Matt Harris has a memorable trip to the Bahamas where he went in pursuit of bonefish - 'proper ones'.
Ask most anglers about saltwater fly-fishing, and chances are, they'll start talking about bonefish. These sleek, silvery speedsters are the quintessential saltwater quarry, and the fish that got the whole thing started back in 1924, when Holmes Allen caught the first bonefish on fly.
I've got a bit of an admission to make. I'm ashamed to say that I've allowed myself to become a bit of a snob. On my first trip, to Cuba's prolific waters back in 2000, I caught about a million bonefish, relentlessly obliging little fish mainly weighing 3-4lb that queued up to eat my fly. I had a few nice fish up to a little over 7lb, but after the initial exhilaration of the first successful day, I found myself asking: "Well, I've done that... what's all the fuss about?"
Since then, I've done a fair bit of saltwater fly-fishing, and I've tangled with a wide array of bigger, nastier fish, including huge, high-flying tarpon, big and frighteningly savage barracuda, impossibly cunning permit and those hair-raising berserkers of the Indo-Pacific oceans, the giant trevally. When I hear all those wide-eyed novices at the Game Fair or the Farlows' Christmas party, gabbling on about their amazing bonefishing trip, I've sometimes had to stifle a smug yawn or wipe a bit of a smirk off my face.
Bonefish are great, of course, but catching them in the meccas of Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico and the Seychelles can be almost embarrassingly easy, and, once the basics are mastered, the fishing can almost verge on the monotonous. Once you've seen a 75lb yellowfin tuna empty half a kilometre of backing off of your reel in little more time it takes to write this sentence, your average bonefish can seem, well, just a little pedestrian.
Here's how blasé I became: fishing the wild waters of Cosmoledo in the far western Seychelles, our group was advised to carry a 12 weight for giant trevally and an 8 weight for bonefish. After two days, I decided to eschew the 8 weight and carry two 12s in case of inevitable trevally-induced breakages - bonefish were, I pronounced, to the amusement of my guide, 'strictly for girls'.
This year, having been relentlessly goaded for my blinkered view, my good pal, Tim Marks, finally cajoled me into doing some 'serious' bone-fishing. Tim is an excellent and hugely knowledgeable angler and someone whose judgement I trust. Tim loves his bonefishing and positively bristles when I snort derisively at his beloved prey. He told me that I really needed to catch a proper one before I wrote bonefish off for good. And a proper one, in Tim's book, is a ten-pounder. "Where should I go?" I asked, feigning a weary contrition. Tim had no hesitation: "The Bahamas." He couldn't resist a final barb: "You just haven't really even been bonefishing until you go there."
I spent my first four days fishing at Tiamo Resort, a delightful eco-lodge on the southern bight of Andros. Tiamo has access to stunning bonefish water right on its doorstep, while just around the corner is the legendary west side of Andros, an endless expanse of gleaming flats that would take a lifetime to explore and an area which is reputed to harbour some truly enormous bonefish.
On arrival, I was greeted by Bill Warburg, the lodge's hugely likeable proprietor and a big, warm bear of a man. Fly-fishing is a small world indeed, and it turned out that Bill and I have fished some of the very same far-flung corners of the world. Over a bottle or two of fine red wine, we chatted long into the night about the merits of the mighty Kharlovka in Northern Russia, and Bill's infectious enthusiasm for the fishing around Tiamo left me in no doubt that the big bonefish of Andros represented a serious and extremely worthwhile challenge.
After a huge job back home photographing a relentless army of snivelling babies for an advertising campaign, I was exhausted, and Tiamo's informal but luxurious charm was a real tonic. I stumbled down the beach in the moonlight to my room and found, to my delight that Tiamo offers not only world-class bone-fishing, but also just about the most comfortable beds I've ever come across. Furnished with crisp white linen, they are capable of relieving you of all the aches and pains of a long fortnight's hard work, not to mention the rigours of a long-haul flight, in a single night. The resort can also boast all sorts of pampering, massages and suchlike for your non-fishing partner, and enjoying an icy cocktail, excellent cuisine and the easy ambience of the lodge after a long day prowling the flats is a real pleasure. Everything looked set for a fabulous few days.
There was just one problem - the weather.
On my first morning, I awoke to savagely gusting winds and heavy rain-clouds. Bonefishing relies on spotting your quarry before he spots you, and as such, wet grey and windy weather makes things all but impossible. Any thoughts of heading out to the hallowed waters of the west side were utterly dashed - the prevailing north-westerly would have churned the flats up into an opaque, milky mess - and we were obliged to stay closer to home. Darren, my excellent guide, did his level best to find us a sheltered spot and finally we managed to catch a few fish, despite the desperate conditions. The fish were handsome: exquisite, mirror-silvered and magical, and of an excellent average size, but they weren't what I'd come for. The huge black-backed, double-digit bones I'd heard about, the fish that had drawn me to Andros, were notable by their absence.
