In an unknown corner of the Bahamas, a scattered collection of cays, islands, cuts and channels sits outside the bounds of time. While the rest of the Bahamas rockets forward towards development and "progress", Island X stands still. While the other islands entertain speculators and engineers with plans for resorts and marinas, Island X has no air service, no paved roads and only a few rumors of such to get them by. The sixty souls that inhabit this archipelago's only settlement make their living from the sea and, until recently, a somewhat less than casual interest in the drug trade. Forty years ago, 10 times the present population lived in this settlement, but now the salt ponds have been lost to shifting sands and there is no dredging equipment made available to clear the sand. As a result, most of these residents have left the island over the years to take jobs on the more developed islands. And so it goes... the sun rises on one side of the island and sets on the other. As it makes its way, Island X sits alone and abandoned, forgotten both by Father Time and the government. There are no scheduled flights to Island X, the once a week flight was scrapped a few years ago. Now, the only contacts to the outside world are made through the mail boat and a few private yachts that seek refuge in the settlement's harbor.
Those that are left make their living filling plastic sacks full of lobster and snapper, which are sent on the mail boat to feed the resorts in Nassau and Freeport. When they aren't diving or fishing, the locals collect conch or hunt feral goats and sheep. Overhead, the occasional twin prop monitors Cuban refugee activity. Just as often a DEA jet searches for drug smugglers. Eleven children go to the island's school. If they want to continue their education, these kids will leave for Nassau when 10th grade rolls around. While they are being schooled in Nassau, they will stay with relatives or their parents will pull up stakes to go with them perhaps never to permanently return again to their island home. The settlement has two bars, one restaurant, one pretty nurse (who doubles as a bartender at one of the establishments) and one hotel (whose owner is on the lam from the U.S. government for drug trafficking as are a few other noticeably absent young men).
All this makes Island X unique. If you want to know what the Bahamas was like before the 1 billion dollar mega-hotel Atlantis was built back when Paradise Island was named Hog Cay, visit Island X. If you have always wondered what it was like to fish in the Bahamas before guides with monogrammed shirts and 5-star bonefish lodges made angling a far more " civilized" affair, fish Island X.
If you visit, you'll mostly likely fish while your "guide" sits in his wooden boat or wanders around picking up conch. You'll eat grouper fingers... and peas and rice, lobster tails... and peas and rice and conch... and peas and rice. All will not be perfect. Everybody will not be on time, the behavior of certain locals will baffle you and you'll find yourself at times frustrated. It will not be the relatively organized and usually well-orchestrated affair we enjoy on the other islands. You'll learn what the early angling pioneers had to contend with in order to explore the remote and untouched flats on the out-islands. You'll understand why these old-timers smile when anglers complain about the state of the Bahamas and fishing today. Island X will give you a perspective. Going to Island X is like taking a time machine back to 1975 if you're lucky, 1960 if you don't meet the right people on the island!
And it just might be worth it! You'll see schools of dumb bonefish, nervous not because of angling pressure but because of the sharks and 'cudas that dog them. You'll wade areas that see pressure only from the occasional private yacht that visits for a couple days each winter... five that I know of last year. And you can explore areas that have never seen a flyrodder at all, but that would mean leaving flats filled with bonefish to explore new areas, tough for any angler. You can fish patch reefs for snapper, grouper and jacks and fish an offshore fishery that virtually never sees any pressure... at all.
You can fish the tidal "honey holes" and channels for ladyfish, blue runners, sharks and 'cudas. Blink your eyes and its 1970... then your boatman's cell phone rings.
After an incredible morning of bonefishing, I waded back to the battered Boston Whaler. I stepped up on the engine's prop guard, swung over the tire slices that protected the boat's gunnels and stepped into the Whaler. I settled on the only seat in the skiff, our borrowed cooler. A half dozen conch banged the boat's bottom as they tried to turn their heavy shells over to escape the hot sun.
