Strange Weather: Adventures in DIY Fly Fishing (Part II)
Eleuthera, Bahamas May 2004
Someone once said, always put in the weather. Good advice. Our first exploratory drive to some nearby flats ended in a rain out. Clouds were piling up to the northeast and the forecast looked grim.
We found our first flat by the simple expedient of stopping to ask the first local we saw. As our priest (in training) pointed out, Hell, this is the Bahamas. Everyone’s a fisherman, right? Right enough. We’d located good bonefish water on our first day and that was cause enough to celebrate. Doubtless tomorrow would dawn bright and clear with light winds and willing bonefish at every cast. After a dinner of cracked conch and grouper fingers we turned in to a night of good dreams.
Day two dawned bright… and windy. Scudding clouds played dodgems across the flat as we pulled up in our rented jeep. The tide was less than favorable but I managed to find a small pod of fish feeding against the shore after maybe ten minutes of wading. A careful cast and a few judicious strips brought the first hook-up and, soon after, a decent-sized bonefish was released: an auspicious start and cause for hope.
Aaron was following me at the time, to see how it was done, as it were. Good plan. Only later did it occur to me how odd the whole episode must have seemed to him. In fact, the surreal quality of our first bonefish together kept returning at the oddest times, so that I eventually had to get my thoughts out on paper just to see what was bothering me. I sent the following letter to him a few weeks later:
I wonder what it must be like for the fisher of small ponds and rivers to dream of other waters. You’ve fished so long and know your home waters so well — quiet farm ponds on summer evenings or clear rivers running through small towns and fields — I imagine how fishing there has become second nature to you. Do you wonder, as I do, what it is like for someone to cast tiny dry flies to fastidious trout in small pools on a mountain stream?
Fly selection for you at home is hardly selection at all, more like instinct: “Fish ‘round these parts like orange… ‘n’ crayfish patterns’ll get ‘em too.”
Up there, in the cold water of the stream, trout take the tiniest bugs and you could change flies from now till Judgment and still go fishless. At least, that’s how I imagine it.
I also wonder what must it be like for an angler to wade for the first time in knee-deep, warm salt water. What is it like to wander around looking for invisible fish as the body slowly gives out? Feet first, then the knees and shoulders. (My feet haven’t been right since our trip.) You follow your fishing partner, hoping to pick it up as you go along. Suddenly you see him stop, crouch and cast at a spot of water that looks like all the other water around, all eighty trillion gallons of it, but he strips the fly and instantly the line jumps tight in a halo of spray. The reel hums and the leader shears the surface at a clean angle toward deeper water. Something miraculous has just occurred, but that seems fitting since it’s taken you considerable faith just to believe in these ghosts of the flats to begin with.
Maybe this is an insight into something spiritual or other: casting for fish you cannot possibly see in the dark depths of a farm pond requires less faith than casting at fish that hide in plain sight, as it were. I guess God is sort of like that; you don’t have to go to the ends of the earth to find Him; He’s all around. Someone once said, “God is in the details.” There are details everywhere. Many have strongly suspected that angling and spirituality are related, and I’m beginning to see their point.
If that’s the case I guess a guide must be some kind of prophet, one of the chosen few that can see the Truth and point disciples in the right direction. It still takes an act of faith on the part of the caster, but at least they’re given some guidance. Strangely enough, we don’t lock guides in rubber rooms like we do other folks who see things that are not there, but I suppose the punishment for a guide that fails to win converts is something worse: no work — the modern day equivalent of being driven into exile as a false prophet and a madman.
“He kept sayin, ‘Cast now. They’re right there!’ but I never saw no fish… never caught nuthin’ neither.”
There’s a whole raft of issues here: perception, belief and the possible nature of reality. Just because you can’t see them, doesn’t mean the fish aren’t there. If something like a fish — a five to nine pound fish, mind you — can remain unseen in less than two feet of water as clear as Cuban rum, well, that raises implications about other unseen things we may have dismissed. I find that anyone who spends much time sight fishing begins to deepen his or her perceptions. They start to notice the little things — the details that hide in plain sight. Tiny hermit crabs curl into their shells and sit rocking as you walk down the beach. Curly tailed lizard lounge in the shade, their heads darting as they eat ants from the coco-plum leaves. The breeze shifts as the tide changes and suddenly, the angler finds themselves aware.”
