• I fill my life with noise, banging drums on the edge of the abyss… I knew it was time to take off, and go fishing.
     ~Charles Rangeley Wilson Somewhere Else

Travel Log: Acklins (Day II)

February 13, 2014

Landing one, Acklins, Bahamas bonefishing

Day II
November 30, 2013
In Transit, Bahamas

Dawn is a grey and drizzly affair, but calm. Perhaps our luck is turning.

Aside from the typical incompetence by the local airline (SOP), the transfer goes smoothly. Even though my companions have been to Acklins before their excitement is palpable. Watching the panorama of the Exuma keys extending to the horizon a few thousand feet below our fuselage does little to alleviate that. After nearly two solid days of traveling, there is only one thing on our mind: bonefish.

Strangely, my own emotions are subdued, even calm. Traveling does that to me, no matter how exciting the destination. I think travel is a kind of mobile meditation—removed from the quiet room and the silent garden—an opportunity to practice awarenessing.

I have plenty of time to practice. After touch-down and collecting our bags, we head for the lodge, which I’m now informed has excellent flats out the back door. But, instead of squealing tired to get there—rigging our fly rods en route—we stop for fuel, to grab a few cold beers (which I slug guiltily in the back of the rental car) and just to pass the time of day with a few of the locals. The upshot is we’re on the water about an hour later than feels reasonable. But never mind; we’re here and safe and there are indeed bonefish. The tide low and starting to rise, ideal to find bones pushing past into the creek system behind us.

My first shots are bold, aggressive. I’m using a fairly heavy crab pattern, because it’s the Bahamas and the fish here are idiots. Plus, I’m me; I got this. But, staggeringly, in the quiet of the slack tide my fly lands heavily enough to spook the few fish I see. Perplexing. I switch patterns for something lighter—a Gotha-like thing with bead-chain eyes—and connect with the next fish I see. The take is gentle, nervous even and I respond by hammering home the fly and attempting to horse the fish in. This results in a pulled hook and lost fish. Brilliant.

The clouds of the past few days still haven’t fully clear out, so visibility comes and goes. The westering sun doesn’t help. I finally land a couple, but all the fish I’ve seen have been smallish—1½-2 pounds—so I wade deeper, looking for their bigger cousins. Behind me the newbie Bob is working the shoreline, and I can’t help but notice that every time I turn around he’s casting at something. Schools of baby bones in shallow water? Must be. Right?

Right. I keep wading down the main channel, scanning for grey shapes in the failing light. Even if I don’t spot them in time, spooking a few would at least tell me they’re there, but no, nothing. Not a needlefish.

Bob is still casting and the light is failing fast so I wade toward shore. Maybe I’ll pick up a tailer on the way. I’m still fixated on spotting bigger fish in the channels when a disturbance near shore catches my eye: tails! Big ones. I wade into position and realize this fly won’t do; it’s much too heavy. I retie and also lengthen the leader a bit. It’s probably unnecessary but I’m running out of chances and want to actually land a decent fish. With the new fly on I wade in close, searching for signs of life in the glare. Suddenly I see a swirl and a push headed my way. My cast snakes out to intercept, but drops to far ahead. I let the fly sit rather than recast. Dusk has come and the glassy water belies the slightest movement on my part. There! I see a movement toward my fly, I think. I begin a halting, gentle retrieve, feeling for the take and then there’s that moment, that almost imperceptible feeling that something is going to happen.

A few hours later I hold a sweating drink as the crew discusses plans for tomorrow. I listen smugly with half an ear and no opinion. Wherever we go will be fine, I’m sure—interesting anyways. Besides, I’ve already got a 5-pounder under my belt, dinner smells good and tomorrow is the first full day in a full week of fishing. It’s a good day to be alive.

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Travel Log: Acklins

January 20, 2014

Angry Beach, Nassau

Day I
November 29, 2013
Orange Hill Hotel, Nassau, Bahamas

The sea was angry that day, my friends, like an old man trying to send back soup at a deli.

I watch squalls pass to the north, unless that’s south. The overcast is so complete that I really can’t tell, but it feels north. Spindrift mists my glasses, blurring the horizon further.

I cross back over the low berm of sand and climb the concrete steps of Orange Hill. Tomorrow we’ll board a small prop plane and fly an hour and a half eastward in this crap. Our destination: a tiny island somewhere east of Bimini and north of Cuba. There, I’m told, we’ll find bonefish—lots of them and dumb as rocks (or rockets, which is a more apt description of that particular species).

