Sunday, November 24, 2013

Bonefish, Humility and a Dark Closet

Sometimes the events of a day leave an angler with a strong sense of personal expertise and accomplishment. While on other days, repeated episodes of failure batter an angler's ego until it is a bloody and bruised mess. In my experience, humility is generally forced upon us rather than it being a chosen path...

On a recent trip to South Andros Island, humble pie was on the menu one day. It all began when we saw a few big mangrove bushes off the main channel. Knowing these big bushes needed a good tide flow, we hoped to find the creek system that was feeding them. Searching carefully, we hugged the shore until we saw a sliver of green water bending southwest. Upon reaching this channel, a huge ‘cuda, his head as wide as a battering ram, silently slid in behind us. He followed us up what was now becoming a narrow, but deep creek. The channel soon gave way to shallow water and that was when the ‘cuda's curiosity waned and he returned to his ambush spot in the channel. With each step, the creek opened up more, eventually revealing a huge flat that was shaped like a four-leaf clover. Each lobe had a big mangrove bush that stood alone and served as the focal point for that particular bay.

These were the man-o-war bushes we had seen from outside the creek. I waded one shoreline, while my partner waded the other. We chugged ahead through soft marl that was just beginning to get tiring when the muck suddenly changed to packed sand. The bug dope and sunscreen flavored sweat that had just begun to leak into the corners of my mouth stopped as the wading got progressively easier and, as an added bonus, a soft breeze picked up.

I caught a few schoolies that were milling about near a rocky bar, then crossed the mouth of a small bay that seemed to have a slightly deeper channel on the far side. When I got to the channel, I saw that some of the charcoal grey innards of the flat had just been sucked up and spewed out onto the dazzling white sand of the bay. 

“That was done by a bonefish...” I said to myself, “... and not too long ago.” 

This I deduced because the morning tide was now falling and all the sucked-out debris was deposited on the down-tide side of the holes that I was now slowly wading past. Feeling a bit like a coon dog on a hot scent, I mentally connected the dots of each root hole as I muttered to myself, “There are fish here somewhere. Maybe they are still up in the bay and haven't yet been spooked by the dropping water.” 

I then glanced toward shore and saw a root hole that was smoking like a small volcano. 

“That couldn't have been there for more than a minute.” I thought as I searched the pocket, but saw no fish.

The light was perfect. If a fish was mining the marl in front of me, I should have been able to see it. But I saw nothing. Maybe, I had spooked the fish. If so, I suck! I should have been able to see any fish on this white sand long before I might spook them.

Just then a tail popped up. It waved happily in the air. I watched as a new smoking hole appeared complete with charcoal grey debris scattered on the down-tide side. When the fish was done rooting, he tilted back to horizontal and completely disappeared in the stirred-up and slightly muddy marl. Again, I could see no fish. He just vanished in water so shallow it barely covered my ankles. 

I flipped my fly forward like a discarded cigarette, then threw it behind me into a backcast. Just as I planned to drop my fly in the mud, the leading edge of a huge cloud, one of the few we had seen this week, covered the sun. I decided to wait. After only a few minutes, a tail appeared on the side opposite side me. 

“Two fish or just one fish that has moved?" I wondered.

Now, perhaps I was caught between two tailing fish - in impossibly shallow water - with a cloud covering the sun - on a white sand flat that even with no sun, I should be able to see everything... but, I could see no fish. 

I was once described in a book about flat’s fishing as, and I quote, “Heywood is seemingly able to see bonefish in a dark closet.” My friends like to kid me about this, but at this moment, apparently I needed a dark closet. I was glad no one was watching my inept stalk. As my frustration mounted, the sun slowly reappeared. My mood immediately improved until the whole scene replayed itself in maddening detail. There was a tail followed by a puff of mud, the fish tipped down and again vanished, I started to cast, a cloud covered the sun, I stopped casting etc, etc. 

Good God almighty! I was getting downright apoplectic so I decided to make a cast anyway. My thought was I would be proactive and try to retrieve something from this slowly deteriorating situation. This is probably never a very good strategy when bonefishing. Of course, my cast netted nothing... no hookup, no excited fluttering tail, hell, I didn’t even spook anything! Eventually I just stood there waiting for the sun, or a break... or perhaps some help from the fish gods! 

When the sun finally came out, I watched the root carefully. I could see no fish, but that obviously meant nothing. Eventually, impatience got the better of me and I waded slowly over to the root hole. My intention was to congratulate this bonefish on his total victory and perhaps turn around so he could kick me in the ass just for good measure. But he wasn’t there! Where in God’s name did he go? Just then two tails popped up on the other side of me and not very far away. Now they were just screwing with me!

Soon the whole scene repeated itself yet again. You know it well by now: tail appears, tail disappears... I get nothing. No hook-up, no follow, not even a slam-the-door-in-your-face exit... at least that would have brought a conclusion to this sordid affair. Eventually, the sun goes behind yet another cloud and I’m left at the doorstep again. Muttering to myself, I am now extremely worked-up and frustrated... none of the Zen, in-the-groove, patience of Job, process-oriented approach I often preach to others. Hell no, now I'm in full blown, type-A, yell at your kids, punch the dog, I-want-the-product-now behavior. Hell, I’m getting worked-up all over again just writing about this day. In fact, I can’t wait to conclude this paragraph and get on with my life. I'll be right back...

...OK, I’m better. Amazing what a slug of Jameson and a handful of Oreos does for the nervous system. 

Anyway, the net result of all this folderol was zip... absolutely nothing! For a moment, I thought I might find myself running through the bonefish roots screaming, “OK, screw you all. You win! I’m leaving! I don’t need you and your stinking tails.” 

Obviously, I was reaching the far side of emotional control and had donated my mental health to a couple of 22” bonefish. Maybe all the freeze-dried meals, tepid drinking water and incandescent sunshine we had experienced in the last ten days had poached my brain and turned me in to a simpering idiot. Must be, because at this moment I was contemplating yelling at an animal that probably didn’t even know I was there. I like to think so... to do otherwise means that these two bonefish were just playing with me. 

Maybe they had told each other, “Watch this... if you do it just right, you can make creatures crazy. Eventually, they’ll stomp their feet, pout and leave. Then we can get back to our meal.” 

Eventually, I did leave. I took my one-millibar-short-of-a-stroke blood pressure to visit the next bay where I wailed on 17” schoolies until I was once again convinced I was a superior animal... then I went looking for a dark closet.


  1. Scott, I seem to be dealing with the same case of shack nasties as you. 18 and snow here today, this sucks! Timely article!

  2. Wow! Much worse than it is here in Wyoming!
    47 degrees, clear, warm all week! Great for bird hunting!

  3. Great story...been there in similar ways... but PUNCHING THE DOG angry? Really? Just asking! I kicked my dog when it ate my sub off the table 20 years ago. Grew out of that and learned how not to let the dogs get to me.