"Genesta said your wife called, she wants you to call her." Our boatman said as he placed the huge Cuban cigar shell filled with smoking marijuana ("weed" as he called it) into his duffle. His dreadlocks peeked out from beneath his wool hat as he reached for the tattered duffle which was just on the other side of one of our red plastic gas tanks. I winced somewhat expecting the inevitable explosion. None came and the huge joint was appropriately filed for later use.
Fearing an emergency, I asked him to replay his messages so I could hear what Genesta, our 82 year old hostess back at the settlement, had said concerning my wife's call. There was the one from Genesta and two from the boatman's wife who was on Day 4 of a fourteen day fast with her church group. His wife's messages were tearful rants about how bad she felt and how much her stomach hurt. He just smiled and shook his head. His smile was that kind that said she is crazy but what can I do?
"You want to use my phone." He graciously offered. "Let me check how many minutes I have left."
He text messaged, the said. "I have 42 seconds left."
He then called his wife, patiently waited until another tearful rant was concluded, then asked her to text message the coordinates for more minutes after she had found them. By the end of their conversation, the remaining seconds must have been nearly gone.
Sitting in this ancient battered boat in the hot noonday sun on this dazzling white sand flat while text messages flew about all seemed so surreal. High tech meets 1960. Somehow it all worked and I called my wife. No answer, so I left a message. I decided the only solution was to ignore, at least temporarily, my anxiety and go fishing. Our captain jumped overboard and pushed the skiff off the flat on the quickly falling tide. Eventually we motored to a blue hole where we fished for 'cudas and ladyfish... and one 80 lb. lemon shark
The three of us fished on Island X for 5 days. We caught from 3-25 bonefish each day. If the tide was anywhere from half empty to half full, we were almost always in fish... or felt the promise of fish. We had some stupendous moments, saw a few big fish and literally thousands of school fish. Arriving on the heels of tropical storm Noel, we had cooler water temps than normal and all seemed not just quite "right". But all in all, island X was damned good. At high tide we pursued 'cudas, ladyfish, sharks and snapper with great success and felt we only scratched the surface of what other species were available.
Our fishing was certainly good enough that we are working to secure adequate accommodations, guides and boats with an eye on sending anglers to the island in the future. As such, Island X will offer tough-minded anglers the last chance to see the Bahamas as it was. But this will be a trip for adventurous anglers willing to step off the beaten path only. We hope to run some consecutive trips on the island next spring. We plan to secure the services of a center console Cigarette boat for offshore and reef opportunities. We will use basic skiffs to get to the flats, which will be fished while wading. We will send an AD staff member to be on hand during the trip to make sure all goes as well as possible. But visiting anglers should be prepared for some glitches. They will happen, thus the tough-minded, adventure-seeking admonition.
On the morning of our departure, I took a last walk through town. I walked past old stone and thatch-roofed homes and past the foundations of buildings whose ownership and purpose has long been forgotten. I thought about how rare this island is in today's fast changing world. I could sense the passage of time here and could clearly witness the Bahama's past, but I could also grasp what has been lost on many of the more developed islands. I thought that although this island seems to have been forgotten by Father Time, the wheels of progress will eventually find this remote island too. There is no doubt that it is a selfish thought for me to want these islands to remain as they are so I can chase fish. The Bahamians have a right to develop their resources, but I hope that this development is done in a way that prioritizes the natural world and preserves their fisheries. I know that without any sportfishing interests, developers will run roughshod over these remote islands. If there were guides and a business that was producing revenue through sportfishing on Island X, that hard-handed approach would be met with at least some opposition. To that end, I hope we can convince some hardy anglers to give this "Island X" a try.
In Island X's harbor, a hand-built wooden boat with a patch-work sail made from coffee bean bags drifts abandoned at its mooring. It is a beautiful little boat. Made strong, this boat crossed the open ocean from Cuba with eleven refugees on board. Like the island to which it is tethered, the little sloop seems to belong to a different era. Now, it sits waiting for a little attention and some hardy soul willing to take it out for a spin. This little boat and Island X have a lot in common. How long they will sit here unattended in anyone's guess, but I do know that islands and boats like these are not made anymore.
If you're interested in giving Island X a spin, give us a call and we'll fill you in on all the details.
Written by Scott Heywood