This is a fish that, based on current evidence, will drive sane people from the comfort of their home to fly thousands of miles, endure strange food, stranger landscapes and bloodsucking creatures in their millions just for the opportunity to catch one, and then gently let it go again. What a weird and wonderful little world we live in.

I reach the hotel bar: dry, plainly furnished, with a quartet of anglers drinking in the corner. In place of a bartender there’s a ledger with a number of hash marks. Ah. The honor system. There’s a picnic cooler with an assortment of beer. A little digging surfaces a Kalik and after the first swig I feel my hopes rising. Surely the weather will clear to the east, right? Bound to. Surely.

I wonder if the cracked conch is any good here.

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Why Size Matters (The One That Got Away)

November 15, 2013

MinuteEarth presents a compelling case for letting big fish get away.

*

Interestingly, and worryingly, the Cayman Islands have no law preventing “harvesting” of fish above a certain size. We do have a law banning the taking of non-baitfish below 8 inches (or maybe 9 inches), which seems to make sense.

However, this highlights another one of those areas where common sense breaks down. Of course it makes sense to protect babies and juveniles, right? Right? Wait. Are there more adults or juveniles? Which can we more afford to lose? Which is actually more important to the survival of the species?

Perhaps there is a little be of anthropomorphization going on here. Our children are sacred to us—they’re about the only thing that is anymore—so we assume all young should be sacred.

Thing is, we only make a few young over our lifetime. About the only human who has come close competing with fish in terms of offspring is possibly Genghis Khan, who might be the ancestor of roughly 8% of all Asian males (and presumably quite a few females too). On the other hand the average 1st World citizen only has 2.06 kids. An adult barracuda, to pick a fish at random, can lay up to 300,000 in a single season. Three-hundred thousand. In a year. From one fish. Correction, from one adult fish. A young female only lays about 5,000 eggs. That’s 60 times less. It’s the difference between having your 2.06 kids and having 123 of them running around the house.

It turns out that, counter-intuitively, the adults of some animal species are the most valuable members of the population. Weird I know, but look at it this way, if you have a minimum size restriction on taking fish and those fish reach adult-hood just in time to breed once or twice before we pop them into a dinner pot, you’d need 30-60 of them to equal what one full-grown adult can reproduce. That’s so crazily different that it’s hard to get our heads around the sheer numbers involved.

Actually, different is exactly the word, because animals (especially fish) are in fact very different from us. It’s the old Disney™ problem again. We want attribute our values and biases to the world around us. Of course we pin our hopes to the young of our species. That’s a classically optimistic human perspective. But  the natural world is one of wondrous variety, and not all animals do it like we do.

It turns out that people are bad at much of this common sense stuff. For example, every reasonable adult and parent will tell their child they need an education in order to make a good living. At the same time statistics show that only 20% of college graduates end up with a career in their field of study. However, I hasten to add that they still make a living, still end up with careers. It’s just that while a university education provided something vital for their career, it wasn’t what they or their parents thought it would be. These are the numbers, the statistics, yet year after year parents and freshmen still make the same erroneous assumption about what they’re spending all that money for.

Or take the example of the example of happiness. Who do you think is happier, a recent paraplegic or a recent lottery winner? That’s right: someone who has no use of their limbs and someone who just got given a pile of money. Who is happier. Take your time. After all, it’s just common sense. Right?

Right. Unless you’ve already seen the video (or are a genius), you guessed wrong. After a year they are both equally happy.

This is why actual science with real data is so vital. Without meaningful numbers we would be left at the mercy of our notoriously useless common sense. It is also why our legislation needs to be driven not purely by the whims of the voting public or by the (already suspect) common sense of our politicians, but by actual research and data.

So, to the Cayman Islands Department of Environment, the data is in. Repeal the current (pointless) law and establish a new one that protects the mature, breeding adults of our marine species, for these are truly the future of our waters.

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Salty Casting

October 27, 2013

Perfect fly fishing weather, Cayman. It's not always like this. April 12, 2007

Smile, breath, and go slowly.
- Thich Nhat Hanh

It was early, too early to be wading thigh-deep in cold water. I could clearly see the tails of bonefish on the shallow flat rising in front of me, but with the wind in my face I had better odds of being beaned by a coconut than actually getting one of them to see my fly. Still, I’d come here to try. My first few casts were tentative, feeling out the situation. Not good: the line piled up about halfway to the fish, which fed on oblivious of my presence. I tried harder, keeping my cast low and really muscling it into the rising morning breeze. Suddenly a small gust caught my cast and in an instant I was draped in fly line.

