A Bonefish Wilderness

A Bonefish Wilderness

Exploring South Andros by Kayak

  • By: Will Rice
I search the landscape below as our plane makes its final approach to the airport. Below us is a maze of white sand flats, tidal creeks and mangrove-covered islands. We are flying over some of the best bonefish habitat in the world, but I'm more concerned about finding a spot to camp. The plan is to spend a week kayaking and fishing the interior (and relatively inaccessible) bonefish flats of South Andros Island in the Bahamas. It is early May, and Chuck Ash and I are flying in from Alaska with our collapsible kayaks.We are to meet our companions, Scott Heywood and Eric Berger, at the Congotown airport. Gazing from the airplane at the labyrinth of islets and channels, I'm glad to be going with some experienced companions. This is not a trip for novices. Logistics are a nightmare. There is no fresh water on those flats, and the aerial photos make it clear that getting lost is a distinct possibility. Mistakes would be costly. How do you say "no" to a trip like that? The South Andros airport is a cinderblock box staffed by officious customs agents in starched uniforms. The baggage handlers are Bahamian--typically dreadlocked and smiling. Our kayaks are a source of much head scratching and we are warned not to sell them in-country. Half an hour later we are unloading gear at Mars Bay Lodge. Bill Howard, the owner, is a friend of Scott's, and he is letting us use his facilities as a personal favor. Mars Bay is one of those well-run, unpretentious destinations for serious bonefish anglers. Good guides, good boats, good food and great fishing. The stories around the dinner table are encouraging, with lots of nice fish being caught, but I wonder, "Will we even find any bonefish?" Locating bonefish without the benefit of a guide is a difficult proposition. The interior of South Andros is a vast wilderness of calf-deep flats--mile after mile of ideal bonefish habitat. The problem is that with so much country the fish, although plentiful, are unlikely to be concentrated. Finding them can be overwhelming. Many years ago, I used a mid-life crisis as an excuse to spend a couple of winters cruising the Bahamas in a beat-up sailboat. I poked around in a lot of great bonefish water, but my success at finding fish was completely haphazard and due mostly to luck. Guides in places like the Bahamas have deep anecdotal knowledge of the fishery, learned from long experience. They know where the fish are because they have observed them over the years. We approach it from a different perspective: We will make educated guesses. Fortunately, both Chuck and Scott have spent a lot of years doing just that. I had always assumed that bonefish come to the flats to feed, and swim to deeper water for safety. But Scott--who grew up fishing and exploring the Bahamas--quickly puts me straight. The bonefish are not in calf-deep water just to feed, he explains. They can find the same crabs and shrimp in deeper water. However, bonefish are adapted to swimming in shallow water--the slime that coats their bodies helps them glide through water that barely covers their backs. Sharks and barracudas (their major predators), on the other hand, require more depth to swim optimally. Bones feel safer in skinny water. That is why they hang on the flats until the last possible second. "If the water is knee deep, you probably won't find many fish, at least on a rising tide," he says. We assemble our kayaks, load them and head out. The boats sit low in the water; the minor chop washes over the bows. They are laden with drinking water--there is no fresh water in the back country and temperatures approach 90 degrees in the afternoon--so we need a minimum of a gallon per day per person. Everything that doesn't fit into the nooks and crevices of our kayaks is lashed to the decks. We fancy ourselves intrepid explorers, but we probably look more like the Joads fleeing Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. Our first campsite is a patch of white sand along the edges of the mangroves and man-o'-war bushes. The tents are squeezed into a few open spaces and sunset turns the water in front of camp into a burnished gold mirror, broken only by a few tailing bonefish and the twin fins of a cruising shark. Tequila and lemonade take the edge off the freeze-dried food, but I am still curious how we will find the bonefish. The next morning I am wading a pure white sandbar with the kayak towing easily behind me. Far to the right, I see Chuck, similarly encumbered. Eric and Scott are working up one side of the flat. We are ready to put Scott's theories to the test. I see a school of half a dozen nice bones moving toward me, right where Scott would have predicted, and I drop a Pink Puff in front of them. A few short strips and I am tight to my first big fish of the trip; we've found the bonefish. Chuck heads off into a side channel and disappears. I work my way across the flat and scan for those telltale moving shadows. I scan the water and see the biggest bonefish I have ever seen--well over 30 inches. I drop a Gotcha a few feet from his nose and he follows it, but doesn't take. A second cast gets another inspection and refusal. The fish is so close that I am sure it will