The trip is suddenly over...
The kayaks are beached and I am hiding in the shade of a small mangrove bush. Were it not for this bush, all the detail and color would soon be bleached out of me just as it has been with the now only barely pink conch shells that litter the sand around me. I am sunburned and tired. I have built up layer upon layer of sunscreen and bug dope that is just waiting for that first shower that will hopefully come in the next few hours.
As I sit here waiting for our pick-up, I peel off my wading boots first. Then I pull a pair of once white, now marl-grey, cotton socks off that will go from being critical gear to the trash bin once we are back at Mars Bay. My feet are blistered by the miles we waded and poked and jabbed in a few spots by shell shards and crab shells. My shins are peppered and ugly. They are the proud recipients of Andros Island's entomological Grand Slam: doctor flies (the bites are red and big), no-see-ums (the bites are small and barely visible) and mosquitoes (pink little bumps that just beg to be scratched).
My hands look pretty good. I have a few blisters from paddling, some line cuts from that first big 'cuda and a few long shallow slices ñ the temporary badges from de-hooking and releasing countless small snappers and 'cudas... but in general, my hands look good.
So all in all, I'm in good shape. All the cuts, bites, blisters and collected grunginess, not to mention the fatigue, are just souvenirs of this magnificent adventure.
We left Mars Bay Bonefish Lodge on South Andros Island six days ago. We were a group of four and three of us were old friends. I would share a 2-man kayak with Chuck Ash who has been guiding fishermen on Alaska's best rivers for over 30 years. I had worked as a guide for Chuck on and off over the years and we have been going on adventures together all over the world since the '70's. The other boat would have Eric Berger in the bow. Eric has done a lot of photographic work for us at AD and we have fished together on many adventures from Argentina to Kamchatka and from the Seychelles to float trips in Alaska with Chuck. Will Rice, also from Alaska, rounded out the group. Will would also be photographing our little expedition and in addition, be writing a story for Fly Rod and Reel magazine on what we found. Will had spent his share of time fishing, rafting and skiing around the world so we were an experienced group. This brought solace to all of us, as the interior of South Andros is not a place to get lost or have a problem.
After leaving the dock at Mars Bay, we paddled south into Grassy Creek and rode a wind and the tide far into the interior. We spent our first night camped on a beautiful beach that was perfectly situated to catch our first of six magnificent sunsets. We had brought with us fishing gear, a change of clothes, tents, freeze dried meals, a few oranges and grapefruits, a few cans of corn and green beans, a bottle of tequila and 28 gallons of water... one gallon per person per day plus one day extra in case we made a big mistake and found ourselves somehow marooned in the maze of mangrove swamps and flats that is South Andros. South Andros may be a bonefisherman's paradise, but it would be a nightmarish basin of hell to those who can't find there way out or might run out of fresh water. Our daily routine was simple: go to bed early, usually just after sunset or when the first of the mosquitoes arrived, and get up at dawn. In between, we fished, traveled deeper into the interior and fished some more.
The guides at Mars Bay Bonefish Lodge had been very helpful and had pointed us in the right direction. Wilford Andrews, George Brown and Chris Bain have spent years exploring the island's interior and their expertise was invaluable. The rest had been up to us and we took to our task with all the anticipation a winter in Alaska, Wyoming and Indiana can generate in an angler. We explored and fished every creek, cut, cay, lagoon, bay and channel we could find. We slogged through mangrove muck and mire to reach creeks we had pre-marked with GPS coordinates. We took advantage of our kayak's ability to skim over mere inches of water and fished areas unattainable by skiff. We fished and explored areas that as Bill Howard, the superb manager of Mars Bay Bonefish Lodge, said, "probably hadn't been visited in 50 years."
And almost everywhere we went we found fish. We found cruising fish seen as singles or as small bands of brothers. We found huge schools and small groups of fish in shallow muds or in daisy chains nervously waiting for a high tide to turn. We caught fish rooting in the mangrove bushes that were made visible only by the silver grey tailing left as remnants of their excavations. We caught fish cruising the shorelines and in the middle of big, wide open, pockmarked flats. We caught fish hugging the perimeter of pure white bars where they sought the security that a back to dry sand offers. Here they were often encircled by 'cudas and sharks and a rush of bonefish at your feet usually meant one of these toothy critters would soon follow close behind.
