The week had not been an easy one. I had a reputation to try to hang on to and so far had done it, however at much psychological expense. The trip was supposed to have been a relaxing time. My business had been sold and I was about to enjoy some of my retirement time, bone fishing in the Bahamas. The flight from Seattle to Fort Lauderdale and the short hop to the island had me keyed up; I was pumped! I was supposed to do some casting instruction while on the island; the only thing I for sure knew how to do well. I had never fished for bones.
Looking back the week is a blur of events, sprinkled with a few short flashes of vivid memory. My first glimpse of the shallow water flats and the greens, blues, yellows, and browns of the water as it edged the island; no photograph can capture it as well as I can see it now. The colorful golf cart we traveled rode to the main lodge, the spotless cabins, the paneled walls of the lodge with the mounted tropical fish, the warm atmosphere, the sincere welcome, the sunset with my wife standing, framed by the vermillion sunset; these I hold close to me.
The first morning I walked the short path to the dock and met my big, black, friendly as hell, Bahamian guide. Two hundred pounds of English accented, round faced, grinning, hand outreaching, bonefish-finding Joseph. I scrambled into the 16-foot skiff and off we roared, rammed by 55 horses snarling behind us. The mangrove and birds and islands and channels and water and clouds flew past; and the rest of the world went with them.
I know I caught a bonefish that day, and landed it. I caught some more, and landed them. I know we stopped at a pint-sized sand lump that passed for an island and ate lunch, but I don't for sure remember doing it. I saw sharks, and a turtle, and barracuda, and little holes on the flats floor as I peered over the gunnel. It was a new time for me. I felt new. I was new; not the guy from Seattle, the slave to the job, not the person I had know for sixty years; I was ME.
The hunt from the prow of the skiff ... eyes searching ahead and sides looking for the shadow cast by the mirror-sided prey. Fly at the ready, proper amount of line dangling from the delicate rod tip, one hand resting on the chrome support bar holding up my backside. Toes suctioning themselves to the inside of my new sneaker-looking flats shoes. Joseph's body like a metronome, easing the craft silently ever ahead with the long pole. The hunt was on again.
The scene played over and over for the next few days, always with the same maddening result. From behind me a directing voice would suggest, "put a cast about forty-feet at 11 o'clock. Wait, wait now ... now strip ... strip ... easy ... there." The contest between the ghost-of-the-flats and the person I see in my mind would begin.
"Fish on!" Purposefully he firmed the rod hand, grasped the line with the index finger of his rod hand, cradled the loose line with his little finger, wound the line to the reel, constantly controlling the delicate balance between rod pressure, ready at a split-second to release line from his index finger and point the rod at the bone. With the thrust of a fencer he stabbed his rod at the sky; the sizzling line ripping itself from the surface, reel screaming for mercy, and the bonefish boring for parts unknown. Heading for open water. Past a mangrove root, a cluster of shells, out through a channel, out of sight, but always to the same end; landed and gently released.
Then he could relax a bit, sit on the edge of the casting platform in the bow, retie his fly, or perhaps attach a new one - chat briefly with Joseph, and return to his post. This was not the same man I had known in Seattle. This was a culmination of events, of many casts, many books read and absorbed, of countless hours of casting practice, of gently playing, not fighting, for he never fought a fish. He played them, results of years of honing his skills, reflexes and touch.
The days of the week piled upon each other and each fish became his brother, a constant stream of hunt, find, cast, hook, play, land, and release. The pressure of something never dreamed of became more than evident. At the end of each day at the lodge fables and foibles of each guest were recounted. A nasty mixture of pride, embarrassment, and near panic mounted within me on each successive episode.
Pride yes, for I am good; but that good? Embarrassment for I was most certainly the hot rod for the week, others had not fared nearly as well. And, the panic? Yes, and it was getting worse with each day, each cast, each fish hooked, played, and gratefully landed.
I was informed no one had ever gone a whole week and not lost a bone fish. The managers told me that in good spirits. Other guests made sure I remembered it each morning. Time had played out, I had one more day to go, and I not lost one yet. In fact, I had only a half day to go, rain was forecast and wind; I would fly out in the afternoon.
The sound of the motor launch bringing the staff to the lodge awoke me the next morning. Not the usual gentle whirring and cooing of the island birds. A leaden sky greeted my eyes as I somewhat tentatively peered from the front door window. The usually gently rippled surface of the ocean at my yard edge was now churning, dark, and foreboding. Mixed emotions arose within me as I realized if I didn't go out today because of bad weather, I would have done the impossible, gone straight on bones for a week.