For all of the next four days, the weather remained sullen and disobliging - each morning, I'd stumble blearily to my window to witness the deflating sight of a flat, leaden sky and foaming, angry waves slapping onto the beach. Somehow, mainly down to my excellent and tenacious guides, I managed 20 decent fish, but nothing over 6lb.
On my last day, I fished with Marvin Miller, the lodge's head guide and an extremely well respected fly-fishing authority on Andros. I told him I'd caught a fair few fish despite the torrid conditions, but I really wanted to have a shot at some of the monsters for which Andros is famous.
Marvin knew just where to go - we ambled across a deep cut, and suddenly we were poling onto a dreamy golden flat adjacent to Linda Cay. The wind had momentarily dropped, and the sun made a fleeting appearance, lighting up the stunning water.
Almost as quickly as I could get up front and unhook the fly from its keeper ring, a school of big bonefish came cruising into the shallows. I lengthened the line and then Marvin was hollering to look left - nine o' clock, 200 feet. I spun round and saw two enormous, eye-popping bonefish, goliaths that would have surely weighed well into the teens. As they came towards us, I made a decent cast, and watched with baited breath as the larger fish came close. As I twitched the fly, the fish seemed to pounce on it. I gave a short, hard strip-strike and felt... nothing. The fish bumbled off and despite a second cast that put the fly right in his path, I had to watch the huge black shape cruise tantalisingly away, unconcerned and hugely disinterested by any attempts to ensnare him.
Alas, it was a glimpse of what might have been. The wind got up and the clouds came rolling back, and our chance was gone: Marvin and I never had another shot at the huge bones of Linda Cay.
I left Tiamo hugely frustrated - the lodge was fabulously situated, and the South Bight was clearly capable of producing enormous bonefish, but the wretched weather had conspired to prevent me from having a fair crack at them. I vowed to return.
I moved on to Grand Bahama, on the recommendation of another good friend and bone-fishing aficionado, whose opinion I value greatly. Pete McLeod of Aardvark McLeod has fished almost everywhere, and he is really worth listening to. When Pete tipped me off that North Riding Point has produced some of the largest bones caught anywhere in the world, I knew that I had to go there. Flying in through a clearing storm, I looked down at the infinite flats stretching north of the island, and thought about Pete's stories of the huge bonefish that cruise these sparkling waters.
One of North Riding Point's great patrons is the venerable Sir Chips Keswick. Sir Chips' twinkling smile beams from a number of the images adorning the walls of the main lodge at North Riding Point, and in one, he cradles an astonishing bonefish weighing over 16lb. The guides talk of Sir Chips with a very special reverence, and one of them, Bully, summed things up simply: "Man, that Sir Chips, he can really fish!"
I was greeted by my hosts, Mercedes and Tim, a charming, easy-going couple that have looked after the lodge for the last four years. Mercedes showed me around my beautiful room looking out onto the beach and the endless flats beyond. I grabbed a quick shower and wolfed down a bite to eat, and then I was wandering off down the golden strand, without a care and as happy as the proverbial sand boy, fly rod in hand. The sun came out and a beautiful 5lb bonefish came sauntering down the flat to inhale my fly, first cast. Perhaps my luck was changing.
I made it back to the lodge just in time for pre-prandial drinks and having passed me a hefty gin and tonic, Tim told me with a wink that tomorrow might just be a special day. The forecast - clear skies and virtually no wind - looked perfect, and Tim let me into a secret.
The guides at North Riding Point have discovered a very special place. It's a long run from Grand Bahama or just about anywhere else, and involves a substantial journey across deep blue water, which is potentially hazardous and enormously uncomfortable in anything but the calmest weather. However, when the wind drops and the sea flattens to a millpond, you can race out across the glassy surface and suddenly find yourself in a bone-fishing wonderland. Tomorrow, if the weather held, I would get to go there.
I rose early and was thrilled to see the first pink rays of the dawn lighting up the eastern corner of a perfect, crystal-clear sky. The sea beyond my window slowly resolved into a seamless, twinkling mirror, untroubled by even the faintest stirring of wind, and I felt the magical anticipation of the day ahead.
I met up with my guide. Leroy is one of a kind: one of the most charismatic guides I have ever met. A vital, lively humour seems to sparkle through every word he says, and he is full of laughter and fabulous 'old man and the sea' anecdotes. He is also a sheer joy to fish with, calling out the shots with an easy laconic charm that puts you at your ease. He applauds the good casts and commiserates with the bad, and from the first moment that I started fishing with him, I knew we would do well together.
And we did. We fizzed across the flat calm in Leroy's skiff for little over an hour and then, out of nowhere, I spied a small cluster of low-lying keys, barely poking up over the horizon and shimmering in the heat-haze. We explored the keys for a couple of hours, and for a while saw nothing but barracuda, big lazy killing machines lying dormant in the early-morning sunshine.
