Here at Angling Destinations we are not only avid anglers, we are also purveyors of exceptional angling adventures... put another way, we organize and sell fishing trips. I say this because this is how we make the living that supports our sometimes over the top fishing addictions. Finding great fishing opportunities and sharing them with our fellow anglers is what we do. Sometimes we are crafty enough to find a totally new fishery or maybe a destination that has been largely ignored comes out of hibernation. These are the times when we can hardly contain ourselves with excitement. The how-to-get-the word-out wheels begin to turn, our enthusiasm becomes contagious and the next thing we know a destination is born or re-awakened. In either case, getting our anglers to amazing out-of-the-way spots and into prolific fisheries with reliable guides and destination managers is what we are all about.
One such spot is Great Inagua Island in the southern Bahamas. Great Inagua Island supports a unique and outstanding fishery, but this island also has us a bit perplexed. Perplexed in that Inagua, the third largest island in the Bahamian Archipelago, is perhaps the Bahamas' most diverse, year around fishery, but only two anglers can fish there at any time. That hard reality leaves us a bit frustrated because the demand for this fishery far exceeds the available supply of angler days. As people who arrange fishing trips, that's a hard one to swallow! This supply and demand disparity is caused by three very simple facts: First, there is only one guide on the island of a caliber that we can endorse. Secondly, the fishery, however prolific and diverse it might be, is somewhat small in terms of fishable habitat. And last but not least, the island is remote and lightly populated with few visitors. Which around here translates simply to "When can I go!"
The gate-keeper (and I don't use this term loosely) of this extraordinary fishery is Mr. Ezzard Cartwright. Ezzard is a no-nonsense guy and with his stoic self-sufficiency, a Bahamian version of TV's MacGyver. Ezzard is "THE MAN" on Inagua. All the local's heads seem to turn to stare as Ezzard rolls by in his bright red, 3/4 ton extra cab GMC 4X4 pickup, wheels mounted with impressive 40" Ground Hawg off-road tires. Expressionless, behind polarized sunglasses, Ezzard gives the impression of someone you would not want to mess with. My suspicion is that no one does! Yet behind this daunting exterior and as many of our clients have come to know, Ezzard is a really friendly, easy going, fun to be around flats guide. A guy who is so hard working and passionate about fishing that he actually gets depressed (not mad) when his client's don't catch fish.
Ezzard holds the secrets to his fishery (and therefore his living) very close to his vest.
I asked him several times, "Ezzard, where are we fishing today?"
The painfully short answer was usually something like, "in a little creek mon."
Umm... "Does this little creek have a name?" I would inquire.
And that's how it went all week, me asking the normal logistical questions and Ezzard politely not answering them. You get the picture... I bet Ezzard is a great poker player.
Perhaps Ezzard's tight-lipped approach is because he is worried about self-guided anglers, but because of the island's extremely rugged and remote terrain, anglers aimlessly wandering around could wind up in a heap of trouble! There are no maps and getting Ezzard to draw you one is not very likely. Another problem for anglers looking to self-guide is there are no street signs anywhere once you leave Matthew Town. As we raced Baja-style along the narrowing interior roadways of Inagua's outback, the lack of even primitive directional landmarks added to each day's mystery. Some mornings, we drove up to 60 minutes in the predawn darkness headed to a spot only known to Ezzard. In these hidden spots, where the jungle meets the sea, Ezzard has fashioned a series of strategically located boat launches. Calling them ramps would be a gross exaggeration. Nevertheless, these access points allow Ezzard to reach the best of Inagua's beach flat habitat while minimizing lengthy boat rides. Some launch sites were merely tunnels that had been cut through the jungle and were reached only at the end of a mile long, door-scratching, two-rut trail. Ezzard loosely referred to these trails as roads. OK... now the monster truck tires were beginning to make sense!
