Bonefish flats

BIMINI, Bahamas — It is at the end of a long day of fishing, in the cool Caribbean night breeze, that we learn most about our fishing captains.

"He had to fake his own death once," explained a local islander.

Everyone put down their beers — or fruity umbrella drinks — and leaned in a little closer, straining to hear against the deejay's loud Reggae blasting across the restaurant deck.

"He stole a boat full of drugs from some Columbians," he continued. "To get away with it, he had to fake his own death. They showed an obituary on TV, he had a casket in his living room. He even carved a gravestone."

"Our bonefish guide from today?" one angler stammered in disbelief. "No way!"

"I wish we had known this before going out on the water with him."

"So what happened to the Columbians? How is he still alive?"

A simple shrug was all the islander could provide. Perhaps the drug cartel was wiped out. Or maybe they found religion and decided to renounce their illegal ways. Or perhaps the rum hadn't inspired a proper ending to his fishy-sounding tale.

Regardless, it is obvious that life on Bimini, a small chain of islands in the Bahamas, is not always the laid-back beach scenes depicted on postcards. The island has long been involved with trafficking whatever is illegal in the United States — slaves, alcohol, drugs, and immigrants — being a perfect stop-over just 50 miles across the Gulf Stream from Miami.

Over the years, some locals have been caught up in the illicit dealings, tempted by the chance to hit it big. Nowadays, the guide in question can be found cooking up dinner for guests at his small hotel. He even runs a Web site advertising his location. On the surface, it seems life has returned to normal. But that same edgy undercurrent can be found throughout the islands, and it is reflected in the tricky fish these guides are paid to find.

Having few natural resources to depend on, many Biminites' income is closely connected to fishing tourism. The majority of the 1,600 residents live on the narrow North Bimini, a horseshoe-shaped sliver of land surrounding a shallow bay. The mangroves that bound most of the island provide habitat for many prized saltwater fish, including barracuda, permit and bonefish. And, the arrival of Ernest Hemingway in 1935 helped to popularize big-game fishing in the deeper waters to the west. In fact, Hemingway's Islands in the Stream, published posthumously, was partially based in Bimini.

But most local anglers aren't after the prize marlins or sailfish. You can tell by the names of local boat captains: Bonefish Ansil, Bonefish Action Jackson, Eagle Eyes Fred. They grew up on the islands, and they have spent their entire lives fishing for the gray ghosts of the flats.

Bonefish are, pound for pound, one of the strongest and fastest saltwater fish in the world. They are built for speed in order to evade predators like sharks and barracudas in shallow water.

As fishing guide "Eagle Eyes" Fred Rolle described, "Bonefish are designed to evade the small lemon sharks that come onto the flats. Sharks will chase bonefish, but they will never catch a healthy one."

Perhaps that is part of the allure of bonefishing — to catch what even a shark, king of its domain, cannot.

The Bahamas are not the only place where bonefishing is popular. Anglers find them in warmer waters all around the world, wherever sandy flats provide a chance to get close enough. In the U.S., bonefish can be found along both coasts, but the Florida Keys and Hawaii provide especially good habitat.

Regardless of location, the key to catching bonefish is to understand their natural patterns.

"They follow the tides," Rolle said as he drove his shallow skiff farther up the flats. "They move in with the rising tide, staying in the shallow water. You just have to get in front of them and wait for them to come to you."

The water on the flats was mostly crystal-clear, but an occasional muddy patch streaked below the surface.

"That is a sign of feeding fish," Rolle explained. "Bonefish will kick up mud and silt as they dig for food along the bottom. They might just be small shad, but most likely those muddy patches are schools of bonefish."

As the prop began to hit sand, Rolle switched off the motor and let the skiff coast to a stop. The motor has to be raised and a push pole used to go any farther. Either that, or get out and wade in the soft sand.

After a few minutes, the water settled, erasing any traces of intruding man's arrival.

"Pick out a fly that is as light as possible - white or tan," Rolle commanded. "These fish don't need a lot of color."

