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Mayaguana Bahamas... by canoe 06-11-2005


Arriving on the heels of the first named storm of the hurricane season, we dodged thunderheads from tropical storm Arleen and landed on the old airstrip that was originally built as part of a U. S. missile tracking station. The huge concrete strip was poured in the early days of space exploration and is now used by only a few wayward private pilots and Bahamasair three days a week. We touched down, off-loaded our tired bones and watched to make sure our luggage had come with us before wandering over to the "terminal". This building was well named for this old hanger was truly terminal. With no doors to close and with only a few odd pieces of graffiti on the walls, the terminal would soon be reclaimed just like the deserted military barracks that stood on the hill overlooking the strip had been. Happy to have arrived with our gear, we jumped in Earnel "Shorty" Brown's Baycaner Resort van with its jauntily airbrushed pink flamingo logo (this gaudy cartoon was sipping a Bahama Mama while stretched out under a palm tree). As soon as the Bahamasair Dash-8 had lifted-off for Nassau, what appeared to be all the cars and trucks on the island raced down the massive runway converting it from a landing strip to a drag strip in short order.

We headed for Pirate's Well, one of three permanent settlements on Mayaguana. We were on the least developed and most isolated of the Family Islands. We were a long way from the casinos and nightclubs of Nassau. Hell, forget Nassau... we were a long way from even the bonefish lodges of Andros and Abaco. We were in the old Bahamas. A Bahamas of 20, perhaps even 30, years ago. Consider this: there is only one hotel on the island and there is not ONE single flats boat. Shorty is thinking of getting one, but for now, Mayaguana remains unsullied by the trappings of modern bonefishing paraphernalia. Good or bad depending on your perspective.

Mayaguana, the only island in the chain to retain its Arawak Indian name, is the easternmost island in the Bahama's archipelago. If you travel about 350 miles southeast of Nassau or 450 miles southeast of West Palm, Florida, you'll find this little gem across the Mayaguana Passage from Crooked and Acklins Islands. Standing in the Windward Passage, Mayaguana is just northwest of the Turks and Caicos with the Caicos Passage separating it from this British Crown Colony. It is home to 300 or so fisherman, farmers and their families... and some of the biggest bonefish you will find anywhere in the Bahamas.

On our arrival afternoon, we decided to use the remainder of our daylight to explore close to home. We ran the van down Bay Street (which runs along the beach) to Blackwood Point. We saw a few bonefish, but had a hard time with poor visibility and no fish in shallow water. I caught a nice barracuda in a tidal pool and decided to wade a bit deeper after I caught a 4 lb. jack in waist deep water. If I couldn't find bones, then a bigger jack would do nicely on this the first afternoon. I saw some big, dark fish cruising in chest deep water and tried to parallel them hoping to get a cast. They were swimming fast zigging and jagging like prowling jacks, but somehow didn't seem to fit jack mold. I thought then that maybe they were permit, but I really had no idea what they were.

Suddenly they veered into more shallow water toward Jon Cave. I yelled at him to get ready, but he was looking into the glare and said he saw nothing. I told him to cast between us. He did, but he was too far to the left. I told him to cast more to his right and again he did. Suddenly he was tight to a big fish. I thought he might have a permit, or at least a jack. Heck, I really had no idea what this very dark, almost black, fish was. A few minutes later, we knew. Jon had caught a beautiful 8 lb. bonefish. And he had caught the smallest one in the group! There must have been some legitimate 10 lb fish in that group of four. Not a bad way to start a trip! ... and less than a half mile from where we were bunking!

That night over conch fritters and cold Kalik beers, we decided to forgo breakfast and be in the van headed for the flats by 6:30 a.m. We packed extra sandwiches and lots of drinks basically planning to combine our missed breakfast into one big, high tide lunch. This was a good decision for within one hundred yards of where we shoved off with the canoes, we saw tailing fish. Jon went up one creek, crossed over to a sand point, and stood like a heron waiting to ambush any bonefish that were working their way uptide. I took another creek and immediately saw tails. Unable to make an accurate cast into the strong easterly breeze, I opted to race ahead on the sandy shore to a point where I could get upwind of the tails and use the strong breeze to my advantage. This worked quite well. Eventually, I emerged from the creek having caught two or three nice, big tailers. From this vantage point, I could see that Jon was also hooked up at his ambush point. He spun in circles, with rod bent, trying to land what was obviously a big bone. I watched for a while and only turned away when I saw a flash out of the corner of my eye. I stared at the spot. Soon, in water that seemed too shallow to hold a fish, a tail kicked up again. I climbed up and over a hummocky flat that was lightly peppered with turtle grass until I was within casting distance. I threw my fly at the tail, but the fish had stirred up so much marl in the pale turquoise pothole, that he never saw it. The little bucket that he was tailing in had only one exit point. I decided to put my fly there and wait for him to leave. He seemed content to mine the pothole and waved his tail about testing both my patience and my strategy. But good things come to those who wait. Eventually, I saw his snout emerge from the mud and head towards my fly. I stripped, he pounced, I stripped again, and he was on. With little water from which his big tail could gain purchase, he splashed in big frothy surges as he struggled to reach deeper water. When he reached the edge of a bar, his tail bit and he was off, throwing a mesmerizing rooster tail in the line.