Usually we found fish more spread out at first light. This was partially due to the fuller morning tides, but it was also due to the cooler water temperatures. As the heat came into the day and the flats baked under a cloudless sky, the bonefish drifted towards cooler and deeper water with the falling tide. This meant our morning fishing was usually great and our afternoons mediocre at best. Evenings usually picked up again as we could count on tails and nervous water to keep us out of camp until we were just too tired and hungry to fish anymore.
My favorite times were early in the morning. After a bolting a quick cup of coffee and a bowl of granola, I quickly added yet another layer of sunscreen to neck, face and hands, loaded a boat with a day's worth of water and gear and beat a path to the nearest shallow flat. Our cloudless, star-filled nights sucked the heat out of flats like an inebriated namedropper sucks the life out of a party.
Once we had reached a spot where we wanted to be.... A spot that "felt right", I usually sat and waited... suspended in the kayak on a dead calm veneer of saltwater. These were my favorite moments. With nostrils filled with the rich odors of a mangrove flat, ears picking up the call of an osprey or the warbles and coos of mockingbirds and doves, eyes now drained of the fuzziness that comes with a good sleep and focused on languidly fining sharks, popping baitfish or the V-shaped pushes that might mean bonefish, all was right in my world. Here I would sit simmering in the mental stew that each new day's dose of hope and optimism brings to a fisherman.
We usually didn't have to wait long. A pushed riffle or a tail sparkling in the soft morning light initiated "the plan". The plan had some versions, but basically they went like this:
"Let's tie up to that bush and wade into that bay, I see more tails over there."
"This looks good here. You take the tails and I'll tie-off the kayak to my waist and wade to that island".
"Man, there are tails everywhere. Let's split up and wade both sides of this bay."
We might meet up again hours later. Then it was time to drain a quart bottle of water, eat a Power Bar and compare notes on our fishing. Then we would paddle to the next flat to being the process all over again. The only difference was that as the day moved along each new episode brought hotter temperatures and more fatigue...
We saw two mangrove bushes off the main channel and hoped to find a creek system that might get us to them. Searching carefully, we hugged the shore until we saw a sliver of green water bending southwest. After we had reached this channel, a huge 'cuda, his head as wide as a battering ram, silently slid in behind our stern and followed us as we paddled up what was now obviously a small creek. The channel quickly gave way to shallow water and that was when the 'cuda abandoned his pursuit to return to the excellent ambush spot the channel provided.
Soon the creek opened up revealing a huge flat that was shaped like a four-leaf clover. Each lobe had a big mangrove bush that served as the focal point for that particular bay. These were the man-o-war bushes we had seen from outside the creek.
We soon pulled to shore, stashed paddles and grabbed our rods. I waded one shoreline, while Chuck waded the other. We chugged through soft marl that was just beginning to get tiring when the bottom quickly changed to packed sand. The sweat that had just begun to soak into my shirt stopped as the wading got progressively easier and as a bonus, a soft breeze picked up.
I caught a few small fish out of two schools that were milling about near a rocky bar, then crossed the mouth of a small bay that seemed to have a slightly deeper channel on the far side. When I got to the channel, I saw the charcoal grey innards of the flat that some bonefish had just sucked up and spewed on the dazzling white sand of a small pocket near shore.
"That's fish." I said to myself, "... and not too long ago."
The morning tide was now falling and all the sucked-out debris was deposited on the down tide side of the holes that I now slowly waded past. Feeling a bit like a coon dog on a hot scent, I mentally connected the dots of each root hole as I muttered,
"There are fish here somewhere. Maybe they have moved deeper into the bay and are not yet spooked by the dropping water."
I then glanced toward shore and saw a hole that was still smoking like a small volcano.
"I swear that wasn't there a minute ago." I said under my breath as I searched the pocket but came up with no fish.
