The Early Bird
June 10, 2000
Daybreak, meridian: 81º west. Southeast breeze, easing to five knots.
In the harbor boats at anchor ride a smooth swell that passes easily beneath to foam against the dark ironshore that rings the bay. To the east, giant cumuli pile, a dark mass against the purple sky. Overhead, ragged clouds hurry on their way to Cuba, two hundred miles north. The wind is already freshening and could be fifteen knots by nine o’clock, but the streets of the town are quiet as I roll northward. Today I am going bonefishing.
The early bird gets the worm, they say; what about the early worm, what does it get?
Over the past few weeks I’ve gone bonefishing at every opportunity. When not fishing I’ve been home at the vise trying to conceive of some concoction of fur and feathers that will finally fool one of these mystifying fish. This had led to a wide array of follies, none of which has fooled a single bonefish for even a moment… granted, I may have to consider the notion that it is not the fault of the fly.
When I finally arrive at the flats I find a high tide, and no bonefish — at least, not where I think they should be. Apparently when the tide is high they feed in the shallows near the shore. This must keep them off the areas they frequent during low tide. Or perhaps low tide keeps them off the places they frequent when it’s high. I’m just guessing here.
I eventually locate a school of small bones feeding next to the beach and wade out to have the wind at my back. After repeated casts and several fly changes I grow frustrated. I can clearly see them porpoising and kicking up little plumes of mud as they feed into the tide. I estimate them to be barely twelve or fifteen-inch fish, but I am desperate. What is with these fish; why won’t they bite? I’m already using the smallest fly I have. I keep casting into the school, but nothing.
In the middle of yet another fly change – maybe they want a brighter color – I suddenly see a much bigger fish tail between the school and me. It’s flanks are silvery, with a pale-gray tail and high dorsal. It’s unmistakable.
“Oh, now there’s a bonefish.” I think.
I feel myself freezing with the slow realization that any of the smaller fish in the school could fit neatly into the space between this fish’s tail and dorsal (both of which are out of the water). I begin to worry more about hooking it than missing it. Silly, really. (I had about as much chance of stepping on it.) By the time I finish knotting on the fly – all the while reminding myself to “breath, man, it’s just a fish” – it has stopped tailing and vanished into the unknown from whence it came. I keep wading slowly into the tide, hoping to see some sign, some target to cast at, but there is nothing. Even the school has stopped feeding and departed.
Standing back on shore, I begin to doubt the whole episode; did I really see that fish? If that was a bonefish, what were those smaller fish in the school  ? They could indeed have been younger versions of the same species, but something wasn’t quite right. There was an unmistakable purposeful quality to the actions of the bigger fish, an air of deliberation in the way it fed. It was also much stealthier than the others, whose progress I could mark by their wakes and swirls even when their fins didn’t break the surface. When the larger fish stopped tailing it had simply vanished, leaving no trace.
It is getting late, and the sun is well up. It’s time to head back to the car and off to work. During the interminable drive that follows I replay the scene in my mind, trying to find some resolution and I can only see one solution: get back on the water as soon as possible.
I think tomorrow I shall go bonefishing.
1 Caribbean bonefish have the reputation of being small compared with their cousins in the Florida Keys, Hawaii, or certain parts of the Bahamas. At this stage in my bonefishing career I had no tangible way of judging, and certainly no expectation either way. Looking back, I am fairly confident I spent a large portion of those early outings casting at mullet – I can’t honestly say happily casting, since I never caught any… because, as I now know, mullet are algae eaters. I strongly suspect that the “school of small bones” from this entry was mullet as well, but gratefully the truth has been lost in time. [back]