It is hard to know what drives a fishery. If you judged our week on Andros just by what we experienced weather wise, you would have predicted great, if not stupendous, fishing. Our days dawned clear and by 11:00 AM, small billowy clouds intermittently brought a short halt to any beat, as we had to wait for the shadow to quickly zip away towards Cuba. In short order, a hot sun bathed the flat in optimal hunting light and a short step forward was followed by another as the familiar march resumed until another small cloud would stop you dead in your tracks. This is the ying and the yang of bonefishing. The sport has more ups and downs than Richard Nixon's political career.
But that's bonefishing... the weather is rarely perfect. Accept that fact or take up beachcombing or snorkeling. But our weather was beautiful. We had lots of sunlight, moderate or at least manageable winds, and clear water. And yet we were seeing 30 to 40% of the fish we had seen on previous trips to the West Side of Andros aboard the Outpost. There was no logic to this until you looked back on the weather a few days before our arrival. For the last ten days the winds had been strong and out of the west. It had been cool. Very cool in fact, especially for May! Even now that the winds were out of the usual northeast, it was still cool. At no time were we ever hot. This is not something you notice until you have reason to. The temperature was in fact ideal. I guess perfection is a relative term for had it been typical for May, shirts would have been sticking to our backs by late morning and arms would have reached for the coolers far more often than they did. As it was, it seemed more like February than May. I guess we could have dealt with a bit less perfection and a little more uncomfortable May-like heat. We would have preferred that gooey, sunscreen-basted, sweat-soaked, thick-tongued all worn out feeling to all this perfection. Like all fisherman, we would have gladly traded our comfort for a few more fish.
Even though on the surface everything seemed just right, we felt like the bonefish were not sure whether they wanted to be on the flats or not. They were skitterish when in this very shallow water and seemed nervous to eat. Often they held in 2 to 4 feet of water and seemed reluctant to commit to the mangrove edges. They rarely tailed and when they did, rarely tailed for long. Our first clue should have been when we measured the flats at 74 degrees. In my experience, this is cool for all but the biggest bonefish. In good fishing shape, the flats are usually in the upper 70's through the low 80's. We concluded the fish were holding in the consistent temps found in a bit deeper water. If you could have interviewed a bonefish, I'm sure he would have told you this was "sweater weather" at best.
To corroborate our oft-discussed theory, we could see shallow muds in 6-10 feet of water in many of the creeks. We assumed that when the flats heated up due to all our good weather, the bonefish would flood the flats arriving in droves and consuming everything in their paths including shrimp, crabs, worms, cigarette butts and even poorly cast flies. But it never really took off the way it should in May. If you had a two-hour session on a rising tide where you caught 6-8 fish, you might find only a few fish on the next flat. This was not typical of our previous trips. Don't get me wrong, we had a great trip and everyone had some great days, but it wasn't drop-dead good all the time and it wasn't what we had come to expect on this the wild side of Andros. Perhaps we had been spoiled by previous trips, but I don't think so. I think the weather was cool and weird almost everywhere in May this year. Tarpon fishing was virtually shut down in Florida, it was 60 degrees in the northeast and Wyoming was getting torrential rains. In fact, my wife told me we got 5.5 inches of rain in a state that may get 14 inches in a year! I don't think she was as thrilled as I was to be missing all this snow and rain back home especially when the downside to my weather was idyllic conditions and a few less fish.
Again, we still saw lots of fish. Just not the numbers! We also saw a few nice tarpon and got some shots at 70-80 lb. fish. Unfortunately, we saw no permit, but we know most fish don't leave the deeper water until it consistently warms up.
Given all these difficulties, I did end up with four days in double figures with one day with 15 fish and one day with over twenty. Not bad for a fishery that was somewhat off! On my second to last day, I had a superb morning on big slinky fish that finally were acting like the bonefish I know and love. Barely visible in a tough chop, these chrome-sided singles confidently slid onto the flats and consistently ran 7-9 lbs. Now that's perfection!
It had been awhile since I had caught a big bonefish. By big I mean those big-shouldered, flat-headed monsters that have left the cute and cuddly class reserved for poodles and hamsters and entered the realm of Rottweilers and wolverines.
In front of me was a real beast.
