Fly Fishing Bonefish Out Your Back Door
March 05, 2015
I cursed, laughed, muttered to myself, and verbally cajoled the bonefish to take my fly. All around me they were belly crawling and doing headstands as they rooted in the shallow grass flats for mollusks, worms, crabs, shrimp, and whatever else they could find in the warm soup they consider their dinner table.
The problem was that because the water was too shallow for the fish to properly swim, it was also too shallow to swim a fly. On sand it would have been no problem, but these fish preferred feeding in the thick turtle grass, and retrieving a fly there was like brushing an old dog. On every cast I brought back a thick clump of grass, and in the process spooked a dozen or more bonefish.
My normal modus operandi on a bonefish flat is to cast well ahead of a group of bones, wait for the fish to approach, and then bring the fly to life and swim it across their field of vision. I'm just not that good, or at least not that confident that I can put the fly into that perfect "safety zone" just in front of their noses every time without spooking the fish. Plus, the "safety zone" changes on a daily basis depending on the weather and their mood, so usually I play it safe and cast 4 to 6 feet out in front of the fish to avoid spooking them.
But this time the fish and the grass were keeping me honest. There was no swimming the fly through this salad. I tried flies with weedguards but as far as I could tell, the guard did little to protect the hook point from impaling every blade of grass it came in contact with.
Nope. This afternoon I had to land the fly 12 inches in front of a paired dorsal and tail, and hope the fish would jump aboard with just one hop of the fly. To do that, I needed something small that would land softly without spooking the fish. After an hour of experimentation and failure, I finally settled on a dark green #10 Bonefish Bitters. The tiny rubber legs helped the fly land with barely a "plink" and the elk hair wing acted as a natural weedguard. I was worried the fish might crush the tiny #10 hook, but in the end I found the small hook gap was the most effective weedguard in my fly box.
The final key—the same as it is when trout fishing—was accuracy, so I found myself kneeling in the mud and grass. Not praying to the fish gods as it must have looked, but kneeling and simultaneously crouching to let the fish come close enough to where I could drop a short accurate cast on their noses, and see the puff of smoke when they pounced on it.
With this stratagem, my success rate soared from a complete shutout the first hour, to as high as a hookup every five or six opportunities. After landing five bones—the largest 27 inches and maybe 7 or 8 pounds—the sun was low enough to force me off the flat, and I had to wade through tailing bonefish to get back into my kayak. Two hundred yards later I was at A.J.'s Tiki Hut at Deep Water Cay, looking back at the waving tails and saluting them with a Kalik in my hand.
Grand Bahama got its name from Spanish settlers who named the island Gran Bajamar or "great shallows" and for hundreds of years, pirates used the latticework of flats, reefs, and cays as a maze to hide in, and to strike out at Spanish galleons loaded with gold and silver. In 1670 the islands of the Bahamas were claimed by the British Empire, and Grand Bahama remained mostly uninhabited. (The native pre-Columbian Lucayan inhabitants were enslaved by the Spanish and eradicated by 1520.)
When the British abolished slavery in 1834, small towns around the island sprang up, populated by former slaves who took up agriculture and fishing for subsistence. Real economic development didn't happen until 1955 when the Bahamas government worked with Virginia businessman Wallace Groves to build the city of Freeport and the Grand Bahama Port Authority. Only 56 miles from Florida, Grand Bahama is the closest major island to the United States, and Freeport became a natural gateway to the Bahamas for tourists and fishermen.
Among those early "explorers" were Gil Drake, Sr., and Field&Stream editor A.J. McClane, who came to Grand Bahama looking for unspoiled flats fishing away from the hustle and bustle of the Florida Keys. They found what they were looking for, and in 1956, Drake bought the 2.2-squaremile Water Cay from the government, and renamed it Deep Water Cay.
The lodge opened for business the following year, and although it started small—with just a single bungalow for four anglers—it grew quickly on the strength of its outstanding fishing for bonefish and permit, and the reputation of guides such as David Pinder.
For decades, Deep Water Cay was "the" bonefish destination outside the Florida Keys, annually hosting angling luminaries and Florida guides such as Joe Brooks, McClane, Stu Apte, Curt Gowdy, Sandy Moret, and others.
In those early days it was not gourmet food or four-star accommodations that drew hardcore bonefish anglers. As in the real estate business, the fishing at Deep Water Cay depended on three primary attractions: location, location, location. Deep Water Cay is a long, skinny island not unlike the barrier islands in the Carolinas. It lies on a northwest to southeast axis just below an archipelago of larger cays all running on an opposite tack like the tines on a fork.
This geography of protected creeks, flats, bays, and mangrove forests creates a 250-square-mile bonefish playground where you can always fish on the protected leeward side of a cay to get out of the wind—no matter what direction it's blowing.
