Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Sweet Spot

The beast rejuvenated us and reminded us of why we were there: to fish our asses off. That night, we found a place to buy ice, we parked ourselves on the beach, and drank the cheapest beer we could find. It was a celebration of sorts that prepared us well for our best day of fishing thus far.

We hit up all the spots we could access without a skiff and catch a bone. Probably 1/50th of the entire circumference of the island. Once again, the wind and clouds were in full effect which severely hampered the first half of the day. It was slow.

Early in the morning on the first beach, I was lucky enough to spot a bonefish that evaded Adam and Matt working their way east. I made the cast, worked the fly, and the bonefish attacked. They are so opportunistic, that I don't think the pattern matters much. It is all about the presentation.

We shifted gears, and made our way to the less accessible flat and power walked it. At this point, we wanted a permit badly, but whenever we were thinking permit, they never showed up. Only when we least expected it, did they appear out of thin air.

Matt had a redemption of sorts against a small school of bonefish. A few days earlier a school of 4-6 slowly moving fish, snuck by him in super shallow water using mangroves as cover. Near the same spot and gifted with a second chance, he scored his first bonefish of the day.

The second half of the day started very slow, but ended fast and furious. We switched up our game plan and decided to walk into the wind, rather than wait on the beach for tailing fish. It was close quarters combat, where we couldn't see the fish until the last minute and they often took while we stripped leader. 

As we made our way up a mangrove coastline, we stumbled upon a sweet spot. Lots of fish were moving into the area in singles and pairs. The highlight of the day came when we had our first double hookup. As Adam landed a solid bonefish, Matt got his second of the day.

Moments later, Adam landed another great fish. Days earlier, he prepared himself for dealing with the wind by placing a 10wt. line on his 7wt. This was the day it paid off, as he routinely bombed casts to unsuspecting fish in stiff winds.

I ended up finding the source of all the bonefish coming our way. I began blind casting out onto the deeper portions of the flat and immediately hooked up with a bonefish that popped off during the land. On the next cast, I hooked up with the smallest bonefish we caught the whole week. We happened to find a sweet spot for an hour before it completely died down, and the fish moved on.

Also on this day, Adam spotted bonezilla cruising towards the horizon. The picture below is him summing up his experience chasing it. If his estimate proves accurate, the fish would have been in the neighborhood of world record size. I wouldn't have believed him if I hadn't seen another fish of epic proportions only to have a horse eye jack rob me of the bonefish of a lifetime.

As we made our way back to the rental, the sky was awash with hues of blue, yellow, orange, and red. It was a fitting capstone to the best fishing all week. The next two days proved to be less fortunate, but still a great time.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Beast

This is a shared experience told from two points of view and from a few places in time. Italics differentiate between the speakers. Enjoy.

Dream sequence

The small mullet darted from the shadows, frantically searching for structure. It zigged and zagged and eventually darted underneath the concrete dock I was standing on, sight fishing to laid up tarpon in the dark. A split second after the small fish disappeared beneath my feet there was an unseen explosion of water from under the dock. The commotion settled and the only sound that remained was the whistling wind. The two locals hand-lining for small jacks swung their dangling feet up out of the water as they exchanged a nervous glance. I didn't know it yet, but I had just been introduced to a legendary, supposedly uncatchable fish we'll call the beast.

There we were, in a tired stupor, gazing up at an unknowable amount of stars, entirely spent from four days shuffling in the sun. One rod laid between us, rigged incase any of us could muster a few shots at tarpon between two groups of locals hand lining. The tarpon weren't there, they knew better. Nonetheless, my brother and I decided to have at it, and positioned ourselves indian style at the end of the dock. We reminisced, having a heart to heart, about fish lost during the trip. Talk eventually turned to giant barracuda, the beast, and all the close follows of the previous days and the ensuing heart break. My big goal for this trip was to catch a monster barracuda, the kind that dwarfed the juvenile 30-50 lb. tarpon we caught in the night. The ones that followed them in really close, thinking about going for a slice, leaving us to marvel and throw every streamer in our box in vain.