Bonefish primarily feed on bottom-dwelling invertebrates like small crab and shrimp. A simple light-colored fly — or raw shrimp on a hook for those less talented — is the perfect bait.

"If you keep the sun behind you, you can see very far," said Rolle.

That is easy to say, for a man who is commonly called 'Eagle Eyes'.

"There! A hundred feet away, can you see that nervous water?"

All the water looked the same to untrained eyes.

But soon, a flash of silver tail broke the surface. Then two, then four, then eight.

Bonefish are known to school with dozens of like-sized individuals, but most often they will be found in small groups, with larger adults often feeding on their own or in pairs. And if the water is shallow enough, their sharp fins stick out of the water — a spectacular sight anglers call tailing.

"A pair is turning toward us," Rolle whispered as he pointed. "Quick, cast 60 feet at 1 o'clock."

The ocean wind turned 60 feet at 1 o'clock into 30 feet at 10 o'clock — a total failure when precision is needed.

"You have to cast a ways in front of the bonefish, and then it will find your bait as it feeds along the bottom," Rolle explained. "Cast a spinning reel sidearm, otherwise the bait hits the water too loudly."

That is one of the problems with bonefishing — by the time you can see them, they can hear you.

"Reel it in and try again, but this time, feel the weight of the bait come around in your cast," Rolle suggested.

It worked, as the bait landed much closer to the target. Unfortunately, it was too close, and the plunk sent bonefish scattering across the flats.

"As soon as they run, it is over. They are no longer feeding," Rolle explained.

Even while wading, away from the clanks and pings of a metal-hulled boat, noise is very much a factor. You find yourself trying to make your feet smaller, in a futile attempt to make cutting through the water quieter.

Walking barefoot in knee-high water, Rolle spotted a lone bonefish making its way along the sandy bottom.

"Get ready to cast," he hissed. "OK, aim for that dark patch of sea grass."

With a sudden splash and a bolt of speed, the bonefish was gone before the bait even hit the water. All that remained was the soft hum of Beechcraft propellers. It was, unluckily, 10:05 a.m. in Bimini — when the daily commercial flight from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. passes overhead. Even the distant sound of a plane is enough to send bonefish skittering across the flats.

"Let's go back to the boat," Rolle suggested. "Maybe we'll have better luck closer to shore with a fly rod."

After nearly a mile of poling his 16-foot skiff, Rolle noticed more muddy patches.

With fish nearby, getting a drink of water becomes an experiment in how to close the cooler lid without making a sound. Bonefish may not be smarter than you, but they have a way of making you feel stupider.

"Alright, cast as far as you can, right off the bow," Rolle suggested, spotting a good-sized fish. "Let the line drop quickly. Too many false casts can scare them.

"Good placement. Now, strip ... strip ... strip."

The bait appeared to cross right in front of the fish's face.

Suddenly, the line went taut. After a short pause, the rod doubled over and line ripped out of the reel against the whirring drag.

Bonefish notoriously run for hundreds of feet before tiring. And even after the fish stops sprinting, reeling it in is not an easy task.

"Hold the rod tip up," Rolle commanded.

Sea grass and coral provide lots of opportunities to cut line, and a bonefish will often drag across these obstacles if the line isn't held high enough.

Anglers have to be prepared to circle the boat, since last-minute bursts of speed can tangle line around props and anchor lines. This sort of fishing might seem too involved for a casual vacationer. But it actually fits with an underlying truth of life on the island. There are sharks in these waters, and you have to best them, or be bested.

Once netted, the 5-pound bonefish endured the inevitable grip-and-grin photos. Afterward, it slipped back into the water, ready to continue its normal pattern, albeit a little more suspicious of tan-colored food.

Now that the fight is over, how do you spend the rest of your time in paradise? Call it a successful day and have a daiquiri? To anglers like Rolle, the answer is obvious: drift along the flats and wait patiently for the next fish to come in range.

"Hand me another shrimp, and I'll put it on your hook," he said.

"But this time, remember to close the cooler quietly."