In the late 1800's, the British Royal Navy spent a large amount of time charting the Bahamas. These charts were critically important in establishing trade routes throughout the Caribbean by allowing faster transport of products and goods from various islands and Cuba to the United States and Europe. In their quest to map the area they encountered a long, rocky half-moon archipelago arcing from the center of Long Island southwest almost reaching Cuba.
The east side of these small cays held tremendously deep blue water and safe passage while the west side was very shallow as far as the eye could see. For the British, navigating away through this maze was dicey at best and presented a bit of a puzzle. The only way through this geographical feature was to head south to the last island in the chain and then turn southwest to Cuba. Standing alone at the southern terminus of this archipelago was an island which they named "Ragged Island" for it's very isolated position, and rocky scrubby nature.
In their effort to find direct trade routes, the British Royal Navy had no idea that they had charted an angling paradise... shallow flats to the west and the "wine-dark" sea to the east. All these options leave a fisherman with a dilemma. Do you spend your time chasing bonefish and permit on the western flats or do you patrol the big blue in search of creatures from the deep?
I spent the last 12 months exploring the west side of Ragged Island and the cays stretching to the north. I have looked at every flat on almost every stage of the tide in search of my angling treasure, bonefish and permit. I have found these fish in various areas of the Ragged Archipelago. The bonefish are plentiful with two to three pound fish found on most every outside flat. The interior creeks and lagoons seem to hold bigger fish, but access is difficult and local guides are a necessity in this labyrinth. The permit seem to show up in good numbers as the water begins to warm in mid-April. These bruisers come off of the reefs, sliding slowly up the east side channels on the flooding tide in search of their favorite meal, the crab. But as always, permit are tuned perfectly to their environment and fooling one of these fish with feathers and fur is no easy matter. Only anglers who can handle rejection, long hours in the sun and near misses need apply!
With all this information in hand, I headed down to Ragged Island in late May, but this time I came without any bonefish or permit gear. My mission was to spend eight days out in the blue water in search of what swims in the blank spots on the British Royal Admiralty charts. I had reason to be excited. Well known blue water hot spots like Diana Bank sit close by and I had every reason to believe that given the giant wahoo, tuna, kingfish and marlin that swim in that area, those same fish would also be found closer to Ragged Island.
Ragged Island's proprietor, Phicol "tallboy" Wallace, met me after the twin-engine Piper Navajo touched down on Ragged's makeshift runway. The weather was fairly calm... and hot and humid. This would be a perfect mix for long days in Phicol's new 31-foot twin engine Contender. Once we arrived at the new lodge, we spent time looking carefully at our charts, making plans for the coming week and building up our beefy gear.
The next morning, we arose early and made a long, 38 mile run to an area I'll call Kittyfish Ridge. It's basically an underwater mountain that rises up from the deep for thousands of feet just off the edge of the Great Bahama Bank. Northeast currents push cool water and foodstuff up the slopes and pods of small baitfish hunt the area in their desperate search for food. This "mojarra" brings in both gamefish and birds and the mayhem it creates can be remarkable.
As we dropped our lines back behind the big twin Yamaha engines, the cotrast between the top of the ridge and the deep blue ocean was almost electric. As soon as we came off of the shallow edge one of the rods "went off" and Kit was into a short fight with small tuna. Nothing amazing, but certainly a good sign.
We continued working the edge for a few hours and hooked and landed a bunch of nice blackfin tuna. We decided to run to the other side of the ridge and look for birds working bait. It did not take long before we found many different groups of birds and the results were almost automatic. It went like this: find the birds, get close, deploy two flat lines with Rapala's and BOOM! False albacore, beautiful black-banded skipjack and blackfin tuna came to us on every pass. Often the birds would continue their frantic dance even with fish popping up all around the boat. Although we were there to play our sure hand with spin rods and trolled lures, I could not help but notice that many of these pods of tuna could have been reached with a well-placed cast on a 10 weight fly rod armed with a fast sinking shooting head. Certainly a gamey way to catch these fish, but nevertheless, absolutely possible. We continued searching and found fish for the remainder of the day until the sun dipped lower in the western sky. Then, we lit up the twins and headed in for a well-earned Kalik.
