Thursday, September 30, 2010

A First.

We have always taken immense satisfaction in making unfamiliar waters produce through nothing but research, time and trial and error. The frustrated, fishless hours, days or however long it takes make the first honest fish from that water a real accomplishment. Our modus operandi has been DIY since we first put fly to water.

So, it was with a little trepidation that I accepted a very cool birthday gift from my girlfriend: a half-day guided bonefishing trip on a nearby island. This was back in November, but Stace could foresee an as yet unplanned fishing trip that would take place the following August, and deferred her spot on the boat to my brother. She knew he and Adam would be coming down in August for an adventure even if we hadn't discussed any particulars.

When the long-awaited day finally arrived, we approached the dock and I, for one, was pretty damn nervous. I was more worried about hooking the guide in the face with an errant cast than not catching any fish.

Our guide said that another group was going out today and they were going to be filming a TV show. He said that there was a friendly wager between the head guide on the boat with the film crew and our guide over which boat would land the most fish.

Our guide asked us how far we could cast, and I just looked at Mark. He said probably 60 or 70ft accurately. I said probably a lot less than that. We hopped onto the skiff and blasted across the clear waters, heading East.

I was up first on the front of the boat. The first thing our guide asked me to do was cast at a lone mangrove to see what my abilities were. Somehow, I was on target and he seemed pleased.

Within minutes, our guide was pointing me towards the largest schools of bonefish that I've ever seen. He had me strip quickly through 4 or 5ft of water. This brought the bones up to the surface as they chased down my tiny mink strip pattern. In about 10 minutes I was hooked up with the first bonefish of the morning and the pressure was off.

Sadly, a few minutes after that, the fish came 'unbuttoned.' I let Mark up on the front while I retied and Mark was into a nice fish within two casts. The fish ran once and was brought close to the boat. On its second run, Mark was almost spooled. His arm aching, the fish was netted and Mark had landed his first bonefish besides the one he pulled in by hand the day before. The fish was a pig of a bonefish.

First fish of the day.

I hopped back up on the bow and had some ridiculous shots at massive schools of fish with no takes. I had a permit dance around my fly and take some good, long looks at it before swimming off. A giant school of bones cruised within range and I plopped my fly in the center of the front of the pack. They scattered, but the rear of the pack kept advancing. When they were on top of the fly, one strip resulted in an instant hookup.

Sadly, again, slack in the line resulted in the belly catching on some coral and snapping my leader. I was getting pretty pissed off at my inability to seal the deal when Mark took the bow and hooked up with a good fish in one cast.

When this fish was netted, our guide seemed very impressed. He passed the thick fish to Mark for a picture as he radioed the head guide at the lodge, who was out with the film crew.

This is what an 11 pounder looks like, or so said our guide.

The head guide told us to wait with the fish for him and the film crew. When they motored alongside, they said they were filming a TV show for the VERSUS channel that will air in September and October. The head guide took Mark's fish and held it up for the camera. The host measured the fish at 27" to the fork while he and the head guide discussed the fishing opportunities on the flats. Mark and I sat on the boat, relegated to the background, while our fish took center stage.

The VERSUS crew examines and films Mark's fish.

As the half day expired, I couldn't make it happen with a third fish. We had landed two and missed two, as well as had an exciting glance from a permit. The day's tally ended up being 2 bones to 1, our boat was victorious.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Casting Practice.

The plan was simple. Journey north early in the season to avoid the crowds and find fresh aggressive slabs of salmon that were willing to crush a swinging fly.

Easier said, than done.

Our first foray of the season north to the Great Lakes tributaries proved to be futile (this story is a few weeks old). After a long work week in Delaware, I drove two hours home to Pennsylvania and furiously tied up several comets, egg sucking leeches, woolly buggers, and switched out two saltwater lines for a steelhead taper and a skagit compact. I hit the pillow for two hours before awakening a little after one. Adam soon arrived and we hit the road. Four hours later, we are hitting a massive parking lot hoping to find it empty and instead finding it semi-filled. So much for the crowds. Only on a Great Lakes tributary will you find a parking lot full of anglers an hour before sunrise. All there to fish for Chinook Salmon in the beginning of September when the leaves are green, the temperature is going to reach near 90, and the main run is a month away.

