Visiting a fragile saltwater paradise in the Bahamas
"In time we were to discover that Inagua was not only a 'damned queer little island' but also one of those strange, exotic and truly fascinating spots of unbelievable beauty where color and movement, the wealth of natural existence, was woven into a fretwork of intricate and absorbing pattern." -Gilbert Klingel, Inagua: An Island Sojourn (1940) A damned queer little island is the kind of island I find most interesting. I am, after all, a resident of Key West. When I arrive with my fly rods at a destination that is predictable, comfortable and safe, I usually start looking for an exit sign before my feet even touch the ground.Great Inagua is many things, but predictable it is not. It is one of those uncommon places where you may see things for the first time, or see the same things in a different way. It is an island sharply defined by contradiction. Gilbert Klingel was a hapless sailor and naturalist wannabe who wrecked his sloop on a reef in the southern Bahamas in 1930. He was en route to the West Indies on a romantic notion to study lizards. He found his lizards on Great Inagua, and also discovered a thriving maritime habitat that in many places on the island remains untouched to this day. But in the shadow of the rare birds, reptiles and fish, thousands of acres of mangrove forests were cleared to create salt ponds. The mountains of raw salt that the ponds now create produce the highest elevation in the landscape. And, along the shorelines and over the pristine bonefish flats, there arrives a daily wave of illegal immigrants from Haiti. These refugees are met by a resident force from the US Coast Guard based on the island. This force patrols the Windward Passage in helicopters and cutters on a mission of homeland security-security for the American homeland, not the Bahamian. And just when you thought it was safe to go fishing, Great Inagua islanders are reporting the extensive slaughter of snook and other game fish. Piles of snook carcasses and heads have been strewn about the estuary. Most Great Inagua islanders don't eat snook; they are placing the blame for the indiscriminate killing on US Coast Guard personnel. Bahamian poachers are no better. They are still netting bonefish here. Tin washtubs full of bonefish are regularly taken out of the lagoon where they are sold for a dollar each. I long ago gave up the unrealistic notion that I could somehow go fishing and not recognize that other lives revolve separately from mine. On Inagua, those lives may not be simple, but they are sincere. Meet Ezzard Cartwright, 51, fishing guide extraordinaire, lifelong resident of Great Inagua. In the 1960's, he was guiding the occasional tourist for bonefish using wooden spooled hand lines baited with conch. He later operated some of the heavy equipment that carved up much of Lake Windsor in the interior of Inagua and its surrounding mangrove forest. He is the only fly-fishing guide on Inagua-the third largest island in the Bahamas. In fact, he may be the only fishing guide period, although someone will always claim, "hey, you forgot about me." Ezzard's clientele is representative of some of the finest-and most secretive-anglers in this sport. Fly-fishing anglers have quietly been coming to Great Inagua for years. I am traveling with my pal, Jeff Bass. We land my small airplane in Matthew Town and have to shout to one another to be heard over the rotor wash of a departing Coast Guard helicopter. More Haitians are on the horizon. Capt. Ezzard Cartwright has the weathered face of a man who has lived and worked half a century in the hot sun of the southern latitudes. His light skin makes him stand apart from the other islanders. "Mine is the only white family on the island," he says without a note of prejudice. It seems more of an observation like describing the plumage of a bird or the coloration of a fish. He is bright-eyed, reserved and wary; we warm up to him immediately when he takes us in his pickup truck to the Morton Salt Guesthouse for fried chicken. "So, tell me about Inagua, "I request. He looks at me, thinks about it for a long while, and then says, "It's great." I can see that we are going to get along just fine. Our afternoon will be spent wading a shallow reef line for tailing bonefish. Later, Ezzard will take us into the salt ponds, where a remarkable habitat has evolved supporting bonefish, permit, tarpon, snook snapper and plenty of the prey necessary to sustain them. This is remarkable because the ponds are completely enclosed except for the raw ocean water that flows through diesel pumps and