We returned to the island with the dock that held the beast a few months later. This time I was not alone. Some friends from Europe were along and we had hooked a 3ft blacktip shark while baitfishing with circle hooks at the infamous dock. As the shark came to the surface, the beast rushed out from hiding but veered away within inches of severing the shark in half. Everyone who saw it was shocked, but I knew it was the same fish as before. I asked one of our friends about dinosaur sized 'cuda. He's fished the Seychelles, Cuba, Venezuela, Belize, the Keys the Maldives and everywhere in between with spin and fly gear. I asked him what, in his opinion, was a more difficult species on the fly: a huge, old barracuda or a permit. He paused and looked away, then smiled and said in his Austrian accent "Honestly? The barracuda."

On previous trips to this location I've heard people tell some pretty tall tales. Over beers at a small beach bar, in heavily accented English, a local lobster fisherman told me tales of his days out in his panga. Tiger sharks, threshers, pot thieves, declining catches, and one story of an uncatchable barracuda that has lived under the ferry docks for years. It's presence is made known more from the aftermath of a feeding than from actual sightings, but he assured me that this wasn't a fish story.

From the darkness off the dock, two large mullet came cruising in our general direction mere inches below the surface. They weaved in and out, seemingly playing under the night sky. Oblivious, they had no idea what was lurking below. Standing, my brother and I watched the mullet off the end of the dock while playfully, one of them jumped out of the water creating a disturbance. "Man, those things are just asking to get eaten." On cue, directly under our feet, the head of a prehistoric beast, 10 inches across, emerged from the shadows. My brother and I gasped, as one of the largest barracudas I have ever seen closed in for the kill. It hovered motionless below the surface, winding up, as the two mullet played suspended in the salt. The ensuing attack, would have been missed if I had blinked, but I didn't. The cuda went from zero to oh my god faster than anything I had ever seen, porpoised, all snapping jaws and thrashing tail, and disappeared into the sea. The two mullet escaped with their lives, leaving a trail of shit in the water.

That same night, not a half hour after the small mullet had or had not gotten chomped and I spoke with the lobsterman at the bar, I hooked a 15lb tarpon. As I walked it along the dock towards a small landing ramp, the beast made my acquaintance yet again. My 10wt rod bent dangerously to the cork as the frighteningly huge beast silently struck my small tarpon. The poor poon was crosswise in its jaws, dwarfed by the triangular head of the most massive barracuda I had ever seen. In a fraction of a second the tarpon was practically bisected vertically. I stood in slack-jawed awe as the predator turned and vanished between the concrete supports, where it held court as lord of the local sea.

Giddy as two young kids on Christmas morning, my brother and I started rigging up the lone 10wt. left unused on the concrete. The weapon of choice: twelve inches of mushy mouth tied for stripers on the Susquehanna Flats. Needlefish patterns are laughed upon and we weren't about to lower ourselves for a bait and switch. We had to feed the beast a meal. Successive casts stripped as fast as possible proved futile. Adam began talking of his early years fishing in Canada for Musky and Pike and how a figure eight retrieve at the boat would often elicit a strike. He recommended running the fly along the perimeter of the dock making erratic movements. On top of that, with the fly near the rod tip the steel leader wouldn't be in the water at all. The fly would be in the same position as the mullet that the fish had just missed. A half hour later, I decided to give it a try.

This fish was who knows how old. It owned that section of sea, especially since all of the large sharks have been converted into lobster dinners. Unseen, the monster just hovers among the concrete dock supports. In its younger days I am sure it was hooked once or twice. The thing is so savvy that it rarely takes small fish that are hand-jigged from the structure. No one catches tarpon here, so my baby must have looked like an all you can eat buffet. Every lure that fish sees travels in a straight line as it is retrieved. As Mark ran down the dock, turned the first corner and dragged his fly in a tight 90 degree arc it was easy to imagine the beast turning its attention towards it, running through an unconscious checklist in its brain: leader? not visible. Movement? Fishy. Size? Worth the effort. Pivoting with its pectoral fins, the second 90 degree turn of the fly, only 10ft later, was all the convincing the beast needed. It was go time.