In the early gloom, we realized fairly early that we were going to be spending the day fishing b,c,d,e, and f water. Along the major pools amassed an army of men, shoulder to shoulder yielding their weapons. Some even brought lawn chairs that were placed in the water. In between the masses, Adam and I slipped into the water and started swinging. We swung flies the entire day, working all types of water, using every fly we brought a long and we didn't move a single fish.  I had a hunch that this was going to happen but with a lot of anticipation, reading reports, and reading up on the scene of in the Empire State, I was still disappointed.

The anticipation masked our previous experiences during salmon season. This outing however, opened our eyes to the blatant disregard to regulations. The preferred method of fishing up yonder is a large piece of lead 3-5 ft. above a hook with something on it, but it is basically just a hook. Spin and fly fishermen both use this setup. The rig is essentially dragged across the bottom and when it stops, there is an abrupt yank upwards. Throughout the entire day, we witnessed "hook ups," but none of them were legal and people still kept the fish they "hooked". It is awkward to sit there and take it all in, especially when someone with a 1,000+ dollar fly fishing outfit precedes to throw the aforementioned rig. No fly line is used. It is a well orchestrated lob. We wondered what the point was. Why not just use a regular spinning rod if you are going to fish that way. Why is a helios, a mirage reel, and sharkskin needed?

Anyway, the day was spent on the water and we were able to get in some good practice time for later in the season. Later in the afternoon, as we watched the spectacle from the riverbank, our eyelids began to close and the decision was made to get some shuteye before driving back. Another six hours on the road and it was time for another work week. Long live the weekend warrior.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Incident.


The Worst First Bonefish in History.

There we are, standing silently amongst dozens of tourists awaiting the ferry at the dock. We look completely out of place dressed in fishing gear, carrying rod tubes, several loaded packs, and a few gallons of water. Pretty much everything we brought on our three week sojourn. All three of us are disheveled and smell of crusty tarpon slime and wet clothing that hasn't been taken off or allowed to dry in over a week. We get a few sideways glances and some questions about our gear but otherwise, are ignored. The ferry ride takes a little while, long enough to get some much needed shut eye as Charlie's Angels plays on the way to our destination. The plan is for three days of camping and fly fishing for bonefish, permit, and tarpon. Pretty much what we have been doing for the past week except this time, the locale is much more pristine and untouched by the hand of man.

Unloading, we waste little time heading out to the nearest flat. It is somewhat awkward stepping into the rental car, since it is clean and completely void of a cockroach infestation. Dodging some cows on our way, we pull off and step into the largest flat my eyes have yet to see. After a few hours of getting schooled by large bones and heavy winds, we pack it in and change flats. At the new destination, we rummage through a fisherman's graveyard of decaying sea turtle shells, shark fins, and a million conch shells before deciding that it is not an ideal place to start. After walking several hundred yards through a salt marsh we step into paradise.

The first ten minutes on a flat is usually spent jostling for position. This is awkward. Three guys who all want the first bone and a prime run that has the best viewpoint, angle of sun, and the wind positioning. I make my way to the inner lane closest to the mangroves but Adam beats me to it. Ten minutes later, he is casting to two large bones tailing on a tiny sand flat amongst the mangroves. Matt and I glance at each other because we both know exactly what is about to happen. On the first cast, Adam's Merkin drops in front of the two bones and as predicted, they strike. Adam's second bonefish is on tight and is blitzkrieging across the flat. Adam lets out his traditional whooping and hollering coming straight from his diseased soul. After a few fist pumps and holy mother of gods, Adam is cradling and releasing another great bone.

Honestly, I am deeply jealous. I have yet to catch a bonefish and it seems like everyone in the world already has. For the past six months, my little sister has been letting me know that she has caught a bonefish and I have not. Payback for me letting her know (all the time) that I once kicked her butt in Harry Potter Scene It and therefore know more than she does about Harry Potter. I am probably even more than jealous. I am enraged. My soul is enflamed by buck fever and my inability to hook into a bone after countless chances a few days prior. Normally I could care less about not catching fish but this is the type of trip that doesn't happen often. I feel like I am fishing against a clock that is constantly getting closer to zero and this is my only chance left to seal the deal. All of this is going through my head, as the shutter comes closed on my DSLR for the last time as Adam's bonefish swims away.