This is the way my morning went. Pure heaven... big fish, tailing in very shallow water... it simply doesn't get better than this. By 11:00 a.m., it was all but over. We then struggled to find fish. As the sun rose higher and the flats heated up under the hot June sun, we could see fish begin to mud in the slightly deeper, but cooler water of the creek's main lagoon. You could wade to the muds and catch fish, but it was not as rewarding as the superb sightfishing the morning had offered. Such is summer bonefishing. Get up early and fish in the night-cooled waters or show up late and be convinced the island offers little. It was quickly apparent that sleeping in would not be an option. No lingering over coffee for us. It would be up at dawn, slam a quick cup of coffee to kick-start the motor, then pile into the van. Our plan was to skip breakfast and double up on sandwiches for lunch.

On day 2, we decided to try Abrahams Bay. Compared to previous visits, there was much more water in the bay even at low tide. As a result, fish were hard to see and those we did see were often schooling to avoid predation much like bonefish do everywhere at high tide. On closer examination of our tide tables, we could see that our lows were well above mean low. In other words, the water never got very low. This is important at Abraham's Bay, as the area between the reef and shore becomes a shallow water haven at low tide and a perfect place to find bonefish. We could see that our week would be hard here. While the higher mean tides would help us by cooling the flats at Curtis Creek, the tides at Abraham's Bay would make it much tougher both to wade and find fish. Even with this less than optimal situation in the bay, I had a great day. I caught numerous fish and in the afternoon, managed to hook a few real giants. One fish was truly memorable... As I waded south, Jon Cave, who was writing a story on our trip for "Fly Fishing in Saltwaters" magazine, was on shore optimistically waiting with camera at the ready apparently confident that I could find an "appropriate" fish to photograph. After towing a few dinks to shore, Jon politely photographed my catches, and then sent me back with the words,
"Now go get me a big one!"

Like a bird dog, I zigzagged back and forth in the midthigh water, until I eventually went on point. In the pale, sun-dappled waters, I saw something. Creeping forward like my Weimaraner locked on a rooster pheasant, I stared at the form until it made the mistake of turning sideways. The sighting was confirmed. As the fish slinked from thigh deep to calf deep water, the bone went from big to bigger. Finally, I launched a cast as the fish hovered almost invisible in the slightly milky water right next to shore. I cast again and again getting not even a disinterested look from this big beast. On probably my tenth cast, the big fish turned, confidently followed my fly and ate it in a big, slow open-mouthed slurp. Perhaps he had now seen enough of these small pink shrimp that something clicked in his ancient brain. Perhaps he finally decided he should start eating some of these morsels that were suddenly everywhere.

I struck and he pulsed off the flat draining my big Charlton reel with the speed that only a big fish can generate. I was not going to lose this fish if for no other reason than to show Jon that I can follow orders. After a classic battle, I towed the fish to shore while yelling and waving at Jon. He got the idea and quickly marched down the rocky shoreline towards me. When I got the fish in, I was amazed. Here was a fish! He looked old. He had a big triangular head scattered with dark blotches that looked like an octogenarian's liver spots. This fish had numerous scars and some crooked scales probably from old wounds. In back of his dorsal, he had a fresh wound that was just healing. It looked as if a shark or other wide mouthed fish had bit down on him from above putting matching teeth marks on both sides of his body. On one side, each tooth mark was scraped into a tapering "V" where the predator's teeth had failed to get a lethal and probably final purchase on this grey old man. When Jon arrived, He immediately grasped the size of this bone.
" That's a GOOD fish! Look how broad he is," he whispered.

We took numerous photos knowing that opportunities like this are rare. We tried to hide the scars by the way we held the fish. We knew that magazines love pretty, perfect fish, but we also understood that this was an ancient warrior and he should bear his scars proudly. We also knew that this fish was in his twilight. He was broad and heavy and just seemed old. Soon enough, Jon and I parted company with the big fish. We knew he would not see too many more days and that his phenomenal strength would soon wane. This fish had seen too many of the big tides that come with the thin slivers of new moons and again with the bright light of full moons. These extremes bring more of the murderous crew of sharks and big 'cudas into the shallows. We hoped he could survive a few more cycles.
" I told you to get a good fish. You listen well," Jon said through a smile.
Without even saying anything, we knew we were done with our photographic efforts. Now we would just go fishing.