I imagine this might summarize Aaron’s experience during that week in Eleuthera. My dad and I saw many bonefish but they remained elusive for Aaron. Frustrated with the scarcity of fish on the flats, he hooked several in a giant school that hung around the dock just down the beach from our cottage, but they all managed to escape before he could land them . He spent the rest of the week seeing fish that I was casting to, but seemed unable to spot them in time when it was his turn . He did hook a big cruiser on a beach down south (which lasted for about point two seconds) and I’m pretty sure he saw that one.
The rest of the week was also a frustration for the rest of us; the wind stayed up and visibility was poor, to say the least. After a day of driving over the worst roads ever and walking endless beaches (all gorgeous but fishless) we’d drag in at suppertime to find Andy grilling pork chops on the beach or paddling the kayak out on the bay. (We’d invariably leave Andy unconscious every morning as we three anglers headed out bleary-eyed but hopeful to some new spot that would inevitably be as disappointing as the last.) We drank expensive beer and cheap rum and formulated new strategies for the next day and, above all, wondered when the weather was going to break.
The only bright spot was finding a bay down south where there were actually bonefish (that would actually eat our flies). Our other forays to the better-known areas such as Savannah Sound — an absolutely stunning beach on the Atlantic coast — ended in humiliation. Sure the fish were there, but with twenty knots of breeze we could hardly get a fly to them, but that hardly mattered since they wouldn’t eat when we did. My dad finally got one fish, which was no doubt addled by the constant bad weather and muddy water. That was day four and by then we were getting just a little sick of breathtakingly beautiful beaches with no bonefish.
On day five we headed for that southern flat, but the weather was just as lousy. We actually caught half dozen fish there, but we had to work at it, taking what shots we could between the scudding clouds. We also had to negotiate heavily with a local there — a manic little hustler who wanted us to pay him for fishing on ‘his’ creek. He insisted that we should have tried to find him first since he was the official bonefish guide in that area. (Apparently he lived in “dat green ‘ouse, right ova’ dere… e’rybody know dat, man”.) Never mind that he didn’t know what our fly rods were or have anything to prove he was a guide of any sort, he kept on about how we couldn’t go into the bay on our own. Suppose something happened, he said, he’d be responsible. (How exactly he was magically in charge of all anglers in that creek was never something I could get him to explain.) Finally I talked him down (from $150) to $20 to let us fish on our own. As I carefully explained, we weren’t really looking for a guide. I figured the money was a fair price to pay so he wouldn’t pilfer our jeep while we fished ‘his’ creek. After finding the other locals so genuinely friendly and helpful, this little guy came as a shock.
Still, there are ways of handling such a situation. First, stay calm and don’t act patronizing. Talk it out. Caribbean people are very talkative and tend to do so loudly and argumentatively even when they mean no real harm. This is one case where the louder the bark, the less the chance of getting bit. Second, explain your side of things without giving too much away. In this case I told him other locals from up north had told us to try for bonefish down here. That was true enough: they actually had. I also said that we couldn’t afford a guide, even though he was right and we probably would catch more fish with one. I did not say I was a guide so we didn’t need to hire one. Bahamian guides take serious offense to outside guides running trips on their flats, as they should . Of course I wasn’t making any money on this trip, but I could hardly have made him understand that.
Finally, I didn’t offer him the $20 for his guide services — that would have been a grave insult. What I did was ask what it would cost for us to fish on his creek on our own and “just mess around a little, you know?” I also got his name and where he lived. I tried to make it very clear that I agreed that he was responsible and I would come looking for him if any of our stuff went missing from the jeep . In the end we got to fish a beautiful, fishy flat and leave our jeep in relative safety, all for twenty bucks. In the grand scheme of things I suppose that’s a deal.
