Does “Catch & Release” = “Probably Dead”? (Pt. II)
May 20, 2002
We drove north to investigate a rumor of bones and arrived at a place I would never have imagined we would find. In fact, I would never have thought there was a way to fish this flat from the shore in the first place. Thank goodness for strangers and their generosity. Within moments of arriving we saw our first tail… and it was big. The fish was about five feet from shore and in shin deep water, cruising in and out of sandy patches. Occasionally it would circle an area as if listening and suddenly tail hard, violently digging its nose into the hard packed sand. You could hear it splashing from a hundred yards.
We rigged our rods in frantic speed, but the fish was gone by the time we finished. No worries; about fifty yards further north was another tail, waving in the evening sun. We walked down the beach, but by the time we got there that fish too had disappeared. Huh, phantom bones.
I decided to wade in right there. Dad walked back down the shore. Soon I saw the dark shapes of two nice fish cruise over a sandy patch about 50 feet away. When they were facing my way and sent my little Clouser over to play with them. One of the fish heard it land and turned to investigate. I made a short strip and let the fly drop. The fish came right over, tipped down on the fly and I hooked it. It was that simple. The fished headed for the cover of a mangrove shoot but I turned him in time. It then sought deeper water, but seemed to lack the strength to make it. In less than five minutes I had it along-side where I could see that something was wrong with my bonefish. Had I been mistaken and cast at a jack, a snapper? What kind of fish is two-toned, I wondered; the front half was at is should be—a ghostly silver, banding to olive topside—but the tail section was dark, almost black. Not until I landed the fish did I see what the problem was.
It was a bonefish, all right, and a big one, but something bigger had tried to eat it. The last nine inches above the tail had no scales, like something big and mean, but without teeth, had grabbed it. That ruled out a shark. Tarpon, maybe? A huge snook? Grouper? I had seen a snook shooting out from under the shadow of the bank as we walked down the shore, but it was only 5 pounds or so—certainly not big enough to eat a 26-inch bonefish. The reason the back third of the fish looked dark was because it lacked its silvery scales. Instead of reflecting the environment around it, the true colors of the bonefish were apparent, its dark olive back fading to gray flanks.
Dad had heard my whooping—I always yell when I hook up to a bonefish—and had run over to help land it. He snapped a quick picture and I released the fish, but I think we both despaired of its survival. It had just undergone serious trauma and then I came along and caught it. However, it swam off strongly, so I hoped for the best. On the ride home I tried to stifle my guilt; I mean, it’s not as if I knew it was injured when I cast at it. Of course, I could have, should have released it without snapping a photo, but it was the biggest one I’d ever caught. Since it was going to probably die anyway, why shouldn’t I have a photo?
This sort of mental wrangling went on for the remainder of the drive but by the time I’d rinsed my gear I still had no peace.
May 21, 2002
We decided to try Stranger’s Flat again; dad had no luck yesterday and wanted a chance at those big bones. I couldn’t blame him, so did I. But it was more than that; I also wanted to see if there was a bonefish carcass washed up somewhere along that shoreline. I knew the chances were next to nil for any kind of resolution, but I needed to see for myself. So we drove north again down bumpy back roads to find the same tide, and tailing fish. My dad cast to the first fish we saw—a pair of six-pounders in a foot of water—but a gust blew his fly off course. The fish, oblivious of his presence, passed within a rod’s length. And what did he see? A brace of bones, and the one in front was two-toned, its back third almost black.
These were the same fish I had cast to the day before, and they were back on the same flat at the same tide. What’s more, the piebald one, the one I’d caught, was still alive, back with its partner and in seeming good health. Just goes to show how tough these fish really are and just how habitual their feeding habits can be. Other than that, I draw no conclusions from the experience.