Jon packed away his camera and Fred Abramowitz, a water lawyer from New Mexico and my co-conspirator when planning this adventure, and I stalked a pod of grazing bones under a sun too often hidden by racing clouds. In the light of a late Bahamian afternoon, thoughts soon turned to conch fritters and slow-baked chicken. After agreeing to call it a day, we dashed through a crowd of voracious mosquitoes, threw rods and packs into the back of the van and drove back to Pirate's Well for showers and gin and tonics before fritters and chicken. Sleep came early and easy.

Over the next few days, we concentrated our efforts on the creek. Mornings were great, afternoons were tough. We kept talking about staying out until the gray sky sucked the cantaloupe color out of the sunsets, but our early starts made cocktail hour seem pretty attractive in the late afternoon.

Our days in the creeks followed a somewhat predictable schedule. With a morning low, we had great tailing fishing on the falling tide. We then hit the channels where big bones returned from the outside to run pell mell over the shallows headed for the creek's blue-green lagoon and safety. I assumed they spent the night's high tide in the cool lagoon. By morning, they had left the lagoon to spread out onto the flats on the falling tide. Here we met them just after dawn as they grazed in the shallow cool waters.

Nic Medley, a fisheries biologist from New Mexico and a newcomer to bonefishing, asked me one day,
"What do you look for when trying to see bonefish?"
I told Nic,
"That's a tough question!"

I told him it's a question best answered by years spent walking the flats. Experience trains your mind and your intuition. Enough days on the water teaches your mind the difference between sticks and shadows and between a hunk of seaweed and an old conch shell. It trains your eyes to know what is wave-born fakery and wind or tide-born nervous water. Eventually, you just know. Your mind doesn't consciously read the water temperature through your calves causing you to veer shallower or deeper; it eventually just directs you through some process that somehow makes a spot look right. I told this to Nic, but I also told him that bonefish come in many guises.

The uninitiated often see their first bonefish as part of school. These schools can often be easily spotted from 200 yards away as they move up a flat. But, at other times, a big school can remain invisible until they are virtually at your feet. Then the debris on the bottom can suddenly transform itself into a school of 25 bonefish. It makes you want to smack your head with the base of your hand and mutter "How could I be so stupid". Of course, bonefish come as singles, doubles, trios and quartets. But most often, they come as pairs: the fish itself and its shadow below. Whether in a group or alone, bonefish arrive in every gradient from dark, easy-to-see black backs to silver, barely visible wraiths. Bonefish can flash as they turn on their sides to forage in the turtle grass or they can shudder the surface as their big tails makes a barely discernible boil. They can be found via full blown nervous water or well ahead of a dark rippling "V" as they power upwind or uptide. They can be seen as simply subtle "motion' or a "change in the bottom". Sometimes they can just be felt as in " I know there are fish here." These are the times when you can't quite figure out what you are experiencing, but you know just as sure as you know you love this sport that they are "around" you.

Of course, you can find bonefish schooling in big, milky muds. These are great spots for beginners or the perfect spot to save a "tough" day and at least feel a pull on your line. But you can also find bonefish in very shallow water by looking for puffs or for older puffs that appear as slightly milky water. Experienced bonefishermen often scan a flat rearranging their focus to look for this stirred up marl. In this manner, you can sometimes track bonefish by using puffs just like a footprint. Follow the puffs in the right direction and they get denser. Eventually, you will find the fish.

I told Nic that subsurface fish are best seen when the sun lights up a flat, but that tails are often best seen when a big cloud covers the sun. At times like this I told him to look directly at the surface where the light is fractured into a million glittering bits. Tails sparkle and shine or glint once and disappear betraying their position for only a nanosecond. I told Nick that finding bonefish is plugging into you powers of observation and concentration. As an experienced trout fisherman accustomed to looking for subtle riseforms, Nic got what I said.

I told Nic that bonefish can be seen when their big powerful tails break the surface as they slowly chug through areas too shallow to fully submerge this their biggest fin. They are not actually tailing then. You can just see their tails. The legendary tailing posture occurs when they actually tip down to root in the marl or suck up a crab, worm or shrimp. This is the posture that weakens the knees and spoils the casting cadence of even the most seasoned of anglers. I told Nic not to be too anxious to know it all and leave these early adrenaline-filled days behind. For it is these days as a neophyte that bring you back again and again as you try to recreate that first big rush. Like an addict, even the most jaded of anglers seeks the incredible high of a big bone tailing in shallow water.

