Saturday, January 20, 2018

Sidney's Thoughts on Bonefishing

This interview with Water Cay owner and head guide, Sidney Thomas, comes to me from my old friend Chuck Ash. Chuck sat down with Sidney back in 2011. I thought it might be interesting to post this interview and look back on what Sidney had to say then about his fishery.

Sidney center with Greg Rolle left and Sidney's brother Ezra right

FYI, Chuck is hosting two prime weeks this spring at Water Cay April 21-28 and April 28 to May 5, 2018. Chuck has guided in Alaska for over 30 years and we have traveled all over the world from Russia to Baja to the Seychelles to fish. I've also worked for him for over 20 some years in the summer guiding Alaska river trips. I consider Chuck one of the best all-around fishermen/outdoorsman I know. Chuck has a great sense of humor, a flexible personality and is a great guy to spend some time! If you’re looking for a great saltwater trip this spring, this is an excellent opportunity to join a great group hosted by an accomplished and very affable host.


Guide extraordinaire Chuck Ash

Sidney’s Thoughts on Bonefishing...

Chuck begins:
Prior to 2008, Grand Bahama Island's Northern Horn was a tough spot to reach. Several well-known operators on Grand Bahama, namely the Pinder Brothers and Greg Vincent from Pelican Bay Resort fished this area, but it required long boat rides for visiting anglers (45 minutes at a minimum) which chewed up valuable fishing time. In the fall of 2008, this problem was solved by long time Grand Bahama resident and superb bonefish guide, Sidney Thomas. Sidney and his family took the task of renovating the small bonefish lodge on remote Water Cay that was destroyed in the fall of 2003 by a series of devastating hurricanes. Along with a few experienced anglers, Sidney and his brothers knew the bonefish treasure that swam in and around the flats of Water Cay.

After many months of hard work, Water Cay Lodge opened its doors to traveling anglers seeking the island's most remote bonefishing. Sidney’s dream became reality as Water Cay Lodge quickly became a hotspot on the global bonefish map. The word from visiting fishermen was “BIG bonefish, naive and unpressured... some permit during the warm months and the occasional tarpon in predictable spots”. 

With several daily flights from the U.S. to Freeport, Grand Bahama, Sidney quickly filled his small guest lodge (6 anglers max.). Today, Water Cay Lodge has become an outstanding location for not only experienced anglers, but also beginners looking for a positive first time adventure.

Interestingly, as we have gotten to know Sidney, his methods and style of bonefishing go somewhat against traditional Bahamian angling approaches. Late in 2011, I spoke with Sidney about some of these strategies and his opinion on bonefishing, flies and gear in the discussion which follows. I hope you find some of it helpful and perhaps applicable.

Sidney's thoughts:
“Bonefish got to eat. And to eat, bonefish got to get up onto their flats and find food. It’s nice to see those big tails waving in the sunlight on the incoming water. We see them and we fish ‘em directly. What I mean is that I like to have my guys go straight for the fish. No leading or putting that fly where you think them fish are gonna be. Just try to hit them on the head. The fish at Water Cay haven't seen many flies and so when they are hungry, they ain’t shy. You might think that your cast spooked them because they take flight twenty or thirty feet. But more times than not, the fish spin in a circle looking for what made the fuss. If they think it’s a ‘cuda or shark or maybe a bird, they’ll keep moving. But if the coast is clear, those big fish will come right back to the spot. If you are there, then they are gonna eat every time. We hook a bunch of BIG bonefish this way.

I tell my guys to use lead eyes on size 2 or even 1 tin hooks. Why tin? Cause if you bust off a big bonefish that tin hook will be out of them in two weeks. Better off for everyone. Why the lead eyes? Cause they make a bigger splash. The big singles and doubles pushing up on the flat are happy guys... the water’s getting higher and they hear the dinner bell ringing. When those fish are like that, the kinda fly you use doesn’t matter a whole bunch. Just stick to tans, olives, maybe a bit of orange or pink and no flash. All those little worms and shrimp don’t have flash. Flash will kill them and nature doesn’t do it much. Stick to big lead eyes, pale color flies that match the bottom, gun your cast straight at ‘em and hold on.

