Fishipedia Report: Bonefish – the Hard Way

June 27th, 2011| No Comments

There are few finer things in fishing than guiding yourself to your own bonefish on a deserted flat in a far-off land. Sometimes you just have to overcome a little failure along the way…

Bonefish - The Hard WayIt’s sunset over Andros Island, Bahamas, and we’ve reached that uncomfortable point in the day. It’s the bit where the guide courteously runs through the check-list of get-out clauses. “We’ve just had a full moon, the fish are feeding at night”, “Cloud, high winds… anyone would struggle in these conditions.” None of it helps, particularly when you remind yourself that you just flew 4,500 miles from London, only to meet with failure.

The worst bit is still to come though. When I ask the guide when the last time he went out and caught nothing was, he pauses. Turns out it was rather a long time ago – precisely how long ago is not made clear, and I don’t need it to be. I get the feeling I’ve just made history in a way I never wanted.

Sure, handing over $450 to a bonefishing guide after a day when you’ve caught nothing is painful, but that’s not the worst bit. It’s not even the fact that I didn’t catch anything, or that by about 3pm I knew I wasn’t going to catch anything. (When the fly lands so perfectly that you hear a hard-to-please guide beg “Come on fish, you don’t want it no better than that!” only for maybe the 30th bonefish of the day to snort derisively and disappear into the ether, you know it’s game over.)

It’s what went before that makes it so unbearable. All those months of planning – sourcing and booking a guide, scouring the internet for information, amassing the right flies, whiling away winter evenings with dreams of warm Bahamian waters, glinting tails, silence interrupted only by the singing of a drag as orange backing disappears towards the horizon. In falling at the first hurdle, I can’t help wondering whether that time was wasted.

Bonefish - The Hard WayAfter a day of hammock-based convalescence and one or two ice-cold Kaliks, predictably I’m beginning to have second thoughts about that putting my 8-weight on eBay, and Plan B is starting to take shape.

Unfortunately, I’ve already blown most of my fishing budget – guided days are expensive in this part of the world and one costly failure under my belt feels like more than enough to be going on with. With confidence stores depleted, I’d be taking the unguided, solo road to fishing death or glory. Any further disasters will be entirely of my own making.

It seems like madness. But then, it’s the profusion of DIY options that inspired my Andros adventure in the first place. As far as bonefishing destinations go, the Bahamas is unique. Deserted, wadeable flats sit but a handful of paces from the road, and if you know where to go (the locals will be more than happy to give you a pointer) it’s a fishing experience like no other. It’s just you, an osprey or two and some of the most spectacular flats imaginable.

I spend the next couple of days exploring the fishing opportunities near our guesthouse. Perhaps I’m fishing the wrong places on the wrong tides, but one by one, these flats deny me. As each attempt falters, the tension builds within me and I return to my wife with all the predictable stories of near-misses and lost opportunities.

I’ve caught permit in the Keys, tarpon off Costa Rica, trout from the Test. I’m no world-beater but I’d started to believe I could at least call myself a half-decent angler. This bonefish adventure has started to make me wonder whether I’m even competent.

Bonefish - The Hard WayOne surreal morning, hundreds of metres out on a remote flat, I’m joined by a stray dog. It turns out he’s doing a spot of fishing of his own (targeting slow moving box fish a local later tells me), but at the time I can’t help wondering whether this salty sea dog has come to just marvel at the bumbling Englishman with a sunburned nose and curiously straight rod.

And so it continues, until a couple a couple of days later. While breakfasting at the hotel, the owner sidles up next to me. “You know, I’m no expert but these conditions look pretty much perfect to me.” A glance through the window confirms it.

The flat out front is flooding, the sun is climbing and the coconut palms are listing gently in the breeze – it’s the kind of morning you only get in the Bahamas. It’s so perfect that it gives me pause for thought. Can I really face the prospect of heading out there and spoiling it with failure again? Is there any merit in opening the door to this level of excitement when it risks elevating my sense of despondency should it all go wrong?

We all know the answer to that one. Two hours tick by under a glorious Bahamian sun and it doesn’t look good. For my efforts, all I’ve seen is two fish – heading the wrong direction into a stiff breeze and eventually dissolving in deeper water.

But somehow I’m still convinced it’s coming. There’s something there – naivety maybe, stubbornness probably – that tells me it’s coming. Lord knows why, I’ve no right to this kind of optimism.

But when it does happen, it’s just like in my dreams. One, two, three, four dark shapes, 80 feet away moving slowly in the opposite direction. At least I think so – are those really bonefish or am I imaging it? It’s too far to cast, so I start moving – as fast as possible while still maintaining radio silence. The shapes move too and I know, definitely bonefish.

Gradually, agonisingly, I close some of the ground. Two more steps and they might just about be in range. But then, the dream starts to dissolve again. I glance once, for all of half a second, at the tip of the rod to make sure the fly line hasn’t fouled in any way, glance back and I’ve lost them. That’s all it takes for these things to slip off the radar.

Thankfully it’s only for a moment, and a couple of seconds later I see them again, on the edge of a patch of turtle grass, practically urging me on. Seconds turn into hours and I take one step closer…

Finally, I know there’s no way of putting it off a moment longer. Three false casts… release. Too far left. It should be enough to spook them but for once it’s not. Pick up the line, re-cast. This time it’s perfect. As I release it, I just know I couldn’t have done it better. Never mind being in the kitchen, the fly is on the dining table.

The next bit happens so fast and with such absolute certainty that I’m left wondering how it hadn’t happened before. I can still hear the guide from the other day. “Strip it long, strip it looooong.” Three of the fish see the fly at once and the charge is on – it’s just a question of which one gets there first.

Bonefish - The Hard WayAnd then, there it is, that perfect moment when your stripping hand meets with resistance. It’s a moment that’s only bettered by the one that follows a second later when your hand almost gets dragged up through the butt ring of the fly rod. Now I’m just waiting for the loose fly line to catch around the butt of the rod, but it doesn’t – the fish is on the reel and making for New Providence.

I hear the word “yes!” – an exclamation of relief, disbelief and unadulterated joy – and realise I’ve said it out loud. I tell myself to take it all in, enjoy every moment of the fight, but there’s no chance of that.

Five blurry minutes later and I’m cradling a three-pound bone in my left hand. It’s a baby by Androsian standards, but I couldn’t care less. I’m not sure which one of us is more surprised, but I’ve got an idea which of us is happier. If only I could convey to this ghostly apparition just how happy I am he decided to stop by.

Bonefish - The Hard WayAs I watch him swim serenely away and finally melt back into the shimmering flat, I’m already wondering whether it really happened. It feels like that fruitless first day was meant to be, because nothing that happened then could compare with this.

Bonefish - The Hard WayThere’s a sense of pride that comes with guiding yourself to your own success on an unfamiliar flat in a foreign land that is simply indescribable. (Those of you who’ve done it will know what I mean. Those who haven’t should put it on the to-do list.) And then, when you look up and realise there’s almost no-one to share it with, well, somehow that just makes it all the more sweet.

Was it another of those dreams? Am I really back in London, tucked up in bed, imagining the scenario that will never be? Maybe, but I don’t think so. To tell you the truth I just don’t care. For now it feels a little like redemption.

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