Honestly, I decided to give it a try just for fun, I had zero expectations for what I was about to do. I placed the pattern in and started a brisk trot down the dock with only four feet of leader out from my rod tip, the fly just below the surface. Approaching the second ninety degree turn, I ripped the fly a little harder, accelerating it around the column. From underneath, came the fury of the beast. With bad intentions from his previous misfortunes, he engulfed twelve inches of material in his triangular mouth of razor blades. I stripped and lifted straight up while simultaneously shouting "HOLY SHIT, I'VE GOT HIM!!!!!"

When Mark yelled in astonishment, Adam and I forgot our conversation, dropped our rods on the concrete and ran down towards the thrashing battle ensuring in the circle of light. I could not comprehend how Adam's advice had paid off on the first try. I lost my mind. Quite literally, halfway to Mark I turned around and sprinted back to the vehicle to try to find a camera. I fumbled through the glove box, trashed papers, clothes, flies, fly boxes all in a vain attempt to document the fight. Probably a split second later I found the damn thing and sprinted back down the dock. I supposedly was yelling and hollering and cursing up a storm but I don't remember any of it. I only remember talking about landing this brute. I was going to get my gloves on, as if that would prevent me from losing an arm when we had it in the shallows...

When I lifted my broomstick of a 10 wt. it bent to the cork, while I didn't even move the Cuda' an inch. For a second, the barracuda was confused, (this was not supposed to happen to him) before arching his frame upwards and throwing his head side to side trying to throw a 7/0 hook from his jaws. Realizing, that this was not the normal predicament, he launched himself to my left in an explosion of water and line. The kind where you rod is pointing one way and the fish is going in the complete opposite direction. I quickly regained some control, and I had the beast tight, unable to maneuver him where I wanted him to go. For the next minute, we tangoed under the lights of the dock, neither of us willing to give in during a tug of war I knew I could win.

When I fully regained consciousness I remember standing almost stock still in amazement at the fish on the end of the line. It was much larger than any tarpon any of us had ever caught. It was vastly larger than any barracuda I had seen in my more than 2 years here fishing, swimming and diving. It was the legend. The beast. It surpassed all imaginings of what I'd heard and my memory of it flashing with a tarpon in its jaws. There was almost no chance of landing it, I realized at that moment. Even if it somehow stayed on long enough, how would we revive it in the pitch black water? Our only hope was that Mark could break its will and we could safely get the fly or cut the line with the fish still green enough to swim off under its own power.

I knew the fish would make a move under the dock. It was as if the beast knew that he was about to tire and was saving himself for one last ditch effort. He was thinking, biding his time, waiting for the right moment. When that time came, I couldn't stop him. My drag was to the max, I was palming the reel, and my rod felt like it was going to break. The movement was super fast, as the beast darted under the dock through several pilings and to his right, clearing the surface of the water in a massive jump. We came tight again in a minute long stand off, where I could picture my Rio Clouser line rubbing barnacles off of the pilings of the dock when suddenly my line went limp. He was off. Reeling in my line, it was discovered that the factory wire leader I was using failed. The wire slipped through the knot connecting itself to a BB swivel.

And that was that. The fish was on one side of the dock while Mark was on the other. I tried to grab the line on the fish side so Mark could maybe drop his rod in the water and I could pull it over, but by the time I was laying and reaching the knot had slipped. The fish knew what to do. Once it realized the predicament it was in it slowed down, took stock, eyed us up and realized all it had to do was turn towards the pressure and loop around a concrete dock support. We were outmatched and it was over.