My light was perfect. If a fish was mining the marl in front of me, I should be able to see it. But I saw nothing. Maybe, I spooked him. If so, I suck, 'cuz I should have been able to see any fish way before I might spook him.
Just then a tail popped up. It waved in the air happy as can be. I watched as a new hole appeared complete with charcoal grey debris scattered on the down tide side. When the fish was done rooting, he tilted back to horizontal and completely disappeared in the stirred and slightly muddy marl. Again, I could see no fish. He just vanished in water so shallow it barely covered my ankles.
I slung my fly in the air and threw the fly behind me with a backcast. Just as I planned to drop my fly in the mud, the leading edge of a huge cloud, one of the few we had for the week, covered the sun. I decided to wait. After only a very few minutes, a tail appeared on the opposite side of me.
"Two fish or just one fish that has moved, " I wondered.
Now, perhaps I was caught between two tailing fish - in impossibly shallow water - with a cloud covering the sun - on a white sand flat that even with no sun, I should be able to see everything. But I still could see no fish.
I was once described in a book about flat's fishing as, and I quote, "able to see bonefish in a dark closet." My friends like to kid me about this, but at that moment, I guess I needed a dark closet in order to see these fish.
As frustration mounted, the sun slowly reappeared. My mood immediately improved until the whole scene replayed itself in maddening detail. There was a tail followed by a puff of mud, the fish tips down and again vanishes, I start to cast, a cloud covers the sun, I stop casting etc, etc. Good God almighty I was getting downright apoplectic so I decided to make a cast anyway. I thought I would be proactive and try to retrieve something from this slowly deteriorating situation.
My cast netted nothing... no hookup, no fluttering tail, hell, I didn't even spook anything! I was forced to just stand there waiting again for the sun, or a break... or perhaps some divine intervention!
When the sun finally came out, I watched the root carefully. I could see no fish, but that obviously meant nothing. Eventually, impatience drove the hunter out of me and I waded slowly over to the root hole. My intention was to congratulate this bonefish on his total victory and perhaps turn around so he could kick me in the ass just for good measure.
But he wasn't there!! Where in God's name did he go?
Just then two tails popped up on the other side of me and not very far away. Now they were just playing with me. Soon the whole scene repeated itself yet again. You know it well by now. Tail appears, tail disappears... I get nothing. No hook-up, no follow, not even a slam-the-door-in-your-face exit... at least that would have brought a conclusion to this sordid affair. Eventually, the sun goes behind yet another cloud and I'm left waiting again, muttering to myself and extremely worked-up and frustrated. Hell, I'm frustrated all over again just writing about this and I can't wait to get this paragraph over and get on with my life.
OK, I'm better...
I took a deep breath and I'll try to be an adult and continue my story...
Anyway, the net result from all this falderal was zip... absolutely nothing! I felt like running through the bonefish roots screaming,
"OK, screw you all. You win! I'm leaving! I don't need you and your stinking little tails, you dumb sons o' bitches."
Obviously, I was reaching the far side of emotional control and had donated my mental health to a couple of 20" bonefish. Maybe all the freeze-dried meals, tepid drinking water and hot baking sunshine had poached my brain and turned me in to a simpering idiot. As a result, I was reduced to yelling at an animal that probably didn't even know I was there. I like to think so... to do otherwise means that these two bonefish were just playing with me and not vice versa.
Maybe they had told each other, "Watch this... if you do it just right, you can make these herons with the long black skinny bills run around screaming and eventually they'll stomp their feet, pout and leave. Then we can get back to our meal."
Eventually, I left and took my one-bar-short-of-a-stroke blood pressure to the next bay where I wailed on 16" schoolies until I was once again convinced I was the superior animal... then I went looking for a dark closet.
If we had any disappointments on this trip, it was that perhaps our weather was a bit too good. (This is a dangerous thing to say and practically guarantees that on my next trip wind and weather will dog me like a panhandler.) This good weather caused the shallow flats to heat up and by the afternoon, the bones were driven off the flats (especially in the shallowest areas) and we had to seek action on deeper flats that bordered deeper channels. The good weather also meant the bigger fish were not found in the skinniest water except very early in the morning and my guess is the biggest of fish, the real monsters, had left the creeks entirely to set up shop on the outside, more oceanic, creeks and flats where cooler water guaranteed oxygenated water.