For leaders and stiffness I tell my guys to use seven to ten foot leaders, regular old ones are fine. Our fish don’t care much. They don’t care if that leader costs $10 or $3. Ten to fifteen pound is fine. For fly lines, theold ones are better than the new ones. Guys with the new bumpy lines (Sharkskin lines, Ed.) in bright color might cast farther, but out on the flats, them fish hear that sound. They feel that sound and it’s nothing that they ever see or hear. So when they hear it, they know somethings wrong. I've seen so many bonefish run and keep running cause of that zipping sound. Bonefish feel pressure in the water and they feel that sound and they run for cover. Bonefishing is a quiet game. Things have to be natural and those new lines are the worst at wrecking happy fish. I give my guys my boat fly rod to use and try to get them to take that line off while they are at Water Cay.

Most guests who catch a six pound bonefish and feel the fight, think it’s a ten pounder! But when that same guest hooks a real ten pounder or a fish like the twelve pounder we caught this past fall, they know that six pound bonefish wasn’t a ten pound fish. Then all they want to do for the rest of their day is look on the edges and bushes for another BIG fish. Most folks have not hooked really big fish on trips to the other islands. Three, five, seven pound fish maybe. But around the horn, near Water Cay, there are really BIG fish. Guys come to Water Cay, but they come back to Water Cay because they got a big fish on their last trip and now, they want another.

I think lots of guys I meet at the lodge strip the fly too fast. Bonefish aren't ‘cuda and you can strip the fly out of their way. Both Gregory, Ezra and me all want to get our guys to move that fly with the fish, not move it away. So I tell them to rest that fly, watch the fish not the line. When those fins stick straight out and they are looking for what made that splash, bump it just a bit. No shrimp or worm has ever outrun a big bonefish... they hide. Bump and watch. Wait ... the fish will find it and eat it. Wading or on the boat it can be hard for guests to see the fish tip down and eat, but I see it every time. I tell them to make a looooooong clean strip. I don’t say “He ate it, hit ‘em!”, like lots of guides do. The looooong strip is calm and easy and most times that fish has eaten the fly and is moving away. When guests make the long strip the line comes tight, the bonefish feels it and the guest... well... that’s why they came to Water Cay. They get their line cleared and that is fishing.

But the BIG bonefish are smart and they will run either to deep water where they can use their speed or they will run to the mangrove bushes. It all depends on where you are fishing. Some guests break off a lot of fish when they run for the bushes. Here is where I help them. I tell them to release the drag and go slack on the fish. Almost every time that fish’ll stop when he feels the pressure on him leave. That way the fish stops and waits thinking he is hiding in shallow water. We walk up on him and clear
the line. The fish, he’s happy to be free and my guests caught another big one. Seems like the wrong thing to do but taking that pressure off of them is the way to land a fish that has gone into the bushes.

I been visiting these flats for many years and I have seen these fish in all conditions. I have spent most of my life out on the flats and bays and in the back country. So I am out there to help my guys who come down to catch bones. If you come to Water Cay you’ll get my best opinion and my best work. We fish to catch fish, learn about fish and see the beauty of my island. That is what Water Cay Lodge was built for”.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

TCL Special Fly Pattern

I recently received the following e-mail:
Scott,  I read your great posts on your blog Flypaper about your trip to Campeche in 2015 {or baby tarpon Ed.} and wanted to ask you a quick favor. I am headed there in late April fishing and for the life of me I can’t find a recipe for the TCL Special anywhere on the internet.  Do you have one or can direct me to one?  I really like the look of the fly, especially the foam version.  Thanks for your time and the awesome blog.
Best Regards,

