Pilgrims in Inagua

Pilgrims in Inagua

  • By: Jerry Gibbs
  • Photography by: Jerry Gibbs

Click image for slideshow.

“I’m only recommending this trip for capable, experienced, do-it-yourself anglers,” Captain Vince Tobia, who runs Cattaraugus Creek Outfitters, told me. I’d expected that kind of description about fly-fishing on the Bahamas’ Great Inagua Island after reading The Bahamas Fly Fishing Guide, which suggested “. . . [it’s] the ultimate, and most rugged DIY fishing in the Bahamas,” adding “. . . [it’s] awesome but you have to earn it.” Rod Hamilton, who pens diyflatsfishing.com, wrote “. . . [Inagua offers] some of the most unique fishing opportunities . . . [but] I would not recommend it for any spouse or non-fishing partner other than the most adventuresome.” Even Gilbert Klingel, who in 1930 wrecked his yawl on Inagua, and changed from a puerile snob into a touchy-feely naturalist, recognized the unique nature of the place, calling it a “damned queer little island.” And as I would find out soon enough, in many ways it still is.
Despite those warnings, we were signing on for the island’s rugged, end-of-the-road aura and varied fishing opportunities. And, despite Tobia’s pause, we told him that women were coming, too. His answer: “You sure they’ll be all right? There’s really nothing there.”
We were fishing-travel tested, all of us, and the women, immutably independent, included: The Little Dictator, from Colombia, and General Lighthouse, of bedrock New England stock. There was also Señor Exigente (a.k.a. Mr. Picky-Picky), and myself, your faithful correspondent.
Once we arrived, last spring, the predicted kaleidoscopic and diversified fishing opps were immediately evident and sometimes pretty strange. Here, as on other islands, you can wade classic bonefish flats 100 percent of the time. But then there is this: Morton Salt—the primary island employer—has re-mapped Great Inagua’s interior into a sometimes otherworldly lowcountry of interconnecting canals, in-use or abandoned salt evaporation ponds and, to feed them, sprawling, manmade Lake Rosa (a.k.a. Windsor), with its maze of dead and living mangroves, flats and hidden lagoons. This shallow lake is a self-perpetuating nursery and marine pasture for landlocked tarpon, bonefish, snook, barracuda and possibly permit. No sharks. Daily, ocean-pumped water carries plankton, krill and a potpourri of other delectable comestibles, including fish eggs, into the lake (eggs of gamefish as well as forage fish). Hatchlings begin noshing away in this aquarium. This is what I am told. What I know is that there are snook in here upward of 30 pounds, and baby tarpon typically ranging between 15 to 20 pounds, with some weighing near 60. Rather than lunar-orchestrated events, “tides” here consist of current generated by pumped outside water, not only in the central lake but in the canals and channels throughout the island. And they do affect the fishing in assorted spots. Think of it as a kind of marine tailwater, flows varying at key fishing spots. Along the coasts are sprinkled natural “creeks” of varying sizes that access lagoons and their flats. Some of these arteries require boats to reach, others offer foot access to the fishing.
The whole business of bashing about on Inagua’s Afghanistan-like roads, trying to nail down meals, lodging and places to fish afoot, has been a non-starter until spring of 2013. After numerous recon missions (read, “hard fishing”) with pals, the earlier mentioned Vince Tobia teamed with Inagua native Henry Hugh, and also tapped the well of fish-and-wildlife information gleaned from two generations of forebears and now the privy intelligence of Henry Nixon, superintendent of Inagua’s national park. Tobia developed a program that offers lodging at Henry Hugh’s Inagua Outback Lodge, an end-of-road Hobbitland of umbrellas, gazebos and docks, plus a bar/dining hut, wind power, WiFi (unbelievably) and a fully equipped cottage for two. A second cottage is slated for use this year. From the lodge you can fish the beach, walk to flats, drive to others, and alternately hire Hugh and either his G3 aluminum skiff or flats skiff to reach still more flats or to ply the secrets of his nearby creek that opens into a lagoon maze for wading or boat fishing. The creek gives up tarpon, big jacks and ’cuda. A bonus to fishing with Hugh is his “world’s best” conch salad.
Because we were four, our crew stayed in Matthew Town at Enrica’s guest house (Tobia arranged meals cooked and served by two great Inagua ladies). The place is centrally located for probing the hot island fishing spots reachable, in our case, via a circa O.J. Simpson, off-road-rubber-equipped Bronco owned by Hugh and included as part of Tobia’s packages. The other vital element of these trips includes a fantastically detailed list of fishing spots keyed to laminated satellite maps, again included in Tobia’s DIY offering.
Urged on by the frequent traveling cry of “Arrear burros!” from El Señor, we barreled the Bronco over the island, smashing through wild donkey dung, trying to remember to keep the 4x4’s rear window up after coating tackle and the two women—choking between road jolts—with a patina of white coral dust. We’d stop to pound flats, catch fish, and find the most bizarre fishing at current-pulling culverts. Here you cast upstream for tarpon that lazily slurped your flies, or swung down-current for maybe a tarpon, sometimes barracuda and, amazingly, bonefish that find their way in and stack there. It’s crazy.
Several times we followed a secondary canal, its water achingly clear as a spring creek. In it were bonefish, mullet, small ’cuda and a confetti of baitfish and snappers. The little water gave to a wide lagoon where truly huge barracuda torpedoed away into deep water. With them gone we entertained larger bonefish while wading the near-shore flat. While General Lighthouse and The Little Dictator did not fish as much as usual, they delighted in exploring afoot and luxuriating in the low surf along many beaches. Señor Exigente and I once returned along an ocean beach for lunch to find them abubble with excitement.
“We were just sitting in the water,” said the General, “and this bonefish school swam in right beside us. And then it went up along the beach. Close!”
“And snook! A group of snook passed between us, and all of them went up along the beach, too!” said The Little Dictator.
The Señor and I exchanged looks.
What developed then and after was a strange pattern of surf slopping, which is not so strange for snook, perhaps, but wacky for bonefish. Primarily on higher tides the fish came into low breaking surf, grubbing in the sand and often still digging like pigs at slop, bodies totally exposed, as a wave receded. Sometimes the surge spun them like whirligigs along their lengths. Once righted, they’d feed again. Even the snook would come in this close. You had to slap a fly near their heads because in moments your fly and leader would harvest weed. When it worked, they ate. El Señor, hot for snook, switched to a tarpon fly that seemed to attract a bit less weed cling.

