March 14, 2014
Schooner Bay, Abaco, is a utopian harbor town being carefully developed by Swedish developer Orjan Lindroth. Congo Town on Andros Island is an eclectic mess of shanties and cinderblock bungalows. The towns themselves are polar opposites, but these Bahama fly fishing areas have one thing in common—extraordinary year-round bonefishing an hour away from Florida.
Just a few years ago, the east coast of Great Abaco south of Cherokee Sound was a rugged wilderness with no marine safe harbor. But the Swedish-born and Bahamas-raised Lindroth had a dream to create the penultimate traditional harbor village. Not a resort. Not a tacky town of touristy facades and T-shirt shops, but a sustainable, ecologically sensitive, and authentic community centered around the Bahamas' greatest natural resource—the fishing.
At the center of this carefully planned and engineered village—still in its infancy—is the plantation-style Blackfly Lodge. The lodge is the first commercial entity in Schooner Bay. Accidental? Hardly. Using fishing villages like Dunmore Town or Hope Town as inspiration, the fly-fishing lodge came first as sort of a bell cow for like-minded individuals to build homes in the fledgling community. The plan worked, as many of the founding homebuilders are ardent fly fishers who can walk to the lodge as easily as they can walk to Schooner Bay's isolated sandy beach, or the nearby forest preserve populated by Abaco parrots.
International partnership. The lodge itself is owned by a Canadian, an American, and a Bahamian.â€¨Clint Kemp is a direct descendant of English settlers who founded a Bahamas colony in the 1600s, and he built his reputation as an outstanding bonefish guide in Nassau before he saw the opportunity to move to a quieter island with hundreds of square miles of untapped bonefishing potential.
Kemp manages the lodge, guides on flats and offshore, makes the best mojito I've ever tasted, and keeps a humidor stocked with the world's finest cigars for evenings on the lodge's wrap-around veranda or at the oceanside fire pit.
Vaughn Cochran is a former Florida Keys guide and an original member of Jimmy Buffett's Coral Reefer Band, but he's probably best known as an artist with works on display at his Blackfly Outfitters fly shop, Blackfly The Restaurant in St. Augustine, Florida, and now also at Blackfly Lodge, where Vaughn and his wife handle much of the marketing and booking from their U.S. base. His contemporary sporting art hangs throughout the lodge and includes his tributes to fly-fishing personalities in the guest rooms such as in the Lefty Kreh Room, the Stu Apte Room, and the Flip Pallot Room.
Dave Byler is a native of Calgary, Alberta, a former CEO of Suncor Energy, and a founding member of the Schooner Bay community—his home was one of the first completed. Byler has fished all over the world and uses his business background to make Blackfly Lodge viable.
The lodge is on a narrow neck of land on Great Abaco, so Kemp and head guide Paul Pinder can launch their East Cape Vantage skiffs on the east side of the island or trailer their boats 6 miles south to fish the protected flats of Sandy Point and Cross Harbour. The Marls of Abaco 10 miles to the north is a vast and tangled network of channels, mangroves, and mud-bottom flats that together with the massive bights of Andros may be the greatest bonefish producers in the entire Bahamas. And 10 miles to the west—across open ocean—are the white sand flats surrounding Moore's Island—a dot on the map that for decades has had a reputation for double-digit solitary tanks that can tear 150 yards of backing from your reel in a single shot.
Moore's Island is a bit of an adventure, but it's made comfortable by Blackfly's four large, stable East Cape Vantage skiffs that cut down on the jarring bumps and the wet ride you may get in other skiffs. They are also super comfortable while you're fishing, with a padded lean bar/seat on the casting platform that lets you relax comfortably—and still be ready—while you're waiting for the next bonefish to appear.
Of course, weather is everything with bonefishing—you need sun to spot the fish, and too much wind can make everything an uphill battle—but a "normal" day of fishing at Blackfly should provide dozens of fresh shots at schools of 50 or more 2- to 4-pound bones, and numerous other opportunities at larger 6- to 8-pound fish traveling in small groups or by themselves.
Great Abaco also has some of the most underrated permit fishing in the Bahamas. You don't hear much about it because most fly fishers go there exclusively to catch bonefish, but if you're willing to invest the time, the guides also know where to find 15- to 25-pound permit on the incoming tides, and also (seasonally) tarpon up to about 60 pounds. Because of the diversity of the habitat, it may be the best place in the Bahamas for a flats grand slam.
Tackle notes. Standard-issue Gotchas and Squimps (#4-8) should be in all bonefish boxes, but some local favorites for Great Abaco include #6 Vaughn's Peel & Eat, and Clint Kemp's King of Abaco and Queen of Abaco. You'll also need two 10-weights, one rigged with a wire leader for barracuda, the other one with a 9-foot, 15-pound-test leader and a crab fly for permit. I like a #4 Ragin' Craven, but a #6 Cathy's Fleeing Crab is also a good choice. Two 10-weights is not overkill, as in the late spring and early summer there are tarpon around, and you'll need a completely different fly and leader rig to be ready for them.
