Part 1: The Hunt
We ride east in a black Mitsubishi SUV. This part of Grand Bahama Island is desolate. The sun cuts through low-lying conifers, scrub brush, and burnt forest. Oil-depot casks, rusting and caked in beige paint, are one of the few intrusions among the sparse growth. A few gravel driveways leading to bonefishing camps diverge from the southern road, down to the waters’ edge of Carrion Crow Harbour. Forty-five minutes after leaving Freeport, we pass McLean’s cemetery and enter the township of McLean, a few one-story homes straddling the bleached tar roadway. A ferry dock juts like a thumb from the shore. From it, you can cadge a ride to Crown Haven in the Abacos or, as we will, use it as a departure point for the flats.
We load an ice chest, rods, camera gear, and tackle into a 12-foot Dolphin skiff. On its bow is the stock stainless steel leaning post indicative of a bonefishing boat—your handhold if it gets tippy. In bonefishing you typically stand on the bow as the guide pushes you across the shallows with a long pole, in the fashion of a Venetian gondolier or Stygian boatman—I haven’t decided which yet. The thought of wading through mud flats, hunting for a fish I can neither see nor eat with the kind of rod that requires years of experience to barely master, and only a few miles north of the Tropic of Cancer in summer with no bimini top or other shade to escape to isn’t exactly doing it for me.
Yet a wisp of a headwind and the blur of the mangroves along the shoreline help counter my misgivings. After a 40-minute ride past the mouth of an inlet, we pull around a small palm-laden island and drop the anchor. A pair of nurse sharks swims in pullulating circles off the bow as I squeeze into a pair of neoprene wading booties. Under the tutelage of Stanley Glinton, who’s been guiding for 30 years here, I climb into the water and begin to practice my casting.
Within ten minutes, Sue Cocking, outdoors editor for The Miami Herald and longtime bonefisherman, is busy reeling in her first catch. Two more follow shortly. Then…the waiting begins. We take slow, purposeful steps across the flats. Our legs delicately and nearly silently part the water at our shins as we cross the openness. A light breeze stirs at my back. Ripples drift along the surface of the water, the shiny net pattern of light casting uneven crystalline shafts. We stalk, poised with tufts of barbed feathers in our hands, ready to cast at any moment. Clouds on the horizon begin to thicken, and the wind exhales more forcefully.
Glinton gestures with his hand. We pause, tense. “Right out there,” he whispers, pointing to some indistinguishable discoloration 30 yards out, “Get ready.” I pull back my baseball cap, squinting to catch any sign of movement that can’t be attributed to the patterns of water or sky.
“See them?” His voice is tense now; he searches my face for a sign of recognition.
Then the shades appear. Quickly they multiply. A flurry of shadows darts one way then zigs back the other. I cast the gold-feathered fly, trying to concentrate on moving my elbow smoothly, on placing the lure right in front of—but not too close to—the passing shades, on waiting just long enough to pique their interest before I begin to strip the line oh-so-slowly, on waiting for them snap it, on every other tip I can recall. The shadows swarm then dart in all directions like lightning bolts. Then as suddenly as they came, they disappear. Not one strike.
We wade further, my wake lapping the sunscreen off the back of my calves. They’re already red and sore, and I’ve left my sunscreen back in the skiff. I squint and take a deep breath as the sun passes its zenith. We see a few more scattered shades at the far end of the bank, but nothing major, so we hike back to the skiff for lunch.
Cocking announces that if we even saw half as many fish as we did today in Miami’s Biscayne Bay, where she typically fishes, it’d be a miracle. I dangle my arm in the crystalline water, a few inches above the unspoiled sand.
After our meal we check out another flat. Glinton casts his lure 30 feet upwind, whistling the line back and forth over his head while keeping it perfectly parallel to the water, then whipping it to exactly where he is aiming. It’s like watching an artist draw a picture. His skill is something all fly fishermen aspire to. But even lifers like him can’t capture what isn’t there. He wraps the uneaten lure in his hand, and we wade back to the lightly rocking skiff and head for home.
I happen to be sharing the hotel with the pros at the first-ever Orvis Grand Bahama Bonefishing Tournament. It’s their last day, and I join them for the awards ceremony where Orvis announces its plans to turn the contest into an annual event. The anglers, sunned and content, seem amped about the prospect of returning. These guys are the real deal, the ones who are under the spell of the hunt.
Fortunately for me, the Bahamas offers more than one kind of fishing. The next day we leave on a chartered plane for a two-hour flight south to Long Island, an 80-mile stretch of limestone at the base of the Exuma chain, to check out an entirely different version.
This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.