The mixture of shallow, impenetrable mangrove forests, tidal creeks, reefs, and deeper flats create a full circle of the bonefish life cycle. Unlike the Florida Keys, which is mostly mature, super-size (and difficult) bones, or the Yucatan and Belize, which have extraordinary numbers of beginner-size bones, the south end of Grand Bahama is a place where you can pick your poison. You can run up the numbers on smaller schooling fish in the morning, then hit the deeper flats in the afternoon and target 10-pound-plus tankers running in singles and doubles.
To the north are the Cross Cays, a stepladder of flats and islands that allow adventurous fly fishers the opportunity to fish and boat in shallow water all the way to Little Abaco Island. To the south are the hard white flats of Lightbourne, Michaels, and Long cays, which are exposed to both the deep offshore blue water (and the wind) but are also haunted by mature permit from 15 to 30 pounds.
While Deep Water Cay at one time enjoyed a very public reputation as the best bonefishing in the region, it quickly fell off the radar when in the 1980s it became a members-only club with annual dues and private lots for vacation homes.
Luckily for the rest of us, the golf-course model eventually failed, and in 2009 the owners group foreclosed, leaving the future of Deep Water Cay in question. Texas attorney Paul Vahldiek—one of the members and a cottage owner on the cay—together with a silent partner bought the island and its aging facilities, and quickly developed a plan not just to preserve the island but to open it to the public and make it (again) one of the world's premier bonefish destinations.
In the following two years Vahldiek made $3 million in improvements to the lodge and kitchen facilities, to a new Welcome Center with a full pro shop, a new floating dock that makes it easy to get in/out of the boats no matter what the tide level, and most importantly, a new fleet of boats including two 32-foot World Cats for scuba and offshore fishing, and 12 Hell's Bay flats skiffs.
If you do any saltwater fishing, you'll know the reputation of the company Hell's Bay Boatworks of Titusville, Florida. The company was started by Florida guide Flip Pallot and boat designer Chris Morejohn, with a mission to build finely crafted boats designed to float in the skinniest water imaginable. The boats are expensive (especially when you import them to the Bahamas) but they draft less than 5 inches of water with three people on board. Custom adaptations for Deep Water Cay include stainless steel lean bars, and livewells for bonefish. (Sharks are nearly constant predators, and a spent bonefish is no match for a fresh blacktip or lemon. If a shark is hovering nearby, the guides will put the bonefish in the livewell and release it elsewhere.)
Lodge manager Dana Dribben (a Florida native and avid flats angler) said he wanted the Hell's Bay boats not just because they are comfortable, quiet, and dry. For him, it's all about getting up onto the flats early, and getting early shots at hungry bones. "With these boats we don't chase after the fish when the tide is coming in," he said. "We can get up on the skinny flats before the fish, and we're there waiting for them when they come up to feed."
The other key change Vahldiek made was to turn over his guide staff, keeping the gems and bringing in the top guns from the region.
David Pinder, Sr., for instance, was the top guide at Deep Water Cay in the early years, but he and his brothers eventually moved to other nearby operations where they continued guiding through the 70s and 80s. Of course, he no longer guides, but his son William Pinder was hired by Vahldiek for the "new" Deep Water Cay, as well as Pinder's nephew Meko Glinton, who in 2010 partnered with Deep Water Cay member Stu Reese to win the Islamorada Redbone Tournament.
Perry Demeritte is another guide "new" to Deep Water Cay, but with several decades of experience running his own guiding business out of nearby Mcleans Town. I fished with him several days in April of 2011 and in high wind, he was a master of spotting fish in heavy chop, and of positioning the boat for the best possible cast. I asked for shots at 10-pound fish, and he found them for me, although the fish weren't always cooperative.
When the wind died down on our last day we decided to run up the numbers, and we walked the massive white sand flats at the north end of Big Harbour Cay. In the mirrored water we saw tails and dorsals of slowly feeding bones for hundreds of yards in every direction. And farther out, we couldn't make out the actual tails, just telltale flashes of reflected light. When we hooked a bone, and the splashing run spooked the flats in one direction, we merely turned our backs and hooked fish coming from the other direction. It was an afternoon of endless opportunities (and successes) and when we walked back to the boat, Demeritte and I had to plow our way through shoals of tailing bones.
While the boats, accommodations, guides, and nonfishing activities at Deep Water Cay make it a gem in the world of bonefishing, here's the real reason to get excited.
At many bonefish lodges in the Caribbean, the best flats fishing is normally a boat ride away. You fish 8 to 4 P.M. with the guide, and then you're done for the day. There may be some nominal beach fishing, but rarely do you get wadable flats, loaded with bones, right out your back door. But at Deep Water Cay, that's exactly what you get.
