Our destination was the Bahamas, Exuma Island to be specific, and after setting up the trip with Cabela's Outdoor Adventures all that was left was the wait.
A thunderstorm rushed upon us as we sped back to the dock in the seventeen-foot flats boat. My guide had the throttle wide open and the ninety horse Mariner was trimmed out for maximum speed as we raced ahead trying to stay in front of the weather. The day of fishing was being cut short by an hour, but as the storm caught us I did not regret the early departure. Eventually, we had to slow down as the wind whipped the sea into a series of large waves and the rain blew with enough force to cause a stinging sensation as the drops pelted my face and arms. Between the driving rain and spray from the waves, a river of water was running down over my eyes and under my sunglasses.
I could not see five feet in front of me, I had no rainwear
, and was soaked to the bone, but I could not have been happier or felt more alive! Here I was, a regular guy from Nebraska, racing across the Caribbean Sea during a violent thunderstorm after a day of catching so many bonefish that I had lost count.
We chose to go in June because that is the start of the off-season for this area, which allowed my wife and I a couple of small luxuries. First, we didn't have to deal with the crowds that can be heavy during the winter months. This also translates into less pressure on the fish and not having to share a flat with another angler. Secondly, there is a price break in the off-season, and when you are on a budget every little bit helps. However, June is also the start of hurricane season, so you run the risk of bad weather rolling through when the vacation is planned three or more months ahead of time.
For the angler who has never chased "bones" before, the Bahamas are an excellent choice. The sheer number of bonefish is mind boggling and there is always the chance of seeing hundreds, maybe even thousands, of fish in a day of angling. There is no better way to get your feet wet in saltwater fishing than getting the chance to cast to so many fish in a short period of time. For those after a trophy class fish, Exuma also has its share of double digit bones and many ten plus pounders are caught every year.
One does not need a lot of specialized equipment to chase these ghosts of the flats. A nine foot, eight weight, fly rod outfitted with a weight forward line should cover all of your fishing needs for bonefish and small jacks, and make sure that your reel holds well over a hundred yards of backing. Most likely you will not need that much, but it is better to be safe than sorry. I used a nine-foot 0X leader with a 10-lb. fluorocarbon tippet and only had one fish break off during the entire trip (when it wrapped me around a mangrove).
The wind will blow during your trip, this is pretty much guaranteed. A moderately fast action fly rod, like the Cabela's SLi series, will make it easier to punch the fly line into a stiff breeze because, invariably, the fish will always seem to approach from the upwind side when you are wading the flats. Also, a large arbor reel, such as the Cabela's SR, will help you regain line a lot faster after a nice fish makes a long run after being hooked.
The fly selection for this trip was pretty basic. Every guide that I fished with recommended a "Gotcha" in sizes 4 and 6, bead chain eyes for the skinny water and lead eyes for water more than a couple feet deep. Pink puffs, crab imitations
, and Clouser minnows are also good choices to have in your fly box.
Although I never saw any on this trip, permit and tarpon do inhabit the waters of the Bahamas. Barracuda, sharks and jack crevalle are also ever present as a pleasant diversion for the angler who wants a little variety. Because there is a chance for these larger fish, it is a good idea to throw in a twelve-weight outfit if you have the space for the gear. And do not do as I did and forget the steel leader material at home. Sharks and barracuda will slice through monofilament and fluorocarbon faster than you can blink.
If you bring a non-fishing companion, such as a spouse or significant other, there are plenty of things to do during the day besides fish. I was glad to have a diving mask and snorkel along for this trip because the rocky reefs are in shallow water and they are loaded with an incredible number of beautiful fish. The myriad of different species was astounding to me, and the variety of coral to be found is almost as impressive as the fish. Of course, the water in this near equator paradise is warm, comfortable and crystal clear.
Besides snorkeling there are scuba diving classes, boat rentals, and even moped rentals in Exuma's capital of Georgetown. There are also daily ferries across Elizabeth Harbour to Stocking Island, which has beautiful white sand beaches, paddle and sailboat rentals, and numerous trails for hiking.
Between the fishing and other activities that are available, a week's vacation will fly by before you know it. Then it will be back to reality as you return to the comfort of your own home.
The water is only ankle deep as you and the guide slowly wade across the firm mud flat. Your eyes are constantly scanning the water, covering every point of the compass looking for the slightest disruption on the surface (nervous water) or the subtle flash of a bonefish's tail. The sky is overcast and the wind has put a heavy chop on the surface, combining to make the worst conditions for spotting fish.
Looking back over your shoulder you spot a pod of bonefish, still too far away to cast to, but they are moving closer. A dozen tails appear and disappear as the bones tip their mouths down to feed and continue to close the distance. Slowly turning around, you begin to false cast and work nearly forty feet of line into the air. As the fish come to within range the guide whispers "shoot" and one last double haul sends the bead eye "Gotcha" to its mark. The cast looks a little short and you are tempted to pick it up and try again, but the guide reads your mind and calmly says "hold on mon". And then he instructs, "strip-strip", a brief pause, "strip-strip-strip". Suddenly, the line feels heavy as you strip and you instinctively tighten your grip as the fish turns to run and sets the hook for you.
Sensing danger, the bonefish races across the flat in search of safety in deep water and the slack line whips up and out through the rod's guides. You let the line slide through your fingers with just enough tension to keep it from looping around the butt of the rod, and then he is on the reel. The run is fast and powerful and you watch as the layers of backing fall away and the distance between you and the fish increases with every second that passes. Eventually, the bonefish slows down, and when he stops it is time to start reeling and recover as much of the line as possible before he gets his second wind. After retrieving what feels like fifty yards, the fish is off and running again, but this time he does not go as far. Now you are able to recover even more line when he stops and the fish comes to within thirty yards. When he sees you, panic sets in and he is into the backing again - but not so far this time.
Now you regain line quickly and after a couple more runs, that never make it to the end of the fly line, he is brought to hand. While removing the fly from the corner of the fish's mouth you get the chance to admire its beauty. The silvery blue skin seems to be almost translucent, and were it not for the weight of the fish you would expect your hand to pass right through it like a ghostly image.
As the fish swims away after its release, you break out of a momentary trance and take a look around at the postcard picture that surrounds you. A deep breath and a slight shake of the head let you know that you really are here, this is not just a dream. After stripping line off the reel you are ready to cast again and the intensity returns searching the flats for more of those tails.
Practice Before You Go
Before you go, it never hurts to practice casting and get used to what a forty foot cast looks like as opposed to a fifty or sixty foot cast. When a pod of tailing bonefish are spotted working their way toward you, and you are either short or long by ten feet, then you might have blown your chance at those fish. It is especially important for someone to practice if they have fished for trout in streams and rivers their whole life. A person who does a lot of nymph fishing for trout may go a whole season without casting much more than twenty feet, and when the guide says "ten o'clock - sixty feet" it can be a little intimidating. The angler who can double haul and accurately cast fifty or more feet will probably get more than enough chances to catch bonefish during a day on the flats. The farther you can cast accurately, the more opportunities that are available.
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