When I was a young boy, my dad said something to me that, at the time, seemed insignificant and obvious, but has ended up steering and defining my life. He said,
"Brad, don't bother fishing at the road turn-outs".
I have spent the past 35 years fishing further and further away from the "road turn-outs"... those well known locations that are often loved to death. I do not mean to suggest that good fishing can only be found in places that are undiscovered. Sometimes the known angling hot spots offer great fishing and I have happily visited many of them.
However, the edges of the map have always drawn my eye. Often times my obsession with going to unknown places has resulted in nothing more than sore feet and a lot of mosquito bites. The truth is that for every angling gem I've seen, I've spent a hundred fishless days looking in the wrong spot; often under overcast skies while enduring strong northeast winds and some crazy unpredictable tides. But for me, the process of discovery and the occasional successful venture keeps me motivated and searching.
It was with this spirit that I packed up some gear, charged my camera batteries and lit out for a spot in the northern Bahamas I had had my eye on for quite some time. A Bahamian friend had confided some important secrets to me that contained some exciting information. The kind of information that can often slide past you in an otherwise unremarkable conversation. But I had been listening this time and his stories about the area matched my hopes, so off I went.
I made it down to the Bahamas easily, but faced some logistical difficulties once I was on the ground. Given the distances, I wanted to travel each day to fish. The only option that seemed to make sense was to day trip from one of the main islands. I was able to wrangle-up a "go-fast" twin engine boat through a friend and on our first morning, we set out for the long run with our little flats boat bridled to the stern. The plan was to stash the twin in some mangrove creeks near the cays we wanted to fish. Then each day, we could run around in our shallow draft skiff to fish, but make the long, potentially rough passage from the mainland each day in the bigger faster boat.
Fortunately, the weather gods had decided to smile upon us and the first morning's run was glassy calm. We made it over in about an hour in the favorable conditions, put the big boat on anchor and headed out to do some prospecting.
We made about a three minute run through a cut and Raymond (that's not his real name!) pulled the skiff off plane and simply said "tails". Indeed, up along shore there were tails, lots of tails, slowly waving at us, glinting in the morning golden light. I stripped out enough line and made the short cast in a hurried fashion, splashing the fly down with a big "plunk" amongst the fish. I winced thinking that I had completely blown my first shot. But as seems to be the case in so often in the fishing world, the fish did the unpredictable. One of the silver beasts spun a slow circle and vacuumed the fly off the bottom. I was shaking my head with surprise as the fish came tight and the reel began to sing its song.
Our first day wore on with visits to many more beautiful flats with lots of naive fish mistakenly eating feathers and fur. Needless to say, it was one of those rare days where I had seemed to hit the piscatorial jackpot. We left late on that summer day, tired, thirsty and grinning. And as we made the long run back to the mainland, tomorrow was already on my mind.
The next day after we had once again made our lengthy run and put our big boat on anchor, we headed out in a different direction. "Big Ray" had said something about once having seen tarpon in some nondescript west facing bay. Now, I must digress for a moment. Most anglers, hearing of tarpon opportunities would grab their 10 weight and say "let's GO!"... it's not that I am really any different in this regard. Rather, my problem is that I have been on one toooooooo many "tarpon (read; snipe) hunts" in the Bahamas. It usually goes something like:
ME: "So... do you guys ever see tarpon around here?"
THEM: "Oh yeah mon, wez gots some around. My broder was out crawfishing right near where we going and he saz he meet them ‘round there all da time."
So off we go passing up hordes of great looking bonefish flats, hyped up to catch tarpon. After one or two fruitless hours of standing on a smokin' hot deck looking at perfect water with no fish in it, I'd invariably give up hope and revert back to the bonefish flats... hotter, more tired and feeling slightly foolish that I'd chosen to chase such a slim thing. So knowing better, was I was doing the same thing again?! Oh well... tarpon will do that to you!
