncan Town and leave the remaining fish untouched. Paddling back to town, I found myself smiling and giddy as I remembered every detail of the amazing day that I had just experienced.
Over the next several days, I continued to fish the Rock Creek Channel because of the proximity and the larger size of the bonefish. Each day I paddled a little farther out and walked a different section of this huge area. I never did see the elusive permit, but big bonefish were plentiful. One bonezilla hit the nine-pound mark on my boga-grip!
Towards the end of my two week trip, I was able to procure a boat manned by a local boatman. The owner, Alvin, took me over to Chinook and Rainbow Cay. The flats that lie between these two cays are drop-dead beautiful and quite large. This area has a terrific outer flat along with what's called the "creek" which is an area that cuts back into the interior of Rainbow Cay. The creek has a hard bottom lined with mangroves on both sides and is a very productive spot during the right tide.
While on the outside flat, Alvin and I were hunting a cruising, four-foot barracuda, when from somewhere behind us, we heard water splashing. We turned around to see a happy, tailing "turkey platter" sized permit milling up the current within one hundred feet of us. Unfortunately, the fish would require a long cast into a fairly stiff breeze, which left me with little to no chance of hooking him. We watched this fish tail-up two more times before he slid back down into the channel from which he first appeared. While the Bahamas may never rival Belize for permit fishing, Ragged Island, with it's tremendous exposure to classic patch reefs, clearly has huge potential for these legendary fish.
Growing tired of battling the wind and with Alvin determined to show me a "blue hole", we jumped into the boat. We ran along the north side of Chinook Cay towards the west all the while cutting through various channels. Suddenly Alvin's blue hole appeared like a sapphire blue siren. Alvin handed me a homemade five-gallon bucket from which he had cut out the bottom and replaced it with plexiglas. With this device, it was unbelievable how far you could see into the water! At the bottom of this blue cavern, we saw a truly amazing spectacle. For nearly two minutes we drifted over this hole and watched while a constant stream of bones, from one to ten pounds, passed underneath. Thousands of bonefish milled about seemingly unconcerned about the nearby sharks, jacks, ladyfish, barracuda, and numerous other species. I never did fish the flats surrounding this blue hole, but I am absolutely certain that, on the right tide, they would have magnificent fishing.
With just a couple days of my exploratory trip remaining, I planned to kayak from Ragged Island to Little Ragged Island for an afternoon of permit hunting. I loaded up my kayak, paddled over to the island, and tied off the kayak to my belt. I began walking the shoreline towards a small point. On the way, I caught some smaller bones up to three pounds. I was on a neap tide and it was ebbing out fast. Soon it got so low, I could have walked back to Ragged Island, but I would have had to drag my kayak across the beautiful sand. There are some sexy looking flats on Little Ragged, but since I was there during slack low, I had timed my journey poorly. I presume that like in other areas of the Bahamas, on Ragged Island, May through November is the best time to fish for permit. On this trip, I found the morning tide to be the best time of day for permit. In spite of my poor tide timing, the flats here on Little Ragged are perfect and I know that the bonefish and permit swarm into this area on the right tide.
On the last day of my trip, Phicol was able to set up an afternoon out in the blue water. The east side of Ragged drops off fast and the pristine reef edges create currents, which cause the fish to feed on low incoming tides. This unexplored edge is home to marlin, sailfish, wahoo, dorado, numerous species of tuna and lots of other great gamefish. As we turned the corner, we thought we might be in for a bonanza as huge groups of birds were working bait in five different locations. In the middle of these melees, fish were breaking everywhere. It reminded me of the famous fall blitz that occurs every year in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut. We powered out through the 4 to 6 foot seas and took an upwind position. We cut the motor and drifted into a frenzied bird pile. The outcome was never really in question. I think I made two casts and at mid-strip on the second cast, the fly line snapped tight in my hand. The line ripped off the boat deck and spun crazy circles in the air like some rodeo cowboy's lariat. Finally, the line came tight on the reel as an atomic blue and green torpedo rocketed off pulling one hundred yards of my backing with it in the blink of an eye. Birds were going crazy, fish were busting everywhere and the bait was in full panic. In all this, I was trying to manage the fight while rocking and rolling on a wildly pitching sea. When I finally got the fish close to the boat, I saw a 30+ pound kingfish spin death spirals 20 feet under the boat. We gently leadered the beast and were pulling him up towards us when inexplicably, the fly popped out! Crazy! Since I was not using a wire leader, it was just dumb luck that the fish got hooked on the outside of it's mouth. Oh well... that's fishing! Although we did not get a photo of the fish, the memory of that "Mack" will remain with me. Soon we got over the lost photo-op and soldiered on. We landed five other species of blue water bruisers including good sized false albacore, voracious spanish mackerel and a "grand daddy" 'cuda. We were throwing flies and casting Yozuri's on light spinning gear with almost automatic results. It went on like this for hours until in the waning light, we finally fired up the Yamaha 200 and headed southwest back to our tiny refuge on Ragged Island. It was an experience I will always remember and I was pleased to see such an amazing bounty in the ocean that surrounds this bonefish paradise.
The only real concern on my trip was the gas situation throughout the Bahamas at the time. During a scheduled trip from Fort Lauderdale to Nassau, a tanker that supplies the islands with fuel had run aground on a reef. Reserves in Nassau had quickly become depleted. The ship had to be pulled off the reef and the fuel offloaded. As a result of this grounding, mail boats out of Nassau were frozen in port due to the lack of diesel. On Ragged Island, the locals hung out hoping their full traps would be OK after these extra days of soaking. This situation brought into bold relief how isolated and dependent the settlement of Duncan Town is on the 'outside". No question... this remote island really is the "ragged edge" of civilization.
I came away from my experience on Ragged Island thinking this fishery has something to offer every angler. Here, you can flats fish to your heart's content. You can hunt double-digit bonefish on the edges, smaller fish on the more protected flats and stalk elusive permit on any one of the abundant reef-flats. You can use your fly rod to catch huge (20+ pound) 'cuda that are laid up on just about every rocky point and finally, if that's not enough for you, you can chase birds and try your hand angling in the big blue for ocean speedsters! This fishery is pristine, eclectic and rugged. As such, it offers one of the last great opportunities to get completely "lost" in the Bahamas. I can't wait to replace all my broken gear and get back down on the "rock" as soon as possible!
Written by: Jason Owens
Photos by: Eric Berger