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Bonefish Over Grass

June 11, 2000

I think I shall one day publish a book of my memoirs on bonefishing. It will be titled Casting at Shadows, and listed under humor.

The confessed trout bum, John Gierach, says that “the solution to any problem is to go fishing, and the worse the problem, the longer the trip should be.” Sounds like good advice, but what if the problem is the fishing itself? Should fishing then continue indefinitely until we find resolution? Isn’t this an invitation to hang the proverbial sign on the door permanently: “Gone Fishing” once and for all?

The flats-fishing here has been great. Which is not to say that lots of fish have been caught, but I’ve tried not to let that be the sole measure of good fishing. I am now four for four on hooking and landing fish on the fly – two grunts and two shads. I was trying for bonefish at the time, but no luck so far. Realistically, until now I barely stood a chance since I tried the first few trips without polarized glasses, until a long Sunday afternoon netted me the most debilitating headache I’ve ever had in my life – and, naturally, no fish. Though I had sworn I’d never use them – that polarized stuff is a load of hype to get you to spend more money – the next day I’d recovered sufficiently from the headache to run out and buy a pair. But, I couldn’t buy just any sunglasses. After a good bit of browsing I settled on a pair of one hundred-dollar Oakley’s, with impact resistant lenses, unbreakable frames, and state-of-the-art [1] laminated polycarbonate lenses for maximum clarity. One can’t seriously be expected to fish with ten-dollar drug-store shades while casting with three hundred dollars worth of fly fishing tackle. There’s decorum to consider.

My initial resistance to the polarized glasses likely stems from the same, ingrained distaste I have for all the complicated paraphernalia of the “foreign” fisherman – the gadgets, gizmos, and gee-gaws that we simple, island fishermen (a fraternity I certainly consider myself a part of) know to be extraneous to the basic task of catching fish. We consider most gear and tackle unnecessary; even rods and reels are luxury items – “tournament gear” only used to make easier the subduing of large quarry like yellowfin tuna or blue marlin. Day-to-day, we ourselves fish with the simplest of tackle: line, hook, and sinker. I am beginning to recognize it will take time for someone of my background and fishermanly upbringing to embrace the sophisticated gear of the fly fisher. Undoubtedly it will be proper fun when I finally do catch a worthwhile fish on my fancy new tackle, but it all seems so beside the point of catching fish, somehow. I mean, there is so much to fly fishing: the arcane knots, the various types of lines – backing, fly line, leader, and tippet – the multi-piece rod and direct-drive reel, and of course, all the casting back and forth. The only element that really resonates is the final manipulated of the fly with my hands to make it appear alive and (hopefully) fool the fish.

Yes, but without all that (which is in actuality only the bare necessities of fly fishing) you’d just be out there soaking bait. How much fun would that be? How different from your job as a fisherman?

True. I had momentarily forgotten. This is leisure, right? Sport. Efficiency should never be allowed to become a primary concern.

Now that I have acquired the proper sunglasses, I can see the bonefish themselves, but in point of fact that hasn’t helped much. The best I can say is that I have gotten some very good looks at nice-sized fish. So at least they are out there.

The most memorable opportunity came this very afternoon. I was strolling along the beach checking the high-tide line for an idea of the tide stage when I happened to look up and saw, right next to the shore, the biggest bonefish yet, not a dozen feet away. Luckily my rod was strung, but I had no line out. I would have been casting into the wind anyway, so I raced along the shore to get upwind, all the while keeping my eyes on the fish, and summarily bashed my left foot into a half-buried rock. I couldn’t even stop to curse it properly, but waded right out to begin shooting line. This time I managed a couple false casts before the fish just vanished. I mean, it was there, working its way up-current just like logs don’t and then it turned and was gone. No wake, no nothing.

For a while I just stood there.

I took a few moments and properly cursed the rock… and my left foot, which hurt abominably… and the fish.

This is the way most of my bonefish encounters have gone. The times where I do get a good shot off the fish spook at the slightest movement in my fly. I don’t get it. I wait till they’re tailing, drop the fly close and when they look up I twitch it a little, just a little, and they blow out for Cuba or somewhere. I don’t see how anybody catches them on the fly. Ever. Not to say I’ll quit trying, but I would at least like to know what I’m doing wrong.

What’s even more trying are those days when I get no shots at all. Maybe it’s too overcast or the sun is at too low an angle to see the fish and I spend my time casting at wakes or nervous water. Before the polarized glasses (did I mention they’re hundred-dollar Oakley’s) every day was like that. I can now determine that wakes are actually caused by the tail of the fish, following the fish at a distance of a foot or so. I ruefully remember all those times where it is now obvious that I was casting behind the fish, casting to where they were a moment before – in effect, to their water shadows. I don’t suppose they ever even saw my flies…

All the same, there is nothing quite like wading the flats alone to take you out of yourself. For all the sound of the wind and waves, silence is the most pervading and you tune yourself to the slightest deviation. The splash of a fish tailing thirty yards away is easily heard, although the breeze has not lessened and the waves still break on shore. You try to absorb some of the calm, try to be the stillness as you wade to get an angle on the fish. And, whether you hook up or not, you still feel a connection. You’re right there on the edge of things: on the flat that edges the sea that edges the mangroves that edge the land. And, like your prey, you ride the tide along these edges until, taking your leave, you go off, thinking.

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1 This phrase has always given me trouble. What state are we referring to here? I have always pictured New Jersey, that petrochemical graveyard that they’ve titled – ah, the irony – The Garden State. [back]

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3 Comments
  • Reply

    Thanks for checking out the blog. Good to have another reader.

    Yeah, for a while I went that way too, after I realized that while the quality of shades I’d bought might have been high, that the color lenses I’d chosen were pretty poor for shallow flats-fishing work (grey-green). So I bought a cheap pair that were the right color and fished them a good bit, including several trips abroad to the Bahamas and elsewhere.

    Now, however, I fish a pair of photochromic Smith’s with glass lenses. The clarity is unbelievable and they adjust to changing light conditions so I can fish earlier and later in the day. Also, I don’t have to be on the water without wearing them, which as you aptly pointed out in your story, is important as a simple safety precaution. Getting hooked in or near the eye can’t be any fun!

  • Reply

    i have had the best luck with 10 dollar gas station glasses. i have had some really nice “unbreakable” shades but they haven’t figured out how to make them un-losable. one time had a partners errant cast snag them off the top of my head only to be flung to depths unknown. good luck with your shades!

  • Reply

    I do love the Old Scratch stuff… mostly because I can relate so well to it… like, that’s where I am NOW.
    As a trout fisherman (which is what I really am) I fish with a chest pack instead of a vest… prevents one from lugging the 8 fly boxes and 5 sizes of split shot, the head lamp, the thermometer, the hook sharpener, the int. sink spool, the sunscreen, the bug spray, the two bottles of water and the 4 year old power bars.
    Good stuff.
    B-

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