After some bickering, it was decided that I should take the spot closest to the shore, even though I didn't want it anymore. I accepted and for the next hour watched as Adam and Matt had several more chances at bonefish while I waded through a mixed consistency of shin deep mud and stinging sea anemones. After an hour of hell, I finally see my first bonefish. It is tailing in shallows surrounded by mangroves but yet I give chase. I have several chances at this fish and he never really spooks because of the surrounding mangroves. After the bonefish disappears for awhile I spot Matt and Adam out a ways stalking a bonefish together. Based on their body language I can tell that they have an ideal situation before them and I begin taking some pictures. I place my DSLR back into my waterproof Sage Typhoon pack as the tailing bonefish re-emerges to my right seemingly beckoning me in for another go around.

Already locked into mortal kombat, I give chase despite the scale tipping mightily in the bonefish's favor. I work my way close and use the small mangroves dotting the landscape as cover. Only fifteen feet away, I drop the merkin a foot in front of the bonefish simulating a crab dropping into the water from a mangrove root. The bonefish pounces and goes berserk. The fish using its entire capability to travel thirty miles/hour careens, crisscrosses, and wraps around tiny mangroves before I can even take a single step. Reacting on pure adrenaline, instinct, and crazed buck fever I give chase in dead sprint following her path and simultaneously unwrap her work. She acts on instinct as well as she heads into an actual mangrove bush stitching my line through a dozen roots like an Olympic slalom skier winning the gold medal. I actually attempt to follow and then something happens that just snaps me out of my crazed state.

My foot catches a root and I slide down crashing into the water. The water wakes me up and before I even think about the bonefish on the end of my line and the backing spinning off of my reel, I think of my mistake. My stupid negligent, lackadaisical, heedless mistake. I never closed my waterproof zipper. I stare down into my pack at my DSLR, second lens, and my cell phone under six inches of salt. The rod drops into the water as I solemnly take them from their grave and hang them in the mangroves (in the distance somewhere a five gun salute is heard). No sounds are made and I am moving in slow motion seemingly in disbelief. A complete 180 from ten seconds earlier. I feel like the old man in a Christmas story after his major award shattered into pieces or when the Bumpus's hounds destroy the Christmas turkey. Except this is much worse. After a careful burial, my thoughts return to what potentially could be at the end of my line.

Gathering up my fly line, I hand lined my first bonefish. Cradling the fish, his eyes are bright orange probably from swimming and weaving so close to the mangroves. I take the hook off and for some reason pictures are taken. After the release I head back to survey the damage. To add icing onto the cake the fly rod is broken as well. Adam and Matt do not say a word and I just gather up the remaining evidence and we start our hike back to the ride.

Along the way, an entire life is being recalled, half of which has been spent with a fly rod in tow. Twelve years of dedication teaching myself everything I know and love. Twelve years of fishing excursions, money, and girls left shaking their heads. Was it really all worth it? Was this fish really worth all that was just lost? I think about the lack of camera to document what was to come and the lack of communication after my 14th phone fell victim to yet another fly fishing related death. After all, it is only halfway through the trip and I would surely have more chances. Yet, I gave chase, refusing to let a fish beat me. In doing so I lost more than my honor, I lost a grand and I was left with the fact that I hand lined my first bonefish. It can't count.

Emotionally, I am distraught and really don't want to talk to anyone but after awhile we are heading to another flat. After an hour break I am convinced back into the fray. This time, I am just going through the motions. An errant cast brings my first shark to hand, and after a few more sharks, and some lady fish all my worries and thoughts are swept away. My brother jokes that I have redeemed myself but I tell him I have a long way to go. Something special is going to have to happen in order for me to top this incident. Something special indeed.

Looking back on this disaster, I can't help but laugh about it. When I told my sister about my first bonefish and what ensued she only had one word for me.