To fish these remote and hard to reach beach flats, Ezzard trailers a 16-foot, aluminum Jon boat outfitted with a reliable 35 horse Yamaha Enduro outboard. It's not until you reach these launch sites that the wisdom of this boat's utility becomes truly evident. For these comfortable, lightweight fishing craft with an extremely shallow draft are well suited for Ezzard's commando-style put-ins and take-outs. To prove this point, we experienced two backbreaking, end of the day, situations when we were forced to push Ezzard's boat 30 yards back up to the trailer due to the low tide. In the absence of a well-defined channel and a traditionally maintained ramp, we dug in and paid the price for our remote, off-the-beaten-path angling. Thank God we were not in a traditional flats boat!
On this visit to Great Inagua, I was lucky enough to be invited along by two long time angling pals. I would ride third in the boat. Paul Cohen and Kay Dushane are veteran saltwater anglers from Denver, Colorado. Both are easy to get along with and possess that rough and tumble, anything goes mentality that is so vital to have when visiting these out-of-the-way fisheries. As the bonefishing on Inagua is done primarily by wading, it worked very well for three friends to share a boat. Ezzard was more than accommodating with our trio and his beach cottage and food service was perfect for our three-angler scenario. When it came time to fish from a poled skiff, it does help though when the third angler (namely me) doubles as the staff photographer. Such was the case when fishing for permit and tarpon, so I willingly accepted my "third wheel" role.
One of the best reasons to visit Inagua is for the diversity of its fishery. Here an angler has a better then average shot at a "Grand Slam" each and every day. During our week, we fished the majority of the appropriate tides for permit. All in all, we probably focused more then 60% of our angling efforts for the week on this mind-numbing pursuit. We saw a lot of permit each day, some days up to perhaps a hundred. The oceanic nature of this island with its fairly narrow and deep beach flats make Inagua a prime permit fishery and Ezzard's clients do catch a lot of permit! Enough actually to place Inagua among the world's elite permit destinations. Although we had more then our fair share of makeable shots, we never managed to land a permit on this visit. But this is a tough game, so with good numbers of shots being critical to success where permit are concerned, we all felt pretty good about the opportunities we had!
When we weren't focusing on the brain damage that is permit fishing, there was always a place nearby to go find and usually hook a few nice bonefish. It was simply a matter of looking in towards shallower water to see those mesmerizing tails. This was the problem with permit fishing on Inagua! Imagine day after day turning your back to bones that on average ran quite a bit larger then your typical Bahamian schoolie. I would say that our bones on this trip ran mostly in the 5 to 6 pound range. Sure we caught some smaller fish... you always do, but our larger fish ran conservatively into the respectable 7 to 8 pound class. For the same reason there are permit on Inagua, namely deeper oceanic flats, there are also plenty of big bones. On several occasions, we were sure the dark, broad backs we were seeing were sharks or jacks, but on closer inspection, they turned out to be massive bonefish. You look, try to focus, pause, and then walk up in disbelief as you realize your rookie mistake. It is then that you recite a plethora of silent profanity as your double-digit bonefish swims casually away. You don't make that mistake too many times before you start casting to any fish you see... regardless of how big it appears on these flats.
After having had our fill of near misses with permit and bested our share of sizable bonefish, it was now time to chase some tarpon around Inagua's interior Lake Windsor. Of all the places I've fished in my life, Lake Windsor could be one of the most unique. Think of it like the world's largest saltwater aquarium. Really! Lake Windsor is completely cut off from the sea with the exception of two, one-way only inlet canals. These canals carry millions of gallons a day of fresh, cool seawater that is pumped into the lake's interior compliments of the Morton Salt Company. The constant influx of saltwater is necessary to replace the daily evaporation due to Morton's salt producing ponds. The size and scope of this area is simply mind-boggling! By design, there is no tidal influence here whatsoever... which is very strange especially for one conditioned to the ocean. In Lake Windsor it is possible to fish for land-locked tarpon, bonefish, permit, snook and barracuda in a totally captive stillwater environment. Lake Windsor is an artificially created habitat, something akin to the aquatic richness of a controlled tailwater fishery found below a river's dam. Completely artificial, but serendipitously productive, this manmade ecosystem supports a prolific and diverse saltwater flats fishery.
