When Stanford Johnson was a teenager, back in the early fifties, he spent weeks at a time sponging on the west side of Andros. When he had a boatload full, he would return to the small village of Red Bays. Here the sponges would be prepared for shipment to the brokers in Nassau. The wool sponges, much favored by European women for their soft, velvety texture, brought about 20 shillings each. Then the Bahamas were under British rule and these 20 shillings converted to about $3.00 U.S.... a veritable fortune to a teenager back then. But these premium wool sponges were rare finds even in the fifties, so boatloads were filled out with hardhead, grassy, reef and yellow sponges. The hardhead sponges still brought 20 shillings for 6-12 depending on the number it took to fill a string. The others brought much less and still required the same amount of effort to collect and clean.
Sponging was, and still is, hard work. A sponge's endoskeleton consists of sharp glassine spicules that have to be removed before they can be sold. To breakdown these spicules, Bahamians pound the spicules with wooden paddles. The wielding of these wooden mallets for hours at a time under a hot sun burned a lot of calories and brought on a powerful thirst. For food, Stanford and the other spongers planted beans, potatoes and other vegetables on small fields. They lived mostly on fish, conch and the fruits of these vegetable "farms". For water, there was a well at McQueens Town and if you went far enough up most of the creeks, you'd eventually run into "sweet" or fresh water. Even today, a vast quantity of freshwater is exported daily from Andros to quell the thirst of Nassau's tourist trade.
It was on these forays up the creeks that Stanford learned the lay of the land and the ways of the interior. On the way to collect freshwater, Stanford supplemented his usual diet with blue crabs and snapper found in the creeks. While foraging, he passed tarpon and school after school of bonefish. He spent years exploring these west side creeks all the way from Red Bays in the northeast to the North Bight at the island's waist. Like few others, Stanford knows this extensive area and how to gain access to Andros' vast interior through openings on the west side.
Stanford Johnson is now a very fit 65 year-old man and an accomplished bonefish guide. He has guided for many of the best lodges on Andros and long ago, secured his excellent reputation. We've fished with Stanford for many years and have reaped the rewards of his expertise all the way from the Joulter Cays on Andros' north shore to the flats at Stafford Creek and from Chalk Sound all the way to the Berry Islands.
When we began the planning for live-aboard trips on Andros' west side, it only seemed logical to get Stanford involved. Stanford was all for it and looked forward to exploring once again, this time with anglers, the creeks and flats of his youth. Stanford chose his long time friend and a celebrated guide in his own rite, Percy Darville, to be the other guide on our little project. Percy has been guiding in the Berry Islands for decades and also has an excellent reputation and a loyal following. The only time Percy couldn't join our expedition was the third week in October when Jack Nicklaus was coming down to spend some time with him. While Percy does not know the west side of Andros, he had all the requisite skills to quickly learn the area under Stanford's tutelage.
At 2,300 square miles, Andros is the largest island in the Bahamas Archipelago. Andros occupies 43 per cent of all Bahamian land and this huge mass is riddled with channels, cuts, creeks and bights, some of which pass through the entire island. While it may be only 50 miles to travel the west shore from Red Bays to the North Bight, there are a thousand miles of shoreline and hundreds of square miles of flats in this convoluted maze of creeks, salinas and openings. This remote shoreline is one of the least accessible areas in the Bahamas. Here there are no roads, no pop cans, no villages and no footprints in the sand. It is literally a no man's land ñ just our kind of place!
For seven glorious days in October it was ours. Old friends Dr. Brian Crock, Dr. Larry Towning, Dr. Craig Johnston, Eric Berger, Angling Destinations photographer Jeff Stine and I explored the raw land surrounding The Horn on the west side of Andros. We moored the 61' Hatteras, appropriately named the Outpost, at Williams Island. Penny and Fred Wheeler, the owners of this lovely shoal-draft yacht, served as our crew. Percy and Stanford were our guides. Our job was to explore the shallow waters that surround The Horn and attempt to decipher this maze of creeks and basins. Maps to the area lack detail and in many cases bear little or no resemblance to the actual geography.
If the wind was prevailing from the usual northeast, we often stayed on the outside flats. But if the wind was from the west, these outside flats became milky due to wave action and we opted to go up the creeks. This option minimized the effect of any of the unsettled weather we experienced during our week. What we found on both the exterior flats and interior creeks were bonefish in every imaginable configuration: singles, doubles, small groups, huge swirling schools, mudding fish, tailing fish, still fish in skinny water, cruising fish on white sand bottoms, fish on soft flats, hard coral and hardpan, bones on the move and bones lollygagging on the edges of the mangroves, big bones spiking up over shallow worm mounds, little bones hiding in the milky surf and bones scuttling on packed sand flats, their tails, dorsal fins and the anatomy in between completely exposed. We saw hard to see fish and fish absurdly easy to spot with black backs over white sand. You name it; we saw it. We saw a few permit and even caught one... talk about a bonus!