TCL Special tied by Doug Jeffries

So, I asked my fly tying guru and all-around great guy Doug Jeffries if he had a pattern for the TCL Special. Since the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust was involved, Doug bent over backwards providing not only the pattern, but tying instruction and photos too! Thanks Doug!!
Here you go George, you owe Doug a beer and a photo of a tarpon caught with a TCL Special!:
Tarpon Cay Lodge (TCL) Special
This fly was first shown to me back in the late 1990’s by Marc Ruz Ceballo.  Marco saw some surface action flies and thought they would work well in the rios he and his guides fish out of Tarpon Cay Lodge in the northern Yucatan.  Marco was correct; this fly worked extremely well and is a hoot to fish because you get to see the tarpon come to the surface for the fly, sometimes coming out of the water in their aggressiveness.  The fly is best fished with a quick but steady 2”-4” strip, the objective being to make the fly look like a frog kicking its legs.  Ideally, if the fly is working correctly, the wavering wake should expand outward from the fly.

Hook:  Gamakatsu SC-15, size 2/0
Thread:  Strong, large fly thread, I use Danville Flymaster Plus, 3/0, tan or color to match fly
Tail:  matchstick size bundle of bucktail, two and half hooks long, with 4 – 6 strands of Krystal Flash
Wings:  2 or 3 saddle hackles, preferably stiff so they will kick; grizzly; yellow, orange, red or chartreuse dyed grizzly work best; tied so the splay outward
Head hackle:  long saddle hackle to match wing color
Head:  Spun deer hair, natural color (or dyed if you want to get fancy); clipped to a bullet shape

Tying Steps

Step 1:  Prepare the wings.  Select 2 or 3 stiff saddle hackles, length should be about 2 – 2.5 hook lengths.  The wings will splay outward, so if you want a specific color on the inside or outside plan accordingly.  The outside hackle should be slightly shorter than the inside hackle (not critical but that’s the way Marco ties his).  Align the hackles and place a thin line of Hard As Nails along the stems.  Set aside to dry.  Hint:  Prepare several pairs of wings now before starting the actual tying.

Step 2:  Mount hook in vise and attach thread over the hook point.  Tie in the bucktail and Krystal Flash tail at this point, leaving the hook shank bare to allow spinning the deer hair head.  Hint: Place a drop of super glue on the thread wraps, increases the durability significantly.

Step 3:  Tie the wings on the side of the tail attachment wraps, one set on each side, splayed outward.  Apply another drop of super glue.

Step 4:  Tie in the hackle that will be palmered through the deer hair head.  This hackle needs to have a usable length of 4 – 5 inches so it can be palmered along the head.  No need to make the hackle fibers overly long.

Step 5:  Clip off a bundle of deer hair, approximately ¼ inch diameter (or whatever size bundle you can comfortably spin).  Comb out any underfur and short hairs and clip the bundle so it is about an inch long.  Hint:  Notice that the deer hair is thicker at the base and gets narrower toward the tips.  Take half the bundle and flip it end-to-end.  This places half the thick ends on one side and half the thick ends on the other and makes for a more uniform bundle.  Spin this bundle and pack it back tight against the tail/wing wraps.  Continue spinning bundles of deer hair until the hook shank is completely covered.  Tie off and clip the thread at this point.  Hint:  The deer hair does not have to be packed super tight.  This is similar to a muddler head.  Also, I tie off and clip the thread to make it easier to trim the deer hair head.  If you are careful, you can leave the thread attached.

Step 6:  Trim the spun deer hair pom pom into a bullet shape, roughly half inch diameter.  If desired you can clip the bottom flatter.  The objective is to get this fly skating along in the surface film, making a nice V-wake.  I use scissors, it’s not necessary to use a razor unless you just like exactness.

Step 7:  Re-attach the tying thread right behind the hook eye, taking care not to tie down the deer hair.  Palmer the head hackle through the deer hair head, taking about 4 or 5 evenly spaced wraps.  Hint:  Wiggling the hackle forward and backwards as you palmer it will help the hackle work through the deer hair easier.  Tie off the hackle, whip finish and clip the thread.  Apply head cement if you prefer.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Two Days on North Andros and into the Joulter Cays

Wednesday October 15, 2017
After we said our goodbyes to all our friends in FISH, Steve Peskoe and I jumped in Dencil's skiff, quickly crossed the Middle Bight and headed north in a light chop towards Behring Point on North Andros Island. We cut inside Big Wood Cay and soon were passing the old Bang Bang Club on Pot Cay. Here, the legendary Charlie Smith (Crazy Charlie.... ever heard of him?) lives.