On the ocean side of the lodge near what they call Swimming Beach, on a dropping tide you can wade 40 yards to a mangrove island, and from there you can wade for a half mile or more on a wide, hard white sand flat with a deeper green edge spotted with sea cucumbers and coral. This deeper edge just screams "permit!"
In April and May large schools of thousands of mature 6- to 8-pound bones move along the deep ocean-facing beach. (If you are with your spouse or another nonfishing companion, your guide can put you on these schools of bonefish in clear water. The fish are not "mudding" but are also not spooky in 6 to 10 feet of water, and anyone can easily catch them with a spinning rod and shrimp.)
I was wading the ankle-deep flats west of Swimming Beach when one of these massive deepwater schools ran into the shallows. The size of the fish combined with the breadth of the school (60 yards long, 40 yards wide, densely packed adult bonefish) turned the quiet flat into a moving river, and the sound of the fish splashing and belly crawling across the sands on both sides of me—while I was trying to land the "lead" fish—made it sound like I was wading the Madison River.
The most consistent and interesting fishing, however, is in the channel or "creek" between the lodge and Big Harbour Cay. It's easy to find—the dock, the Welcome Center, and A.J.'s Tiki Bar all face onto the channel, and it's also where the kayak rack is—guests can drag a kayak or stand-up paddle board down to the water any time.
This shallow channel with turtle grass flats on either side is softer than the ocean flats on the other side of the island, but still very wadable. And unlike the white sand flats on the other side, the bones here aren't just moving through. They are there to feed through almost every tide. On my six-day trip to Deep Water Cay I rose with the sun every morning before breakfast, started at the dock, and waded my way southeast toward the end of the landing strip. Every morning—no matter the tide stage—there were small groups and individual tailing bonefish moving slowly and gorging in the mangroves and mudhills along both edges of the channel.
After seeing many, and landing a few bones in the morning, I'd grab a couple of strips of bacon from the breakfast buffet, and meet my wife and our guide down at the dock for a day of guided fishing. At 4 P.M., back at the docks, she would shower and primp for cocktail hour. I on the other hand, pulled a kayak out of the rack, paddled across the channel, and fished the "far" flats just 200 yards from A.J.'s Tiki Bar. I was truthfully like a kid in a candy store, but I never got sick of it. And no knock on the guided boat fishing, it was incredibly productive, but getting up early and landing just one bonefish—on my own, in the mud, on a fly I tied—was worth a dozen fish the guide helped me catch.
Three or four extra hours of fishing before and or after a full day of guided fishing might seem like overload—especially for couples, but actually it's just the opposite. You can spend the day scuba diving with your spouse (or sailing, or cycling, or kayaking), and still fish morning and evening by yourself—it's the best time for flat water and tailing fish anyway.
Flies & Tackle
I like 10- and 12-pound-test tapered fluorocarbon leaders for bonefish because they sink faster and are more abrasion resistant. (It can't hurt if they also truly are less visible.) Bring a quality saltwater reel loaded with 150 yards of 20-pound-test Dacron backing and a bonefish-specific 8-weight saltwater line. Bonefish Scampi, Gotchas, Bonefish Junk, and Squimps are a few of my favorite general bonefish patterns in sizes #4-8. Todd Platt, the outdoor pursuits manager at Deep Water Cay, has developed his own deadly fly called Lug Nutz which is a weighted, white rabbit-strip fly that sits head-down and tail up, and imitates the mudhole-dwelling lug worms on the grass flats of the Bahamas.
For permit bring Ragin' Craven, Cathy's Fleeing Crab, or other weighted crab patterns the size of a nickel. It's critical to bring smaller, lightly weighted or unweighted patterns with weedguards for the evening and morning fishing on shallow turtle grass flats. Turds, TDF Shrimps, Veverka's Mantis Shrimps, and Mathews Bonefish Bitters size 8 are all good patterns. Bring pliers to break the eyes off patterns that are too heavy.
Bring two 8-weight rods for bonefish (you always need a backup) and a 10-weight for permit and barracuda. You can also use the rods and reels at the lodge. They have outstanding loaner gear consisting of Sage Xi3 rods, Sage 4200 series reels, and RIO Bonefish lines.
Also bring two pairs of good polarized sunglasses with amber or copper-tint lenses. Even if you don't lose or break a pair, it's nice to have a clean pair in your bag, ready to go after a wet and salty boat ride.
Adequate sun protection and a good pair of flats sneakers are also requirements. Sunburns, or blistered, cut, or abraded feet can add pain and misery to an otherwise perfect fishing vacation. The wading is not difficult, and I found no deep mud that sucked the shoes off my feet. I wore Columbia Drainmakers because they are cool and comfortable sneakers I could wear on the plane, through the airport, and right onto the bonefish flats.
Ross Purnell is the editor of Fly Fisherman.