Going on a fishing trip is more than packing gear and making airline reservations... it is also a process of getting your mind right and managing expectations. I’ve noticed over the years that the anglers that do the best job of this also have the most fun and strangely enough, also catch the most fish. The toughest thing for anglers to accept is that no matter how much you spend on a fishing trip or how grandiose your expectations are, you are not purchasing fish. You’re only buying a seat at the poker table. Consider it your ante and you’ve slid your chair up to the table. Just as in poker, the outcome is uncertain, but if it weren’t, why even go. You might as well go to a trout ranch or an angling amusement park... hopefully a concept that is a long way off. The point is that ultimately (once you have chosen a good game as in a potentially great fishery) your attitude is up to you. You can be happy or not and most importantly, somehow this effects your fishing success.
I thought about this as I stared up thru the no-see-um netting of my small backpacking tent. We were camped on a beautiful beach and now dog-tired, it was time to get some sleep. Beyond the tent’s netting, fireflies winked I hoped seductively to prospective mates. A few feet beyond these flirting bugs, approximately a bajillion stars pulsed brightly in a moonless sky. Up to this point, we had had only one good morning of fishing out of our first two days. the rest of our time from the afternoon of our first day thru yesterday had been a cloudy windy mess. A cold front was pushing through with predictable results.
We had caught some bonefish this morning during a brief period of sunlight, but had struggled since then battling both clouds and a strong 30 know wind. Scott Matthews had just caught a thick bonefish that was tailing in very shallow water next to shore when we spotted him. After landing and photographing this strong deep fish, Scott decided to rig the spinning rod for sharks using a bit of cut bait from a gray snapper we had just caught in a narrow cut. Now with some precious sunlight flooding the flats, we poled along a frigate bird colony in the mangroves and watched the panting chicks from 15’ away while some of the mothers soared overhead. A bit further, the frigate nests began to be interspersed with cormorant nests. Fighting the strong headwinds that had plagued us all day, cormorant mothers announced their return from the fishing grounds with a guttural seal-like call. With wings set in the down-flap mode, the cormorant moms used their webbed feet like air brakes to stall just above their nests.
With this as our backdrop, we looked ahead of the skiff at 12:00 to see a big bonefish facing and moving away from us. I quickly loaded my rod and made a lucky long cast with the fly line landing below the fish and the leader’s tippet unfurling the fly beyond the bone’s nose. I made one long slow strip and the fish was on. It was obvious it was a good fish as it ripped line and got well into my backing before I had a chance to say “ Geez!”
The commotion immediately brought in a 4.5 foot lemon shark and it was painfully obvious that unless we were able to quickly land this bonefish or scare the shark off, he would kill my big bone. I reefed hard on my rod and tugged on the fish as hard as my 12 lb. tippet would allow. The shark was now all lit up and in a murderous mood. A solid angler and always a man with a plan, Scott grabbed the spinning rod and made a nice cast with the bit of snapper falling right in front of and directly between the shark and my bonefish. The shark ate with a swipe of his head and raced off the flat. I dashed under Scott’s rod and he lifted his over mine as we danced the doubled-up polka. We sashayed around the boat until I was able to land my bonefish. We took photos of my 8 lb.(?) fish then landed the shark and took some more photos. What a great way to end a cloudy, windy day. Soon we would be back at camp for a dinner of BBQ chicken, corn on the cob, baked potatoes and apple pie all washed down with a couple cold Kaliks which is also a pretty good way to end a tough day on the flats!
I had made the mistake of calling our proposed campsite a “Holy Grail” for a few in-the-know anglers who had hoped to one day reach exactly the spot where we were now camped. With our slow fishing, I had been kidded about it ever since. I was now in the process of managing my expectations, as well as stubbornly adhering to my assessment of this area’s ability to produce stupendous opportunities. As I watched the flickering stars and twinkling fireflies, I sensed a drop in the wind and knew tomorrow was our shot. This would be the good day we needed. The guys on this trip had great attitudes and their spirits were good. They were a positive and happy group and as such, they were poised for success. I know the fishing gods reward such behavior and with good weather, this fishery would blossom like a rose. We got it and it did!
