Doug Jeffries, fly tyer and angler extraordinnaire, sent us this trip report after his last trip to Water Cay on Grand Bahama Island in June. Yes, Doug is a good friend (I think Angling Destinations started sending Doug on fishing trips in the late 1980's and from the Seychelles to the Amazon to Belize, he has been at it ever since), but he is also a very experienced fisherman and very fair-minded. As such, we think it is a good idea to listen to his opinions. We thought he made some great suggestions and observations in his trip report and that it would be a good idea to pass them on to other anglers contemplating a trip to Water Cay.
Observations and Casual Ramblings about Bonefishing – In No Particular Order:
During every guided fishing trip I’ve ever been on my fishing companions and I usually partake of several conversations. The topics run the gamut of what flies and techniques are working best (or not), assessment of the guides (we rarely honestly evaluate our own skills and shortcomings during these discussions), water and weather, finding common ground for tipping the guides and staff, and an overall evaluation of the location and whether we’d do it again or not. It makes a heckuva lot more sense to have some of these discussions before the trip. So the following is my attempt at capturing some of these conversations from a recent trip to Water Cay. I hope others may find these revelations helpful.
Our trip was in June and we may have been the last group before the guides take off for lobster season. The days were long and getting hot. The water temperature in the morning was cooler than in the afternoon. We purposefully selected morning falling tides which meant the low tide occurred in the afternoon during the last couple days of this trip. The water coming off the shallow mangrove flats was noticeably warm on our skin. As a general rule, there were more bonefish and they ate more aggressively in cooler water than in the hot water flowing off the flats. Once or twice we went long stretches without even seeing a fish and those dry spells happened when the water was hot. The last day EZ and I commented that we had gone two full rotations on the casting deck without seeing a fish. That said, there were still fish to be caught. One afternoon Ezra had to work on his motor so around 4:30pm, he suggested dropping us at a point east of the lodge and we could fish back to the lodge. I got out; EZ chose to go on back to the lodge. The water felt warm on my legs, but I still saw 3 bones (caught one, couldn't get a decent presentation to the second because he was in an area with exposed reef all around him, and the third was about 30 feet from the lodge and I'd already reeled in my line when I saw it). Generally cooler water was more productive. While several factors including wind and sunlight direction need to be considered when choosing a flat, water temperature should also be considered. If possible, try to find flats closer to deeper, cooler water. As soon as the water feels skin temperature or warmer start looking for cooler water near channels or outer edges. That said, one of our boats had a great afternoon one day so who knows.
Here are a couple lessons about flies. First, bring some flies with more meat and flash on them. Yeah, yeah, the mantra has always been bonefish are skittish, have great eyesight, and sparse flies with minimal flash that match the bottom color are best. I stuffed two boxes with primo bonefish flies tied with that mantra in mind. I caught fish, but I could have caught more with some bigger more flashy flies. The reason is fish sometimes had trouble finding the fly when it dove into the rough, weedy bottom (more on this lesson in the next paragraph). We would see a fish flush to the fly and then suddenly lose interest or start swimming in circles looking for it. This happened most often with tailing fish in shallow water. Moving the fly is not a choice because of the rough, weedy bottom. So bring some flies tied twice as full as the typical bonefish flies you see in catalogues and with 4 – 6 strands of flash (pearl, gold or copper are good colors). Lighter color body material is a good idea too even though much of the bottom is an olive-brown color. Obviously, bring the usual selection of tan and cream color bonefish flies with small lead eyes, bead chain eyes, and a few with no eyes for the real shallow tailing fish and for those really bumpy bottom areas where you have to keep the fly off the bottom. Size 4 hooks are the norm but bringing a few large flies on size 2 hooks would be wise. Second, tie some with heavy weight such as medium or even large dumbbell eyes for the deeper water days. We saw some huge bones around Mangrove Cay one morning, but the tide was still high and light was poor. Fish sighting distances were short, water depth was around 2 – 3 feet, and casting time was cut to a minimum. I needed a fly that sank much faster. Unfortunately no tarpon were spotted, but they are there. I’d have a couple tarpon flies, maybe cockroaches, or green zimas, or grizzly & red seaducers on size 2/0 hooks with a 40 or 50 lb bite tippet. It is also worth noting that one boat got casts at three permit one day. Some very respectable barracudas were around. Schools of horse eye jacks were in some of the channels and there is always the option of casting to ‘sticky nosed blacktip sharks’ (which Ezra says will put a spinner shark to shame).
Another “bonefish rule” that was broken this trip is the one that says “bonefish flies have to be kept in motion or the bonefish will lose interest”. It took him three days, but Ezra finally convinced me that at Water Cay you can and actually should, stop the fly and let it sink just like for permit. Ezra taught us to watch the fish and once you see it flush to the fly (by using a long slow strip until the fish sees the fly) it's better to stop the fly and let it sink. The bottom is rough and weedy and the prey on these flats will quickly try to hide on the bottom. Watch the fish to see if it pounces. If it doesn't, barely twitch the fly (so you don't grab weeds or bottom) hoping the fish sees the movement. Watch the fish. While all this is going on and your heart rate is around 200 BPS, move your line hand way forward on the line. When the fish pounces pinning the fly to the bottom and does its dance, make a very long smooth steady strip without raising the rod tip. If the fish has eaten the fly you will hook it. If not, you will either hang up on the bottom or possibly give the fish another chance to see the fly.
Tippets should be 14 - 16 lb. fluorocarbon. No need to go lesser strength than that. Leaders should be 9 - 10 foot total length including your butt section. The rough bottom made casting accuracy crucial to avoid having the fly hang up on the bottom. So the shorter leader was helpful in that regard. You can always lengthen a short leader on the real shallow flats if you need to. But 90% of the time a 9 - 10 ft leader was perfect.
