Trouble in paradise: was it a vacation in bonefishing heaven, or a sentence in tropical hell?

A trip to the Bahamas to catch bonefish off Great Exuma Island is humorously described. The experience was nearly ruined by bad weather and bad luck until the weather cleared and the fishing improved.

Was it a vacation in bonefishing heaven, or a sentence in tropical hell?

At 11:00 A.M. we step out of the boat onto a Bahamian bonefish flat of hard, white sand. The sun is shining and the wind is light. The tide has just turned and the flat’s two feet of water is clear as air.

There are, of course, bonefish everywhere. As soon as we begin walking–the sun and wind both obligingly at our backs, even the tide running with us–we start spotting a school here, a pair of gorillas over there. I cast to the second school I see. And one of the lead fish grabs the fly and heads off for Cuba.

Tom Montgomery, the world-class fishing photographer and trout guide, runs over to take another lavish cover photo of me fighting another lunker.

Ed and Becky Gray, founders of Gray’s Sporting Journal, look up from stalking their own fish and watch admiringly as I pass the rod around behind my back from right hand to left, then toss it up and catch it by the butt over my head–just a little thing I like to do. Holding the rod overhead, I sense through its subtle throbbing that this bonefish is bearing down on a coral head a hundred yards away. A flick of the rod tip to the left–the Christmas Island whip, I call it–turns the potential world-record brute in the nick of time. A second flick to the right bewilders the fish and parks him in the sand until Tom can get his shot set up.

“What shall we cook for dinner tonight?” I shout gaily to Becky. “Barracuda roe for an appetizer? Grilled triggerfish with dill pesto?”

“Can you get that bonefish to back up about 50 feet and then sit in the sand again?” Tom asks. “It would improve the angle of the line.”

“Ho, ho, ho,” I chortle. “Not a problem, Tom.” I draw a quick figure-eight in the air with the rod tip and the bonefish shoots backward for 50 feet before settling obediently on the bottom.

“Nice move!” exclaims Tom, snapping away.

I straighten the photogenic bandanna at my throat. “That’s one you won’t see from those stiffs down at the lodge….”

Whooaa! I’m getting totally carried away here, reverting to those feckless days of my professional youth when fishing writers were expected to he. Naturally now, you’ll want to know how productive, how effortless, how relentlessly fun our week had been–how we obliged the bonefish on the flats each day by catching them until our arms were sore, then trolled the cuts for giant barracudas, or perhaps traipsed out to the blue water to wear ourselves thin on wahoo, tuna and a sailfish or two before retreating to our private island for a snorkel, followed by a chilled vodka, conch fritters and another perfect sunset of course you want to hear about all that, and I would love to make it up for you. But these days, unfortunately, I am saddled with journalistic standards, so all you’re getting from here on in is the sordid truth.

This particular sojourn started with a letter I received a few winters ago from Becky Gray. As it happened, I was recovering from an operation in the cold and drizzle of Birmingham, Alabama, and I must admit the letter made my heart soar like a virgins with anticipation of all the sport and creature comfort that Becky described. She had written of a house on a private island in the Bahamas, of a large deck for evening rum and tonics, and a caretaker-boatman-cook who was a wonder of dependability and organization. She said the weather was perfect, that the 25-foot outrage boat that came with the house was fast and in good repair, and that nature’s larder there was well-stocked. There would be swimming in turquoise waters and picnicking on fine white sand. And, of course, there would be fishing–for everything from bones to billfish, in water that rarely saw an angler.

The trip actually started off perfectly well. My wife, Patricia, and I flew into Georgetown, Great Exuma, on Friday, March 12, to the lovely weather standard for that time of year. We lunched at the Peace and Plenty Hotel, where Ed and Becky would be spending a night to learn about the hotel’s bonefishing program, which boasted six guides equipped with good boats and motors.

We could have fished quite productively out of Peace and Plenty, but Exuma is one of the best places in the world to practice do-it-yourself bone-fishing–that is, without a guide and the services of a lodge–and both the Grays and I prefer to fish that way whenever we can. To qualify as a do-it-yourself bonefish destination, a place must have plenty of fish on reachable and wadeable flats, someplace nearby to camp or stay, and some way either to cook or buy your meals. This is a minimum. Personally, I would add to that list of requirements a reliable supply of ice cubes and limes.

One of the secrets to getting the most out of any do-it-yourself fishing location is to arrive well-prepared. According to Becky’s letter, the house we were renting in Exuma would give us easy access, via the 25-foot boat, not only to bones but to barracudas and jacks in the channels between islands, and to tuna, dolphin, wahoo and other pelagic fish in nearby blue water.

