Up in the South
The southern end of the Bahamas’ largest island offers a crash course in the language of boneﬁshing.
American Angler | September/October 2014
“YOU JUST REACH?” asked the camp cook, as he spooned a helping of beans and rice onto my plate.
“Just reach,” he repeated. “Andros.”
Here in the Boneﬁsh Capital of the World, the word “reach” means “to arrive.” But in the island’s colorful dialect—where South is Up, North is Down, West is Back, and East is Front—this particular usage rings somewhat cryptic.
For instance, Androsians speak of the local land crabs “reaching” with summer rains, when armies of club-ﬁsted crustaceans rise from the maritime interior and clamber through pineyard and scrub toward their annual saltwater love-in. When the land crabs reach, islanders greet them in the bush with gunny sacks and an appetite.
Or out on the water, your boneﬁshing guide might glance at the wall of saturated air rising in the west as dark as bruised ﬂesh, and say: “Mon, when it reach, we gonna be in trouble.” My guide on day three, Freddie, knows this trouble ﬁrsthand. The previous week, he’d been nearly knocked off his poling platform by lightning, saw it hit the water a few hundred yards distant and then suck the air off the ﬂat with a sonic boom that sent a jolt up his arm and momentarily welded the carbon-ﬁber pushpole to one hand. For a split second, he could not let the damn thing loose, and his angler hurled a fancy ﬂy rod as far across the ﬂat as weakened limbs and clenched buttocks would allow.
So on day three, as we consider whether to run to Andros’s remote west side, Freddie is understandably cautious. “I seen dat weather walk right back in wi’ da tide,” he says, scanning the dark horizon from beneath a lop-eared sun hat and dabbing his pushpole at the marl.
Freddie decides we will conﬁne our efforts to the interior cuts, bays, and ﬂats of Little Creek, just east of Devil’s Backbone. Since he has lived on the island all his life—born on the beach to a 16-year-old mother who had to be helped inside just to cut his umbilical cord—our trust in his judgment is absolute. Out here on the ﬂats, Freddie is the boss, even when his former boss is on the boat.
That would be Andrew Bennett, founder of Deneki Outdoors, a trio of ﬂy ﬁshing lodges in Alaska, British Columbia, and the Bahamas. Deneki’s boneﬁshing destination is called Andros South, and having recently sold the entire operation to another lodge operator, Bennett is back on the island on behalf of both the new owner and Eddie Bauer, for which he is a product-development and marketing consultant. As a veteran of fresh- and saltwater environments from Alaska to Andros, Bennett helped Bauer develop its new ﬂats shirts, packs, wading jackets, and other items in the recently expanded Sport Shop Collection. Thus we ﬁnd ourselves doing a little ﬁeld testing in the West Indies, trading turns on the bow while discussing everything from button placement to Bahamianese.
For instance, Andrew tells me, Bahamian dogs are called potcakes. Although these ubiquitous island hounds look like a pregnant Alabama cur on hunger strike, they earned their nickname for hanging around kitchens until some kindhearted cook scrapes the caked meal from a pot and tosses it their way.
Or, for instance, when an Andros guide has a story about a memorable boneﬁsh encounter, he’ll tell you that he “met a boneﬁsh” along this or that shoreline last week. Or he “met a bone” in the double digits. And as it turns out, I’m about to meet my biggest boneﬁsh of the trip.
After several unsuccessful shots at a couple of real toads, Andrew has abdicated the bow. His best opportunity of the morning had left us speechless as he played cat and mouse with a black-backed boneﬁsh tied to every movement of his stripping hand. It zigged and zagged across the white sand ﬂat like a shadow puppet on a string, but ultimately produced only groans from the bow and poling platform.
“Clouds got ’em nuhvous,” said Freddie.
Under overcast skies, boneﬁsh can’t see so well to chase their prey or avoid predators. As the weather worsens, they can turn twitchy and paranoid, congregating in deeper water to form silted aggregations of ﬁsh known as muds. But as writer’s luck would have it, soon as I step onto the casting deck, the sun breaks through, and two six-pound boneﬁsh meet us along the mangroves 50 feet off our bow.
