Day II November 30, 2013 In Transit, Bahamas
Dawn is a grey and drizzly affair, but calm. Perhaps our luck is turning.
Aside from the typical incompetence by the local airline (SOP), the transfer goes smoothly. Even though my companions have been to Acklins before their excitement is palpable. Watching the panorama of the Exuma keys extending to the horizon a few thousand feet below our fuselage does little to alleviate that. After nearly two solid days of traveling, there is only one thing on our mind: bonefish.
Strangely, my own emotions are subdued, even calm. Traveling does that to me, no matter how exciting the destination. I think travel is a kind of mobile meditation—removed from the quiet room and the silent garden—an opportunity to practice awarenessing.
I have plenty of time to practice. After touch-down and collecting our bags, we head for the lodge, which I’m now informed has excellent flats out the back door. But, instead of squealing tired to get there—rigging our fly rods en route—we stop for fuel, to grab a few cold beers (which I slug guiltily in the back of the rental car) and just to pass the time of day with a few of the locals. The upshot is we’re on the water about an hour later than feels reasonable. But never mind; we’re here and safe and there are indeed bonefish. The tide low and starting to rise, ideal to find bones pushing past into the creek system behind us.
My first shots are bold, aggressive. I’m using a fairly heavy crab pattern, because it’s the Bahamas and the fish here are idiots. Plus, I’m me; I got this. But, staggeringly, in the quiet of the slack tide my fly lands heavily enough to spook the few fish I see. Perplexing. I switch patterns for something lighter—a Gotha-like thing with bead-chain eyes—and connect with the next fish I see. The take is gentle, nervous even and I respond by hammering home the fly and attempting to horse the fish in. This results in a pulled hook and lost fish. Brilliant.
The clouds of the past few days still haven’t fully clear out, so visibility comes and goes. The westering sun doesn’t help. I finally land a couple, but all the fish I’ve seen have been smallish—1½-2 pounds—so I wade deeper, looking for their bigger cousins. Behind me the newbie Bob is working the shoreline, and I can’t help but notice that every time I turn around he’s casting at something. Schools of baby bones in shallow water? Must be. Right?
Right. I keep wading down the main channel, scanning for grey shapes in the failing light. Even if I don’t spot them in time, spooking a few would at least tell me they’re there, but no, nothing. Not a needlefish.
Bob is still casting and the light is failing fast so I wade toward shore. Maybe I’ll pick up a tailer on the way. I’m still fixated on spotting bigger fish in the channels when a disturbance near shore catches my eye: tails! Big ones. I wade into position and realize this fly won’t do; it’s much too heavy. I retie and also lengthen the leader a bit. It’s probably unnecessary but I’m running out of chances and want to actually land a decent fish. With the new fly on I wade in close, searching for signs of life in the glare. Suddenly I see a swirl and a push headed my way. My cast snakes out to intercept, but drops to far ahead. I let the fly sit rather than recast. Dusk has come and the glassy water belies the slightest movement on my part. There! I see a movement toward my fly, I think. I begin a halting, gentle retrieve, feeling for the take and then there’s that moment, that almost imperceptible feeling that something is going to happen.
A few hours later I hold a sweating drink as the crew discusses plans for tomorrow. I listen smugly with half an ear and no opinion. Wherever we go will be fine, I’m sure—interesting anyways. Besides, I’ve already got a 5-pounder under my belt, dinner smells good and tomorrow is the first full day in a full week of fishing. It’s a good day to be alive.
Day I November 29, 2013 Orange Hill Hotel, Nassau, Bahamas
The sea was angry that day, my friends, like an old man trying to send back soup at a deli.
I watch squalls pass to the north, unless that’s south. The overcast is so complete that I really can’t tell, but it feels north. Spindrift mists my glasses, blurring the horizon further.
I cross back over the low berm of sand and climb the concrete steps of Orange Hill. Tomorrow we’ll board a small prop plane and fly an hour and a half eastward in this crap. Our destination: a tiny island somewhere east of Bimini and north of Cuba. There, I’m told, we’ll find bonefish—lots of them and dumb as rocks (or rockets, which is a more apt description of that particular species).