I was ready for all of that with four flyrods of different weights, various fly-lines and shooting heads, dozens of bonefish and barracuda flies, a 20-pound trolling outfit, feather jigs, Konaheads, squid lures, Bonita Expresses, Vortex Chuggers, Front End Cavitators, Side Flow Jets, rigging wire, shark hooks, ballyhoo harnesses and Tuna Tails. Being geared-up for any angling eventuality always gives me a feeling of chip-counting smugness. It is probably as close as I will ever come to feeling like a mogul.

Late that afternoon on the ride out to Barre Terre I fondled my lures and flies and sharpened a hook or two. We had left the Grays in Georgetown, and Tony Smith, the caretaker of the house we had rented and our boatman for the week was driving us by van to the north end of the island with his friend, Norman. With Patricia and me was our 26-year-old daughter Greta, and her friend, Scott.

Greta has traveled with me before on prospecting trips, most recently to Venezuela in search of small tarpon. She gave me a bemused, slightly pitying look as I moguled around with my gear.

“Do you think we’ll catch anything this time?” she asked.

“Of course. Many huge fish beyond your comprehension. We just had bad tides in Venezuela.”

“How about St. Thomas?”

“Wrong phase of the moon. Tony,” I said, changing the subject, “we’d like to take out the Outrage tomorrow after bonefishing to catch this child many huge fish in the blue water. How does that sound?”

Tony had seemed a bit distant and preoccupied with his bottle of Kalik beer ever since picking us up at Peace and Plenty. I hoped to draw him into a spirited discussion of our chances with the big pelagics.

“She’s broke,” he said morosely.

“Who’s broke?”

“The Outrage–she’s broke,” said Tony.

“What?–the Outrage is the only boat we have, right? How long she be broke for?” I asked, falling into the ridiculous pigeon dialect I can’t seem to help speaking to locals everywhere in the tropics, even ones with Oxonian English.

“We waiting on a part from the mainland, Mon,” sighed Tony. “Maybe it come tomorrow. Maybe we cahn fish with my boat.” He took a puff on his beer and that was that.

Relax, I told myself, just fall into the easy rhythm of the islands.

The tiny town of Barre Terre was 45 minutes of rutted road from Georgetown on the northernmost end of Great Exuma Island. W were to go by boat with Tony from there to our rented house on its private island, called Clove Key. The sun was going down as we reached Barre Terre. Remembering Becky’s commendation of Tony’s cooking, I hoped he was planning on plying his skill that evening. But when I asked about supper arrangements, he informed me that he had not had time–what with waiting for the boat part and other pressures–to stock the house with food. W would eat, he announced, here in Barre Terre at the only restaurant in town, which happened to belong to his friend, Norman. At Norman’s Fisherman’s Inn, in fact, we drunk and dined well, and when Tony graciously allowed me to pay for his meal and seven Kaliks, I sensed he might be warming to us.

Clove Key and its house were all Becky had billed them to be. The 160-acre island, Tony told us–perhaps to reassure us over the absence of any food in the house–supported wild goats, chickens and big land crabs. Sugar cane, kumquats, mangoes, bananas and coconuts abounded, and even in the deep dusk we could see bougainvillea and hibiscus blazing everywhere.

The house had a big vaulted central room, four comfortable bedrooms and three baths. It was surrounded by a high deck and powered by a generator A couple from Kansas City had built it in 1972. The man had died recently and the property was now for sale, we learned, which might have accounted for some of Tony’s seeming off-handedness. He helped us move our bags from the dock to the house and said he would see us first thing in the morning.

There was a haze glazing the stars and a breeze rising when it should have been falling. I asked Tony what he thought tomorrow’s weather would be like. He appraised the sky and then the sea. “She might blow a little,” he said.

I listened to the wind come up all night. By daylight it was blowing a gale out of the south and the sky was a mass of ominous gray lumps. Tony arrived at 7:30 with some groceries and other supplies, then helped himself to a little rum. He was less than enthusiastic about the day’s fishing prospects.

We went out anyway, Greta, Scott and 1, in Tony’s 17-foot Whaler. We trolled a couple of cuts between islands without a bite, and then investigated the lee side of a nearby key. There was a big, discolored patch of water there, known as a.”mud,” that often indicates bonefish feeding on the bottom. I threw a fly into the mud and a bonefish obligingly slurped it up. I handed the rod over to Greta, who snubbed up the little guy and hauled him toward the surface. Just as the bonefish showed, we watched a four-foot barracuda cat him. The cuda turned toward us, leering and holding the bone crosswise in his mouth. Then he shook his head a few times and the leader parted.

“Do you think that’s an omen?” asked Greta after a moment of silence.

“Of what?” Scott responded.

