Freedom Ain’t Easy
Battling earth, wind, and fire for a deadline bonefish.

Saltwater Fly Fishing
August/September 2005

The island had been burning for days, and the dry Bahamian air smelled of scorched palms and barbecued lizards. It wasn’t that the brush fires were so bad. Or the smoke. But that infernal wind! It battered the storm shutters at night and woke us up with a low whistle each morning, stoking the flames all across north Eleuthera. On the way up to our cottage, the driver had told us, “Da whole island on fire, mon.”

Eleuthera means “freedom” in Greek, and we’d come here with the kids to find our own escape at the end of a lonely single track flanked by little more than grapefruit trees and thornbush. No hotels or lodges. Just the family, a few nappy sheep, and a solar-powered house on the edge of a blue bay. Though our escape was successful, my bonefishing had received a fatal blow. Literally.

On the third day, I walked onto our dock to assess the situation. Just off the coral escarpment encircling the bay, there were washboard ripples blowing down the face of four-foot whitecaps. And the little Boston Whaler I had rented was pounding in the chop with a rhythmic thunk, thunk, thunk.

I was tempted to just pile up in a lawn chair next to the bocce balls and listen to coconut palms clatter in the blow. To relax. That’s why we went there, right?

But in an instant of frustration, I found myself tightening a day-pack to my shoulders, climbing down the dock ladder, and carefully hopping into the bucking hull. It was the first step on a roughed-up journey that included twice being blown onto a sandbar, slogging through mangrove mud up to my knees, and shorting out a new walkie-talkie in some bilge water. After several hours of radio silence in the tempest, I finally made it back on the edge of a glowering darkness. Inside, my wife had the house VHF in hand. She’d been trying to raise the caretaker over in Spanish Wells and gave me that look: two parts “Thank God you’re safe,” one part “I married an idiot.”

That night the rain poured down, and by morning a thin gauze of smoke hovered over North Bay.

The next day, the wind was raining itself out in scattered bursts. We ferried over to Harbor Island, and while the family puttereds off to the pink beach via golf cart, I waded the low incoming tide out past Lone Tree. A half dozen silver tails were working upwind over a sandbar. But they moved too fast, and my tightest loop died in a wind-blunted mess at their tails. I closed the distance on one other school, but it was too little too late, as the first crack of lightening drove me ashore empty-handed.

That night the rain poured down, and by morning a thin gauze of smoke hovered over North Bay. The sun was shining, and the birds were singing. Low tide was not until 2:30 p.m., but my punch list for a final day in paradise was urgent.

Ride the kids around in boat. Check. Take family to world-class beach. Check. Lie on beach until I can lie there no longer. Check.

By 3 o’clock I was drifting my rented Whaler over the white sands of a nearby uninhabited island. I hopped overboard and immediately waded into a phalanx of silver shadows. As the day ticked away, fish after fish showed me no respect. Was I moving the fly too fast? Did the circling ‘cudas have the bones too nervous? Shouldn’t an editor be comped at least one fish?

Far down the flat, a local guide was having no luck, either. His halfhearted client had actually given him the fly rod as if to say, “Here, you do it.” But the guide could not hook up, and as they were leaving, a school of twenty bones approached my position. I was down to my smallest crab pattern and an 8-pound fluorocarbon tippet.

I cast well ahead, letting the first fish move over the fly before twitching it. And finally—finally!—the line came tight, chasing off the skunk and clearing the flat of all but me, a deadline bonefish, and two thoughts.

Persistence, as they say, always pays. But no matter where you go or what you do, freedom is never easy. ✦