While we ran, I rigged a proper leader hopeful that things might turn out differently this time. As we came off plane, I liked what I saw. The habitat looked very fishy, more like Mexico than the Bahamas. The lush turtle grass carpet ahead was a perfect food source for tarpon and the smooth glassy water surface would certainly betray any tarpon rolling for air. Things were looking good!
We silently poled along the edge of the bay where the shadows of the red mangrove roots played with the light fooling me into seeing what I thought were laid up tarpon. Twenty minutes passed and just as I began to feel my hope shake, Ray called out "tarpon". He then took his push pole and pointed to a small depression in the mangrove edge. Sure enough, there were three beautiful "teenage" tarpon slowly weaving in and out of the mangrove edge. You could tell by their posture and attitude that they were "happy" fish... the kind of fish that eat flies on the first cast.
Of course, that cast has to be the right cast meaning not too close... but not too far away either. The familiar pitter-pat of my fish-quickened heart felt good to me as I began to false cast. I measured out the distance thinking to myself "go right at 'em". The fly landed right smack dab in the middle of the group and in a nano-second, one of the fish crushed the little squirrel fly. Feeling the hook, the tarpon launched itself four feet into the air! Without any opportunity to execute a strike, I came tight to the beast . All hell broke lose as the sixty pound fish went ape-shit in what seemed like hollywood slow-mo.
On about its fourth ballistic jump, the little tan and orange fly came spiraling up and looping out of the big fish's mouth. I was crestfallen. I uttered a short, but powerful string of expletives and hung my head thinking of a rare Bahamian tarpon lost. But such is the nature of tarpon fishing. I remembered back to what one of my Florida Keys guide buddies had told me. He said, "one in seven." What he meant was that for every seven tarpon hooked, you'll end up landing one. Certainly my experiences with this big silver fish seemed to bear out his math. Nevertheless, it was frustrating and I figured we'd head back to the bonefish flats knowing that to keep fishing for tarpon would be like expecting lightening to strike twice.
But Ray insisted we continue to look for more tarpon and pole further up the flat. And tarpon we found! We spent the remainder of the day casting to several groups of these prehistoric silver kings, hooking several and landing none. But we had found them! And tomorrow was another day!
That evening, on the way back to the mainland, Ray suggested we visit a nearby blue hole to see if we might catch some dinner. Apparently he had marked a productive hole on his Garmin GPS unit and since it was almost on a direct line with our route, we decided to take a look. After a few minutes of fruitless casting, he bailed over the side of the boat sporting a mask and fins. A few free dives later he came up with a remarkable collection of seafood and I knew dinner was going to be a feast! Indeed it was... a meal fit for a king. We all went to sleep that night with visions of huge silver tarpon flying through the air.
We made the long ocean run on two additional days and every day was remarkable. Large bonefish seemed to be around on almost every tide. We moved with the water and found ample tails on every flat we visited. After our fill of bones, we'd head out looking for tarpon and we found them every day in reasonable numbers. Clearly these fish were residents of the area, not yet having reached migratory size. Finally on the last day, we put a nice thirty-five pound fish to the side of our little skiff. We took a few photos and exchanged high fives all around.
What a place! What a trip! Excellent bonefishing, resident tarpon, a 'cuda on every point, perfect sugar-white sand beaches and Casuarina trees for shade. This secret place is "French Polynesia" beautiful. What more could anyone ask for? Perhaps the name of the cay? Certainly NOT on the internet! But I have a feeling that I'll be returning shortly to host a few trips for interested hardy anglers.
As we made the run home on the last night, the ocean still glassy calm. It was then that I thought once again about how great a gift my Dad had given me when I was a child. He made a big effort to take me fishing and hunting. Even though most of our trips were less than amazing (especially for a teenage boy) he really put a zeal for adventure into me. This trip, heck my entire life, has been about chasing that unknown spot on the map that just might hold the next amazing day.
Written by: Brad Wolfe