“Buddy! Buddy!” says Freddie, who doesn’t bother remembering the names of folks he’ll likely never see again. His anglers are either Buddy One or Buddy Two. Since Freddie knows Andrew well, I’m just plain Buddy.
In the time it has taken me to trade positions with Andrew, strip some line into the cockpit, and turn toward the shore, I have my ﬁrst cast in the air. It falls short. I water-haul, snap into a backcast, and punch the next one harder, landing the ﬂy just past the pair. With one long strip of my line, the largest boneﬁsh practically does a backﬂip. Two series of strip-stops incites a brief chase, and at the hookup, the ﬁsh momentarily roils the shallows with distaste then makes his case for freedom.
It is a blistering, 100-yard run. Then another 50. Within a few minutes, however, we’ve agreed to disagree at about 40 paces, and as I work him toward the boat, he strikes out on a hard-earned tangent, kicking up dark puffs of mud that stretch across the sunlit ﬂat like a contrail of Morse code, a secret language reading:
Welcome to Andros.
Back in the West
Even on the best days, reaching the west side is a commitment. In the case of Andros South Lodge, you launch out front in the mouth of Little Creek, where blue water slides in from the 6,600-foot-deep Tongue of the Ocean about two miles off-shore. The skiff lurches out of its hole shot with a rising sun at your back, skimming west into a maze of mangrove ﬂats turned jade and copper by the turtle grass and limestone bottom. After about 30 minutes, the guide drops off plane, trims up his engine, and slowly bubbles across Devil’s Backbone, a notoriously thin stretch of water serving as a sort of subcontinental divide between The Front and The Back.
On this day we are ﬁshing with Charlie, a guitar-playing deacon in his local church. He is as quiet as Freddie is loquacious. After about 40 minutes of cruising in a three-boat formation, two skiffs peel off to the south like ﬁghter jets, and Charlie, standing astern with one hand on the tiller, leans north in search of our own corner of shallow-water wilderness.
And a true wilderness it is, stretching along nearly 100 miles of ragged marine habitat protected as the West Side National Park. The Bahamas National Trust created the park in 2002, and it now encompasses 1.4 million acres, one of the western hemisphere’s great maritime preserves. Despite its allure to visiting anglers, this network of cays, cuts, and tidal creeks quickly raises a feeling that if the boat broke down or you were somehow separated from your guide, the West side of Andros would swallow you faster than a potcake on a pea.
To Androsians, it is simply The Back.
“I’ve always thought that was kind of a diminutive term for this incredibly vast and productive ﬁshery,” says Andrew, who for the past two days has been playing a game with his former employees and guides. What percentage of ﬂats on South Andros, he asks them, have ever been ﬁshed? Estimates by Andros South guides and staff range from 10 to 70 percent of all the ﬂats on the island. That’s a pretty wide range, but it’s easy to understand, given the vastness of Andros’s wilderness. Sufﬁce it to say that the West side is the least ﬁshed simply due to its remoteness, and as we wind down a 45-minute run, Charlie nudges his bow into the bank of an outﬂowing tidal creek and kills the engine.
Boneﬁsh are working up-current into the mouth of the creek. Curiously, these ﬁsh are podded up like trout, porpoising on the surface like rainbows sipping emergers. I get off a cast near the edge of the rising school, and as the ﬂy swings down and across-current, a ﬁsh ﬁnds the steel. But I trout-set the whole affair, putting enough bow in my 7-weight to load the rod like a slingshot cocked with a ball bearing. When the ﬁsh spits the lead-eyed ﬂy, it launches toward my torso and hits me about two inches above the navel. I am certain it will have to be surgically removed, but in the time it takes to double over and then stand erect, the size 2 Spawning Shrimp bounces off my gut and clacks onto the deck. The boneﬁsh sound and move up-tide into the creek.
A half hour later, I redeem myself on a four-pound bone, and Andrew and I rotate on the bow for another solid ﬁsh or two each. At midmorning, just as we have settled into that cordial rhythm of hookups, missed ﬁsh, landings, and bow trades that deﬁnes boneﬁshing, Andrew is scanning from the casting deck when he says, “Cuda. Big cuda.”