The next day dawned bright, clear... and buggy. Although annoying, no-see-ums are apparently a good thing. We had seen few during the winds of the last few days. The camping had been great... cool evenings with no bugs, but now we were happy to trade that for buggy dawns, clear skies and low winds. After a quick breakfast, sunscreen was smeared on over bug dope and we were off at 8:00 AM headed for the cays to the north. I was with Alan Manas. He had made this trip yesterday and having weathered a very bumpy and tough boat trip, was rewarded with “stupendous” fishing. Alan had reported big tailing bonefish under a cloudy sky. He was the only member of our group that had had a great day yesterday. The rest of us had caught some fish, and some big fish, but the fishing had been tough and the shots few. Certainly not the kind of day that warrants the term “Holy Grail”!
Today would be different for everyone. All three boats caught lots of fish with the average size being outstanding. Fish of 5-7 lbs. were common and almost everyone caught an 8 lb. fish. Two 9-10 lb. monsters were also landed. When we all met up at the end of the day back at camp, we were a happy group. We popped the top on cold Kaliks and savored our success. I asked Scott Matthews if I was off the hook on the “Holy Grail” comment and he said “Absolutely!”. I hope so... today Scott had boated a 10 lb. “fish-of-a lifetime” plus numerous others in the 5-8 lb. range.
Alan Manas and I had traded shots all morning and we stepped off the casting deck frequently with a fish in tow. We had one double, the first ever for our guide. This was a legitimate double i.e. not from two guys flinging into a big school, but a hookup from a small group followed a minute later a hookup to a fish from another small pod. Alan also caught a 4 ft. barracuda on our spinning set-up. Chris Finlay and Bob Schwartz also had a great day with outstanding results. When we met them at mid-day they were all smiles!
Anglers that are into numbers are missing the point and are ultimately doomed to fail. After all, the simple mathematics of angling means you won’t be able to always catch more and more... thank God! Fishing is all about exceptional moments and this morning we had had quite a few. After a tremendous morning of bonefishing, one in which we had a legitimate double on non-school fish and had landed a solid 9 lb. monster, Alan and I were now on a dazzling white sand bar that had formed between two deep cuts that had sliced a small cay in half. It was now hot and through a mix of shimmering white sand laced with turquoise channels the cobalt blue colored cuts were now festooned with stacked waves from the falling tide. While we searched the sand bars, we soaked in the beauty of this place, enjoying the relaxed attitude that comes with a very successful morning.
Just then a huge 10+ lb. bonefish raced in from the electric blue of the cut. Moving fast, he reached the white of the bar in a blink of an eye. Not far behind, a 5 foot 40-50 lb. barracuda bobbed and weaved in pursuit. The ‘cuda gained ground until the bonefish turned sharply temporarily eluding being cut in half. They raced right in front of us often, a hot pursuit would end in a boil of sand as the bonefish veered sharply. We were sure we would see a puff of red, but somehow the bonefish emerged every time and the pursuit would begin again. It was like watching a cheetah on an impala. The ‘cuda couldn’t handle the short radius turns, but was hell on the straight-aways. Eventually the bonefish escaped. None of us, two Americans and a Bahamian, all with a lifetime of fishing under our belts, had ever seen anything this close or protracted. We reveled in our good fortune. A few minutes later, Alan hooked a 4’ ‘cuda on the far side of this cut. After a great jump and a tough battle, Alan landed the ‘cuda only inches from where this drama had played out. In the process, Alan had provided us with some great sport, the guides with a delicious meal, and survival for some 10 lb. bonefish somewhere.
On our last morning, we had camp broken down by 8:00 AM and were promptly in the boats headed for the area we had so successfully fished on our first morning. Today we would fish our way back to the land of showers and beds. We hit the flats at 9:00 AM with the tide almost high. Fishing was slow until the tide turned and the rest of the day was the stuff of dreams. I can never remember a day when I have caught and/or seen as many large bonefish as I caught or saw on this day. In the morning, I caught 4 bonefish... all were 7-10 lbs. In the afternoon, I caught 4 bonefish... all were 7-10 lbs. In the late afternoon, I caught 2 bonefish... both were a measly 6-8 lbs. When we all met up back at the lodge, all of us had had similar stories. It was simply a great day: big fish, tailing fish, careful wading, classic moments... perfect!