The Bang Bang Club now.

Now, the dock is almost gone and the buildings are overgrown and in disrepair. Once the Bang Bang Club hosted presidents, dignitaries and fishing legends such as Joe Brooks and Ted Williams. Now, it's only a sad reminder of its past glories in the 50's and 60's.

After passing the Bang Bang Club, we veered left towards Behring Point soon passing a big school of dolphins. The larger males were aggressively pursuing the females rolling against them obviously in a romantic mood. We played voyeur for a few minutes then quickly made our way to Cargill Creek where we were to meet our taxi. We said goodbye to Dencil, jumped in Reverend Newton Hamilton's van and began the trip towards North Andros and the Joulter Cays.

After about an hour or so of driving on rough roads, Rev. Hamilton called our host Phillip Rolle to find out where we should meet him when we entered Nichols Town. We discovered Phillip was in the car behind us so we followed him to our abode for the next few days. We dropped our gear at Phillip's lovely house, drove to the island's administration building to secure our fishing licenses, then rigged our gear and soon sat down for a lovely dinner on the porch. Tomorrow we would fish the Joulters.

We were in the lap of luxury with satellite TV, a full kitchen, a screened in porch and roomy comfortable bedrooms.

For info on this destination click here.

After a brief deluge at dawn, we were soon graced with sunshine and it wasn't long before Phillip dropped the skiff off the trailer and into Lowe Sound. The tide was up and so was the wind. Apparently, wind was to be the theme of this trip... so it goes sometimes. We ignored the winds and blithefully went off to find some fish.

We fished in the creeks while the tide was high. As the water began to began to fall, we moved to the Joulters Cays and the classic white sand flats found there. Despite the cool temps and 20-25 knot winds, our fishing was simply sensational, if not a bit challenging. Firm, fine sand flats peppered lightly with turtle grass stretched seemingly to the horizon. Small cays and bars, laced with azure, turquoise and pale olive channels, dictated not only the complexities of navigating, but also of finding fish. We knew this is where bonefish live... now we just had to find them. It was like walking into an elegant castle. You know someone is home, but where might they be.

While Steve waded off with Phillip, my strategy was to look for structure: a channel, a sand bar or a depression in the flat... something for the bonefish to key off of in their navigations and retreat to if danger was imminent.  My plan garnered almost immediate results. I saw fish after fish and even caught a few. I must admit, the seeing was a lot easier than the catching. The wind grabbed many of my casts putting me off target or at times hurled my leader back at me presenting my fly well short of the fish. I had to concentrate on my casting technique and exaggerate my second haul. If I did everything right, I was often rewarded with a tug that took me well into my backing. We finished off the day wading a skinny flat finding tailing fish in the pale afternoon light.

Steve Peskoe and Phillip Rolle cross a typical Joulter Cays flat 

Could you have a better spot for lunch?

On Day 2, the wind was even stronger, the tide bigger and the fish more spooky. Our morning was tough, but after the tide began to drop and we exited the creeks and went to the Joulters. There things quickly picked up. 

Again fishing solo, I headed to a long bar that was getting bigger as the tide fell. I waded in until I found that sweet spot where the depth and the distance off off the bar seemed right. Then, I slowed way down barely shuffling as I concentrated my vision on the narrow window the sun and wind offered. This is my favorite type of bonefishing. Challenging conditions, very shallow water, but always the promise of fish. I had a few tailing fish, but most of the fish were seen subsurface and I was hooked up often enough to label this session terrific. To put a period on our last day, we motored through a series of complex channels to a promising looking spot. I wrote that night after packing up for our departure...