Two nights later a woman who had heard of our battle with the uncatchable fish approached us on the dock. We said that we were worried we'd killed it from exhaustion and the 7\0 hook and wire hanging from it's mouth. She said she saw our fish that very night. It came out from beneath the dock, seemingly just to show itself, before returning to its lair and resuming its position atop the food chain. Above anything else, we were humbled to have been witness to a fish such as that. To hold it for a few moments of reverence before reviving and releasing might have been too much to hope for.

That was one of the most surreal and insane moments I've ever experienced, anywhere. It was as if we summoned the beast by speaking of the mullet at our feet. Then, watching it hunt, oblivious to us, and watching it miss, while the possibility of catching it bloomed in our three minds simultaneously, to using Adam's musky technique and having it actually work... I'll never forget any of it. I have an imaginary picture of Mark kneeling in the shallows, somehow tailing this fish under the water, his eyes draw yours to the terrifying and beautiful monster as the flash from the camera illuminates them against a pitch black background. That is good enough.

Aftermath, calming down, reflecting.

Monday, August 22, 2011


Morning of day four, we awoke to a passing squall that spit rain into the tent and made anymore sleep impossible as high winds ripped across the tent. It was the beginning of a day filled with passing storms and wind that refused to die down, making the fishing challenging.

Despite the wind, my brother and I decided to take the pontoons out and drift farther out along the coast. Adam dropped us off near the mangroves and we rigged up multiple rods for bones, perm, tarpon, and barracuda, just in case. It didn't take us long to realize a major problem. Rather than having the wind come from the East drifting us along the coast, it was coming from the Northeast pushing us out to sea. After drifting a few hundred yards, we decided to head back to shore. Matt decided to row, while I found it futile. I hopped out of the pontoon into chest deep water and preceded to walk it back to shore. It took quite a long time as we drifted farther out than we did down the coast. We decided to follow Adam as he waded alone in the distance.

After only mere minutes, Matt shouted out, Permit! Under heavy cloud cover, it revealed itself only by going face down and tail up. Matt shot off a cast but the permit turned in my general direction. I couldn't see anything under the heavy glare and Matt shouted at me to make a cast. I hesitated because I couldn't see, but in the end decided to trust my brother. Following the directions of 20 ft. at 1 o'clock, I laid out a merkin styled crab with a rattle, stripped twice and paused. As I stopped, the fifteen pound permit swam perpendicular to my viewpoint finally showing himself in a lane of visibility. I re-casted and stripped. The body language of the permit changed suddenly and he was on the fly. After each of the next two strips, the permit zigged and zagged to keep an eye on my fly. I stopped, and my crab settled onto the bottom. Ten feet from my rod tip, the permit descended upon the crab in slow motion, while my heart raced. He angled downward for the feed and still I waited, my heart in my throat. I set the hook, but it was not to be. I set too soon. I exhaled deeply, adrenaline coursing through my veins. My only chance at glory darted off the flat and into the glare, never to be seen again. I was left with the fine line between a take and an inspection replaying in my mind.

As the image of the permit lingered in my mind, my brother and I shuffled down the flat looking for any sign of fish. The wind and heavy cloud cover made this the most difficult day of fishing on our sojourn. The lone fish came as I spotted a very large bonefish cruising between a small mangrove and an abandoned lobster trap. Moving perpendicular to the shoreline, I easily spotted his frame. I made my cast and watched him close in on my fly. I stripped tight to a fish that I expected to be the big guy, but it wasn't. A second fish, much smaller, that I hadn't seen took the fly and the two bones took off. I landed the good fish, explaining to Matt what could have been, if the larger fish was a little quicker to the fly.

Meeting back up, Adam experienced a fishless shuffle as he zig-zagged his way down the flat trying to cover as much water as possible. At one moment, he turned around to find a huge permit swimming right by him. They made eye contact and the fish was gone. We made our way back to the beaches hoping to increase our chances of seeing fish in skinny water. In between passing clouds we had two solid chances at very large fish. One of them proving successful. 