This was a great trip! Our campsite was beautiful and I think everyone enjoyed the camping more than they thought they would. We did have some bugs, but we all slept well and some of us even had to pull a sheet over us to keep warm in the early morning hours. Our meals were great especially considering where we were. We had BBQ chicken, pork chops and grilled snapper with either pasta, fresh salad or baked potatoes. Breakfasts consisted of eggs, bagels, sweet rolls, cold cereal and fruit. Lunches were sandwiches with plenty of sodas and water. In camp, we had plenty of ice-cold beer. Thanks to Russ McDonald our camp manager for the great meals and seamless camp operations.Thanks to Bob Schwartz, Chis Finlay, Alan Manas and Scott Matthews for a great time and to our guides Sid, Ezra and Greg for a job well done!
Whenever I fish with Ezra, I learn something and on this trip I definitely added a few arrows to my angling quiver. After bonefishing for more decades than I care to remember, I thought I certainly had the proper bonefish retrieve down pat... but let me digress for a moment.
Ezra is a big, tall, powerful man who doesn’t lack for opinions and is not shy about expressing them. He is an alpha male and when you fish with Ezra, you’ll fish his way or butt heads all day long. If you need to be right or think you are a finished project as an angler, don’t fish with Ezra. I make him sound like an ogre. He is not. He is funny and pleasant, but all business when it comes to fishing. If you are the type that needs to piss on bushes and let the guide know how experienced you are and more importantly, can’t or won’t listen to something new, don’t fish with Ezra. But if you do, you will learn something... I always do. Ezra is analytical and extremely intense with some of the best bonefish eyes I have ever seen. Ezra does not suffer fools and controls the water in front of him. He sees all and knows how to catch what he sees so if you can surrender your ego at the door, you will catch fish and you will learn how to catch fish. I love to fish with Ezra, but I prefer him in small doses and then to have some time to practice his techniques on my own away from his gaze. As I said, I make him out to be worse than he is... what he really is is one of the best guides in the Bahamas. (Ezra, of course, is not omnipotent. We had some terrific tailing bonefishing at the exact spot, at the exact time of day that Ezra nixed the day before as in “the fish won’t be there”. I suspect it was nixed because it was not his idea. Did I mention he likes to be in control? I point this out ‘cuz I’ve learned a few things in my 30+ years of bonefishing, but there I go just pissing on bushes.)
Here in nutshell is Ezra’s technique:
Get the pointy thing in front of the fish. To do this, Ezra will tell you to hit the fish on the nose. Yea, yea, I know... this will spook fish and it will sometimes. But, most of the time, IF YOU DON”T MOVE THE FLY, the fish will come back and eat the fly. If I had to synopsize Ezra’s technique it is: Get the fish to see your fly, then don’t move it. This is the technique most successful anglers use with permit so it is not a big stretch to use it with bonefish... especially big or wary bonefish.
If you don’t hit the bonefish on the snout (and more often than not, I do not), strip the fly in one long strip and if the fish sees the fly THEN DON”T MOVE THE FLY. Only move the fly if the fish appears to have not seen the fly or if it shows interest then veers off. Ezra wants you to react to the behavior of the fish and not just blindly retrieve. (Now at this point, Ezra often poles the boat subtly backward to either initiate another slow strip or make the hookset. I don’t always appreciate this micromanagement, but it does prove his point about a long slow strip. At times, I feel like a misbehaving child. I’m sure 90% of his anglers don’t even notice this, but it’s like a parent moving a dangerous object subtly away form a toddler. it’s done quickly and with no fanfare.)
If you are an angler who uses the “conventional” bonefish retrieve (quick strip, pause, quick strip etc.), Ezra’s technique requires discipline and increased attention to achieve. But it does really work especially on spooky or wary big fish. If you notice your conventional presentation of predicting the path of the fish, casting well ahead and letting the fly sink, then stripping quickly when the fish gets to you fly is not working or is spooking fish, try this! Ezra sums it up this way, “Cast far away and you’ll spook ‘em, hit ‘em on the head and they’ll eat.”
Written by Scott Heywood