Monday, November 30, 2009

Chasing Tail

For my birthday, Stacy planned a trip to nearby by totally different island, a small coral atoll just north of our home island. Anyone you speak to down here says that this particular island is ground zero for bonefish. So, while the rest of This River is Wild was freezing their asses off on Great Lake tributaries, Stacy and I were wading tropical flats in search of bonefish.

We picked up our sweet ride for the four days we'd be there and went to fill it up at the gas station. I asked the attendant if he knew anything about bonefishing around the island.
He perked up and said he knew a thing or two about bonefishing. It turns out that the owner of the gas station was none other than the one and only bonefishing guide on the island. He has guided the likes of Jimmy Buffet and others who have come here to try their luck on the flats.

A Wrangler can hold a 9wt and 10wt quite comfortably...

He told me the best option for wading was to head to the bridge and walk east. The farther east you go, the better. However, the farther east you go, the muckier the bottom becomes and soon, it becomes unwadable.

He left me with the words, in his thick accent "don judge by what you see out der, mon. Wait 'til you go wit a guide." Not exactly instilling a sense of confidence. He then gave me his card and invited me to check out his fleet of skiffs. I told him I just might give him a call if we didn't have any luck wading. We fist bumped and parted ways.

About 200 people live on this island year-round. It's highest point is 28ft above sea level and we saw way more cattle and goats roaming the settlement than people. It is also home to the critically endangered rock iguana. We didn't see any.

What also seemed to be critically endangered were the bonefish. Dreams of flats sparkling with waving tails and dorsal fins evaporated when we arrived at the access, rigged up in a stiff wind and hit the flats. Knee-deep water with breaking white caps due to the wind is what greeted us. We walked for an hour and half and saw nothing alive save mangroves. The rough surface made spotting a tail impossible and the angle of the glare from the height of a wading person made looking off into the distance for a fish impossible, as well.

As far as the eye can see.

A wreck on the edge of the reef.

Prime habitat for bonefish prey.

We hopped back in the jeep and explored the island. The next morning, at 6am, we hit the flats on a falling tide. We hiked for a mile, eyes straining, shuffling our feet and making little wake, for two hours east. We saw absolutely nothing. I whispered to Stacy that bonefish were a myth. We were speaking in whispers because it seemed natural when compared to the way we were sneaking around the flats, tip-toeing like ninjas.

The only other fisherman, straining to find some prey.

Stace rounds a mangrove cluster, looking for movement.


Making a U-turn and heading west, we saw two rays and a shark. Then, an impossibly fast shadow zoomed out across the flats trailing a wake. Our first sighting, or so I told myself. It saw us way before we knew it was there.

We were now on high-alert. Five minutes later, I saw two big bonefish cruising perpendicular to me. I made one cast but they were moving too quickly. They scattered and fled as my line splashed to the water above them. Our first confirmed sighting and our first cast! Progress.

Half an hour after that, We saw a single fish slowly meandering through the turtle grass. One cast, perfect placement, and the fish bolted. We were getting frustrated but at least we were seeing fish.

A few minutes later, miraculously, two bonefish were swirling and actively feeding twenty five feet to my right. They had not spotted either of us. Sometimes it is better to be lucky than good. Trailing the fly behind me, I made one quick flick and landed the fly about 6ft away. Immediately, a tiny little grunt tried to eat my fly. It seems that bonefish have some attendant fish that devour any of the shrimp or crabs that try to scoot away as the bonefish muddles for a meal. One of the bonefish moved over, deliberately, then paused right above my fly. I pulled in the slack and felt the fish. I offered a slight tug and held on tight as the fish took off like a bullet in a half-circle around me towards deeper water. The reel screamed as the line lasered through the water, throwing spray 3ft into the air. Into my backing almost instantly, I tightened the drag and slowed the fish. I frantically reeled as it swam towards me, then it took off again. Into my backing for the 2nd time, the fish slowed and then seemed to play dead.

Coming to hand.

Success at long last.

Epoxy shrimp, not the most elegant of flies.

Active Camo

Silver Bullet.

Bonefish obviously have excellent eyesight.

After two blistering runs it was totally and utterly spent. I hauled the fish in and tailed it. I hoisted it for a pic, then placed it back into the water and walked it towards shore to take the hook out.

As I fought this fish, my knees were literally quivering. I was laughing out loud and hoping against hope that it wouldn't break me off. Hour upon hour upon hour upon hour of wading through flats in the burning sun since I've arrived here in August finally paid off with this solid hook up, quick fight and decent fish landed. I was more than pumped.

Bonefish are almost totally invisible on the flats. Especially to a wading angler, who can only see about 20ft in any direction and spends most time frightening anything within earshot of their sloshing towards deeper water before the angler even knows anything was there. Add to the inadequacies of the angler the almost perfect active camouflage that bonefish sport. Their body is covered in tiny mirrors that reflect whatever color the bottom is. They are the predator and you are Arnold.

Thousands of reflective surfaces...

mimic the bottom coloration...

and make them disappear.

Stacy had a great shot at another, larger fish almost as soon as I released mine. She took one cast and the fly was gobbled by the the bonefish's attendant grunt, which dragged the line across the bonefish, spooking it for good. Nothing after that.

The next morning, I jumped a good-sized tarpon off of a dock outside of our hotel. Later that day, I tied on a 7inch baitfish pattern to try for a big barracuda. We spotted a 4 footer in 8 inches of water. I jogged 200 yards to get in front of the fish and laid my fly 20ft to it's right. I began to strip the fly towards me with both hands when the fish accelerated and nailed the pattern. I strip set, and with one mighty shake of it's tooth-lined head, the nail knot on my 30lb pike leader exploded. The massive fish broke the surface trying to shake free of the hook in it's mouth and moved off only a few feet. I re-tied, anxious to see if it would still bite and I didn't have to leave it with a giant hook and 8 inches of wire dangling from it's jaw. The fish wasn't interested and swam off. I felt pretty bad about that.

Tarpon inspecting a floating leaf.

As fresh as dinner can get.

Four days on a deserted coral atoll, one bonefish, a jumped tarpon and a missed barracuda made for pretty much the coolest birthday present ever.


Matthew D Dunn said...

This has got to be one of the fishiest blogs on the internets.

Mark said...

Thanks Matt, that is probably the best compliment we have ever received!

Matthew Henrichs said...

Matt, that is a great post and some fine pics. Funny, I have been scouring the internet for months looking for information on Bonefishing the Anegada flats. I have found this duty to more than a bit daunting with a severe lack of relevent information available. I leave Christmas day for a 10 day trip. (My grandfather thought it a good idea to pack up the entire family of 23 and head to the BVI's for Christmas.) I was not complaining and grateful when I realized I could bring the fly rod and have a legitimate shot at bonefish. We are fishing with Garfield one day and plan on walking myself a few others. I have similar expectations to what you have described and would exhaulted to come away with a fish or two! Any tips, tricks or fine rum establishments are welcome at Keep up the great site and tight lines.


Unknown said...

matt, sent you an email!