This is a fish that, based on current evidence, will drive sane people from the comfort of their home to fly thousands of miles, endure strange food, stranger landscapes and bloodsucking creatures in their millions just for the opportunity to catch one, and then gently let it go again. What a weird and wonderful little world we live in.
I reach the hotel bar: dry, plainly furnished, with a quartet of anglers drinking in the corner. In place of a bartender there’s a ledger with a number of hash marks. Ah. The honor system. There’s a picnic cooler with an assortment of beer. A little digging surfaces a Kalik and after the first swig I feel my hopes rising. Surely the weather will clear to the east, right? Bound to. Surely.
I wonder if the cracked conch is any good here.
I hate posting this sort of thing but it’s one of those “it’s soooo bad, it’s good” situations! I mean, seriously. WTF, OMG, LOL and pretty much every-dang-thing-else. This guy’s (?) cast is pretty sweet but A) the amount of slack after each cast—wow, and B) the trout set is spectacular. I’ve seen less aggressive sets from Bill Dance on a 2 pound bass.†
I could end here. I really want to, but it would be nothing more than another spectacle, mere calorie-free amusement. So, I figured I’d just ask a couple questions that might shed a little light on the subject:
- How many pounds of pressure does it take to bury a hook in a tarpon’s mouth.
- How many pounds of pressure does the average 8 or 9-weight fly rod tip deliver in your average “trout set”.
Well? Ok, I don’t know either (and I’m too lazy to get out the ol’ Boga Grip* and actually do some tests), but from experience I will say it’s not enough to actually hook a tarpon… or a bonefish, or redfish, or striper, or bonita, or snook, or permit, or mutton snapper or (God help you) a bony-mouthed barracuda. And that’s only the Atlantic sportfish that readily cross my mind. You’re dang sure never hooking a Pacific trigger or parrot-beaked humpy with a trout set.
I sound pretty sure, don’t I? Pretty dang arrogant and bombastic. True, but that’s only because in near twelve years of guiding I have seen like one, maybe two bones hooked with a trout set (and zero tarpon). Of those that were hooked, a full 100% popped the leader within naught point five seconds.
The only bone I’ve actually seen trout-set successfully was landed was by one Big Charlie Neymour, who is a fly fishing Jedi and can pretty much do whatever the hell he wants. It is also the only fish I’ve ever seen him cast at, much less catch, so while far be it from me to suggest he could have gotten lucky that one time, but of the hundreds of bones I’ve witnessed the hooking and landing of that was the only one where a trout set worked. Just sayin’.
Ok, so here’s part of what I think is actually preventing a trout set from working: the tip of a fly rod is simply too flimsy to deliver enough force to drive a stout, salt-water hook into a fish’s mouth.
Of course, in fresh water—which in my feeble, unimaginative mind equates to trout fishing—you want a delicate hook-set because of all the X’s in your tippet, since, you know, trout are leader shy. Ok, maybe they are and maybe they aren’t, but what I am sure about is the size of most freshy hooks is much smaller than salty hooks. For example, the smallest bonefish hook I’ve ever used—usually to my regret—is a #8 while the first ever stream fly I used was a #12. ‡
About the only time a saltwater fly fishing guide uses the word “twelve” it’s either to refer to the weight of his fly rod or the number of beers in the pack you’ll buy for him as a tip.
Where was I? Right. Hook size. Freshwater hooks are freekin’ tiny, so the tip of a 5-weight can actually set the hook there. No problem.
The second issue is Slack. In saltwater you want none of it, but if you’re drifting a fly or bumping a black Woolly Bugger downstream for Smallies then you’ll have lots of it. A trout set is the only reasonable way to remove all that slack and come tight before the fish spits your fly.
Unless you’re doing something seriously wrong, you won’t have any slack at all in the salt. So, a simple long, smooth strip should get that hook in there nicely.
The final reason, the real reason trout sets don’t work and strips sets do, is actually a trade secret. I’d write it down but then serious looking men in black suits would pull up outside the address provide by my ISP and unpleasant things would happen. I am bound by protocol, morality (and fear) from going any further. But, the good news is you can rest assured that there is a secret, and it’s safe with me.