“I don’t know. That something with big teeth is going to grab our trip and cat it, maybe? Never mind. It’s just typical is all.”

Around 10:30, the weather went from simply awful to Wagnerian. We ran back to Clove Key in howling wind, stinging rain, thunder, lightning and hail. Hail in the Bahamas! Tony didn’t even know what it was.

Back at the house, Patricia had been listening to the radio. “They’re calling it the Storm of the Century,” she said cheerfully. “Birmingham got 16 inches of snow. Atlanta is totally closed down. New England and New York are buried, and here we are out of it all on our own island in the Bahamas!”

“Have you been outside?” Greta asked her.

We cooked a big, consoling frittata and put some rum in our coffee; then Patricia, Greta and Scott went back to bed to read. I went into Georgetown with Tony to talk things over with the Grays and Tom Montgomery

I found them in the bar of Peace and Plenty. They had gone fishing early and been driven in by the weather. Becky asked their guide, a young Bahamian named Steve Ferguson, if bonefish bit well during storms, and he gave her this oracular answer: “The bonefish is a peace-lovin’ fish, Mon. He don’t like fuss. He like to be swimmin’ along on the bottom just mellowtatin.” We did a little mellowtatin’ of our own in the bar, and I bought Tony a number of Kaliks to help soothe his disappointment over the still-missing Outrage part.

Around 6:00, we left for dinner at Norman’s. At 10:30, after an enormous meal and many and various libations, the Grays, Tom, Tony and I got into Tony’s boat and headed for Clove Key. The trip is normally just 15 minutes, but with the roaring wind and steep, high-tide seas slowing us down, it took 30 minutes of drenching, sobering pitching between the waves just to determine that we would certainly swamp long before we’d ever make Clove Key. We returned ignominiously to Norman’s, where no one seemed to have noticed we had left. The Grays went off to a spare bedroom. Tom and I took our night’s rest in the van, along with a ripening bag of ballyhoo I had bought for bait in the blue water–if and when we managed to fish there.

Steve Ferguson had told the Grays that this was only the second day in five years of fishing that weather had forced him off the water. And it was the first time ever that Tony had not been able to make it to Clove Key For Tom and me, as we stiffened and chilled in the van, one cheering prospect seemed certain: The weather could only improve.

But it didn’t.

We left Barre Terre Sunday morning and made it around the point at 6:30 on a low tide, though the seas and wind were still frighteningly high. Tony’s boat was running on only two cylinders now, so it took over an hour to get out to the Key, where Patricia, Greta and Scott had spent a sleepless, panicky night, wondering if we had drowned. The phone was out at the house, so we couldn’t have called. The phone was also out at Norman’s, though no one there cared.

“Real travelers travel for the journey, not the destination,” I reminded everyone as we sat staring out at the whipping palm fronds and the roiled, unfishable water. And that important bit of philosophy seemed to cheer everyone up. “Our glass is half full, not half empty,” I added. “We are not prisoners of this island, but here to enjoy all of its subtle and unexpected pleasures….”

“Please, Charles,” Becky said then, in a small voice, and I realized I had raised our spirits as far as they were going to go for the time being.

In the afternoon, a thin young man showed up in a turned-around baseball cap and a Bob Marley tank top. This was Bertram, one of Tony’s 11 brothers, and he had come in yet another Whaler belonging to another of those brothers. “Would anyone like to go fishing?” he asked.

We trolled for a while in the cuts but caught nothing.

After dinner, Patricia, Becky and Greta bundled up in all the clothes they could find and went down to the dock to fish for big jacks with conch, one of the many pleasurable options on this do-it-yourself fishing vacation. Ed, Scott, Tom and I stayed behind in the house, hard at another of those options, drinking rum. We had more success with our option than the women had with theirs. They came back in an hour with chilled faces but no jacks.

On Monday, it was still as windy as Tierra del Fuego and cold. Tony reappeared in the morning with his boat running better–still no part for the Outrage–and we went out to look for bones in the morning.

Saw nothing.

After lunch, Ed, Becky, Tony and I went out again. We walked four or five flats without finding a fish, and then came to a final flat, in a lee, just as the late sun slid from behind the clouds. It was a coral flat, which meant the water would be warmer than that on the sand flats. And with sun to see and little wind in the lee, I decided we may have a chance here. I determined to bring my 30 years of bonefishing experience and all of my skills to bear at once.

I chose a rod with a gray line to minimize the flash from casting; I tied on a new 16-foot leader tapered to six pounds; I chose a secret-weapon fly given to me years ago by a withered old Exuma pro. I put the sun at my back and waded out carefully, my osprey eyes scanning for wakes, or the sparkle of tails, or the chimerical little fish themselves, whose shapes can often seem willed up, formed from under the shimmering skin of water as surprisingly and suddenly as ideas. And then … I walked right over the only school of fish any of us had seen in four straight days–ran over them like a cement truck and sent 40 little unformed ideas scattering. Tony seemed a little sour for some reason on the ride back to the house.

