Brilliant white flats, purple depths, turquoise channels and sandy cays slipped beneath the wings of our Bahamasair turboprop as it pushed south from Nassau. We’d been looking forward to this trip for a long time; now the scenery stimulated new heights of expectancy. If anticipation is indeed half the fun, we were having a ball.
|Photo By Barry and Cathy Beck Along most of Long Island’s beautiful coastline, natural flats and abandoned salt ponds hold large populations of bonefish.|
We were on our way to check out a fishing rumor. You know the kind: The utilities manager says there’s a huge school of stripers that winters “right by the power-plant outflow” or “There’s a hidden channel leading into Desolation Bayou, and those fish have never even seen a fly.” That kind of rumor.
In our case the story went something like this: Back in the 1980s, after the culinary craze for blackened redfish brought the species close to extinction and commercial fishing was restricted, an entrepreneurial Texan (is there any other kind?) was contracted to raise redfish in abandoned salt ponds on Long Island in the Bahamas. He imported redfish fry, along with a few snook, and raised both species with some success. But after a time the enterprise failed, the ponds were breached, and the fish were left to fend for themselves. What happened to those fish? Was there now a hidden mother lode of redfish somewhere around those abandoned salt ponds?
I know, pretty weak. but heck, it’s never taken much of an excuse to get me on a plane to check out a new destination – especially when that location happens to be loaded with bonefish.
Dave Bendix, a travel agent who specializes in locating new fly-fishing destinations, releases a small Long Island bonefish. Photo by Elizabeth Van Gytenbeek|
Long Island is perched on the east side of the Bahamas bank between Abaco, Eleuthera and Cat Islands to the north and Crooke’ Island to the south. It’s a bony limestone ridge more than 80 miles long and never more than 5 miles wide. The ridge, hundreds of feet high in places, holds back the Atlantic to the east, but its gentle western slope hosts luxuriant growths of brush and mangroves that give way to sugary beaches and miles and miles of shallow flats.
Stella Maris Resort Club is just a mile from the airport. It sits atop the island’s ridge, offering magnificent views and exposure to gentle trade winds. The owners, Peter Kuska and Jorg Friese, left school in Germany to answer a help-wanted ad for an inn manager in the Bahamas. Friese was hired, and Kuska soon followed. The two made up for their lack of inn-keeping experience with enthusiasm and a willingness to learn, and the enterprise prospered. Eventually they found partners and purchased the resort themselves.
The original inn offers accommodations ranging from simple rooms to small suites and villas capable of hosting as many as six guests each. During our stay the clientele included an interesting mix of Americans, Europeans, Canadians and Bahamian businessmen and government officials.
The resort offers a wide variety of activities, including bicycling, history t’urs and swimming, but it’s best known as a diving and blue-water fishing destination. Flats fishing is a recent addition, but if what we saw is any indication, Stella Maris will soon be a star attraction on the bonefishing map.
One reason, besides the presence of abundant bonefish, is the young manager of the Stella Mari” fish”ng program, James “Docky” Smith. Smith is smart, personable, a good listener, a persuasive speaker, and runs a flats boat as well scrubbed as he is. His father, Sherwin S’ith, dean of Long Island’s blue-water fishing captains, is also government administrator for the northern half of the island. Sherwin put his son to work as a deckhand at age 13, and Docky was running his own boat by the time he was 19. Docky will take you out for dolphin, tuna, wahoo or maybe even a shot at marlin, but his real love is fly fishing for bonefish on the flats.
We were anxious to explore the flats and ch’ck out those big muds we’d seen from the air, but the weather didn’t prove cooperative. However, there was enough shelter that we could fish comfortably along the northwest coast of the island.
We released a few small bones and botched casts to a number of others before the clouds parted long enough for us to see a school of bonefish headed our way. It was a mixed group including one really big fish, and when it came within range my cast landed right on target for a change.
This is the point where you usually expect a small fish to dart forward and seize the fly, spooking the rest of the school. But for once it didn’t happen. Instead, the big guy shouldered the smaller ones aside, grabbed my little Charlie and tried to run off with it. After a splendid battle, and we measured its length at slightly more than 30 inches before returning it to its native element, tired but wiser for the experience.
