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Hunting for bigger bonefish in the bahamas

  • By: Will Rice
It was a day burned into long-term memory. I had gotten a 37-foot sailboat stuck on a deceptively shallow Bahamian sandbar, one of my would-be rescuers had wrapped a line around my prop, and I could see a waterspout in the distance, the precursor to an ugly norther that was bearing down on us. Worse, I was a hundred yards away from the best-looking bonefish flats I had ever seen, and I knew that there was no way I was going to get to fish them. That was 18 years ago, in the middle of a mid-life crisis that involved an old beat-up sailboat, and two winters in the Bahamas.I caught a lot of bones, then and in the years that followed, but never one of decent size. I turned to chasing permit, but remained haunted by the idea of catching a big bonefish. And I still had that mental image of those flats at Sandy Point. Big bonefish-those pushing 30 inches-are one of the great trophies of saltwater fishing. Permit are considered much more difficult than bones, and rightly so, but their challenge lies more in their inscrutability than their caution. All bonefish live in a state of incipient panic, but the old ones have had that hair-trigger response reinforced thousands of times. My limitations on fish of that caliber had been painfully exposed by a handful of missed opportunities. And, as we all know, that is how fishing becomes obsession. So last season I called Scott Heywood of Angling Destinations for advice on a place to catch a big bonefish. He said he had the perfect spot and the perfect guide. When he mentioned Sandy Point, on the west side of Abaco Island, I could still picture those same flats. "I love Sandy Point," I said. Time heals all pain. I wasn't surprised that Scott had suggested a return to the Bahamas. The fish there aren't quite as big as those found in Florida, but they are a lot less sophisticated, and Sandy Point is a perfect place to expect big bones. It is located on the edge of the Marls, an expanse of flats and shallow water so vast that its reflection colors the undersides of the clouds a soft green. The outer edges, by Moore's Island and Gorda Cay, abut a deep trench that provides security, temperature control and nutrients for organisms living in the shallows. With several hundred square miles of flats, I hoped that there were at least some fish that had not seen many flies and that would not laugh out loud at my ineptness. I called my fellow Alaskan, Rich Chiappone, to see if he was as sick of winter as I was. The mention of big bonefish, white sand and sunshine put him over the edge. By the time we had made the long flight from Anchorage to the Bahamas, we were wound tight. The first day turned out to be as memorable, albeit in a much more pleasant way, as my previous visit to Sandy Point. Within the first hour I hooked a fish bigger than anything that I had caught previously. Though far short of a true trophy, it made me realize that bonefish, like trout, undergo a transformation when they hit about 24 inches. They are no longer just an excuse to spend a day on the water, but a challenge that will keep you awake at night. Of course, the difference between trout and bones is that big trout slow down-bonefish just get faster. Shortly after that first big fish, we got a graphic demonstration of why sensible anglers prefer bonefish to permit. Ricardo spotted the dark shadow of a stingray ghosting over the bottom, a big permit hovering above it. For 40 minutes, we cast every fly we had to that fish, without drawing a glance. Finally the inevitable happened, and Rich foul-hooked the ray. The permit followed its snagged companion until both fish were directly under the boat. We watched in fascination as the permit tried to pluck the fly from the ray's wing. Finally the fly came loose, the permit looked at it, hook now exposed, and slowly swam off about 10 feet and ignored us. We decided to go back to bonefish. After lunch we hit a long sand flat. Ricardo spotted a couple of fish in water too shallow for the boat, so I slipped out and waded toward them, the sand so clean that I didn't even bother with booties. My gear hadn't arrived with me, so I was using Rich's spare reel-loaded with a coldwater line. It was like casting overcooked spaghetti, so limp it was almost impossible to shoot. On foot, though, I could get much closer to the fish without being spotted. I took one of the fish, about four pounds, and as I headed back to the boat, Ricardo spotted a pair of cruisers and put Rich on them. His fish was a good two inches longer than mine. The next set of flats were too deep to wade, maybe three feet, and we discovered that we needed heavier flies. Most of the water around Sandy Point can be fished with flies weighted with bead-chain eyes (medium bead chain), but there are some areas where lead eyes are needed to get the fly down to a fish's cruising depth. Sink rate is perhaps the most critical part of the fly. Sparse, lead-eye patterns, such as a Bonefish Clouser, will dive fast enough to get in front of a big single bone cruising a deep flat. In addition to light and heavy versions of each pattern, we carried a selection of unweighted flies, like Pink Puffs and Chico's Bonefish Special. Tailing fish in the shallows need something that you can land close to them without a splash. On a dead calm summer day, with the water glassed off, you want a fly that will land like a size 16 Adams. A stiff breeze kept us close to the lodge on the "home flats" the next day. A protected cove within sight of town had schools of smaller fish feeding along the edges of the mangroves, shadowed by sharks and a large barracuda. In spite of the predators, the bones were much less spooky than their larger cousins, and we must have caught a dozen of them before we moved out onto some deeper flats, dark with turtle grass. A large cloud of mud drifted downcurrent, and we knew that there were fish around, though it took a while to find them, barely visible along the murky edges. A nice single swung toward the boat and Rich fooled him with a pink-and-white Clouser. As his fish screamed for deeper water, I spotted a pair and dropped a Gotcha in front of them. We had a double hookup until a mangrove shoot intervened, leaving Rich to retrieve some 200 feet of slack line. We ate lunch along the edge of a small expanse of pure white sand. Four or five acres across, it was bordered on three sides by deep cuts. Its shallow water meant cautious fish, but they were big. Schools of a dozen or more cruised the flat, moving quickly and exploding in panic at every flash of a line in the air. My most common problem (among many) with cruising bonefish is failing to lead them by as much as I intended. I am irresistibly tempted to watch the fish as I cast to it and the result is almost always a cast that hits the fish on the head. I finally remembered the first advice given to novice mountain bike riders-"Look at where you want to go, not at what you want to miss." My success ratio went up dramatically when I was able, at the last moment, to shift my focus from the fish to the spot where I wanted the fly to land. Given enough shots, though, even I can catch a big fish, and this flat was providing lots of shots. When a nervous pod of fish turned and came back onto the flat, I managed to throw far enough ahead of them to avoid spooking them. Then I forced myself to leave the Pink Puff lying on the sand until the school was almost on top of it. One twitch, and the lead fish jumped on it like it was candy. I tightened up and the fish left a contrail of sand as he flew off the flat, fly line slicing the water. Two long runs later, I managed to get a tape on him-just under 27 inches, my biggest to date. Meanwhile, Ricardo had put Rich on a double-digit monster. It tipped up on his fly but refused to take. Even with bonefish, wisdom comes with age. Later that afternoon, we hit the big flat directly across from the lodge. It was this very flat that I had seen from my grounded sailboat, and I felt a sense of déja vu. The tide was just starting to come up and its turtle grass bottom was only a few inches deep. It was impossible to see the fish in the low light, but all across the flat, tails glinted in the sun. It appeared to be bonefish nirvana, like hitting the Henry's Fork at the peak of the Green Drake hatch. We knew, with the assurance of novices, that this would be easy pickings. But reality soon set in. Our first problem was that the fish were feeding in huge bunches. Because we could only spot those fish that were actually tailing, we kept lining the ones on the outer edges of the school. The explosions of panicked fish were our only reward for that mistake. We soon learned that rather than dropping the fly right on the fish, as with a tailing single or double, we had to throw well in front of the school, to a spot that we hoped would be in their ever-changing path. When we guessed right, and had the patience to let the fly sit, we would eventually see our fly lines pointing at a mass of nervous water and upright tails. All we had to do was twitch. The explosions were dramatic and a screaming reel provided a satisfying sound track to the fight that followed. The second problem was that, foolishly, we had failed to tie any weedless flies. The shallow water seemed to call for unweighted flies, but they sank hook down, immediately hanging up in the thick turtle grass. Traditional bonefish flies, with their hook riding up, were only marginally better. If we didn't attract the fish's attention with the first strip, we would almost always foul the fly. One final problem was the sharks. With that many bones on the flat, there were lemon sharks cruising constantly. When we landed a fish we were careful to chase off any predators before we released it. However, one of the tired fish, a dandy that Rich caught, swam directly into a small shark that we hadn't spotted. Fifty yards out we saw a swirl and a spreading scarlet stain in the water. We belatedly rushed the shark to scare it off, but when we got there the front portion of the bonefish lay on the bottom, neatly severed just behind the dorsal fin. Ricardo picked it up and used it to lure other sharks away from the rest of the fish that we hooked. When we got back to the boat, he hung the remaining two thirds of the fish on the BogaGrip. The scale sagged to the five-pound mark. The day had been a revelation about the potential of Sandy Point. With a wind strong enough to limit casting to a single direction, and preclude altogether fishing many of the best areas, we had seen hundreds of bones, and had each managed to land fish in the seven-pound range. Nevertheless, we spent a lot of time at the vise that night, retrofitting our flies with weedguards. By the following day the wind had clocked north and, in a spray-filled quartering chop, Ricardo ran us around the town's namesake point to a group of mangrove-enclosed flats. The sandy bottom of the first flat was pocked with three-inch-diameter