Meanwhile, Greta, Scott and Bertram had spent the afternoon snorkeling. They brought back seven lobsters, three triggerfish and 14 snapper; almost all of which we grilled and ate with fishcakes made from the remaining snapper, a soup Patricia made from chicken bones, pasta, a salad and a brilliant Becky Gray hollandaise. Our gourmandizing, anyway, was still on a high plane.

With little else to do over the next few days, I turned to my journal:

Tuesday: Weather desperate again–no light, raging wind, no fish. Outrage part not arrived, Tony gone, Bertram’s boat nearly broke now, too. Out of wine.

Wednesday: Worst weather yet–gale-force winds out of southeast, electrical storms, astonishing amounts of rain. Tony still absent; his boat here, with hole in bottom. Bertram’s boat unusable. Phone permanently down. Little food, no milk or bread. Still, many enjoyable options… Patricia, Greta and I take a walk to appreciate the island’s subtle, unexpected pleasures. I fall through a piece of coral and badly carve up my left leg. Stanch bleeding with photogenic bandanna and hobble home on makeshift cane.

Thursday: No fishing. No snorkeling. No swimming. Leg possibly infected. Little remaining enthusiasm for “unexpected pleasures.” Two days left.

At 9:00 A.M., Tony calls Bertram (phone magically working again) and demands immediate pick-up in Barre Terre and delivery to Clove Key. We have not seen Tony since Monday and wonder what he could possibly want. But he and Bertram never return, so we don’t find out.

Over a fairly grim lunch of the last leftovers in the house, all of us realize finally that we are almost certainly part of an experiment on deprivation response being conducted by Tony and his family for the University of the Bahamas psychology department. “Of course!” Ed shouts. “Why didn’t we see it before?” He goes on: “Tony was obviously instructed to take these simple, childlike Americans to Clove Key, to cut off the boats, the fishing, the phone, the wine and finally the food, and then see what shakes out.” Patricia even points out that the sophisticated methodology behind the promise of the Outrage–continuing to dangle it day after day as a possibility–is classic child psychology.

At 5:30, Bertram and one of his younger brothers pop over and drop off an unlikely load of groceries–lettuce, eggs, ice cream, cookies and candy bars. It is, we see darkly, the sugar water in the rat’s cage, the test-prolonging appeasement of sweets. But with no pride left, we eat it all anyway for dinner, washed down with the last of our vodka, and go to bed wondering what will become of us.

Friday: I realize before opening my eyes that something is radically different. I lay in bed and concentrate. There is no … wind! For the first time in a week there is no wind moaning and rattling over the house. I sit up and look outside: The palm fronds are still and there is a splash of sun on the deck! I leap out of bed and shake Patricia, fairly slobbering with joy.

“They’ve called it off, they’ve called off the Clove Key Experiment–we’ve beaten them!”

“What?” Patricia says.

“We’re saved–we can fish!” I shout.

Bertram appears at 9:00, a bit hung over. Tony, he says, will be here within the hour, in his own now-repaired boat. We wait on the dock, basking in a morning perfect as a baby’s toe, soft as a catkin. And Tony does show within an hour in a grand mood, pointing out the glories of the day as if he had arranged for them himself.

So this is the strange truth about how we came to be on that gorgeous little bonefish flat described at the beginning of this tale, at 11:00 a.m. on our last day in the Bahamas, just as the tide began to come in and with it hordes of bonefish.

As I said, we started wading the flat with the sun, breeze and tide behind us, spotting bonefish in numbers. There was no good reason for them to be there on that flat, with the water still cold and discolored, but there they were … just as we had known they would be, really, when we sat up the night before, planning our strategy for today. Anyway, now that there were finally fish within reach of our long rods, the three of us knew exactly what to do, and we did it. We picked the little flat clean, and then moved on to another one that Ed and I had chosen for the clearing weather we knew was coming.

As we stepped out of the boat, we could almost feel the lurking presence of Mr. Bone. And as soon as we spread out and began walking the flat, we started picking up a school here, a pair of gorillas there. I put a cast to the second school I saw, dropping one of my secret Surething ties, soft as a whisper, three feet in front of the lead fish. I let the fly sink and waited until the school was over it; twitched it once, twice; and then–I’ll never know how this happened–three fish grabbed it at the same time and headed off for Cuba….

Contributing Editor Charles Gaines wrote about Apalachicola, Florida–where he caught a lot of fish–in last month’s issue of Sports Afield.

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