Details. For five days of fishing and six nights, the trip will cost you $4,575 per person not including tips, but if you can afford it, the Schooner Bay/Blackfly Lodge experience is a rare glimpse at what a perfect fishing lifestyle looks like.
Andros South Lodge
When you drive from the Congo Town airport to Andros South Lodge you'll notice the shoddy road, decrepit and abandoned buildings, cinderblock homes with wandering dogs and chickens, small hardscrabble farms, but most of all you'll notice that everyone is smiling and waving.
Yes, they recognize the Andros South Lodge shuttle, and they realize that bonefishing is the economic lifeblood of the island, but the happiness is both genuine and contagious. They also wave and smile broadly at the other vehicles as they pass, they stop to chat to cyclists and other pedestrians along the Queens Highway, and you'll feel it too from the guides, housekeepers, and cooks you come across during your stay. Despite its rough appearance, Congo Town and the rest of South Andros Island is the real Bahamas, with an out-island attitude that instantly makes you feel at home. Congo Town is also the gateway to one of the most expansive flats systems in the Bahamas.
History lesson. When John Quincy Adams signed the Florida Purchase Treaty in 1821, Seminoles and black American slaves escaped and sailed to the west coast of Andros on the wrecking sloop Steerwater. Hundreds more Seminoles and slaves arrived in canoes and sloops in 1823 and became the forebears of most of the citizens of Andros Island. While many in the Bahamas trace their ancestry to England or Belize, most of the population of Andros comes from these "Black Seminoles" of the American South.
The small settlements they formed grew organically with no oversight or planning. They survived on small subsistence farms, some commercial fishing, and of course, lobstering in the ocean and "crabbing" in the forests and creeks for Andros's famously large and numerous land crabs. And some of them became outstanding bonefish guides with famously sharp vision, and a knack for remembering and analyzing decades of anecdotal information about where the bonefish appear and disappear at certain tides and times of the day.
While North Andros (historically) gets most of the attention and the fishing pressure, Andros South Lodge is a low-key operation with a reputation as a "guide's lodge." It's where trout and steelhead outfitters from Montana, Colorado, and British Columbia go during their off seasons, and it's also a go-to destination for industry insiders—the last time I visited, there were sales reps from Simms, executives from Sage and Redington, trout-fishing guides, lodge managers from other operations, and two CEOs from major U.S. airlines all rubbing elbows at the tiki bar at the beach, drinking ginger beer highballs mixed by casting expert Simon Gawesworth. All of us are equals in the eyes of a bonefish, and Andros South is truly a place where you can kick off the trappings of you day job, and "go native" for a week.
It's not a luxury lodge by any stretch of the imagination. The food consists of made-to-order breakfasts, simple lunches of sandwiches you prepare yourself each morning, and home-cooked Bahamian dinners of rice and beans, fish, and chicken. It's good, but not gourmet, and served by matronly locals who feed you like your mother did.
The boats are nothing special—16-foot Dolphin skiffs that will get you from point A to point B. The flats are hard and wadable and if you're willing to wade, the guides will walk with you for hours. You'll get closer shots that way, and have more of a connection to the water—sort of like wading a river.
And while the rooms are certainly quiet and comfortable after a long day of fishing, they aren't made to impress anyone. What is impressive is the flats fishing to the south, starting at Little Creek and Grassy Creek, all the way south to the Water Cays, where there are endless flats, and channels and island edges extending in all directions so you can always find a leeward shore for sight-fishing.
In good weather you can pass through one of the creeks to the west side of the island, an undeveloped, remote region with no settlements of any kind, no people, and massive bonefish. To find them, you'll have to ignore the black shoals containing thousands of smaller bonefish. Don't cast at them. Pretend they don't exist, and have your guide hunt the more difficult mangrove-choked creek mouths and flats for large solitary shadows. The guides prefer this duty anyhow, as there are no bragging rights associated with the more numerous, smaller schooling fish.
Tackle notes. Your standard bonefish rod is a high-performance 8-weight like a 9-foot Helios, NRX, or ONE. I used the new 8-weight Sage Method with a RIO Bonefish Quickshooter. You'll need a similar 10-weight rod rigged with a wire leader and a long electric green 'cuda fly that represents a 12- to 18-inch needlefish.
If you tie your own flies, a shortcut to barracuda success is to use a short length of neon green tubular shoelace to create the body of the fly. You can dress it up with some eyes and some flash but the key is the electric neon color, and move it fast. For bonefish, bring oversized but lightly weighted flies that represent large food items like shrimp, but land softly on calm flats, and don't snag the bottom. My favorite for Andros is a #4-6 Charlie Craven Bonefish Junk, but similarly sized Ververka Mantis Shrimp and Gotchas—both with lightweight beadchain eyes—are great. Officially, flies are included with your stay, but the guides will love you if you bring fully stocked boxes with plenty of options.
Details. Expect to pay $4,635 per person for a 7-night, 6-day trip not including tips and airfare. Everyone gets their own room, which is not standard at all fishing lodges. If you've got a fishing buddy who snores, this might be ideal. There are direct flights from Fort Lauderdale and Nassau to Congo Town.
Ross Purnell is the editor of Fly Fisherman.