While small bones bob and weave on the flats as if looking for a handout, big bones slide into the shallows all slinky and invisible. They act like any bonefisherman worth his salt should act. This guy in front of me was the palest of green when visible. He moved slowly and seemed at times to be just bottom. Here's where bonefish got their name the grey ghost. With these guys, you're never really sure you see them until the light is just right. Then two to three feet of grey-green vapor suddenly becomes real.
After a few days of catching the dinks, this big bone seemed to be sent by the Bonefish Central Committee to restore the species storied reputation. I knew from experience that this is the moment when casts fall apart. A thousand things can go wrong; fly lines can wrap around rods and fighting butts can reach out to grab any fly line loop not battened down. If you do manage to get the line in the air, you can screw it up by being too short or too long, you can pile your leader or smack the fly, or you can line the fish or pop the monster on the head with the fly. As the big bonefish departs that island to take up residency on another Bahamian gem, you are left with plenty of time to describe to yourself what you just did. You might swear or look to the heavens. Some anglers drop their rods to their side and turn their necks to stare off in the distance. We all know the posture of defeat. Shoulders slump, arms drop, and expletives waft over the pale yellow flats. You cheesed the cast, you screwed it up, you blew it... whatever term you prefer, you now have plenty of time to think about what just happened.
But if you made a good presentation, no such leisure time exists. Things happen fast from here on in. Through the adrenaline haze of thumping chest and buzzing fingers, you must now get the fish to eat. If you do, your journey continues. If not, you have another block of time to think of all the synonyms for rejection.
But if the big bone eats, it all happens right then. If there is one moment in fishing that we all seek, it is the nanosecond before and the few seconds after the hookup. This is when all hell breaks loose. When a big bone decides to take his considerable bulk elsewhere, he leaves an angler with a fly line caterwauling thru the air. If you manage to get it on the reel and avoid plinking your 10lb tippet like a broken violin string, line begins to melt off your spool. You hope you set your drag right as thoughts of getting spooled replace the dozens of other concerns - the cast, the retrieve, the hookset, that you just successfully put in your rear view mirror.
Fighting a big bonefish is a different game. If you haven't done it for a while, it can be a real shocker. What may have been routine with the poodles becomes awe inspiring in their larger, supercharged brethren. If you're lucky, you eventually get to see your fish. If you are really lucky you get to measure and release your trophy ...Twenty-eight, 29, 30 inches may translate to 9,10,11 pounds ...bonefish, albula vulpes, the grey ghost... reputation intact and duly noted.
I took another step forward. Time would tell whether I was up to the task.
Our time aboard the Outpost was indeed perfect. And there was no downside to this perfection. We enjoyed superb meals including hogfish in Parmesan, beef and chicken enchiladas, a succulent ham, shrimp fettuccine and enough great desserts (coconut cake, cherry cheesecake, key lime pie...) to sink any effective diet plan.
Captain Wheeler was his usual competent, entertaining and engaging self, while first mate or self-described galley slave, Marsha, contributed not only her cooking skills, but a chipper attitude combined with a great sense of humor.
We were a group of four old friends and one new friend who fit in like a soft leather glove. I had been to Kamchatka, Chile, Argentina, the Seychelles and the Bahamas numerous times with my old friend Bob Hartmann and to Argentina and now the Bahamas with his son Kurt. This is a great father/son duo with Bob often playing straight man for Kurt's significant sense of humor. These two are a lot of fun to fish with. Bob may have caught the smallest bonefish I have ever seen landed on Andros, but he still managed to land a lot of other nice fish given his considerable casting skills. Kurt also wins the award for the largest bonefish. Congratulations on your nine pounder... that is a considerable achievement! Joining this group of old friends was Bill Ellis who I had been to Kamchatka, Argentina and Montana with. Bill is a relaxed gentleman who I always enjoy fishing with. Bill had some great days and his hunting skills really apply when he is on the flats. He is a quiet, patient angler and I always appreciate his self-contained good-natured ways. The unknown was Doug Ellis from Georgia. Doug is a textile engineer and a private pilot. He may be the most considerate yet passionate angler I have ever fished with. Always willing to share a story or a joke, Doug was a joy to have along and our whole group invited him on any future forays we might make. So here's to you guys. Thanks for the great fun at meals, the terrific conversations and the entertaining times we had while fishing. I look forward to many more.
Written and photographed by Scott Heywood