Tuesday, September 21, 2010


In our never-ending search for leads on promising waters, we came across another blogger who happens to live on the same island as me. He spilled the beans about a magical place teaming with bonefish that are surprisingly willing. He even had pictures of some landed fish, which was all we needed to get our adrenaline pumping.

The 'yaks.

We used Google Earth to pinpoint its location. Stars aligned and it happened to be on an adjacent island separated by a mere two miles of open water. Better yet, there appeared to be a tiny island ringed by a reef , and hopefully a healthy flat, between us and our destination. We loaded our kayaks onto the truck and headed to a point of land that took us nearest to the promised land.


Stopping at the first tiny spit of land, we spread out and canvassed the flat. Adam headed west, Mark and I headed east. Mark and I stood on opposite sides of the entrance to the flat as water poured on with the rising tide. Fifty meters separated us as we saw two permit cruise up onto the feeding ground.
They wanted nothing to do with us, and after a few more hours of fruitless scanning, we waded back to the kayaks as a squall rumbled over us and dumped sideways rains onto the flat.

Well before the squall. Permit in there somewhere.

Just before the squall. Permit still in there somewhere.

When the rain passed, we paddled to the main destination. Adam and I headed east directly onto the middle of the flat while Mark walked north along the mangrove shoreline. We had done very little flats fishing since arriving on the island and we had zero confirmed bonefish sightings.

That all changed about three minutes after posting up. I spotted the unmistakable greenish fish cruising my way and pointed it out to Adam.

“That’s a bonefish. 11 o’clock.”

“That big thing?”


“That’s a huge fish.”

And it was. Bones here average between 4-8 lbs with double-digit fish seen often. These are not the 12” fish seen hoisted from the Bahamas or the Keys on a regular basis. That fish my sister caught back in January was the smallest bonefish I’ve seen here in more than a year, and it was still a nice fish.

Twenty minutes later, I had a pod of close to 100 fish swim a tight circle around me and ignore my fly. That really pissed me off. A group of 9 to 11 fish was spotted moving away from me and towards Adam’s position. I tried to signal to him but it was no use. A few minutes after that, a whoop was heard from 100 meters away as Adam tied into the first bonefish of the trip.

At long last...

The three of us converged on his position as he regained his fly line. He breathlessly told us of how he placed the Merkin in the path of a cruising phalanx of fish. The lead fish broke formation and sipped his fly.

The scoop.

First Bonefish.



Personally, it was a relief to see one of these guys tie into a bone, finally. I am just as pumped when they catch fish as I am when I catch something.

The fish was released after a brief photo session and we began working for the next one.

This unassuming bay ended up lighting the fuse of Buck Fever in my brother Mark that would culminate in an explosion of emotion, regret and humility a few days later on still another island. That story is for an upcoming day. This story is about how we all got there.

The Invisible Man.

Mark wears his emotions on his sleeve. When a big fish is in the picture, he cannot be bothered and he won’t take direction. That’s probably a good thing because he is 12 times the fisherman I am and my advice would just screw things up.

Adam and I began to notice the symptoms in Mark from hundreds of yards away. His casting took an uncharacteristically aggressive undertone and his wading became slightly careless. Adam said it best.

“I recognize that cast. That’s full-blown Buck Fever.”

I waded over to help my brother spot some fish. I just ended up getting a front row seat to frustration. We hunted a pod of 4 bones that kept leaving and returning to the flat via a small channel between some rocks. Mark casted to them, they spooked, he changed flies. They returned, he casted, they left again. They returned as he changed flies again and they came too close, they spooked on the shadow of his rod casting. We waited, they came back, Mark casted, they spooked, he threw his rod into the water.

The bones reappear a third time...

Screw it.

Twenty minutes later, Mark hunkered down as a group of a dozen fish came right at him. Ten feet away and Mark, down on one knee on the flat, rises up and switches knees for a better cast. The fish take off. The day is done.

Get down for the approach.

Reposition's over.

Buck Fever simmering in his head, we paddle home with the setting Sun. Unbeknownst to us, Mark’s sickness, brought on by missing so many bonefish, would fester, manifesting itself in a complete and utter disaster a short three days later.