On our second to last day, I decided to abandon the sure bet of fish powering up the creek's main channel on the rising tide to check out a small bay that I had never fished on this or any previous trip to the island. Remember the part about it just looking right, well it did. I was prepared to be disappointed. I wandered away from my companions and the "sure bet" following only a hunch and a wish. I walked along the shore where the rising tide was just starting to reclaim the dry, bright sand. I looked out among sparse mangrove roots and almost immediately saw a tail rooting behind a pale hummock. I waded quietly climbing up and over sandy mounds often balancing on one leg as I moved as quietly as possible before stepping down into the next hole. It was slow tedious work. Eventually, I got into position. I threw a cast and immediately hooked up. But instead of a bonefish, I launched a small puffer fish up and out. He flew over my shoulder onto the dry sand behind me. This was the ride of his life! Smiling at my bad luck, I unhooked this little thief, released him and then couldn't find my tailing bone again. But now I at least knew they were here!

The next two tailing bones I saw chased my fly, but I just couldn't seem to get hooked up. Finally (sometimes my stupidity astounds even me), I examined my fly. Apparently, the puffer had smashed my hook flat. I clipped off this ruined fly, threw it in my chest pack as a souvenir and in short order, was hooked up to a beautiful eight-pound tailer. After I had released this fish, I looked across the bay to see a big tail waving in the wind slick caused by the steep rocky, shoreline. I caught this fish and two more a little further down the shore. One tailer followed my fly all the way to my feet. Delicately and with as little motion as possible, I dropped my gotcha onto his head. This big bone sipped my fly right out of the water column like a toddler at a drinking fountain. It was like worm fishing. Absurd, but very cool. He was another big fish! I did feel a little weird setting the hook with the fish only inches from the end of my rod tip. Yes, to be successful at bonefishing, one must be able to throw a long cast!

As I released this fish, dark, threatening clouds couldn't contain themselves any longer. While huge anvil-shaped thunderheads topped out to cover hundreds of square miles, I had been focused on the few square meters in from of me. Now I could no longer ignore them. Big splattery drops softened the water's surface and dripped off my hat's big visor. As by some pre-squall agreement, I stopped wading and the bonefish stopped tailing. As soon as the rains quit, tails popped up and I stepped forward. We repeated this dance strictly following the terms of our contract as squall after squall pummeled the flat and then quickly moved off. In the humid quiet between each squall, I could hear the surf roar on the outside. These unusual acoustics made my mind wander to tsunamis and what it must have been like to hear those great waves roar ashore. Soon enough, the deathly quiet was broken by yet another squall. It was one of the best two hours of bonefishing I had ever had in my life. As if in some reverie, I totally lost track of time.

Eventually, Nic joined me and we stalked a tailer next to shore. Unfortunately, we waited too late to cast and the fish eventually spooked. I would have loved to have seen Nic get that fish. It was such a classic situation... wind slick, big bright tail... it would have been a memorable moment! But, I don't think Nic will be easily dissuaded. Bonefishing has captured his imagination and this big tail will only seat this desire more firmly in his minds-eye.

What a great trip! Jon Cave, Fred Abramowitz and Nic Medley were great companions. We all got along splendidly and enjoyed each other's company. We promised to try and do another adventure together soon. Shorty and his crew at the Baycaner were great! Thanks to all... We WILL be back!

Geez, how to summarize the wonderful angling opportunities available on this island while at the same time issuing a word of caution...
Let's try this:
Mayaguana is a great trip for energetic, self-contained anglers willing to forgo the security of a guide. To enjoy this trip, you must live or die according to what you bring to the table. As such, it is not for everyone. In addition, you must be willing to paddle, pole or haul a canoe and be physically fit enough to wade to find your own opportunities. For some, it is heaven, for others it will not be. In addition, Mayaguana is also not for anglers looking for big numbers. I consider it a trophy bonefishery. We caught numerous 7, 8 and 9-pound fish and one 10 pound "warrior". Jon hooked and lost what he thought was perhaps the biggest bonefish of his life. And that's saying something... this experienced Floridian has been chasing bones for over thirty years!

If you are considering Mayaguana, remember non-guided bonefishing is truly a skill sport. Your success will depend on you. As such, Mayaguana offers rich rewards for some, yet threatens disappointment for others. If you understand these game rules and love to do it all on your own, Mayaguana may be just for you!

Written by Scott Heywood


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