spook. Instead it simply changes direction and continues to cruise slowly while I make a dozen fruitless casts. A couple of those shots line the fish, but it seems oblivious. If I didn't have a close-up view of it, I would not believe it was a bonefish at all. During lunch, I mention this fish's behavior to Scott, who says his theory is that bonefish start out young and stupid, eating everything. As they get larger and see more anglers, they become incredibly spooky. But when they get old and really big, they have no fear--they just won't eat a fly. That afternoon Chuck finds a back channel that opens into a large flat that probably sees very little pressure from the guides. He comes back to tell us there are a lot of fish coming out the channel and suggests we hike in there for the afternoon. I hope to find a big, dumb one. I pick up some fish on the way in, and dawdle behind the rest of the guys. They are already heading back to camp by the time I get to the inner flat. The fish are gone. "Too warm," Scott says. "These shallow flats are heating up too much in the afternoon sun. Your lower legs are pretty good sensors of both depth and temperature. If it feels like a bathtub, you are probably not going to find fish. This time of year water temperature is the first consideration. This flat would be great in the middle of the day if this were March and the fish were looking for warmer water instead of cooler. " It is obvious that if we are to find fish on our own, we need to pay attention to the conditions. Most flats fishermen become guide-bound. They cast where they are told to cast, without ever putting the pieces together. If we are to be successful, we need to think like the fish. The next day we move camp farther back into the mangrove maze, then we plot a course with the aerial photos and enter the waypoints into the GPS. The two-way radios we carry are malfunctioning, but nobody seems to care; relying on electronics takes the excitement out of things. A few hours later, we find a campsite near a channel that leads to a huge back flat, and I see schools of bones moving through it. There are a number of sharks and barracuda lying in wait for them, though, and hooking a fish means turning it into food. I decide to put up my tent instead. I wander back to the water after setting up camp and find that the fish have disappeared--the water coming off the flat is bathtub temperature. We know where they will be in the morning, though. The next morning Chuck and I set off to explore the big flat behind camp. Chuck is a longtime deer hunter, and it shows in his approach to finding bones. His eyes scan the water looking for signs of fish. He is an expert stalker and believes visibility is the most important factor to catching bonefish. "If possible, you always want to fish with the wind and sun at your back," he says. "Keep your eyes moving. Sweep close--within easy casting distance--and then look farther out. You need to look into the water, not just at the surface. Don't look for fish--look for anomalous shadows, for flashes, any kind of motion or nervous water. The fish will change color depending on the bottom. When you are on white sand like this and looking down-light, you need to look for more subtle signs. Their silver sides are just like a mirror. "If you see a blue cast to the water in an area of white sand, it often means that the bottom is covered with 'scarfle' holes, where the bones have been rooting in the marl for food. Milky water is a good indication that fish have been feeding recently. You can pick out the bonefish holes because they are shaped like a deer's hoof print.The more loose sand surrounding the hole, the fresher it is and the larger the fish that made it. You can actually track the fish from the direction of the sand plume. They squirt the sand out their gills, so it is 'down-hoof' from the direction that they are traveling." Chuck's techniques work. He hooks a good fish that immediately turns and swims between us, not yet sure what is happening. The pod follows, and I manage to fool the last fish in line. We are feeling pretty smug about our double until the two fish begin to weave around each other, which leaves us to untangle ourselves as they both swim off. Our camp is completely trashed when we return. Garbage is strewn everywhere. Our first thought is to blame the four or five large iguanas that are sharing our beach and wandering through camp. The tracks we find tell the true story, though. The vultures have found us--a somewhat ominous and disconcerting sign. At the end of the week we fish our way back to our original camp. The fishing is so hot that at one point I do not notice a large lemon shark that swims to within a foot or so of my ankle before turning away. When he makes a fourth pass I decide it is time to move down the beach. The fishing is still good, but I look over my shoulder the whole time. The next day Bill meets us with a couple of skiffs, and we head back to hot showers, real food and beds without sand in them. The bites from the mosquitoes and doctor flies begin to fade. The guests in the lodge, who have caught plenty of fish without the privation we endured, clearly think us a bit strange. But there is a special satisfaction with catching fish completely on