used to replenish the evaporating flats. On the way to our cottage, where we will rig for the afternoon's wading, we pass the small boat harbor where there are maybe 50 or 60 Haitian refugees lined up in the shade against the wall of a building. Ezzard has told us that we are the only visitors on the island right now, but looking at the Haitians we can see that is not exactly accurate. Try to dream of the most pristine bonefish flat imaginable and that vision could well be the shoreline along the southwest corner of Great Inagua. The backdrop is the magnificent 1870's vintage Matthew Town lighthouse that stands on a bluff overlooking a wild and rustic sugar-sand beach. The sand flats transition to turtlegrass, rock and finally living coral reef. Bonefish pour over the reef line on a flood tide. Ezzard says that you may not see schools of bonefish here; you will just see individual fish everywhere. They are not, in fact, everywhere on this afternoon-but there are plenty of them. Jeff Bass hooks a big bonefish immediately. I hear a yip of joy, which is quickly followed by an expression of despair. His leader has severed across a sharp edge of coral. There is a light glassy swell that pushes over the reef line in the calm conditions. As the water sucks back to make way for the next small wave, bonefish tails can be seen waving in the wash. This fishing is similar to the reef-line flats fishing in Honduras and Belize. These are oceangoing fish so they grow to be fast and large. Because oceangoing fish are also keenly aware of their predators, they are not easy to catch. Fishing the backwash adds an additional dimension of challenge. Like fishing a rip or any moving water, the fly does not stay where it lands. Fishing the reef line also requires a moral imperative. With live coral underfoot, one misstep could kill thousands of living organisms. It has never been more important to walk softly. In the crystalline conditions where it is possible to see the minutiae of the reef, there are no excuses for walking on anything that is alive, even with the distraction of bonefish tails sprouting out of the surf. I hook a fish that races laterally across the flat. As a swell lifts up over the reef, I can see this fish clearly through the face of the wave. I may have caught several thousand bonefish in my lifetime but I have never before seen one in this perspective. Here is my familiar quarry framed in a window on the water. It is as if I am fishing for bonefish through the looking glass. Thank you Lewis Carroll, this moment is truly, "As large as life and twice as natural." At sunrise the following day, we are once again in the pickup truck, this time towing a small aluminum skiff and bouncing across the rip-rap of crushed gravel roads that partition the salt company's evaporation ponds. The truck spooks a big animal in the scrub-six big animals in fact-they are wild burros that flush with a kick of their hind legs and a hee-haw bellowing that tells us, apparently, that they are deeply offended by our presence. Some 38,000 acres of this marsh are set aside for salt production. Seawater is pumped into a mangrove reservoir that feeds brine into the shallow crystallizing ponds. Once the lakes have evaporated, trucks bulldoze the salt that remains and convey it to a shipping terminal where it is loaded on a freighter. A first look at this hyper-saline environment makes one think that no living creature could possibly exist here. In fact, the mangrove reservoir is teeming with fish. Brine shrimp feed crabs, birds, sand perch and other baitfish. Tarpon, snook and barracuda do not have to hunt far for a meal. Ezzard explains that the entire area was once laced with natural subterranean channels that fed a network of blue holes with direct access to the ocean. Fish used this network to enter the estuary on the tide and feed in the mangroves. The salt company felt it could not manage the precise tidal flow necessary for the evaporation ponds, so they closed the blue holes with bulldozers, effectively making a huge 250-square-mile self-sustaining aquarium. In this maze of mangroves there are mosquitoes enough to drain a warm-blooded creature of all bodily fluids. We fight back with modern technology (Deet). But poor Gilbert Klingel, the shipwreck sailor exploring Inagua in 1930, wrote, "My shirt was no protection, the mosquitoes pierced the thin cloth as though it did not exist. In desperation I tried wetting it, thinking this might discourage the insects, but it made no difference… I even tried caking my face and neck with mud but the slime would not cling, it ran down my