The Joulter Cays from Phillip's scrapbook
The last hour of our trip was wonderful. The sun was low and half hidden by dusky ribbons of clouds. I was wading towards a sand bar that appeared to have a deeper slot right off shore. Phillip and Steve were a couple hundred yards off to my right and obviously into fish. I could see Steve casting and Phillip pointing.

"Great!" I thought knowing Steve was happy and we would be here awhile.

I wanted one good moment to end this great week. One tail, one good cast, one well done strip and set, one hookup... one more and I'd go home happy man. Hell, I was already going home a happy man, I was just looking for some gravy for my mashed potatoes.

When I got fairly close to the bar, I stopped. Suddenly I thought, "This is the right slot."

It was the right depth. It was somewhat shaded from the wind with the tide flowing out in same direction as the wind. Any fish would be headed my way. I needed to proceed slowly. I focused looking closely for any slight sign on this wind scoured surface. Soon my head was jerked left as a solid bone did a headstand. This was not the subtle sign I expected. This fish was waving a hello begging me to come on over. In the afternoon light his tail was backlit and seemed to glow. He rooted on his nose a few exhilarating moments, then dropped down below the riffled surface.

I made a long cast tossing the line with the wind. The fly landed ten feet upwind and uptide... the direction he was heading. I let it sit and waited. It wasn't long before I saw a small shudder. I barely bumped my fly. The fish tailed and I made a long slow strip. My line came tight and the fish blasted off downwind and into the setting sun. The bone threw a massive splashy rooster tail for 75 yards that sparkled as if ignited by the low light. It was a magical moment.

I blew up Steve and Phillip's fish as I tried hard to stop his run. I yelled "Sorry", but I don't think they heard me with all the wind. Soon he gave up and I reeled him in, unhooked and then thanked him for this perfect conclusion to a great trip.

This guy has spent a lot of time rooting in shallow water and in the mangroves. His tail filaments are shredded!

What a bonefish sees!

Thanks Phillip and Betsy for two great days! Thanks to Steve for a wonderful week on Andros!

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Photos from FISH XXVI at Swains Cay on Andros Island

The annual FISH Trip (Forum for Indiana Subjects in Healthcare) just concluded last week. This year marked FISH XXVI and for this our 26th year of toting a fly rod around the globe, we ventured back into the salt. We chose Swain’s Cay Lodge which is located on beautiful Mangrove Cay between the legendary Middle and South Bights of Andros; the very heart of the Bahamas' best bonefish flats. There were 24 of us this year including many old friends and a few new faces that fit in exceptionally well. We all had a terrific time!!
Cheryl Bastian, Kristian and her crew at the lodged joined a terrific cadre of guides including: Shine, Randy, Elvis, John, Kiki, Marvin, Alvin, Leslie, DJ, Dencil, Ephriam, Douggie and Mark to deliver us an exceptional experience. Meals were great, accommodations comfortable and the service stellar.
While we had enough wind to last us well into the future, the fishing was still very good. We enjoyed both days with lots of sunshine and days with barely enough. Yet, despite these challenging conditions we had many opportunities not only while wading but also when being poled by these excellent guides. 
Here then are some photos from FISH XXVI: 
Thanks to all. It was a great trip!!

It was a short flight from Nassau to Mangrove Cay... just enough time to get the ball rolling!

We were made very welcome by the excellent crew at Swains Cay!

Beautiful spot on the beach.

The wrap around deck offers a great spot to enjoy a cocktail.

Brad Skillman rigs for a squall

And not a second too soon!

We enjoyed some good wading opportunities!

Devin Fox planning his strategy for the day

John and Devin Fox make landfall after a blustery day.


Matt Jenkins with a beautiful bone.
Brad Skillman...
with a big bone...
AND a nasty 'cuda!

Off he goes...
Some of the photos from trip participants:

Our fearless leader, Terry Heath, in his now legendary came pants

David Winter with not one, 

but two big bones!
...and a third he had trained to eat out of his hands!