Our other disappointment was we didn't get to fish all the areas we wanted to try. We had big plans to get "way in" but fishy flats, tails and impatience made it hard to by-pass great fishing to spend time paddling to more remote areas.
But all in all, this was a stupendous trip. We had great campsites where we sipped our tequila and lemonade and watched the sun set as herons hunted in a style similar to our own and anole lizards did their very best to rid our beaches of doctor flies. One campsite had four large iguanas for campmates that lounged under the meager shade provided by mangrove roots by day and then patrolled our campgrounds by night.
We had all feared out of control bugs, but we were all safely ensconced in our tents during the worst periods at night and in the morning, sunrise usually brought an end to the no-see-ums. We all got a few painful doctor fly bites, but they were clearly not as bad as imagined. Our other concern was sleeping. We thought the May evenings might bring a cloying heat that might make sleep impossible. What a pleasant surprise were the cloudless cool nights. In fact, if anything we all wished we had brought a light blanket instead of just the sheets we packed.
So this was a great trip! It was a great chance to be with old friends and fulfill a promise that Chuck and I had made to each other so many years ago to return someday and explore the creeks of South Andros by kayak. It was great to see Mars Bay Bonefish Lodge again and see it is in the capable hands of manager Bill Howard. Thanks Bill for all your help. You handled our logistics masterfully and made our trip that much easier. Also it was great finally meeting our clients Curt Killar and his party and Margaret and Eldon Larson who were visiting Mars Bay Bonefish Lodge at the time. Thanks to all!
Early on our last morning, just as an unseen moon began dragging the full tide back into the Tongue of the Ocean, we coasted to a stop on a flat as slick and glossy as hot tar.
Chuck waded towards the mangroves and I moored the boat at a small break in a long mangrove spit. This was a spot where I had caught a nice bonefish on our journey in. The fish had been tailing in the cut on the falling tide and was first seen snarfing up groceries like a trout on a stream.
On this windless morning no one tailed here, so I tied off the kayak and waded downwind hoping the tide would fall enough so we could at least catch a few fish before we had to break camp and paddle out to meet our pick-up outside Grassy Creek at 2:00PM. But right now, the water was too deep to see tails and the sun wasn't high enough to get a good view through the water. I walked along the narrow spit checking out likely looking spots, but for 20 or 30 minutes I saw nothing.
It was a beautiful morning and we had had great fishing and after all, it was high tide so my expectations were low. But still, it would be nice to catch one more fish. After awhile, I gave up and crossed the spit to the other side and unfortunately, the story was the same ñ no fish, not even a shark or a 'cuda. The flat seemed dead, drowned under a foot and a half of nearly full moon tides.
It was now 8:30 AM. We had agreed to meet at 10:00 to paddle back to camp, so I was running out of time. Just then, I saw a 4' lemon shark sweeping back and forth searching for the weak and the naÔve. Then there was another shark and in quick order a 'cuda cruised past me. I didn't have to wait long before I saw a small school of bones and as if a switch had been thrown, suddenly I began to see bones everywhere. As I caught one, others streamed out of the bushes to mill on the outside, but just inside the perimeter establish by the 'cuda and the sharks.
I caught a bunch of bones in the next hour. It was great fun! Sometimes I went to my knees as a group of bigger fish drifted too quickly into sight. Then it was just the flick of the wrist to deliver a fly to a bonefish now only inches away. Too soon, I saw Chuck wading toward me. I check my watch... 9:55 AM. As Chuck reached me, I clipped off my fly, pulled the ferrules apart on my 4-piece Sage 8 wt. and untied the boat from the roots of the mangrove bush. Suddenly, the fishing was over, but we were a happy couple of guys that paddled back to camp that morning.
Written by Scott Heywood
Photos by Eric Berger