Where The Pros Go For Bonefishing
I catch a nearly imperceptible flash out of the corner of my eye, like a shooting star. A silvery shimmer, the tip of a fin or even a dark shadow creeping along the alabaster seafloor is usually all that betrays the stealthy bonefish who come to feed in these shallow saltwater inlets. Of course my guide, Teddy, is the first to spot the actual fish. “He’s right over there,” he says. “Cast about five yards out at 3 o’clock.”
I strain through my polarized sunglasses and try to make out the silver-sided bonefish cruising off our bow. I squint into the early-morning sunlight and send my line arcing in the general direction, trusting my guide’s eyes more than mine. “Too close. You scared him off,” he says. “You have to lead him a bit, and lay your line out there gently so you draw his attention without spooking him.” I’m with my father and several other men on a guy’s trip in the Abaco Islands, a crescent–shaped cluster of sun-drenched isles in the northern Bahamas. We’re taking a break from our usual daily routine of deep-sea fishing into the early afternoon, followed by evenings filled with booze and seafood, to angle for bonefish in the intertidal flats that pocket the islands.
Our group is separated into two boats, and my father and I have a feeling that our hosts, who have fished here many times before and were sounding a bit too cocky about their prospects this morning, have claimed the veteran guide for themselves, leaving us with the younger and presumably less experienced guide for our first bonefishing experience.
We’ve scarcely had a strike despite hours of spotting and casting, and we fear our inkling may prove true. However, we’re steadfast in our resolve, and take turns standing poised on the small casting deck at the bow while Teddy silently poles the aluminum-hulled skiff across the water from an elevated platform mounted at the stern.
Unlike deep-sea fishing, going after bonefish isn’t a cast-and-wait proposition. It’s an all-in affair that’s more akin to hunting with a fishing rod. To fish effectively, an angler must know where the fish are likely to be, and keep a keen eye out at all times—first spotting his prey in the water before launching a strategically placed and well-presented cast that, with any luck, entices the fish to take the bait. But that’s only half the game.
These skittish fish, nicknamed Grey Ghosts, are known for their cunning nature, and—pound for pound—fight with a strength and speed that far exceeds their modest size. Once on the line, most will shoot off on a dead run like a sprinter out of the blocks, then stop on a dime and reverse direction, or zip under the boat and give themselves just enough slack to spit the hook. It’s no wonder that bonefish are among the world’s most prized saltwater game fish to catch on a fly rod, and many anglers consider landing a trophy-sized bonefish to be the pinnacle of the sport. But first you have to find one. Capt. Rick Sawyer, 55, has made it his life’s work to know where the fish are. An island native, he’s been guiding professionally on Abaco since he was 15, and concentrates his fishing area on the 75 square miles or so of water that ring his home on Green Turtle Cay, a small island just north of Treasure Cay.
“Bonefish like to be the first fish on the flats and the last fish to leave,” he says. “I make my decision on where to fish based on the tide and the wind direction, and there’s certain areas I fish at different stages in the tide that I know are likely to produce fish.” Seasonality also plays a role. Smaller fish congregate in large pools—sometimes as many as several hundred—during the spring and summer. Beginning after the first full moon in November, the big schools of smaller fish leave and the larger fish come in.
Sawyer says a good day of bonefishing on Abaco means catching four to five fish— sometimes as many as 20 small ones in the spring and summer. However, it’s also just as easy to spend a long day and not catch a thing. To maximize clients’ chances of enjoying a productive day of fishing, Sawyer recommends that they practice casting before arriving on the island and heed their guide’s advice when it comes to finer points such as how to cast the line quickly and accurately, especially in windy conditions.
“People ask me all the time, ‘How was the fishing?’ and I say, ‘The fishing was great, but the casting sucked,’” Sawyer says. “If you have a really good fisherman, then you’ll have a really good day of fishing. But if you have someone who can’t see the fish, can’t present the fly or can’t get the line out there far enough, then you’re in for a long day.” And while luck favors the well prepared, there are no absolutes on the flats.
Even after you find the fish, you might “spend two hours chasing them and they won’t eat,” Sawyer says. “And then you might get a slack tide or a change in the wind, or the sun shines at just the right angle, and they’ll start biting. “I like to say that bonefish are like women—unpredictable.” All you can do is present yourself well and hope for the best.
Back on the boat, the sun has reached its zenith and beats down relentlessly on the small skiff. We’ve scarcely had a nibble all morning but are determined to keep our attention sharp, despite the baking heat. We decide to try one more location before calling it a day. Teddy cuts the motor, and we set about the now familiar routine of scanning, casting and waiting when suddenly I get a strike. I set the hook as the fish takes off on a run. I enjoy a brief fight before bringing him close enough to the boat for us to net, snap a photo and release. My next cast also nets another fish, and when my father takes a turn he lands several as well. It seems we’ve found a school of bonefish feeding nearby, and for whatever reason the fish are striking at seemingly every cast. “I’ve never seen them quite like this,” remarks Teddy. “This is special.”
We’re in high spirits on the boat ride back, with the long morning all but forgotten. Our crew in the second boat is unloading their gear as we glide up to the dock. “How was the fishing?” one asks. “Catch anything?” We learn that, despite having three fishermen in their boat, they’ve landed only two small fish all day. “It was fantastic. We caught a ton,” I say, barely suppressing a grin. “Beginner’s luck, I guess.”