Heading down the beach, I heard a loud splash. Naturally I scanned the horizon looking for the wrath of a passing barracuda but didn't see anything. Coming around the side of a mangrove I saw the what was making all the commotion. I large tail was sticking out of the surf surrounded by a column of mud and sand. Emerging from it came a large bonefish at my 12 o'clock. I aimed towards 10, let my line go and the wind carried it to the right my leader landing directly overtop the back of the fish. At the same moment, he went down for another meal, my leader safely descending to the bottom just beyond his tail. When he popped his head out of another cloud, I stripped twice. He aggressively turned over ninety degrees for the fly and I was treated to the longest backing run I have ever experienced that prompted me to actually look to make sure I had backing left. It was the heaviest bonefish I have ever caught.

With low tide peeking, the fishing screeched to a grinding hault. We headed to our rendezvous on the dock where we waited out a few storms and caught some sleep on the dock. We repaired wading wounds on our feet, ate some catered ravioli from a can, and watched the sunset. Halfway through the trip, we were beginning to experience some heavy fatigue. However, something was about to happen that was going to wake us all up.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Camp Life

"I'd rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on Earth."
- Steve McQueen

If you're thinking of going to one of the wild places for any period of time, there are certain comforts of home that you should be prepared to do without. Like bathrooms. If you'll be spending any of that time in salt water on or a beach, you can expect to be rather uncomfortable for most of your stay.

Without a reliable freshwater source to rinse off with, our rods, reels and skin were left to the mercy of the salt for our 8 day adventure. There was chaffing. Thats all I am going to say about that.

Open blisters are painful, but sand in those areas, inside your wet shoes, makes for an excruciating, shuffling walk. There was no escape.

Our limited supply of clothing was rotated in a three day cycle. I saved 1 of my 3 shirts until the last day, as a kind of reward to myself for making it.

Replenishing lost salts and carbs with canned meat and liquid bread.

A tree and a roof rack supported the hammock each night.

Twice, the wind blew our tent a few hundred yards down the beach. Having your headlights illuminate an empty space where you know your stuff is supposed to be is a pretty bad feeling. We hitched the tent to an 80lb log one morning, only to find 100 yard drag marks and the tent hung up in the bushes upon our return. After that, we took it down each morning.

The baking morning sun woke us each day and alerted us to the few hundred bloodthirsty insects that had alit on the bugshield of our hammocks, unable to reach us until we exited the cocoon.

Five-Star accommodations.

Adam forgot a toothbrush. The general store was closed for the first 5 days of our stay. You do the math.

We chanced upon a closed-down and boarded-up beach bar with some makeshift hammocks. We took advantaged and napped away the hottest hours of the day in relative comfort. We also found a slightly ajar door with 'ladies' scrawled in what looked like blood. Inside was a horrifying scene, but better than the mangroves.

Every step around the campsite was fraught with danger. Jumping cactus, insidious little sharp seed delivery mechanisms, punctured toes and then the fingers that tried to remove them.

Before embarking, we knew how manky we would feel during our journey. That was all part of the charm. We knew that this was an experience that we were very fortunate to have the chance to take part in and that it would stay with us for the rest of our lives. There are very few places left where you can just camp in the sand under a canopy of a million stars bisected by the Milky Way, have a few beers and then wake up and sight fish to giant bonefish. We didn't see another fisherman during our stay and we could have done what we were doing until we spent our life savings on SPAM and beer. No one was going to bother us.

Each day, we scavenged some bits of plastic to bring back to our campsite to make it a bit more comfortable. A broken 10 gallon bucket to use as a cooler\seat, what appeared to be a cattle feed trough found buried in the sand was used as a bench. By week's end, we had built a homey little encampment with a coral fire ring, three seats and a beer pit in the sand that could hold a 12-pack and a bag of ice for a few hours.

Sweaty, sandy, salty, smelly, itchy, bug-bitten and buzzed, but content.

SPAM-sicle. Delicious, but I wouldn't recommend it for more than a few days in a row.