F&S Classics: How to Retire in the Bahamas Without Really Trying
On another one of his self-described "McClane's Psychopathic Safaris," the writer sets out on a bonefishing adventure to a virtually un-fished island
Tom Ferris, a former Hollywood P.R. type who abandoned showbiz for real estate, phoned late one night and said he had a scoop. “You’ve got to see this island,” he said. “Tell me if it isn’t the garden spot of the western world. On my old mother’s checkbook, I swear it.”
“Great Harbour Cay,” he said.
“You are selling it?”
“Selling it?” he said. “Baby, you don’t sell paradise. People buy it. They step off the plane and see the mountains and…”
“Mountains in the Bahamas?”
“So they’re 75 feet high,” he said. “Anyhow, one of the guys who works for us caught a 14-pound bonefish.”
As a matter of record, some big ones have been boated around the Berry Chain, which lies about 160 miles due east of Miami. Great Harbour Cay is the largest of the thirty-odd islands. Even if I lopped a few feet off the mountains and a few pounds off the bonefish, Ferris had hit me in a weak spot.
“There’s only one problem,” he cautioned. “We’re on a crash building program. We’re still cutting roads, so you’ll have to stay in one of the model homes and fry your own fish. I can scrounge a boat of some kind and maybe a guide. How’z it sound?”
It sounded vague enough to be another one of McClane’s Psychopathic Safaris—organized confusion on a grand scale. But two weeks later, my wife Patti and I landed on the island. Great Harbour Cay is 712 miles long and 112 miles wide and lies just south of Great Stirrup Cay, the northernmost island in the chain. The rolling hills thatched with silver palm, lignum vitae, and sea grape spill down to a wide sand beach that borders the entire east shore. But the awesome part was the roar of bulldozers and unloading LST’s. The Bahamian land boom is of atomic proportions. Two more DC-3’s and a pair of Aztecs rolled down the runway belching groups of prospective buyers. You could tell them from the salesmen because the latter wore gold ballpoints in their bulging pockets. Ferris emerged from the crowd.
“Hop in the car, people. I’ll give you the grand tour.” For the next three hours we hoofed over hills and around water hazards on an 18-hole golf course with Bwana Ferris kicking the ringtailed lizards out of the way. Then after a quick lunch, we staggered down the beach with Ferris alternately reciting local pirate lore and buttonholing natives to find out who knew anything about bonefish. By the time he located our house (the only one of those in progress that had been completed) and waved goodbye, we were impressed. The patio had a magnificent view of the Northeast and Northwest Providence Channels, and from what seemed like a mountain top in that otherwise flat country, the beach stretched below us like a great white fishhook. I told Patti to sit tight while I went to the small native settlement at Bullock’s Harbour to look for Leonard Francis, the man who caught the 14-pounder.
Leonard, like everybody else in Bullock’s Harbour, is employed by one of the four construction companies working on the island. He didn’t know anything about how to be a guide because he’d never heard the word before, but taking me fishing—that was another matter. He had caught the 14-pounder on a 75-pound test handline using a crab for bait. Leonard didn’t think it was particularly large because over the years he has lost handlines to bonefish that he couldn’t stop.
“Man, you meet the bonefish sometime as big as barracuda on Money Bank. You be here in the morning, when the sun is up and I’ll take you in my boat.”
An Unexpected Visitor
I got lost on the way home. A hungry bulldozer had pushed another road into the complex of coral-caked highway which led me back to the airport again. I asked several people how to find High Point Drive. One man said something in Swedish, another in German, and the third in God knows what. When I relocated the place, Patti was sitting on the front step looking worried. “I think I was just sold with the house,” she said.
“I don’t know,” she said. “After you left I took my clothes off and flopped on the bed. I was sound asleep when I heard people talking in the living room. One was obviously a real estate salesman because he was telling the other man that the house came fully equipped. Before I could open my mouth, a very nice looking British gentlemal—he looked like Cary Grant—opened the bedroom door and said ‘Oops!’”
“Well, what would you say?”
“Beats me. How about, ‘Pardon me, ma’am, I’m just looking for my banjo’?”