The better news? You don’t need to know the secret. In the immortal words of W. L. S. Churchill, Keep Calm and Don’t Trout Set. You can trust him on this.
† “That there’s a beaoootiful 4 pound bigmouth… call it 4 and a ha’f… heck 5.”
* Which has been lying idle in a drawer for the last 6 years except for the occasional knot or hook test.
‡ And even then they’re usually “2x Strong”, heavy-wire models.
October 21, 2012
Ok, so here’s the deal with the revolution. First, there’s not one… revolution, I mean. Two, you can’t claim to be revolutionary because you do something as silly as fly fishing, with equipment the making of which (be honest) you haven’t the foggiest idea about (regardless of how many YouTube® videos you’ve watched). So stop calling yourself Sustainable. Or Green. Or Eco-anything. Or Revolutionary. Yes, corporate fly fishing sucks, but unless you fashion your own fly rods out of spinning rod blanks, sand down 80-lb mono to make your own shooting head fly lines, and forge your own hooks out of paperclip wire, you’re pretty much corporate. Sorry, just reality.
And another thing, you can’t claim to be a dirt-bag, hippy, [insert species here] bum if you own 10-grand of fly gear, a gas-drinkin’ SUV to pull yer 30-grand flats skiff and upload videos showing how much of a badass you are from your new Macbook Pro.
If there was a revolution, which (as I’ve mentioned) there isn’t, it would have been staged by those Bahamian guides who still fish those old school Bass Pro specials or the cheapest Redingtons they made… and can dump the entire line with ’em too. It would have been soldiered by the nameless, by the un-endorsed, by the silent workhorses of the angling world.
The revolution would have been perpetrated by those folks who just wanted to go fishing, because they loved it—as a pursuit, as a rest from labor, as a quietly raised middle finger to the consumptive day-in-day-out existence of their weekly work day . They probably released their fish out of respect, maybe out of a little bit of love, and mostly because the streams they fished were filled with toxins from the last century of industrial enterprise, and effluent from the last big rain.
They wouldn’t have let anyone take pics of them with their flyrods on their shoulders, or called themselves extreme, or espoused (in any way) the ethos of a bum. They probably would have slowly upgraded their tackle as they inched their way up the corporate ladder and only after the children were out of college, maybe pulling a fast one on the wife by asking for a Harley (which they knew she’d veto) and then “settling” for some new fly fishing tackle—probably a Sage rod and Abel reel. They’d have joined Trout Unlimited and been a regular at the local flyshop (before it went bust thanks to Amazon).
So, maybe there was a revolution after all, but we just can’t recognize it anymore. Maybe that’s what happens to revolutions after a while: they become un-tell-apart-able from the corporations they were rebelling against. The very process of seeping into the mainstream consciousness mollifies the revolt, and now here I am, rebelling against the revolution: a rebel without a clue. Isn’t that, after all, the American way?
* Or YouTubed, or Vimeod or FFFTed or whatever.
Reflections on Life in the Tropics
The strange truth about paradise is that it eventually gets to be boring and, quite frankly, depressing. Well, maybe not so much “depressing” as “melancholy”. It’s the seasons that do it… or rather, the lack of any discernible seasons.
To the locals the changes are obvious, and we look forward to the cooling “Christmas Breezes” as much as any Mid-westerner looks forward to the first crisp days of autumn and the changing leaves. But in the tropics the seasons are more subtle and to those who were not born here it seems the land of endless summer. The weight of time is increased by this lack of noticeable change. Now, the really strange part is that it was this same consistency that attracted them here in the first place (not that they would phrase it exactly like that).
They said to themselves, “To hell with winter; I hear down in the Keys you never have to buy antifreeze for your car or and the only ice you see is floating in rum.” People say stuff like that, and it’s true enough, but then the truth slowly dawns on them—that remembering how bad winter was makes spring seem even better. Then they say, “To hell with paradise.” and blow town. We’re sorry to see them go. I mean, it’s actually kind of amusing to hear someone constantly complain about the heat—“This place is like hell with palm trees,” they say, when they’re from a land that seems to us like the arctic circle.