We diligently explored every area we visited because every area held promise. Consistent success breeds a certain "ability to focus". This drive to be constantly attentive brought a tired but happy crew back to the Outpost each evening. It was then, when your eyes were tired and the sunscreen and sweat had stained your shirt's neckband, that the luxurious Outpost was most appreciated. We loved our home from the wonderful meals to the powerful air conditioning, from the spacious cabins to the hot showers and from the satellite TV baseball playoffs to the DVD movies. Almost every evening after dinner, we sat on the back deck sipping port and smoking cigars while recounting the day's activities. This was a special time in a special place.
"Jeff tossed me a small plastic bag filled with Jolly Rancher hard candies. I tucked the zip lock in my shirt pocket. Stanford slid the throttle forward and we streaked towards shore, the 4-stroke motor barely audible on this soft, still morning. We quickly motored up a creek and cut the engine scattering bonefish in five feet of gin-clear water draining out over a mocha colored bottom. The sky was overcast with rain clouds scudding in from the west. The tide was high and a light wind slightly scuffed the flat. These were poor conditions to find bonefish. The only option was not to fish at all, so we sought out the lees of the mangroves where we had a small "window" of calm water. We hoped to see fish in these unscuffed areas. I hopped out of the boat and waded east along the edge of a long low, mostly submerged cay. I waded quietly on a hard coral bottom riddled with crab hidey-holes. Brian waded north along the other edge while Larry went with Stanford to pole another cay.
I immediately spotted a small bonefish in the calm window. He was fearless and aggressive and pinned my fly to the bottom almost the moment it hit the shallow shore water. "Maybe this won't be too bad." I thought as I reloaded and watched the just released 3 lb. bone swim away. As I lost track of my previous catch, I spotted a small disturbance a few yards back in the mangroves. A big tail spiked up, then flapped over comically as a mud appeared at the base of a small mangrove shoot. I followed the tail as it disappeared only to see it poke up once again a few feet further through the mangroves. The bushes were too dense to even consider a cast. I popped a watermelon Jolly Rancher and paused to consider my options.
Maybe I could spook him. A piece of coral well thrown might spook him just enough to cause him to swim out. Then I could get a shot. I squatted down to search for a piece of coral, but as I did, I lost sight of the fish. If I lost the fish, a piece of coral was of no use to me. Then a thought came to me; a thought so brilliant and so lucid that I now consider it to be perhaps the pinnacle of my angling career. An idea that I congratulated myself for even before I had tried it. Emboldened by my obvious genius, I took the Jolly Rancher from my mouth and holding it like a dart, pitched it to the left and just slightly beyond the fish. At the splash, he darted about two feet then turned and swam the 10 feet to the mangrove's junction with the calm slick. I tossed my little silly legs gotcha and he pounced, flaring his dorsal fin and tail as he sucked the fly back toward his crushers. I struck and he ran towards deep water. Yes, I landed the fish, but all that is meaningless. What was important was that I had devised a new angling technique ñ the Jolly Rancher Flanking Maneuver and I was a smiling mass of self-congratulations, laughter and pure homo sapien piscatorial pleasure. I donated another Jolly Rancher further down the beat and it worked like a charm with similar results. This one was grape. I really think any flavor will work, but please, if considering the JRFM, remove the wrapper first." SSH Journal Entry October 15, 2003
If you are considering a trip aboard the Outpost, you should know a few things first. The Outpost is a first class, completely refurbished, absolutely immaculate 61' shoal draft Hatteras. It sports two 220 hp, 6 cylinder, Isuzu engines that hum contentedly in a room that is clean enough to eat off the floor. The air conditioning system is superb. You may even ask the crew to turn the A/C down a bit. We did when it reached 68 degrees on board! The plumbing system runs on fresh water so there are no smells commonly associated with marine toilets. The reverse osmosis water system produces 225 gallons daily so there is plenty of water for drinking, showering and washing gear. As mentioned before, the guides are top notch as is their equipment. They run 4-stroke engines that power modern flats boats with flush decks, trim tabs and carbon fiber poles. A center console Carolina Skiff is available for non-anglers or for snorkeling forays. Kayaks are also available for anglers wishing to explore on their own.
Penny and Fred Wheeler run a tight ship. They are enthusiastic, personable, competent and very safe. They have a great deal of experience running charters in the Keys and Marquesas. They did a fantastic job and we are thrilled to be working with them. The meals onboard were superb and plentiful. This was a flawless trip with no complaints from anybody in our group. In fact, our group has already booked a return engagement next October.
Is this trip right for you? It should be your choice only if you love exploratory angling and understand the realities of raw, unquantified and rarely visited locales. There are no guarantees here in this land bordering The Horn. On this wild side of Andros, the weather may not cooperate, the wind may come from the west clouding the exterior flats or the creek that looked so good on the map just might not pan out. Simply put, the outcome is unknown. But isn't this the essence of fishing... or of any adventure. If you cannot agree to these terms, this trip is not right for you. But if you love to walk on the wild side, this trip was designed for you.