A few days later, Phicol came to me with a gleam in his eye and a chart in his hand. He suggested we make a long run, 55 miles, up north in the Jumentos Cays to an area (no... I am not gonna name it!) he felt held excellent current lines and deep edges. I held my tongue and my doubts about this nondescript looking spot on the charts. This area did not have any structure to attract or hold fish. But in our world of fishing, only a fool tries to talk a local Bahamian out of fishing an area he suggests! Local knowledge rules supreme and I knew that Phicol had a good reason to go check this area out.
So a few hours after dawn, we were running up north talking trash and tying leaders for the day's battles. As we came off plane, I noticed lots of weed lines and immediately thought Dorado... a species we had not yet caught. Yet as we worked the area, we did not hook up. After about an hour, we were all a bit discouraged and Phicol suggested we try another area to the south.
Arriving at the second location, my senses and experience told me that things looked better here. The tide had changed to a full ebb and the current lines were very distinct. What ensued in the next few hours was a remarkable fishing frenzy. Within an hour, we had landed several decent sized tuna, lost several bigger tuna (to "the man in the black suit" i.e. big sharks) and landed four big bull dorado. The biggest dorado was well over 30 pounds and fell for a black and purple feather on one of the outriggers.
Trolling to the south, Phicol spotted a perfect current seam bending off the edge of a small cay. A group of birds spun slow circles near the rip line harboring the same hopes as us. Phicol expertly positioned the boat and told everyone to get ready. On cue, as though he had pre-arranged it, we eased into the seam and the right rear, flat line came taught. Fish on! The reel started its plaintive scream as Hank Fischer grabbed the rod from its holder. Looking at the line melt off the gold Penn spinning reel, I knew Hank was into a good-sized fish. The situation quickly became desperate as the sizzling run continued and the spool emptied. I urged Hank to move towards the bow of the boat and barked at Phicol to get the boat in gear and chase this beast. With the reel almost fully spooled, Hank started to make some progress gaining a few precious meters of line. Phicol continued to ease towards the big fish, helping Hank gain line. Although we were on the losing side of the battle so far, we began to feel like we might just have a chance at landing this fish.
The tug-of-war went on for about 15 minutes and finally I was able to see a flash of color about 100 feet below the boat. We were all excited to see what kind of fish could put on such a magnificent display of power. I was convinced it was a big wahoo. Phicol said he thought it was a yellowfin tuna and Hank was just hanging on for dear life, hoping he'd be able to finish the fight. A few minutes passed and the fish finally came up, exhausted from the battle.
At first we all thought it was a wahoo, but the color was not right. It turned out that this huge silver fish was a monster king mackerel. Easily weighing 60 pounds, this mackerel was by far the largest I had ever seen! Phicol expertly gaffed the fish. With looks of relief on all of our faces, high fives were exchanged. We shot some photos and a strange silence came over us all. Should we continue to fish or call it a day? Given what the ocean had just produced, it somehow seemed wrong to put the lines back out and fish. How could we possibly top what had just happened? So even though there was still some daylight remaining, we decided to power up and make the long run home, ending the day on the ultimate high note.
Several more remarkable days passed and with each outing, I continued to be amazed by the rich waters surrounding tiny Ragged Island. Looking back through my journal, I realized that I caught and landed fifteen different species of fish on this trip. It is not often that reality matches up or exceeds your hopes, but Ragged Island did exactly that on this trip. The east side fishery is every bit as exciting and fun as the better known flats fishery to the west.
Our last few days on Ragged Island came and went. With many exciting hours of action behind me, I resolved to come back soon and spend more time fishing with Phicol. On the final morning of our trip, as the twin engine Piper Navajo touched down on Ragged's sparse little runway to take us back to the known world, I was reminded of a quote I saw on some cheesy motivational poster somewhere. But in this case, it had great meaning to me and struck me out of the blue:
"Life should not be measured by how many breaths we take, but by how many times our breath is taken away."
Ragged Island's rich east side fishery certainly did take my breath away and I can not wait to return!
Written by: Brad Wolfe