I stand in the cockpit for a look at the shadow slowly cruising in about eight feet of water off port. Because the West side is milkier due to erosion of eastern limestone bluffs, which are pulverized to ﬁne chalk by the time they settle in the West, seeing ﬁsh here can be more difﬁcult. But then the cruising form banks in the sunlight, and we all see the silver-dollar scales at the same time.
I’ve brought a 10-weight with me, but it is rigged for barracuda. And I had dumbly left my tarpon ﬂy box back at the dock. Fortunately, West Andros tarpon tend to hang around once you ﬁnd them, and as Andrew hurriedly rigs a shock tippet and our most tarpony ﬂy, Charlie starts poling mightily into the wind, describing a northerly arc around the ﬁsh’s path. It takes about 10 minutes before Charlie cuts in front, and sure enough, we are soon nose-to-bow with a wandering West Andros tarpon.
Andrew gets off several strong casts into stiff wind, and at one point the tarpon turns to inspect, but he is not properly engaged. Despite another Herculean ﬂanking maneuver by Charlie, we eventually lose sight of our lone tarpon in the bay.
Encountering Megalops atlanticus anywhere is a thrill, but meeting the Silver King in such a remote setting, where all around the sky and sea form a horizon line that makes you understand why humans once thought the world was ﬂat, is an honest-to-goodness privilege.
A Boneﬁshing Legend
One night, as we sat at the Andros South tiki bar a few steps from the eastern surf, Andrew said, “Don’t make fun of the Chickcharney.” Some locals, it seems, believe in a mythic owl-like creature that lives in the island bush and stands about three feet tall—a red-eyed, cryptozoological cousin of skunk apes, leprechauns, and gremlins. Believers hold that if one greets Chickcharney with kindness, he will be rewarded with good luck. But those who mistreat or scoff at Chickcharney will wear a dark cloud overhead, possibly for life.
On my last day of ﬁshing, I can only assume that I had not shown proper respect to the legend. As we slide out the back of Little Creek and run north along the edge of the Great Bahama Bank, Freddie is singing, per usual. Only today’s refrain is Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” inspired by the upwelling darkness spreading over our backtrack.
The ride home will be a wet one, but for now we are dry and headed into “Freddie’s Creek,” which he says is a good place to meet a tarpon after a rain. En route, we work a mangrove shoreline, picking up a couple of hammer-handle bones and working one or two larger singles. While the ﬁrst two sunny days had made me feel like I had ﬁghter-pilot vision, under gray skies I’m having trouble seeing the ﬁsh and must rely on Freddie’s distance commands. When I overshoot a decent boneﬁsh for the second time, Freddie stops poling.
“Buddy,” he says. “First things ﬁrst: Twenty feet is your leadah, plus about ten feet of ﬂy line.”
Despite Freddie’s irrefutable math, the tarpon apparently did not get the invitation to his namesake creek. We are ﬁnding boneﬁsh here and there, but our ﬁnal afternoon is mostly a wash. The summer rains are coming. Land crabs will start their seaward march any day now, and as we work our way back east, the boneﬁsh are forming epic muds off the ﬂats. Great, chalky swaths of waterborne silt spread under the chop.
An Andros guide instinctively knows where the school is within a mud by the direction of the tide, but to me it’s just a sprawling marine vista on which I am desperately trying to imprint, a few strokes of sunshine on an aquamarine canvas, the milky streaks of rooting boneﬁsh framed under a black sky growing thicker by the minute. Our run back to The Front is a stinging gauntlet of rain-drops the size of nickels.
Fortunately, as with all wild places, if you don’t like the weather, just wait ﬁve minutes and it will change. Back at the dock, the sun breaks through, and a ﬂat just to the north side of the landing lights up like a turquoise brooch. One angler seizes the moment and waives his ride back to the lodge in order to stalk this overlooked ﬂat for a few ﬁnal hours. With a retreating storm cell dropping its dark curtain over the eastern ocean, I grab my camera and follow along the beach, hoping to get a few last images before our departure, trying to delay the inevitable, looking for just a little more conversation in the language of boneﬁshing. ✦