Stella Maris isn’t the only resort on the north end of Long Island. Cape Santa Maria Beach Resort straddles a beach that has been called one of the 10 most beautiful in the world. The resort offers beachfront cottages clustered around a handsome new central lodge with a restaurant, bar, shop, fitness center, TV room and office. Flats boats are anchored in an adjacent bay. Cape Santa Maria also is best known as a diving resort with some blue-water fishing, and flats boats are a recent addition here, too.
Leaving Cape Santa Maria with Sherwin Smith as our escort, we d’ove south toward Deadman’s Cay, Long Island’s other major community (besides Stella Maris). Along the way we passed villages with colorful names like Burnt Ground, Deals, Alligator Bay, Salt Pond and Old Joe. Over the course of the trip we were rarely out of sight of tempting bonefish flats. Sherwin assured us we could have had good fishing at any number of them.
Instead, we chose to stop at several locations and throw a Clouser Minnow into deeper water on the Atlantic side of the island. We were “rewarded” with jacks and “rockfish” (small grouper) at each stop. There is plenty to keep you busy in the unlikely event you get tired of catching bonefish.
Sherwin delivered us to the Atlantic Hide-a-Way Resort and introduced us to owners Bernard and Geta Adderley. Bernard also manages the telephone operations on Long Island, so you know the phone at the resort always works. Geta teaches school and is responsible for the small, courteous staff and spic-and-span condition of the lodge.
The resort isn’t fancy, but it has everything a fisherman needs: spotless rooms, excellent meals, a bar, television, air conditioning and a well-stocked fly-tying bench. Mother Nature takes care of the rest with great views of the island’s Atlantic coastline and trade winds that make for comfortable bull sessions’on the lodge veranda. We’d just gotten settled when our host, David Bendix, owner of Buccaneer Travel, arrived. Bendix is happy to book you into the bonefishing hotspot of your choice, but his real specialty is locating emerging fisheries for serious fly fishers at a reasonable price.
He takes this responsibility seriously, as we found out later from senior guide Ivan Knowles. Some years ago, after observing the extensive flats of Deadman’s Cay from the air, Bendix showed up and hired Knowles to take him fishing. As Knowles tells it, “This big, red-headed American shows up with a long, whippy rod, the likes of which I’ve never seen, and wants to go fishing. I told him he couldn’t catch a bonefish with that thing, but he insisted on bringing it along.
When we got to the flats I went off to catch some crabs for bait. Every time I looked up from my search, David had another fish on. When I got back to the boat with a hat full of crabs, he had already released five bones.”
That was just the beginning of a long story. Suffice to say, the pinch line was that Bendix’s visit led to Knowles’ sons, Dwayne and Elvis, and their cousin, Champ, all becoming fly-fishing guides. Bendix taught them what they needed to know about fly fishing, fly tying and flats etiquette and even provided flats boats and motors.
Bendix, my wife, Elizabeth, and I spent the next several days fishing with Knowles, Elvis and Champ. All three were competent and companionable.
The first day, after breakfast, we headed for the flats at the leisurely hour of 8:30 a.m. Deadman’s Cay has two kinds of flats, natural and manmade. The natural flats are a mixture of hard sand and marl and appear to go on forever. The bottom undulates unpredictably, however, and the wading is sometimes difficult.
The manmade flats, by contrast, are a bonefisher’s dream. These were created many years ago when the area had extensive salt-mining operations. Large areas were diked off and graded flat, then flooded with seawater. As the water evaporated it left salt deposits that were skimmed off once a day; then the whole process was repeated. After the mining operation was abandoned, the dikes were breached, and seawater was able to flow in and out with the daily rise and fall of tide. Marine life soon colonized the ponds and flourished.
Some of the abandoned ponds are more than a mile long and nearly as wide. They include the pond where the Texan raised his redfish and snook. But that would come later.