I raged at the wind, pulling lengths of line off my clothing, and false-cast hard against the breeze. Bad to worse. The bonefish continued to feed on into the tide, easing farther away with each futile false-cast. My leader looked liked I’d used it for knot tying practice and my fly was fouled in a loop of monofilament which had wrapped around one eye, dragging the fly sideways through the water. Humiliated, I retreated to shore and left the flat in peace.

The cast is the heart and soul of fly fishing. It’s what separates us from those who are merely fishing. It is the source of our joy, and considerable frustration. Many years have passed since my early morning jaunts to the local bonefish flats, but I can clearly remember the sense of futility when anything but a downwind cast was called for. It seemed like no matter how hard I tried Mother Nature got the better of me.

Of course, I now realize that it was exactly my own effort that defeated me. Casting is about finesse and control, not strength, and certainly not anger.

There is probably a lesson here somewhere, but I’ll work it out after I finish practicing my cast.

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Flyting: Old and New; Something Purple, Something Blue.*

October 10, 2013

All in a row. Andros bonefish flies.

 

When I began fly fishing, tying my own flies was an obsession. It was the one thing I felt I could do with reasonable success. (Success defined here as wrapping materials onto a hook so they resembled something a fish might eat and didn’t disintegrate the first time I cast it.) Whether these creations caught bonefish was not part of the criteria. At that point catching bonefish was merely a dream, in the same class as the schoolboy daydreams of owning a small island with a secret location, building a lair inside its hollow volcano and carrying out “missions” of international espionage. In other words, unrealistic, but an addicting pastime. Nevertheless, I felt that finding the right fly, the correct fly, was the secret to one day unlocking the mouths of these fish.†

It’s romantic to imagine the sunburned guide, lime-infused beverage sweating on the table, reggae in the background, casually yet carefully tying flies in a cluttered tackle room as he plans the next day’s fishing. Reality is less glamorous; tying flies becomes a chore. I had to keep my hapless clients supplied.

In those early days we hooked fewer fish than now, but we still managed to lose an inordinate number of flies. Stray mangroves, jagged limestone shorelines and driftwood grabbed unguarded back-casts. Poorly tied knots returned as pigtails. Wind-knots parted unceremoniously mid-cast. And, the occasional fly was broken off in the mouth of an actual bonefish. It was a war of attrition and the ranks in my fly boxes bore the brunt. I began tying in bulk, using production-line strategies to shorten time spent on each fly. Finally, fatigued, I surrendered entirely and had flies produced wholesale to my specs. At eight bucks a dozen they allowed me to go years without tying a fly in anger.

Now I’m less of a full-time guide and perhaps that is why tying has once more becoming a simple joy. I like filling up those little plastic craft-box compartments with identical flies, ready to be loaded into the tiers of a pocket-sized fly box, like serried shells on a bandoleer.

I’ve also become more experimental with the colors and patterns I tie. I still think I could be given three patterns (in various sizes and weights) and fish 90 percent of the world’s bonefish successfully. But, variety, or more accurately unpredictability is at the core of this little game we play. I mean, fishing is a game of self-imposed rules and fly fishing is study in extremely stringent, not to say ridiculous rules. These are the only constant. Everything else is a crap shoot: weather, tides, seasons, migrations, hatches, and so forth.

Why not let the fly itself be a part of that complex equation? Since I don’t actually know I’m fishing the best fly at a given moment, I like to have the option of trying something different. So I carry way more flies than I need. As a result about twice a year dig through the boxes and remove an embarrassing number of unproductive (and possibly un-fished) patterns. I can’t say I remove many flies, as most have transformed into unrecognizable tangles of salty fur and flash, each leaving a dark rust spot on the once-clean Styrofoam lining. And yet after I salvage the usable bits—lead dumbells and hand-burned mono eyes—I sit at the vise and concoct something new, something never before seen in the history of the universe.  Maybe it will be purple, pink and brown, or something yellow and blue. And maybe one day I’ll go down to the water and toss that thing at a tailing bonefish and that fish will eat that thing.

I dig the thought of that.

 

____________________

* Post originally inspired by the ramblings over on BonefishOnTheBrain.
† I still think like this some days, when the fish are being particularly stubborn. In truth, when fish won’t they probably won’t bite anything we throw at them. But, changing flies at least gives you something to do.

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