Leroy seemed relaxed, and after one nice bonefish of around 5lb, we upped sticks and headed further out into the blue, to another tiny archipelago.
I'm not going to tell you the name of that place - it's too special to go sharing around - but Leroy will take you there. A gaggle of tiny keys, painted onto a simple canvas of brilliant blue skies and stunning white sand flats, where bonefish from the wilder shores of your fly-fishing dreams come swaggering into view and set your heart-rate rattling through the roof.
The fish were visible from way off - not huge shoals of ten-a-penny schoolies, but the real deal: ones and twos. Big silver torpedoes that would cruise nonchalantly into view at fully 200 metres distant. Forget all that guff about elusive silver ghosts: these magnificent creatures are betrayed from half a mile away by their vast black shadows looming across the hard white sand.
The first one we spotted was absurdly big - I suggested that it was a small shark and Leroy laughed at my innocence. That fish never came within 50 metres of the boat, but the next one did, another impossibly big dark shadow flickering across the undulating sands. As the fish drew closer, Leroy cheerfully announced "maybe 10lb" and, after the rain-ruined disappointment of Andros, I knew that my shot at redemption had come. I'd decided on the house favourite, Jim McVay's classic Gotcha fly, and feathered it gently down in front of my quarry as best I could. As the fish approached, a short strip produced a tiny puff of sand reminiscent of a shrimp's desperate attempt to preserve itself by burrowing into the sand, and in a blur, the fish was suddenly rushing to wolf down its escaping lunch. I watched transfixed as the huge bonefish tipped up to root in the sand, its giant tail wagging in the air like a frisky dog digging up a bone. In a magical instant, everything came tight. I set the hook hard and felt solid resistance. And then, suddenly, I finally got to know what all the fuss really is about. This wasn't a plucky four-pounder or even a good solid seven - this was, as my pal Tim Marks might say, a "proper" one.
That bonefish revved its engines and then it simply vanished. The running line shot up through the rings in a blur and then close on 200 metres of backing went sizzling after it, rushing way, way out into the wide blue yonder, as the reel sang its beautiful music.
Leroy laughed loud at my spluttering incredulity. The fish was suddenly a very long way away and the line appeared to be travelling parallel to the water's surface. My guide cackled garrulously and mentioned casually that I might want to make sure that I didn't get "spooled". I stammered back that I had 400 yards of backing on my reel, and as the fish set off across the flats again, Leroy was laughing some more and asking if I thought that was enough.
I'm a little embarrassed to admit that some fish - real trophies like permit or big Atlantic salmon - are, to me at least, so important that I just can't really enjoy the fight. I just hang on with my heart in my mouth, feeling sick and praying that it's all going to end happily. This was such a fish. While Leroy chattered amiably away, I did my best to do everything right and hoped that, as my prize almost imperceptibly tired, no marauding shark or barracuda would come and take any bites out of it.
Small bonefish normally wear themselves out pretty quickly, but this great gleaming greyhound seemed to take an age to subdue. Finally, we brought the huge creature to hand - one of the most stunning fish I will ever catch. Twenty-six and a half inches from the tip of his nose to the fork of his tail and, yes, a little over 10lb in weight.
Leroy loves these fish as if they are his own, and after the few quick pictures he allowed me, I watched him carefully nurse the magnificent beast back to full strength. We watched it cruise off across the white sands and the incomparable Leroy offered me a big high-five and passed me a cold Kalik from the cooler. As I toasted my brilliant mentor and the delicious icy beer slaked the thirst I only now realised I had, my guide grinned his big toothless grin and told me not to waste too much time celebrating: "Plenty more o' those big boys right here, mon."
So there were. In that long golden day, on Saturday March 20, 2010, we managed fish of 5, 7, 7, 9, 10, 10 and, with the last cast of the afternoon, a lissome stunner that measured 271/2" from nose to fork and weighed in at a little over 11lb.
It was no fluke. The weather blew up again, but four days later, I got an extra day's fishing due to the British Airways strike - and what a day it was! Once again the wind subsided and we went racing out to Leroy's special spot. Ten bonefish weighing 3, 5, 6, 6, 7, 7, 7, 8, 9 & 10lb came our way, and I lost another, a real heartbreaker that Leroy put at 14lb.
I also managed casts at three large but lock-jawed permit. One last cast brought me a tiny bonefish from the only large school we saw in all the time I was at North Riding Point. The smallest bonefish I've ever seen, weighing perhaps 12oz. I did the right thing - I brought the fish to hand and gently removed the barbless hook before briefly studying its perfect miniature form as I held it in the clean, clear water. It was a little jewel of a fish, a dazzling quicksilver marvel that deserved to be treated with reverence. I carefully released my prize and watched it swim strongly away to fight another day. Like every other bonefish I've ever caught - and will ever catch - it was a 'proper one'.
If you want to catch a really big, beautiful bonefish, look no further than the Bahamas.