DIY is far from Inagua’s only game. In the 1970s, Ezzard Cartwright began gleaning the experience that would establish him as Iguana’s reigning—and only—guide. As would any professional, he views recent DIY activity in his bailiwick with something less than enthusiasm. He needn’t worry. Over the years Ezzard has built an international reputation and popularity that recommend booking dates with the man a year in advance. He runs a fleet of Alumicraft skiffs and is building up a Lowes jonboat sporting, of all things, a Louisiana-built Go-Devil outboard that’ll run in spit. “Get me back where fish never saw a fly,” he says. Over the years Ezzard has carved through the mangroves a scattering of launch spots where he accesses both the interior lake and coastal flats. At times he’ll drag his aluminum vessels nearly an hour behind his Ram pickup, then run you an hour on the water. Of course you’ll catch bonefish just shy of double digits. He runs his operation with an iron fist, advancing a somewhat intimidating demeanor until engaged in conversation.
I met Ezzard early one morning as I chatted with his assistant, Austin, while the lad donned reeking underboot flats socks then suddenly looked up and nodded. Ezzard had materialized like Ahab’s first apparitional appearance on the Pequod’s quarterdeck, glowering. At me. But we talked and I learned of mutual acquaintances, living and dead, and how, unlike many flats guides, Ezzard begins his days at dawn in hot weather when his fish seem far more responsive. I also learned the man offers another island lodging option: two cottages with two bedrooms each, full kitchens and maid service. A group of anglers from British Columbia were fishing nine days with Ezzard. Their trip coordinator, Bruce, informed us he’s been fishing with the man for nine years now, despite owning a house on Eleuthera. And they were catching fish like crazy, including Bruce’s 30-pound snook.
Our group of stalwarts, though, delighted in achieving successes on our own. Really, there was only one mishap. Once, having stopped to assess the Bronco’s chances of getting through a particularly deep, soft and sandy stretch of road, one of The Little Dictator’s favorite Crocs was inadvertently kicked out, the loss only discovered later. Incredibly, returning days later from somewhere, El Señor and I spied the lost shoe in the road, anointed with feral donkey ca-ca. There was a formal presentation to LD that evening at dinner.
Though DIY anglers before us had consistently caught remarkable numbers of larger fish, we continued to release the typical average Bahamas bonefish until a final visit to Inagua Outback Lodge. The “flowing” tide, as the incomer is called here, had yet to fully cover the white sand flat where Hugh had me start as he drifted back, wading with the skiff. “Few fish here,” he said, “but they’re big.” And so they were.
The three coming to me now, jinking like lions before a full charge, were too big for bonefish; but they were. It took two casts before the lead fish ravished my spawning shrimp fly. It took several of my heartbeats while holding the not-yet-moving weight before the old fish, surely in disbelief, then knowing, fled for the deep water. The line was gone, the backing going fast, Henry hollering behind me, and then nothing until I hollered, too, some awful things. There was no curly, failed-knot pigtail at the tippet’s end. It was a clean break, and running my fingers above it, I felt roughness in the fluorocarbon. A simple nick in the compromised leader likely finished things. “How big?” I asked Henry.
“Big. Nine. Could’ve been 10.”
Later, after a jack crevalle in Henry’s creek mouth charged my tarpon fly (its head, then eyes, above water—really), a rare downpour blasted us into returning to the lodge, where the chilled Señor Exigente donned one of The Little Dictator’s shirts for warmth, suffering a rechristening from Picky-Picky to Señor Bonito, and grumbling that the buttons were on the wrong side. By then, there was time for just one more ocean flat.
After clanging and rocking down the potholed tracks, there came near-visceral relief in the sudden quiet while walking onto the beach, seeing the expanse of flats. The dappled bottom was cut by white sand, the water color deepening out toward the surf-curled reef, and I remembered McGuane’s observation: “What is emphatic in angling is made so by the long silence . . . .” And so we pushed into this dimension, where, save for the soughing of a light wind, we found our own places of stillness.

Jerry Gibbs was the fishing editor of Outdoor Life, and is now a member of the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame.

Fishing Great Inagua
If you go . . . .

The DIY Option
Cattaraugus Creek Outfitters

Henry Hugh
[email protected]

Guided Fishing
Tailing Bones
Ezzard Cartwright

Angling Destinations