Everything Gets Funky in the Bahamas by Brian O'Keefe
The Bahamas bring me back. By that, I mean the whole experience, both on land and on water. The combination of great fishing, fantastic guides and killer scenery is just the beginning of a Bahamian flats trip.
The Bahamas bring me back. By that, I mean the whole experience, both on land and on water. The combination of great fishing, fantastic guides and killer scenery is just the beginning of a Bahamian flats trip. The Bahamas are a chain of tropical islands just off the coast of Florida but far enough away culturally and aesthetically that there is a sense of adventure, every day. Everything—except the run of a bonefish—slows down and gets a bit funky in the Bahamas. One minute you’re kicking back with a cold Kalik and then, in a blink of an eye, there is a glinting permit tail at 10o’clock.
I have noticed an interesting phenomenon among American anglers in the Bahamas. First-time visitors consistently talk about buying some land and building a house: Wouldn’t Sandy Point on Abaco, Deadman’s Cay on Long Island—or anywhere on Cat Island or Eleuthera—make a sweet home away from home? But anglers who have made half a dozen trips to the Bahamas would rather wander around and explore all the so-called out islands than be based in—or tied to—one place. From Walker’s Cay (pronounced "key") in the far north to Great Inagua (pronounced "in-ahg-wah") in the far south, there is a lifetime of fly-fishing opportunities. I tell young trout and steelhead guides to start fishing the Bahamas in their 20s, not their 60s.
I could talk about guides in the Bahamas all day. On Andros Island alone there are guys who can see fish like an eagle, pole a skiff into the tide and wind for hours, cast an 8-weight 110 feet, smile, laugh, tell jokes and sing goofy bonefish songs. When I hear about a so-so guide on Andros, it usually means the angler can’t cast or see fish. The great guides, some second-generation, have legendary reputations, client lists and unbelievable skills that get them into the "first-name-only" category. Consider yourself lucky if you know Andy, Prescott, Simon, Glister, Charlie and on North Andros, Phillip. There are many more and each of these guys will give you the names of five others who are not as well known but are the next generation of top guides.
I tend to frequent destinations featuring miles of wadable flats. There is nothing more fun than stalking a big tailer. When the guide is working with my partner, I’ll slip away and wade off into my own world. It’s a game of hunches. A strategy comes from the process of combining the effects of wind, sun angle, tide, water depth, water temperature, bottom type, food supply, predators, a fish’s access to deep water, proximity to cuts and channels, mangrove, and on and on. Whitetail deer and chukar hunters go through a similar but different set of criteria. An ever-alert eye and ear in this environment is necessary to pick up the sometimes very subtle, telltale signs of a bonefish.
"Did that mangrove shoot just wriggle?" Could be a bonefish or a baby shark.
"Is that a small mud?" Could be a bonefish or a ray.
"Was that a tail?" Could be a bonefish or a boxfish or a shad or a ray or a shark.
"Is that nervous water?" Could be bonefish or mullet or pufferfish.
When you wander alone the flats are a science project. When you fish with a guide at your side, you’re with the teacher.
Sharks are everywhere in the Bahamas. If you ever delivered newspapers as a kid, you will remember one or two bad dogs and hundreds of nice ones. That is how I see sharks in the Bahamas. Like bears in Alaska, I have a deep respect for them, and 99 percent of the time they are just going about their business. Every once in a while a shark will follow your mud trail, or eat a bonefish off your line, or circle you until you throw a conch shell at it. Common sense around sharks and rays will keep you in one piece. Near Crooked Island, I saw a huge school of bonefish—more than 1,000—and the perimeter was patrolled by a couple of lemon sharks in the four- to five-foot range. It would have been bonefish murder to make a cast, so I added a wire tippet and a big popper and stuck the first shark that came by. Sharks are real fighters. The ensuing commotion scared off the other sharks and allowed the bonefish to return to their normal lives.
I have friends who are totally focused on big bones. They’ve been to Andros, Mores Island off Abaco, Mayaguana and other hot spots for 30- inchers. I respect their dedication and skills, but I like to feast on the variety pack. I have always enjoyed the diverse fishery in the Bahamas. I also like the tackle, knots, flies and techniques that each species requires. In the mangrove, I’m looking for deep spots and 16-inch mutton and gray snapper; 20-inchers are unlandable. In cuts and channels with coral or rocks there are snapper, patrolling jacks, with the horse eye, bar jack and crevalle being the most common. In the back country, where intricate lagoons and saltwater lakes are inter-connected with creeks, I rig my tarpon rod. Babies to mediums to monsters rarely see a fly in west Andros, Great Inagua and other places I’ll keep quiet. Several destinations in the Bahamas have good numbers of permit. They can be transient feeders almost anywhere, but Gorda Cay (study your maps) is my favorite.
My last trip to the Bahamas was different from many previous visits. It rained like crazy. The sun ran away and hid. I had a blast. We fished the Berry Islands and southern Long Island. The conditions were tough but we found fish every day. We added other activities to the standard flats trip. On an island-to-island boat trip we trolled giant flies and caught a sailfish and bull dolphin. We found a blue hole on an uninhabited island that had a perfect 20-foot high dive into crystal-clear water. We discovered a restaurant that served local wild boar. We explored the channels and ponds of an ancient saltmaking facility. Bonefish, baby tarpon, jacks, cuda and snapper now call it home. We visited a farm.
Articles by the same author
- Everything Gets Funky in the Bahamas by Brian O'Keefe
- Keep Talking About Those Mosquitoes by Brian O'Keefe