excavations, the telltale mouth prints of bonefish feeding on clams and worms. The holes appeared at least a tide old, though. The fish had moved on, traveling from flat to flat, like cattle moving to better grazing. The next stop proved more productive. White sand and bright sun made spotting fish almost easy. Unlike the fish we caught on the turtle grass, these fish were pure silver, reflecting the bottom like mirrors. Only their shadows gave them away. They weren't there in the numbers we had found near town, but we could wade on a firm bottom and look for the big singles and doubles that cruised there. When one of those fish headed for deep water, we were thankful we had lots of backing and good drags. Although Sandy Point has flats that can be fished in any wind direction, the most exciting areas are available only on calm days. Two sets of islands lie offshore. Within sight of the lodge is Gorda Cay, which turns into a Disney cruise ship carnival three days a week. Its flats host some big cruisers. We saw lots of doubles and triples, and most of the fish ran about four to six pounds. They get bigger, though. Rich got a 28-inch fish and I hooked what Ricardo said was the best fish of the trip. We had it almost back to the boat when it made one last dash, unfortunately right toward a cruising shark. Rich yelled, I spun the drag loose, and Ricardo shoved the boat forward, hoping to distract the shark. There was an eruption of mud and my line went slack. When we got there though, we found the shark circling frantically, looking for its missing meal. Ricardo spotted the bone, heading hell-bent for leather toward deeper water. Apparently the shark had hit the leader when it made a dash for its obviously hampered prey, and its sandpaper-rough skin had popped the tippet. The shark must have thought that bonefish had kicked in the afterburners when the leader broke. Gorda was fun, but Moore's Island was the high point of the trip. "Island" is actually a misnomer. Moore's is a miniature archipelago-a collection of mangrove-covered islets, rocky shores and enticing channels. The morning was frustrating, with big singles turning before they got in range, or ignoring our flies when we got a shot. Just before noon, though, we spotted a nice 'cuda. Rich fast-stripped a needlefish imitation in front of it and it charged with an explosive acceleration that defied belief. Half an hour later, Ricardo anchored up next to a small flat that ran along the end of one of the larger islands. We could see several schools of bones feeding among the mangrove shoots that speckled the lower end of the flat. Life doesn't get much better than wading barefoot on a calm and cloudless day, surrounded by schools of tailing bonefish. We wandered happily from one end of the flat to the other, like puppies chasing ducks on a pond. I lost a beauty when a loop of line flipped itself around the fighting butt of the rod. Another fish made a cat's cradle of my fly line in the mangrove shoots. Rich managed to land a nice one. Looking down on the fish's broad, flat head I could see the clear, thick film that covered its eyes like a protective lens. Ricardo stroked the fish on top of the head, as if he were petting a dog. The fish simply lay there, unrestrained, hypnotized by the touch. I have long known that a bonefish will go limp if turned upside down, allowing easy removal of the hook, but this was the first time I had ever seen this level of control. The afternoon flats were impressive, big dark expanses with whole schools of fish that ran five or six pounds, and an occasional jaw-dropping single. There were also mutton snapper here-far more difficult to fool than permit or bones. We didn't even come close. The last flat was an ankle-deep stretch of turtle grass. We walked several hundred yards without seeing a fish. Ricardo had just decided to turn back and look elsewhere when he saw the flash of a tail. With the low light, the stalk was slow. We could only see the fish when it tailed, and were afraid of overrunning it. We paused for what seemed an interminable time and finally the tail-a very big tail-popped up in front of Rich. It was an easy cast, but the fish, engrossed in the bottom, didn't see the fly. From my angle, I could now see the fish moving toward Rich and Ricardo. They crouched low, holding their breath, but were unable to see through the glare, and didn't dare try a cast. The fish finally tailed again, only 20 feet from them. Rich dropped a cast softly on the fish's nose, its tail went up again, and Rich tightened up. As the backing peeled off Rich's reel, Ricardo gestured to me and said, "There's another one." "Let's go get him," I said, and we made the same careful blind stalk. It was a repeat of Rich's hookup, as I dropped the Gotcha on him with a kneeling cast. As I regained line following the second blistering run, Rich managed to work his fish close enough for me to get a glimpse of it. It was massive-a great, gray, thick-shouldered pig. I knew I was fighting a big fish, but I didn't think it could possibly be the size of his. When we brought them together though, they were a matched set-a full 29 inches each. Sandy Point proved to be everything that Scott had promised. Big fish, lots of water, and great guides-just don't plan on using a sailboat to explore it. For further information on fishing Sandy Point, contact Ricardo Burrows, Rickmon Bonefish Lodge, Sandy Point, Abaco Bahamas, 242-366-4477; or Scott Heywood, Angling Destinations, 800-211-8530, www.anglingdestinations.com.