BREAKING EVEN: A Month in Bonefishing (Pt. III)

Aloha, Mr. Bonefish

June 2004

Talking about big fish naturally brings to mind ones that got away, or very nearly did. Big fish are big for a reason, after all. They are strong, smart and know their home grounds like you know your own bathroom [1]. If  there is a single mangrove shoot or coral head around, they’ll find it. I once chased a nice bonefish through a slalom of wooden stakes  that local fishermen had planted in knee deep water [2]. For almost a hundred yards I trailed the fish, splashing around one stick after another. Only my frantic running kept a slack line so the fish couldn’t chafe the leader around a stake.

I remember another fish—this one from my first trip to the Bahamas—not huge, but pushing six pounds. I hooked it on a sand flat out front of the cottage I was renting [3]. A boat was moored there and that fish shot straight for the anchor line. Luckily I guessed its intent and ran after it, dunking my rod beneath the rope as I jumped over. I eventually landed that fish on the other side. Every other fish I caught on that flat—all smaller specimens—had headed for deep water, but that clever creature went for the only cover on the flat. Smart, and sneaky.

I landed those two fish, but I’ve not always been so lucky. My second trip to the Bahamas was to a moody, touristy island that was rumored to have good DIY fishing.  Maybe, but I didn’t find it. We hunted all over that benighted rock, finding only the occasional bonefish—all small, picky, and spooky enough to assure me they’d been raised on a steady diet of Gotchas and Crazy Charlies flung by duffers from New Hampshire or Minnesota. Somewhere north anyways.

We finally found one flat that held good numbers of fish, including some big ones. Of course, they were also picky, although they didn’t seem to be spooky at all. I was sure we simply hadn’t figured out what they were feeding on yet. We caught a couple schoolies that first day, more by persistence than anything, and headed back to the car when the light got too poor. The whole flat was pockmarked with small holes and sandy mounds—it was like walking on a giant golfball—and the trek back took forever [4]. I amused myself by trying to catch one of the little crabs that seemed to live in all the little depressions, when it suddenly occurred to me that they must be what the fish were feeding on.

That night I whipped up a few #6 yarn crabs and the first fish I cast to the next day turned on the crab like a heat-seeking missile. It continued to follow, without eating, until I let the fly drop to the bottom. The fish tailed on it hard. (Ok, mental note, if you fish crab flies, you have to fish them like a crab.) The bonefish blasted past my buddy (who was crouched about 5 yards to my left) and continued almost a hundred yards into my backing before the leader just popped.

Thirty inches, said my buddy, casually, and went back to fishing. Now, my buddy is a priest, and though I’m sure the fishing clergy are as tempted as you or me to exaggerate, I believed him. Even considering that fished passed him at speed—and so probably looked much longer than it was—I still remember that fish as a solid twenty-eight incher, (or roughly 8 pounds if you do the math) [5]. Definitely not peanuts.

I know I’m not alone in my suffering. Thankfully. I remember one gentleman—a bass angler I believe—who wanted to catch a bonefish pretty bad. He fished a lot, but unless we’re talking huge smallmouth, bass don’t usually take any drag to speak of. I think he really just wanted to see hear his line sing off into the backing. It seemed a fine goal, so I decided to help. It was deep summer, with no particular tide, and it was tough fishing during the middle of the day. We stuck with it and finally ended up working a big single that was tailing alone on the edge.

Now the fish here aren’t monsters, but the average is somewhat over seven pounds. Good fish. That’s about all that can be offered as mitigating circumstance to what happened next. He made a decent cast and I saw the fish turn toward to splash and start tracking the fly. Bonefish almost always eat a fly they’re tracking, so I said, “He’s coming for it.” The fish rose behind the fly and you could clearly see its large dark head and white mouth as it ate. Maybe the sight of such an obvious take after a day of drawing blanks unnerved the guy (whose name escapes me and should mercifully remain anonymous anyways) or maybe his old bass fishing instincts kicked in. Whatever the case, he slammed back on that rod with the biggest hookset I’ve seen since Saturday mornings with Bill Dance. There wasn’t even a sound as angler and fish parted ways.

That episode can hardly be blamed on the fish. Call it user error. Combine the average fisherman’s allotment of that, bad luck, and just plain nerves, and it’s a wonder we ever catch anything at all, especially if we can actually see the size of the fish in question. The times when all three of these bogies join ranks might make tough fishing, but good stories.

1 If they had to find the light switch in the dark, no problem. [back]
2 Each of these sticks has a “Y” shaped crutch on the top which the local fishermen use hold their Cuban yo-yo’s while night-fishing for snappers. Each fisherman wades out into the black water as far as they can, throws the bait out as far as they can, and then feeds line off the spool on the way back to their stakes. Fishing with several stakes they can fish two or three lines simultaneously, not unlike setting out rods for beach fishing, only less relaxing. [back]
3 Which was the sweetest kind of luck. Even though the guide I rented for three days drove us south about 30 minutes to the “bonefishing grounds” I took some of my best fish of the trip not 100 yards from the cottage door. [back]
4 You don’t realize how far you can walk in four hours looking for fish until you’ve got to walk back. [back]
5 Which, of course, at the time you don’t. The first thing I want to do after I break a fish off isn’t stop and do some swift algebra. But later, when things have settled in your mind a bit you take a moment and think, ok, how big could it have been, reasonably? You know you’re going to tell the story and you’ll need a number to go with it, so you work it out. [back]

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