Then the other part hit ... I had a half a day left and I couldn't go fishing because of the weather? Not the usual way I do things. Hurriedly, I dressed andmade my way to the main lodge. The guides were sitting around their usual table consulting with each on the possibilities of getting out on a day such as this. With the way the islands and channels are laid out it is almost always possible to get out on the flats. The problem is, you can't see any fish when the sky is dark, the water is deep gray, and the surface is totally a mirror of the sky. I would be fishing blind. Not a good prospect for bonefish.
Joseph, the senior guide agreed that there might be a place, somewhat out of the wind, where we might have a chance. A couple of the other guides agreed to take their clients out, but put little faith in their success. So my last half day began, a sweet and sour mix of thoughts churning inside my mind. To stay on land and hold the record, or to chance it and let Mr. Bone Fish have one last crack at me. I jumped at the possibility.
Back at my cabin I grabbed my rain hat, jacket, and ten foot, number eight fly rod hung with a constant-clutch reel filled with 200 yards of backing and took off for the boat dock. The 55 was purring nicely, and barely visible from under a large rain hat sat Joseph, not grinning quite as broadly as usual. At 8:05 a.m. we pulled away and ker-whoomped our way thru the channel to the inside islands. For about a half an hour we ran just off the lee edge of an area of which I was not familiar. The boat slowed to a crawl and Joseph, who spends words like they have a cost, said, "last day, don't cast until I say so, let's get a big one, OK?"
Now, forgive me, but I got some darn nice fish this week and I didn't need to go 'head-hunting,' but the magic of the idea flushed me with a new surge of adrenalin. Go a full week straight and the biggest bonefish as well. "Hell, let's go for it!" We did.
He turned the boat about and headed for the open water, leaving a rooster tail as high as the 55 would generate. Out of the channel he turned to the right, threading his way down the coast, ever inside of a small chain of sand bars which offered some protection from the open waves. We searched several channels and protected areas with no success. After about two hours of this he, from under his rain hat, pointed to a place on land and informed me, "my new house is going right there!"
I felt at least he knew where the heck we were, a comforting thought sometimes when traveling with a guide. Joseph backed off on "ol snarler 55" and eased the skiff to a crawl in the lee of a very long, very sandy beach. Looked just great for swimming at a better time of the year. It was eleven in the morning now and soon we would have to return. It was cold and we had not seen one fish so far. He told me that we were going to pole this one last flat. "Good place for big bones," he motioned. Looked good to me as I stood, rod at the ready, fly clutched, line coiled on the deck, hand on the rail behind me, the wind and rain in my face. For the rest of the morning we eased along the flats beaches, passing up small three to six pound bonefish. We were 'head-hunting.'
With his better-than-an-eagle-vision, he pointed, "two bones, way up ... get ready. Coming at us. GET OUT OF THE BOAT HERE!" Geeze! It was 'showtime.' I scrambled over the side, as Joseph held it somewhat steady, and slid into the thigh deep surf. "Stay right here and watch, two of them, big," he said in a voice just above a whisper. I crouched low and waded toward shore as he jammed his pole into the ocean bottom to stop the skiff. The shore and bottom were purest sand I had ever seen, white from eons of crushed sea shells. On my right, somewhat to my back, the trees and brush of the island offered some wind shelter. Although they were several hundred feet from me, I spotted the oncoming the bones.
Traveling parallel to shore the two telltale tips broke the choppy surface. I crouched low to the water, off to my left the skiff. Off to my right the approaching bones. Behind me, the wind.
The night before I had been reading a piece by A. J. McClain on this very situation. I remembered he said that when you are low to the water you will underestimate the distance of your cast. I knew I
would have only one cast. Too far back and they would not see the fly. Dead on and I would scare hell out of them. Too far in front and they would not see it drop. I judged the distance to be about eighty feet.
Feverishly, I peeled most of the line from my reel, leaving only enough to cover the backing. The force of my double-haul into the last back cast was severe. I had to drive a wedge loop into a thirty-five-mile-an hour wind on my back cast to get the necessary control and accuracy for my one-and-only forward cast. With every thing that I could bring to the table, I gave the back cast a driving rip, turned my head to watch as nearly seventy feet of searing fly line knifed its way into the throat of that storm filled sky and gut-hauled the forward cast down to the backing.
Later that day I recalled each element of the event. Never, in my life, have I had such an experience. My plane was due in soon, the wind had eased off some, and a very light drizzle was drifting down. In fact, I was getting a little wet, relaxing outside in the tree-strung hammock; but I didn't care. " A good ten pounds," Joseph had said, as I was easing the prince-of-the flats carefully back into the shallow water. With a smile, I watched as he disappeared, gliding over the brilliant white sand. Standing there on that tropical shore, wet to my thighs, rain in my face, I had found myself. Forever, I shall be there ... - JC