“He seemed awfully embarrassed,” my wife said. “Then I heard him say to the salesman, ‘Splendid, old chap, where’s the contract?’ Then they drove off. I think we’d better move.”
The sun went down like a dying ember and came up in flame, which gave me the whim-whams. By the time we reached Leonard’s house, the gray-black head of a line squall was forming in the northwest. Leonard pointed out that the island was high and we’d never be far from a lee shore in the Money Bank area, so off we went in a 17-foot skiff that proved to be an excess of hull, as it draws about 15 inches of water. The flat runs from horizon to horizon—eight miles across according to Leonard—so the young flood crept slowly over the bank. The bottom is composed of white sand, firm marl, and scattered patches of turtle grass. It’s ideal to wade. Leonard ran the boat toward the mangroves until we went aground.
“We wait here,” Leonard said. “Bonefish be along soon.”
While we waited Leonard told us how in the old days when they still netted bonefish in the Bahamas (it’s illegal now), they once pulled 134 fish in a single haul on Money Bank and ten of these went over 15 pounds.
There has been no commercial fishing effort in the area in years because there are very few reefs nearby, which hold the prime market species such as groupers. I saw very few live conch on the bottom or even old shells, and Leonard explained that the Nassau boats had fished them out when he was a boy. They never left enough for seed and now, instead of being a food staple, it is a delicacy. But the spiny lobster, or “crawfish,” were thicker than ever. We grabbed eight in as many minutes for our dinner one night.
Leonard had started to tell me how he became a trim-man by profession, doing the finish work on new houses, when he stopped in mid-sentence.
“There they are,” he whispered. People always whisper when bonefish are in sight. The school was at least 400 yards away but pushing water on the glassy surface as they swam jerkily in half circles, tails flicking in the air, then dashing forward with the feel of the tide. Off to their left another school materialized, equally as large and moving on a parallel course. Beyond these, a third group had formed and for a moment I had that old moths-in-the-stomach feeling. They were all headed in our direction like a herd of nervous buffalo. The water was barely knee deep, and grabbing my fly rod I got away from the boat fast so I’d be at an intercept point.
The first school never broke. They came straight at me, 30 or 40 bullet shapes zipping over the sand. I dropped the fly yards in front of them, but they closed on it in a matter of seconds. The white buck-tail wing bobbed on the surface as the lead fish swirled past it; then it disappeared and my line came back in a loop as the hooked bone continued right along with the school which passed a rod’s length to my left without even spooking. I had to turn around to sock him again. The fish couldn’t care less. My line peeled off against the drag at the same speed. I leaned back on him hard—and whack, the water opened. Mr. Bones took off in such a burst that almost instantly I could feel the backing splice bump through my tip top.
The reel was nearly empty before I stopped the fish, and the action became the typical crank, run, crank, run-again play that wears eager fingers to nubs. Leonard wanted the fish to eat, and since he was the proprietor of the only game in town, I could hardly give him my song-and-dance about releasing it. The fish weighed 10 pounds. Just eating size according to Leonard.
The Bahamas has the highest average weight for lure-caught bonefish that I know of. A friend of mine, Captain Harold E. Manning, who has been in the unique position of fishing two dedicated flats anglers, Mr. and Mrs. John F. Walton, Jr., for three years from the yacht Tritona, kept a meticulous record on 788 bonefish taken during the 1965 to 1967 seasons. The average weight for the 788 was 6.1 pounds; this includes fish up to 12.75 pounds. Seventy percent were caught by stalking (as opposed to casting from a skiff), and of the total, 519 were caught in the morning hours and 269 in the afternoon or evening.
Obviously all kinds of weather and tide were encountered during the three-season period, but for all practical purposes the hours between 9 A.M. and noon produced twice as many fish as any other time of the day. Warm, clear water and a moderate east to southeast breeze proved to be the ideal conditions. I don’t believe the months fished (January through April and November through December) include the two best, which in my experience have been May and June, but nevertheless the Walton’s log is a valid picture of what you can expect in these islands. Hawaii also produces large bonefish, as does South Africa (a 19-pounder from Zululand); however, both locations require fishing with bait in deep water, which is about as interesting as cookie cutting. Fifteen-pounders have been caught by anglers in the Bahamas, and there’s no doubt that bigger ones exist here.