We fished that creek until the tide was gone and then decided we’d had enough of the wind. The bay was on the inside of a beach so we decided there must be a way out there. The road turned out to be next to church house (which some of us took as a sign) and after a drive down the worst road ever, we pulled up to one of the most amazing beaches any of us had ever seen. We ate a quick lunch and went exploring. And, down at the far end of that beach next to a few young mangroves we found a school of bonefish feeding against the shore and there, miles away from anywhere on the edge of a rock in the Bahamian archipelago, Aaron caught his first bonefish .
That evening we celebrated with fresh grouper and rum ‘n cokes, with fresh lime for both. Aaron was leaving the next morning, but the rest of us were staying on for a couple more days. Aaron couldn’t get over how a fish that was barely a pound could burn off line like that. He added that it might be a while but he’d definitely like to do this again, you know, when he had the money. Priests aren’t known for having a lot of spare cash handy but he’d start saving.
“My knuckles still hurt where I didn’t get my hand out of the way”, he said.
“Yeah,” I said, “that’ll happen… worth every penny of twenty bucks, huh?”
Sometime that night the wind dropped out and the weather broke. For the first time since our arrival we awoke to a glorious sound: silence. No wind, not a breath stirred the water. Looking out over Tarpum Bay you couldn’t tell where the sea gave off and the sky began. We packed Aaron into the alleged jeep (a car with a varied and storied past that, among other things, had a door that had been reattached by a blind welder, wheels that kept trying to come off, and a steering wheel that only marginally controlled where the vehicle was actually pointing) and headed off to the airport. We bid him a heartfelt goodbye, safe travels, and advised him not to buy anything in Miami Airport, especially not the duty free.
We would have even waited for his plane to take off, but someone said, “Let’s go fishing”, so we did.
2 Looking back I sort of regret discouraging him from trying that school again — hell, every day if he needed to. It was purely my hangup that casting at such easy targets seemed too much like shooting fish in a barrel. On the other hand his first bonefish should be (and would be) a real victory, not some scrap-fed, half-domesticated schoolie that hung around the fishing dock while the locals cleaned their catch. Heck, if we just wanted to land a few fish, we wouldn’t have been fly fishing on our own in a strange country to begin with. Right? [back]
3 In the interest of full disclosure (and not a little because my good friend the priest has reminded me to include this fact) I have to acknowledge that the tables were indeed turned a few months later on a trip I made to visit him in Indiana. We went fishing in the river behind his house — mostly a smallmouth river, but with some very large carp in there as well. We’d just waded in when he suddenly stopped and whispered, “Look at the size of that fish!” I stared and stared, desperately trying to spot anything that looked remotely like a fish shape in the murky water. “Where?” I eventually whispered back. “Are you kidding!? Right there,” said Aaron, pointing at a spot not three feet in front of me. Now, you’ve only got to know Aaron a little bit to understand that he loves to mess with people; it’s part of his charm. I honestly thought he was playing with me, getting me back for all the times I’d said that to him in Eleuthera. He wasn’t, and as I took a step forward (into what I was sure was empty water) a huge shadow materialized off the bottom and shot out of sight downstream. How big? My best guess is at least two feet long, but maybe closer to three. I could make all sorts of excuses: the fish was too big for me to see, I’m not a freshwater fisherman, I’ve never even seen a carp before, and so on, but the fact remains that I damn near stepped on a monster fish without ever even seeing it. There. My conscience is clean. [back]
4 Nevermind that, like I’ve said, he didn’t actually seem like any kind of guide to me. He might actually have believed he was, which is more or less the same thing. [back]
5 Without every actually being so crass as to come right out and say that in as many words. [back]
6 Which, sadly, was summarily eaten by a passing lemon shark, the grisly spectacle taking place a mere 5 yards away where every shake of the shark’s head could be clearly seen. But, hey, that’s part of our little game here, whether we acknowledge it or not: catching these fish isn’t exactly good for them. As often as we might say, “it’s just fishing, man, not life or death… just having fun, you know?” it often is life or death for the fish. Anyways, the priest not only got his fish, he got a great fishing story too, which was exactly what he’d traveled all that way for. [back]