That’s the danger in island life: you expect it to be not only better, but perfect. Why shouldn’t it be? You’ve got the sun, the beach, and don’t forget the all-important piña-colada. However, the ironic reality is that those who come expecting perfection (not just a nice vacation) are often disappointed, while those who know it will probably be hot, humid, and primitive (not to mention larcenously expensive as far as frozen drinks are concerned) are often pleasantly surprised by how relaxed life can be here.
I think that the locals’ perspective is best summed up by Herman Wouk (who’s book Don’t Stop the Carnival I highly recommend).
[For the local there is] a piece of wisdom that his climate of eternal summer teaches him. It is that, under all the parade of human effort and noise, today is like yesterday, and tomorrow will be like today; that existence is a wheel of recurring patterns from which no one escapes; that all anybody does in this life is live for a while and then die for good, without finding out much; and that therefore the idea is to take things easy and enjoy the passing time under the sun.
Well, I don’t care what the ex-pats say: still sounds like paradise to me.
December 24, 2011
Head east, past the cruise ships, tourist traps, and taxis, past the miles of coastline, muddied by the winds of the last fortnight. Small bays open unexpectedly around corners glimmering blue through vignettes of seagrape groves, crowned by black and white reefs. Spindrift mists the windscreen, blurring details. The horizon seems impossibly far off.
Each flat is a washout: muddy sloshing waves. Like seeing an old friend drunk and angry, you recognize nothing. Drive on. Eventually you’ll run out of land and find yourself on the edge, the uttermost east with nothing but water between you and the Continent where this merciless wind was born. The past few days have been an exercise in futility, and always the sound of the wind, searching, feeling, testing. You hear words in it, half-caught mocking phrases. You suspect you might be going slightly mad.
Standing on that edge you find a surprise: the water here is clear. For the first time in days you actually see the grassy banks, sandy spits, and blue holes that comprise the marine terrain your putative quarry inhabits. Your spirits rise as you string your rod, test knots, tighten various straps and begin to walk. Almost immediately there are signs: a boil and a push in a familiar place. The tide feels right.
A constant sea crests the reef to the windward, and, robbed of it’s ocean-going energy, it crosses the bay to surge almost lanquidly against the shore. A wave breaks, retreats, and there they are: two translucent blue-grey dorsals knifing toward deeper water. Bonefish.
Your first cast is on target but the current sweeps the fly toward the fish. They spook instantly. You recast to intercept their half-guessed retreating shapes, more out of habit than hope. The result is expected: nothing.
Almost immediately you spot another shape cruising the foamline of a retreating wave. A big single. The cast is almost reflexive, dropping the fly two feet ahead and slightly left. The fish reacts immediately. You strip and feel resistance: fish on! It glides forward, shaking it’s head as if puzzled; the fly—a laughably simple thing—is clearly visible on the starboard side of its face as you keep stripping line, trying frantically to keep tight. Big fish. Twenty-eight inches? Twenty-nine?
The fish sees you and vanishes in an impossible burst of acceleration. Line is dancing everywhere and you suffer that habitual momentary panic where you’re certain you’re standing on it. You look down, but no, it’s clear. Then you sense rather than see the knot form, feel it slip through your fingers and slap against the first guide of your rod with an oddly metallic sound, like a machete buried with force into a coconut. The rod buckles and in a desperate defiant gesture you lunge forward, throwing slack in the line. The fish slows. You reach up, grab the snarl of line, and give it one futile shake before it’s jerked from your trembling fingers. The rod bends, straightens. The fish is gone.
It takes five minutes to clear the tangle. You tie on another fly and keep walking, catching a few schoolies before the tide is gone and you have to admit that you must leave now if you’re to get any Christmas shopping done. Before reeling in you stand on that first flat once more, hoping. The fishing was good today, especially considering the dismal results of the last week. You even got a five-pounder there at the end, but that fish, that first fish keeps coming back to ruin it all. Thirty inches?
The sun is low. Your shadow stretches out, straining for the horizon even as you turn away. You put the wind at your back and head for home. It’s Christmas Eve.