For the next few hours, everything went right. The schools split into pods of two or three bonefish as they grubbed along their secret trails leading into the mangroves. Fins wiggled everywhere, and I stalked fish after fish. Sometimes I earned a strike, then lost the fish to the mangrove shoots; but I brought five to hand, and the smallest was a 7-pounder. One fish rocketed straight at Patti, who was standing at the mouth of a small bay playing a fish of her own. Evidently spooked by her silhouette, the bonefish turned at full speed and went high and dry on the beach.
“How did you do that?” she asked.
“Skill, that’s how. It saves getting your hands slimy.”
Despite the bad weather the next day, with squall after squall skirting the area, the fishing remained good for the hours we could cast. I caught one “small” bonefish of 5.12 pounds, which pulled my final average down on a total of seventeen to 7.2 pounds for the three days we fished. Bonefishing being the game it is, I might have come visiting at some other period when smaller fish are numerous, although Leonard said that the little ones seldom use these same banks. I have no reason to doubt him, but three days doesn’t make a season and seeing is believing.
Quantity-wise, five bonefish a day is a respectable average and mine was slightly better than 5.6, and this probably would have been higher if the weather was normal. But the joy of bonefishing is not in statistics. I am quite happy just wading the flats as long as there’s a chance of taking a fish. No two places are ever really alike, and it requires time and study to learn about them.
There is no bonefish “season” in the general sense, as they are available year-round. The trick is to hit a period when the skies hold fair. Although tides have a great influence on whether you are going to take fish or not, this is not a constant factor in flats country. You are going to get a flood and an ebb during the day, and the game of locating schools depends on your knowledge of the area.
My big bone at Great Harbour Cay came to the fly on our third and last day. The weather was absolutely foul. I had given up trying to fly cast and spent most of the morning tossing a pink jig with the spinning rod. Between the wind and the dark sky, it was almost impossible to see fish and for every one we had a shot at, we probably spooked 50. Then the sun broke through and the bank between Great Stirrup and Great Harbour Cays lit up as bright as neon. We were surrounded by bonefish. No big schools, just pods of four or five working with the flood.
This turned out to be an ideal location; unlike vast Money Bank, which almost ran dry on the ebb because of its unvarying bottom over a long distance, the Stirrup Bank is a broad tidal pass coming in from the ocean. The fish simply traded back and forth following the flow of water. It’s another beautiful wading area, solid bottom, no sea nettles or coral, and visibility unlimited.
Leonard, who had never seen a fly rod before, automatically passed me the 9-footer, and I went out looking for a big bone. After three days, I was getting choosey, but I didn’t have far to look. I waded about 50 yards from the boat, and just at the edge of the grass I saw three fish cruising very slowly, pausing to nudge the bottom, then stopping to dig tails-up, wiggling their bodies violently when food was found. Before I could make a false cast they were so close that spooking seemed inevitable, but the fly dropped in their path and my stomach was beaten by those moths again.
One for the Road
You never really know how heavy a bonefish might be until he turns head-on at close range and you see the span of his back. These babies looked like wild hogs and were about the same raunchy color. All three eased up to the fly and just as it touched bottom a monster leaned over and slurped it up. I hit him hard. He didn’t panic, but just lay there looking at me, wearing the bucktail wing like a mustache. I couldn’t even budge him. Then it happened. A miserable little barracuda shot out of nowhere and chopped the fly off. The line snapped back and landed on my hat.
“How did you do that?” Patti asked as she waded down the flat.
“Skill, that’s how.”
When we drove back to the airport the next morning, the real estate contingent was doing business as usual. We looked out of place loaded with rod cases, tackle boxes, and my wife’s idea of a baggage minimum. I left Patti with the gear while I went to rustle up a couple of Cokes. When I came back a man was talking to her. He walked away before I could say hello.
“Who was he?” I asked.
“He’s one of the men I told you about,” she said. “You know … the salesman who sold our house.”
“So what did he want?”
“He apologized and said he really hoped we had a good time and would come back again when they have more houses finished. Hmmph, I wonder how he meant that?”