Bonefish on a budget
The Bonefish of the Bahamas. Geoff Maynard suggests you empty the piggy bank, cheat the kids out of their inheritance, sell non-existant TVs on eBay. Whatever. Just get hold of the money somehow and DO IT!
Okay. The title is a joke. A flyfishing trip for bonefish is never going to be cheap if you live in Europe. If you are one of those lucky few who can afford those fantastic holidays offered by the specialist angling holiday companies, read no further. This piece is for the rest of us. If however, like me, you have extremely deep pockets and very, very short arms - and perhaps you yearn to experience the ultimate fishing trip just once before you pop your clogs - you will be interested in how to do it on the cheap.
I needed an excuse so, with my 60th birthday looming on the horizon, I decided to treat myself for one of those one-off trips of a lifetime. I figured that if I waited until I had enough money to spare, it would never happen. So I sold the wife and kids on the Internet, pawned the dog and hit the credit cards. Not before I’d conducted a little research however and it’s this I would like to share with you.
If you think you are going to be able to fly out to a prime location with bonefish flats and do it on a shoestring, you can’t. It all costs money and, if you are from Europe, quite hefty money. For my once-in-a-lifetime trip (which I plan on repeating as soon and as often as possible) I chose to pick somewhere that would give me the best possible chance of catching. It would have been crazy to try to save money by going somewhere that seemed comparatively inexpensive and blank, so I chose to go to Andros Island in the Bahamas, a location with the nickname ‘The Bonefishing Capital of the World’. Surely with a handle like that, even I had to be in with a chance!
“Give me thirty-five feet at 11 o’clock. No. I said eleven o’clock. Pick it up and do it again. Now pick it up and put it another ten foot to the left.”
I was fishing blind. Casting to directions given me by Bonefish Bradley, the young man on the poling platform. I couldn’t see a damn thing, so I was just doing as I was told. Or trying to. According to him, the water was alive with fish but I couldn’t see any. Yet the water was crystal clear and only two foot deep. Well, apart from the sharks. I could see those, loads of those.
“Pick it up again. Another ten foot to the left. Stop. Strip. Strip. Stop. Wait. Long strip!”
A tug. I felt a tug… whoo, whooooooo…… fish on! The line hissed through the rings, a bonefish was hooked. I could see the fish now! An area of water the size of a tennis court was suddenly transformed into a huge shoal of dark grey-green, torpedo shaped shadows fleeting away. The rod arched over, the line lifted off the water, spray making brilliantly coloured rainbows through my polarised lenses. The line lifting higher, drag-set spool spinning, now down to the backing, the fly-line completely airborne now, just half the leader in the water… and it stopped. It’s coming back towards me. I crank the handle as fast as I can. That’s all the backing back on the spool, and now half the line…
More advice coming from the poling platform; “When it sees the boat it will run again”
But it didn’t. A damn great shark had been hiding under our boat. As soon as it saw the hooked bonefish it shot out and grabbed it!
“Doh!” said I, intelligently.
There was a flurry of action and Bradley was suddenly beside me, pole in hand, jabbing the shark until… it let go! I skulldragged a bemused bonefish back under the boat, reached down and hoisted my first ever fly-caught and, it must be said, slightly tatty bonefish into the air! Dunnit! Mission accomplished!
Bradley has a grin from ear to ear. So have I. And the penny drops. He caught that fish. Not me. I just happened to be holding the rod. Well. Some might argue with that but it’s how it felt. That first fish was all down to Bradley. But I soon learned. Over the sessions we spent together my fish spotting skills gradually improved. I managed to put a few fish in the boat each trip but my conversion rate of hook-ups to landed fish was very poor. My strip-strike needs work. A better angler would have had ten times as many fish. The first session, for every fish I saw, Bradley saw fifty. By the last day, it was down to about twenty. My cast-to-catch rate was appalling on that first day. By the time my third session came around, it was up-rated to ‘crap’. I had cast to so many fish and spooked so many it was embarrassing. Without Bradley I may have caught none. The point I am making is this: A guide is not a luxury on the once-in-a-lifetime trip. He is an essential. He’ll cost you around $400 a day, or $250 for a half day. The USA tipping rates apply here so look at another 15% on top of that. Unless you have done this several times before, you cannot do without him.
You might think you are good at spotting fish – I do - but spotting bonefish is a special art. These fish have silver flanks so reflective that it’s like trying to see a mirror suspended in the water. They reflect whatever they are swimming over so the best you can hope for is to see the shadow of the fish. If the sun isn’t shining you won’t see fish even if there is a shoal just thirty foot away in eighteen inches of water. When the sun goes behind a cloud everything changes, and when that happens even the guides can’t see them. If it’s too windy you won’t see them either. It can be very frustrating because these fish are so spooky that an otherwise perfect cast that puts the fly closer than ten foot to a fish is liable to spook it. And when one fish is spooked and vanishes, it takes the rest of the shoal with it.