Knowles beached his skiff on one of the dikes, waited for us to climb out and then told us he’d meet us at another dike about a mile away. Bendix and I spread out and began wading slowly into the shin-deep water of the incoming tide. I soon learned how Knowles must have felt the first day he guided Bendix five years earlier: Bendix had released at least five decent-sized bonefish before I saw my first, which I managed to spook.
But I soon saw others and started catching them, and the day turned into a good one. When it was over and we were headed back to the lodge, we stopped at a place called Kooters for a cold drink and something to eat. And there we got a surprise. Behind the restaurant is a channel that originally fed seawater to the salt ponds. Now, with each rising tide, it hosts schools of bonefish and baby tarpon and a couple of large snook. Apparently these fish have developed appetites for leftover rice and beans, hamburger scraps and French fries.
The presence of snook led to a serious discussion with the guides about the redfish rumor. Elvis reported having seen a small school only a week before. Dwayne remembered an earlier encounter with a school of redfish that refused the bonefish flies he offered them. There were also local stories of redfish being captured on bait.
The stories were tantalizing, but none of the guides had yet seen a single bronze scale up close, and they weren’t sure where we could find any redfish. It looked as if the object of our search wouldn’t be found easily.
The next day was a repeat of the first, with everyone catching bonefish up to 28 inches. Bendix again was high rod with 25 fish released, although the rest of us all scored in double figures.
Our third day at the Atlantic Hide-a-Way was earmarked for local exploration. We stopped to see the island’s most famous blue hole, where the water is more than 600 feet deep, and spent time inspecting the works of local straw-craft artists and potters. We also had a chance to see Clarence Town, the island’s third-largest community, situated on a beautiful natural harbor on the Atlantic side.
Clarence Town is home to a pair of the island’s many lovely churches, both named after St. Paul and therein lies a tale. An Anglican priest came to Long Island in the mid-19th century and built St. Paul’s Anglican Church, a distinctive red-roofed structure that still stands atop a hill. The same priest later converted to Catholicism and built St. Paul’s Catholic Church, a blue-roofed structure that stands atop another hill nearby. Now the twin churches are famous landmarks for passing mariners.
From Clarence Town we followed the road south through sparsely settled country for another 20 miles to its end, about two miles from the southern tip of Long Island. Here a track leads across a mangrove estuary to a spectacular crescent beach some 2.5 miles long. Offshore is a major flat next to deep water. In their book, The Bahamas Fly-Fishing Guide, Stephen and Kim Vletas say you can find permit here as well as bonefish. We had time only to look, not fish, but this spot looks like it would be well worth exploring.
On our way back north we stopped to investigate every track leading to the large estuary on the western side of the island. This maze of bays, creeks, cuts and passes is the fishiest-looking place I’ve ever seen. In time we found a paved road leading to the abandoned Diamond Crystal Salt Company headquarters and ponds. Nature has already reclaimed part of this area, but a little backhoe work could speed the process.
At a beach cut that once served as a barge harbor, I unlimbered my rod and cast a large chartreuse Clouser toward some old dock pilings. I let the fly sink and started to retrieve, only to find the fly was stuck fast. No amount of pulling or yanking would dislodge it, and I was ready to break off when the line suddenly began moving out to sea. I never saw what was on’the other end and couldn’t stop it even with the drag clamped down as tight as it would go. When all the line and nearly all the backing was off the reel, I finally put a couple of turns of backing around the rod grip and broke off the fish. Shark? Big grouper? Who knows?
After that the few small jacks and barracuda that came to my fly seemed anticlimactic, so we headed back to the Hide-a-Way to regroup.
The next day we donned packs, waded waist-deep through a channel and headed across the estuary toward the area where the Texan once coddled his brood of redfish. We found a creek full of tarpon, mutton snapper, bonefish, and, yes, even a few snook. But nary a redfish.
So are they there, or not? The answer remains a mystery. We fished only a small fraction of the area, not enough to say definitively whether there are any redfish cruising the estuary. Bendix plans to keep look’ng, however, so maybe we’ll have the answer soon.
Not that it re’lly matters. Long Island’s mythical redfish population had already served its higher purpose: giving me a reason to see enough bonefish, tarpon and other flats species to keep any fly fisherman busy for a lifetime.