Here's a bit more on how it all works. Fresh seawater is pumped into Lake Windsor daily, carrying with it all the elements normally found in a healthy ocean ecosystem, including a wide variety of fish eggs. The eggs pass harmlessly through the pumps along with krill, plankton and other normal biomass that makes up the base of the ocean's food chain. It all flows into the lake where the eggs hatch. These hatchlings draw from this abundance of microscopic groceries and the juvenile game fish, along with massive amounts of baitfish, flourish in the lake. They all seem content to live out their lives in Lake Windsor. With the exception of barracuda, which we saw many up to five feet, there are no other predators that exist in the lake. Most importantly... there are no sharks! This is because young sharks are born alive outside the protected lake environment and therefore can't survive a pass through the pump stations. For the very same reason, there are no rays either. Fewer apex predators equals higher survival rates for the gamefish species and subsequently more willing volunteers to eat our flies.
Our day on Lake Windsor started out with optimal fishing conditions. However by noon on this day in late May, I can honestly say that I have never experienced a hotter afternoon in my life anywhere on the planet! We fished under a cloudless sky, the sun was directly overhead, the mercury was pegged at 100 degrees, there was not a breath of wind and the humidity was truly oppressive. As we floated around in our aluminum frying pan of a skiff, literally baking away, we just had to laugh. What effect tarpon, even babies, have on us to endure such conditions with nary a complaint is amazing! On this scorching day, the tarpon fishing was up to the billing and we jumped and landed some really nice tarpon to 25 pounds. Ezzard told us that tarpon in this lake commonly reach 60 pounds. What surprised me the most though was that we saw good numbers of snook too. Schools of them and if I told you their size you wouldn't believe me! The lake fishing alone is reason enough to visit this amazing destination. I could have spent a week on the lake and never even gone to the ocean proper!!
Everything about my first visit to Inagua impressed me: the habitat, the diversity of the fishery and most of all, Ezzard and his operation. Understand this, if it were not for Ezzard, there would not be many angling opportunities that one could get to on Inagua. This place is too out-of-the-box for any do-it-yourself type anglers. Ezzard is the master of this domain. He is as hardworking and accommodating as anyone I've ever met and his program works because of his ingenuity, creativity and stoic self-reliance.
As I mentioned, it was late-May in the southern Bahamas and extremely hot during our visit. Ezzard's solution was to get us on the water each day as early as possible to beat the worst of the day's heat. Every morning we were rolling in the truck by 5:30 AM. We fished long, full days! A typical day had us back at the cottage around 3:30 PM. That meant it was decision time. Pop a Kalik and slip in to the sea for a cooling dip and a relaxing afternoon... or rehydrate, eat a power bar and ask Ezzard to drop us at the lighthouse beach to fish for a few more hours. This was an easy decision; after all, it was not going to get dark for four more hours! Walking a beautiful, remote beach as the sun sets, casting to tailing bonefish is not something I can do back in Wyoming. So each afternoon, I would present the question. "Who wants to go catch a few more bones?" Most days I could rally at least one volunteer. Think about it, three extra hours a day for six days. That's like adding two extra fishing days to your trip! By the end of these extended days, we were completely crispy, but the extra effort was well worth it. Our efforts would generally produce 3 to 5 additional fish apiece usually of 4 or 5 pounds and all caught under classic bonefishing conditions. With our tides low and incoming in the late afternoons, we had many good shots at tailing singles and doubles, creating the perfect endings to our already fantastic days on Inagua. There's a special feeling that comes from catching bonefish on your own out from under the watchful eye of your guide. For me, these late afternoons on our own added a soul-filling, self-reliant dimension to our trip.
Anyone who has an appreciation for off-the-beaten-path fishing destinations should visit Great Inagua. But know this, Inagua is not for everybody! Don't come here if you're looking for luxury accommodations, gourmet food, fancy equipment or guarantees of success. But do feel blessed to have evolved as an angler to the point where Great Inagua is finally on your shortlist of must-visit destinations. I think to truly thrive here in Ezzard's world, you need to ask yourself what elements of your angling character (self reliance, stoicism, sense of humor) can you bring to this destination that make you something like Ezzard Cartwright? If you can do that and bring something to the table, you will, like me, become a believer in this truly amazing destination.
Written by Todd Sabine