Sidney's mother-in-law, Kay was running the lodge along with Ezra's daughter Kasha. Kay made us conch fritters 4 times for appetizers and I loves me some conch fritters. Unfortunately, three of the four days we were the last boat back to the dock so we got the fewest fritters. The lesson being – if you sweet talk Kay into making you conch fritters you have to make a hard decision whether to get back to the dock or squeeze in those last few casts. Oh well, I got my fix of both bonefish and conch fritters. We also had Sands beer instead of Kalik (Sands is made in Freeport). Sands is a little lighter than Kalik. I think beers were $3.00 each on the bar tab.
There are many flats within an easy boat ride from Water Cay and we only saw one other boat one time. There are wadable flats, but we only waded one day which was disappointing. Ezra told us the fishing wasn't conducive to wading. I asked him about it one day and he said he felt we needed to cover more water to find fish and can do that faster in the boat. True enough. But this reminds me of another observation we had one evening after a few Sands. Sidney, Ezra and Greg are all excellent casters and can see fish like ospreys. But they seem a little reluctant to provide advice or coaching (Ezra got more talkative as the days went by. I think as he got to know us he realized we appreciated his advice and could laugh at our mistakes). So the lesson is don't be afraid to ask them for help or ask what you can do better. The sooner you build that report with the guides, the more fish you'll catch and the more confidence your guide will have in your ability. And if you want to try different kinds of fish, such as barracuda or sharks or something, speak up. Otherwise, they may assume you're there to bonefish and they'll keep trying to find you bonefish. Earl cast a tube lure on his spinning rod to a big cuda on the second day and I cast to and snagged a lemon shark and cast to a school of horse eye jacks. Ezra knew we'd be happy casting to anything.
One day during our lunch break, I asked Ezra whether he wanted clients who could cast or that could see fish. He didn't hesitate when he replied “Cast”. He explained that he can “talk” a person where to place the fly, but if the person cannot cast, all the coaching in the world won't get the fly in front of a fish. He proved this several times during this trip. So the lesson is: practice making single casts for accuracy. 80 foot casts were great, but a very accurate 40 - 60 foot cast was better. Another aspect of this lesson sank in one evening as we sat on the dock watching the sun set. In their friendly, almost apologetic manner, all three guides talked about how we (the clients on this trip) had the ability to make the necessary casts. Our trouble was we made nice false casts but often cheesed the presentation cast because we opened our loops or overpowered the forward cast or looked at the fish instead of where we wanted the fly to land. (I know I made my share of bogus casts). So practice. And when you practice, do not consider yourself ready until you can put the first cast on the money - not the second or third or fourth.
We didn't rotate guides this trip because among other things, it saved us the trouble of switching gear around each day. That meant each pair of anglers would tip their guide rather than pooling the tips and giving them to Sidney. This resulted in the usual discussion about how much we were going to tip. Tipping seems to always be a point of confusion and sometimes contention on these trips. No one wants to short change the guides or staff, but we don't want to unnecessarily raise expectations for every one after us either. At the same time few want to talk openly about tipping. I even asked Sidney what the typical range is and he wouldn't give me one. He just said some tip a lot, some tip a lot less. Like most guides, I think they know that a tip is a bonus, not something they automatically expect to receive. One reason tipping is difficult to figure out is because we do not know how much the guides make a day. If you book a guide yourself you know how much he or she makes and can calculate a 10% - 20% tip assuming they do a good job. But on these “all inclusive” trips we never know what the guide’s daily rate is.
Anyway, in the interest of helping others plan ahead and get a handle on this topic, here’s what we did:
Everyone felt we got long days on the water (typically fished from 7:30am until 4:30 - 5pm each day) and the guides did a great job finding fish for us, sometimes in tough conditions. We all felt they deserved a good tip. We tipped the guides $70 - $80/boat per day and each pair of anglers tipped their guide. If we had rotated guides we would have pooled the tips and given them to Sidney. We tipped the lodge staff $15/room/day (I threw in a little extra because I specifically asked for some conch fritters and Kay makes some fantastic conch fritters). We pooled these into an envelope and gave it to Kay to distribute since she was running the lodge while we were there.
One more last thing (sorry). EZ and I had a 7:50am flight out of Freeport. Because of the low tide in the early morning, they decided to run us in the evening before (which was also low tide) and Sidney put us up in the Islander Hotel. This was strictly a low water / access to the boat launch site decision. I mention this strictly to help others avoid a surprise if they find out they are going to be taken into Freeport a night early. Access to the boat ramp at the Crossing can be restricted at low tides and Sidney is cautious about not having anyone miss their flights. A midday or later flight gives them some leeway when to take you to Freeport.
That's about all the observations and lessons I can recall from this trip. I am sending these strictly in the interest of sharing things I learned and with the sole intention of helping others plan their trip to Water Cay. These are my opinions and conclusions and the others from this trip may or may not agree with them. These are not the official position of Angling Destinations or of the great folks at Water Cay. I hope I have not embarrassed or caused consternation to anyone with this report. I am certainly no expert on Water Cay or on bonefishing in general, but I am happy to try to respond to any other questions. It was a really fun trip. I enjoyed it even though the bonefishing wasn't as fast and furious as when we were on our camping trip with Angling Destinations’ Destination X. I'd certainly go again to Water Cay for these reasons (1) no other boats; (2) the guides and staff are excellent (best conch fritters ever); (3) ease of flights in and out of Freeport; and (4) the presence of some big bonefish with possible tarpon, permit, barracuda, horse eye jacks, sharks, etc.
Written by Doug Jeffries