Returning to a Blue-Water Fishing Paradise
When my memory loses its focus, something that seems to happen with more frequency these days, it takes only the remembrance of the pull of a big fish to summon with clarity the displaced recollections of water once traversed. The pull of a yellowfin tuna recently off Bermuda's Argus Bank has evoked this reflection: There was a time in my early 20's-in an era of bulletproof youth-when I sailed alone across the Atlantic in a small sloop. I had only a sextant to guide me but I clearly remember now the celestial fix on a chart of the mid-Atlantic showing that I was atop this magnificent seamount, the Argus Bank, and that a landfall in Bermuda was imminent.How fortunate we are that fishing can return us to such places. The fly-fishing event that recently brought me back to Bermuda is hosted by Bob Brien and Flip Pallot, and sponsored by Bacardi and Bermuda's Department of Tourism, all of whom have a long history of supporting sport fishing on the island. The intention is to expose fly anglers to an offshore fishery thought by many to be the exclusive domain of conventional fishermen. "We are also here to honor the memory of Pete Perinchief," Bob Brien said. Pete brought the island into the spotlight for anglers by heading up Bermuda's Fishing Information Bureau for many years. A passionate fly fisherman, he invited Joe Brooks to the island and later Lefty Kreh, who set flyrod records on the Argus and Challenger Banks. Pete also helped establish bonefishing in Bermuda. He created the Horror fly pattern that is still widely used on bonefish flats worldwide. Among Pete's many contributions to Bermuda's fishing is a notebook record he kept for 30 years of every fish he caught and the details of that day including weather, sea conditions, and temperature. On Christmas Day for many years, Pete would call me in Key West and offer his greetings to my family. He would inquire of my health and happiness, and of course, he would ask about the fishing. Pete Perinchief was 82 when he died in Bermuda last year. He is missed. This year, 12 anglers will be fishing with five noted Bermuda captains and their crews. It is not a tournament, and, as stipulated in the invitation to the event, "all egos are to be left on the dock." Revenues generated from the event will be donated to a charity benefiting Bermuda children. As our group meets on the dock, the long rods generate more than a few bemused smiles from these seasoned captains who know the strength and speed of the species that forage on the Argus Bank. Says mate Kevin Winter, with a smile, "This fishing often ends in tears." The twin banks of Argus and Challenger rise up off the ocean floor some 25 miles southwest of Bermuda. On Argus, the water depth falls from 30 to 700 fathoms in a shear drop. Although Bermuda is geographically on the latitude of the Carolinas, the great river of the Gulf Stream is just to the west and it carries with it not only the temperate Bahamas-like weather and clear water but also a multitude of fish from the southern latitudes. In addition to yellowfin tuna, our target species are wahoo, blackfin tuna, almaco jack, little tunny, rainbow runners, and an outside chance at a blue or white marlin. We anchor on the 38 fathom curve of the drop off and begin a chum slick. Anglers unaccustomed to offshore fly-fishing are often dismayed by the chumming aspect of this sport. Chumming is completely foreign to many fly fishermen, but once the fish appear and the sight-casting to them begins, it is easy to forget the dirty work that brought them to the surface. On this day we are fishing with the father and son team of Keith and Kevin Winter aboard the Playmate. They have found a niche on the bank with an upwelling of current rising off the seamount like a thermal over a mountain top. Baitfish are immediately visible off the transom and the fathometer marks bigger, predatory fish out of sight and under the hull. This anticipation sharpens our focus. Kevin is sewing an ocean robin to a hookless kite rig that will allow the fish skitter on the surface. It is a dance that tuna cannot resist and it often brings them up from hundreds of fathoms below. The robin, like many of the other fish that frequent these waters, has a multitude of common names. In the United States, the ocean robin (Decapterus macarellus) is known as a speedo. In Bermuda, it is sometimes referred to as a mackerel scad. The predators know it only as something very good to eat. With the robin teasing under the kite, Capt. Keith Winter methodically chunks with sardines and cut robin off the stern creating a slick that extends 100 yards. Birds arrive next to feed on baitfish that are being driven toward the surface. Formations of squid also come off the seamount wall moving in unison as if choreographed to a score of "Eat or be Eaten." Capt. Russell Young aboard the Sea Wolfe described an encounter with a huge school of squid on a previous day that had spooked and suddenly became airborne. "The angler onboard pointed to this school of hundreds of squid coming out of the water at once and said, 'Hey, look at tha…!'" He never finished the last word because the sheet of squid flew toward him and one squid in the school shot directly into the angler's mouth. "When the ink began to flow," Russell said, "it was not a pretty sight." As I keep a sharp lookout for errant squid on final approach, I see above the chum slick a pair of beautiful tropical birds. They are known locally as Bermuda longtails, and they often appear with the squid. This is encouraging because behind the squid there may be marlin, wahoo or tuna. One of the captains in the group calls over the VHF radio seeking advice about fly-fishing for marlin. This fly-fishing business is new territory for some of the captains. Thousand-pound blue marlin are more common to these guys than an angler on the boat with a fly rod. Capt. Alan Card on the Challenger radios back to say, "Throw a bonefish fly at 'em," and he doesn't mean a Crazy Charlie. Instead, he suggests throwing a fly tied in the shape and size of an actual bonefish. Last year, on conventional tackle, a 650-pound blue marlin was caught and killed on the east end of the island in 3,000 