Here Be Dragons—Bonefishing with Bob Knight, By Kevin Koenig (continued)
Photos by Billy Black
But that ain’t what happened.
On the third and final day of fishing the photographer still didn’t have a shot of Knight with a fish, because there had been no fish. And he was getting antsy. He asked if he could take my spot in the boat with Knight for the morning, and I could meet up in the afternoon, to hop on the boat and finish my story. Sure, great, I’ll go with Havlicek, I had said.
And so I hopped in a skiff with Havlicek and Bimini boatbuilding and fishing legend Ansil Saunders, who at the age of 82 knows these islands perhaps better than anyone on Earth. Away we whirred to the isolated eastern edge of the island, about three miles from the dock. I complimented Saunders on the skiff’s ride as we were going: smooth, fast and quiet.
The water was exceptionally clear on the east side of the island, even for Bimini. And the sharks, as they so often are in the Bahamas, were out in force. I counted five or six dark wedges of muscle below the surface, unmistakable as bull sharks. Havlicek and I laughed, No fish here! Don’t fall overboard! Ha ha ha ha ha.
Havlicek goes by Hondo to his fans. And Hondo doesn’t fly fish. The guy is perma-chill — cool and quiet and calm. When he likes something you’ve said, which is often, he does this slow, squinty-eyed, open-mouthed smile that conveys pure and utter delight with the thing. It occurred to me at multiple moments that his grandkids must adore him. In fact, other peoples’ grandkids probably adore him, too. He explained to me why he doesn’t fly fish very often as Ansil threaded the hook on his spinning reel through the belly of a small crab. “I don’t like to be whipping that thing around on a small boat.” He pantomimed fly-casting. “Might hook somebody.” Saunders let the crab go, and it dangled over the crystal water, snapping its tiny claws futilely. “Me,” Havlicek continued, “I’m just here to catch fish.” At that a huge smile slowly unfurled across his face.
And he did catch fish, a few anyway, but not too many. And soon Saunders decided we had better go find more fish, and get me closer to Knight’s boat so we could make the trade. We started running again, but something was different. The trim was off, the bow too high. And the engine sounded somehow different. I didn’t think much of it at first.
But soon Saunders was shouting something over the wind in his stew-thick patois. “Ho’o in dee bo’! Ho’o in dee bo’! Ho! In! Dee! Bo’!” Initially I couldn’t tell what he was saying. But then it dawned on me.
I whipped around.
“Are you saying there’s a f**king hole in the boat?!”
Saunders was ankle deep in water, with an apologetic look on his face. “Should I come back and bail?” I shouted over the wind. Using a lot of hand signals he told me that if I went back to where he was, the boat would sink stern first, and that the best way to keep it afloat would be to run it as fast as he could back to the harbor. Which is what we did.
And this part still feels like a fever dream. Because now John Havlicek and I are sitting in lawn chairs in the bow of Ansil Saunders’ boat, while it’s sinking in shark-infested waters, and we start to carve our way through the mangrove forests again. And it’s jungle as far as the eye can see, nothing but bony fists of mangrove.
And then I look to my right, and there in the middle of the forest is a life-size bust of Martin Luther King.
We were passing the legendary Healing Hole, where King — perhaps apocryphally, but perhaps not — conjured up his “I Have a Dream” speech. A preconscious thought fluttered through my head. I’d like to stop and see this. But then I remembered we had more pressing holes to worry about.
As we burst into the channel, I looked down and realized the water had crept to the bow, and I picked up my and Havlicek’s bags to put them somewhere dry. Now the boat was running very low in the water, so low the water was threatening to come spilling in over the bow, swamping us in the deep channel. Havlicek and I had been laughing at the absurdity of it all, but at that point, we stopped. The harbor was still a good three quarters of a mile away, and we weren’t going to make it more than a few hundred yards.
We ended up beaching the boat near Saunders’ work shed. Havlicek and I unloaded our stuff and climbed onto the sand. For his part, Saunders hopped nimbly out of the skiff and stuck his fingers in his mouth, whistling loudly. To our surprise, one of the most sunworn and bedraggled islanders — nay, humans — I’ve ever seen popped out of the bushes as if he had been waiting there for us, and in retrospect, perhaps he had. The man had long, dusty dreads, shredded pants and skin like walrus hide. Barefoot, he shambled over and looked at the boat for a long while with his chin in hand, then crouched down and started to inspect the damage more closely.
Havlicek and I eventually started walking back to the hotel, but I knew he had bad knees, so after some protest from him, I stuck out my thumb and hitched a ride with two Biminian basketball fans who were all too happy to give the great Hondo a lift. When we got back to the Big Game Club, Havlicek, who had been mostly silent throughout the ordeal, turned to me wide-eyed. “Did you see that guy who popped out of the bushes?”
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Anglers Journal, available here ▶