shirt and across my body in little rivulets. I cursed the predicament in which I found myself. I cursed my own stupidity." Ezzard brings the skiff to a wall of mangroves where we see a crawl space hacked out of the jungle with a machete. This creek opening is only large enough to allow the passage of a small skiff. It will provide us access to another network of hidden lakes deeper in the salt pond estuary. With mosquitoes swarming into our eyes, nostrils and ears, I hear Ezzard say, "Tarpon, twelve o'clock. Coming at us. Lots of them. They are pouring out of that opening." Like two fat people trying to pass each other in a dark narrow alleyway, we meet the tarpon head on. To an impartial observer it might have been difficult to tell which party was more startled. I make a flailing response with the fly rod that would have been humorous had it not been so pathetic. Even though these are only 20- to 40-pound fish, their departure in the narrow confines of the mangrove jungle is enough to make the bottom of the aluminum skiff shudder. The lagoon serves up other surprises as the day progresses. Around one clump of mangroves we see a pair of flamingos, large as swans, with plumage scarlet from a diet of brine shrimp. Under the shadows of the mangroves there are snook, although Ezzard says they number far fewer than when they were discovered several years ago by the guardsmen stationed here. This lake area forms the heart of the Inagua National Park, created and managed by the Bahamas National Trust. Parrots, flamingos and turtles are all protected here, Ezzard says. "But they don't do anything about the fish." That seems ironic given that Great Inagua's representative to the Bahamian Parliament, V. Alfred Gray, is also the Bahamian Minister of Fisheries. "Those snook are disappearing fast," Ezzard says. "They are killing them like crazy. There is nothing wrong with them taking a few fish to eat, but if they keep taking coolers full of snook off the island week after week there will be nothing left. This is our home. They have to consider that." On the way out of the estuary, we pass another cluster of flamingos. The birds congregate in Great Inagua because as the water evaporates from the salt ponds brine shrimp concentrate and provide a vast food source. Other salt ponds in the Bahamas and Caribbean have been converted to aquaculture, growing shrimp, crabs and conch. There are 60,000 flamingos on Great Inagua, making it the largest colony in the Western Hemisphere. The revered West Indian flamingo is the national bird of the Bahamas. But the aesthetic value of this beautiful bird was not always of primary interest here and in other areas where they congregate. In 1771, English naturalist Mark Catesby extolled upon the pleasures of dining on the tongues of flamingos: "…the flesh is delicate and nearest resembles that of a partridge in taste… A man, by concealing himself from their sight, may kill great numbers of them, for they will not rise at the report of a gun…but they stand gazing, as if astonished, 'til most or all of them are killed." It is a complicated natural world on Inagua, one full of contradictions for both those who live here and those who arrive as guests. Anglers can be emissaries in a foreign land. This is an island that cannot tolerate high-impact tourism or a lot of angling pressure. Thankfully, none yet exists. On this fragile ground, those who consider the significance of the natural environment will want to walk softly. In remembering Great Inagua, Gilbert Klingel wrote, "When all other memories of the island will have faded, merging indistinctly with a horde of other recollections, and when the shape of all the birds, animals and people with whom I had contact will have become but hazy shadows and dim evanescent figures, I shall need only to close my eyes in a quiet place to bring it all back once more." Travel Notes Capt. Ezzard Cartwright can be reached at 242-339-1362. He can provide fishing and bird watching guide services. He also has four oceanfront cottages to rent. Bring your own food. Restaurant service is extremely limited. Bahamas Air www.bahamasair.com has three scheduled flights weekly to Great Inagua. A freighter that transports some 1 million tons of salt annually from Great Inagua accepts passengers on the route from Matthew Town to Port Canaveral, Florida. Call the Morton Salt Company in Chicago at 847-228-1544 for details. Those with environmental concerns about the Great Inagua National Park can contact the Bahamas National Trust at PO Box N4105, Nassau, Bahamas. Jeffrey Cardenas can be reached at [email protected].