feet of water. In its stomach were four intact bonefish, recently ingested. "Within a matter of a few hours, that marlin and those bonefish had crossed paths somewhere," Alan said. "It makes you wonder if the bonefish were that deep, or if the marlin had come into the shallows to feed on them." Aboard the Gringo, where anglers in our group are trolling teasing lures and rigged for marlin, there are no dreams about granders, or even 650 -pounders. A 200-pound blue marlin on a fly rod would do just fine. Several marlin will be raised on this trip but none induced to take a fly. In the chum slick, meanwhile, a kaleidoscope of gamefish has appeared and they are eager to eat. Angler Susan LaPierre has hooked an enormous almaco jack. At nearly 30 pounds it will clearly eclipse both men's and women's IGFA flyrod world records in all tippet classes. She skillfully lands the fish, and then, amid the celebration I hear the sharp, unhappy words of Capt. Keith Winter who says, "Who the hell tied this leader?" Oops…All eyes turn toward me. I do not think about fishing in terms of world records and so when I tied Susan's leader, I tied it as if I were tying my own-a leader to catch fish and not necessarily conform to the IGFA rules and regulations. I swallow hard because I understand that my ethics should not be force-fed to my fishing partners. Susan's fish will not be allowed as an IGFA world record because of my unconforming leader. Kevin Winter breaks the ice by saying, "Well, then, let's just eat it." Susan nods and smiles. "That sounds good to me," she says, and her would-be world record almaco jack goes into the icebox. Rainbow runners now join in the melee at the transom. There are also little tunny (Euthynnus alletteratus), which we call bonito in Florida, are known as false albacore in the Carolinas, and are called mackerel here in Bermuda. More almaco jacks appear (Seriola rivoliana) which the Bermuda captains refer to as bonito. Go figure. I'm waiting to see a Gwelly (Psudocaranx dentex), just because I like the sound of it, and because I am eager to see what kind of names people are going to conjure up for this one. A wahoo rockets through our chunks of ocean robin. Earlier, Bob Brien was casting a deftly tied chum fly (a wad of marabou that should be called the Bad Hair Day fly) when a wahoo mistook it for a chunk of robin and shot across the surface of the water at the speed of light. Anglers on another boat hundreds of yards away were astonished to see this berserk tiger-striped wahoo blitzing through their slick attached to our boat by a fly line. When Bob finally had the wherewithal to square off to the fish, the serrated teeth of the wahoo easily sliced through the 16-pound fluorocarbon leader. On another boat, Esteban Neely, fishing aboard the Sea Scorpion with Capt. Steven Cabral, would become only the second angler ever in Bermuda to land a wahoo on a fly. The activity behind our boat is now at a fevered pitch, and this further incites the birds. Shearwaters and gulls start diving on our flies as we cast to fish. In Bermuda, there is a special remedy for the birds when they get too aggressive in the chum slick. One mate keeps a hypodermic needle and a bottle of rum on board. This is not used for self-medicating but rather to inject the sardines with an 80-proof cocktail that the birds cannot resist. Two or three spiked sardines are all it takes to make a bird fly erratically and miss its target. The laughing gulls, in particular, seem to think this is funny. Mate Kevin Winter is on the bridge of the Playmate looking at the fathometer when he calls out, "There is something heavy underneath us at 10 fathoms." The hapless ocean robin dangling from the kite suddenly vanishes from the surface and a void in the water is left in its wake. "Here they come," says Keith. "We've got yellowfins in the slick." Let the games begin. Yellowfin tuna in the 30- to 50-pound class are boiling behind the boat and three of us are casting at once. For those who admire the aesthetic beauty of fish, it is impossible not to stand in awe of a yellowfin tuna. Forget for now that the take from this fish will be so sudden and so severe that the yank can rip gear from the hands of even experienced fly-casters. Disregard, too, for a moment that the sustained, accelerated first run of an averaged sized yellowfin is capable of tearing off 400 yards of backing before pausing. Instead, stand back and admire a creature of rare beauty, unmistakable with its long, trailing dorsal and anal fins that arc back to a series of bright yellow saw-tooth finlets. Witness, for a moment, hydrodynamic power personified, a warm-blooded fish with such a high metabolic rate that its internal temperature is greater than that of the sea water. Stand back and admire this fish-and then hang on for the ride of your life. With offshore fly-fishing there is joy and despair and very little middle ground; it can be oh so good, or so very bad. Sometimes there can be hours of fishing a seemingly empty ocean in sea conditions that are so rough that they leave an angler physically debilitated. And then there days like these on the Argus Bank. Each fish that boils to the surface seems larger than the one before. An angler's body aches from catching fish yet still he cannot quit casting. On days like this, one feels blessed to fishing. I never dreamed when I sailed across the Argus Bank nearly 25 years ago that I would one day return to the same water with my knees pinned against the transom of a sport fishing boat and holding a fly rod bent double. I cannot imagine what will happen the next time I traverse this water, but it is a good bet that I will remember this trip. Travel Notes: Anglers interested in the annual Bermuda Flyfishing Invitational should contact Bob Brien at 276-466-3438. For information on Bacardi's angling presence worldwide contact Alvin Harvey at 441-295-8596. Bermuda's Hamilton Princess Hotel offers elegant accommodations. Call 441-295-3000 or reach them at www.fairmont.com. Mark Twain stayed at the Princess in the early 1900's where he would relax on the veranda and recite poetry to groups of adoring fans. Of Bermuda he wrote, "You may go to heaven if you want to-I'd druther stay here."