your own. Kayaks and Bones Shallow water, sheltered flats, and backcountry beaches are made for sea kayaks and tropical camping. For anyone who has pitched a tent alongside a trout stream or canoed a wilderness lake, a trip like ours will open new vistas. Boats like the ones that we used on Andros break down into two bags that meet the airline baggage restrictions (with a surcharge for size). There are also freight services that work with the airlines and allow you to pick up oversize gear at your destination. We used a Klepper and a Feathercraft--both doubles. The Klepper was easier to put together and disassemble, but the Feathercraft held more gear. There are other manufacturers that make similar models. They are remarkably seaworthy, although casting from them is a bit tricky. There are a few things to keep in mind if you are thinking of trying a similar trip. Gear is tucked into every available cranny, meaning that a lot of small, waterproof bags are much better than a few large ones. In most areas, you need to carry adequate water for the entire trip. A mix of gallon and liter jugs was easiest to pack. A GPS, good maps and the ability to use them are all critical if you are traveling to unfamiliar waters. Things look a lot different when your head is only a couple of feet above sea level. A satellite phone may seem like overkill on a wilderness trip, but if someone steps on a stingray, it will be invaluable. They can be rented very inexpensively. In many areas, particularly the Bahamas, it makes sense to hire a guide to go along with you. You will find far more fish, and he can resupply you with food, water and beer, and, most importantly, it avoids any hard feelings that might arise among the local people who depend on guide fees for a living. At the very least, you should have some local contact, like a lodge or guesthouse, to set up the trip, provide a shuttle, advise you on conditions, and act as a base camp. The logistics of South Andros make it a difficult place for a beginner, but there are other options. If you are interested in the Bahamas, consider the Exumas and the areas around Georgetown. However, be aware that there are sections of these areas that are off limits to fishing. In Mexico's Yucatan, you could try the inside flats of the Si'an Kaan Biosphere Reserve, or the waters around Punta Allen. Belize has outfitters that run kayak trips with base camps if you don't want to drag your own boat down there. Although there are no bonefish along the Baja California coast, this area has great kayaking, camping, and fishing for inshore species like roosterfish. Closer to home, Florida has a lot of fine water and you can rent hardshell sea kayaks. If you love fishing the tropics, and are looking for some additional adventure, a kayak, a tent and a set of flats booties are a great starting point. Just remember the bug dope. --W.R. Travel Details&Contacts South Andros deserves its reputation as a world-class bonefishing destination. It has lots of big fish--plenty of bones over 10 pounds are taken every year--and, even in a wind, you can find protected edges. Most of the flats are made for wading. They have a soft-enough bottom that the fish feed slowly, but are firm enough for easy walking. We were lucky to be able to fish and explore on our own, but that's not feasible for everyone. For most people, one of the South Andros lodges is a more practical option. Bill Howard of Mars Bay Lodge runs a serious bonefishing operation, with comfortable, but unpretentious, accommodations and great food. He takes only eight clients at a time and his guides are all local, with up to 15 years experience. He operates 16-foot flats boats, which will allow you to see far more water than we covered in our kayaks, and his location at the southern end of the island means that you are fishing flats that most other lodges don't hit. Most of the fishing is done on foot, so casts tend to be shorter than they would be from a boat. Another lodge option is to make your arrangements through David Bendix of Buccaneer Travel. Buccaneer offers adventurous, relatively inexpensive trips for hardcore anglers to the Glatos Bonefish Lodge at Kemp's Bay, as well as more luxurious fishing accommodations at the Ritz Beach Resort near South Bight. And Kaufmanns' Streamborn, a long-time leader in fly-fishing travel, also offers South Andros angling, with most of the bonefishing taking place on the south and west sides, Curly Cut and Water Cays, as well as the inland creeks. The lodges' season runs from November 1 to June 15. November and early December are good, but the cold fronts make mid-winter hit or miss. The interior flats start to warm up in March and provide great fishing. The fishing continues to improve over the next couple of months, but as the weather warms in May, the guides shift to exterior flats that remain cooler during the hotter months. Fly selection during our trip was fairly simple: Pink Puffs and a couple of Gotcha variations seemed to do the trick. For further information on Mars Bay Lodge, contact Angling Destinations (800-211-8530), or visit the lodge's Web site at androsbonefish.com. To talk to David Bendix of Buccaneer Travel, call 530-842-6355; buccaneertravel.com. Kaufmanns' Streamborn: 800-442-4359; kman.com.