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Chasing Bahamian Cubera Snapper with Fly Rods

Every fly-fishing failure is one step closer to success.

Chasing Bahamian Cubera Snapper with Fly Rods

Blue holes aren’t always blue—especially after days of rain, and howling wind to agitate the water. (Adam Barker photo)

This article was originally titled "Chasing Dragons" in the August-September 2016 issue of Fly Fisherman.

Guides in the Bahamas are genetically coded with an internal GPS—I have no explanation other than it’s passed down in their DNA from generation to generation. On every island I’ve visited, these guys navigate the endless maze of creeks and channels from memory. It’s totally old school.

A low-lying island made mostly of flats and mangroves leaves few distinguishing points of reference. A landmark is often “the big mangrove,” or “where the osprey nest is.” It’s amazing and scary.

I own a couple of lodges in the Bahamas, and I have always wanted to be able to jump in and help out wherever there is a void. I have spent a lot of time learning and navigating the labyrinths these guys grew up with—but I use a technology crutch called a Garmin. I had one of my guides call me one time when his guests were out of beer and desperate for hydration. He was at “the place you caught that huge ’cuda.” I caught that ’cuda six years earlier, and getting there and back on my own might have been one of my better accomplishments. Getting to that spot again sounded like a long shot.

My first saltwater trip was to South Andros 15 years ago when I was still in college. It’s a quite a place to get a taste of the flats and you could say I was spoiled right from the beginning. After that, I was enamored with the idea of saltwater fishing and saved up tip money to scratch that itch whenever I could. I made close to a dozen trips to Bair’s Lodge before becoming an owner in 2008. Owning a place where I happened to catch my first bonefish increased the sentimental value, and it also offered unprecedented access to the best guides and to time on the water.

I explored and fished every chance I could. I’m comfortable. I don’t have it mastered, but I know the ins and outs, and at least feel like I have been everywhere at least once. If someone starts talking about fishing in South Andros I can hold my own.

Last year I was completely shocked when a client brought an old copy of the Angling Report. It was more than 20 years old with battered pages and torn corners. There was an article about catching giant cubera snapper in a landlocked blue hole in South Andros, and he was interested in doing the same thing.

In all of my years of exploring, this had never crossed my radar, so of course I was intrigued and excited.

The Bahamas sits on an immense plateau of tertiary limestone that was formed millions of years ago. During the last Ice Age the entire landscape was high and dry. The exposed limestone bedrock collected rainwater in puddles, and that slightly acidic fresh water dissolved the limestone to form the caves and blue holes we see in the Bahamas today. Often these go straight down hundreds of feet before channeling off into endless tunnels, joining the sea in some other location.

fly rod fly reel rigging up brown water Bahamas
Walking into unknown territory requires a higher level of preparation and a flexible game plan. Anything can happen, or maybe nothing will happen. (Adam Barker photo)

Even seemingly landlocked blue holes sometimes have tidal flow, and often strange oceanic fish and sharks in odd places. Andros is home to more blue holes than anywhere in the world. These geologic anomalies are full of mystery in the Bahamas. When the guides are running a boat they deviate their course to avoid driving over a hole. One time I asked a guide where a hole went and he responded, “Straight to hell.”

Seeds for adventures get planted in all sorts of ways—this was one of them. As I bumped into old-timers and guides I asked about the mysterious landlocked home of cuberas.

The legend was at first validated, but as I dug deeper it turned to be hearsay that circled back to the 20-year-old Angling Report. When you are chasing dragons sometimes you end up chasing your own tail.


Finally I found a couple of Rastafarians who spend a lot of time in the bush. In the summer, land crabs migrate across the island to wash their eggs off in the ocean. The locals make a good living on Andros catching these delicacies and exporting them to other islands. One of these Rastas found the blue hole with cuberas on one of his crab hunts. Of course, his directions left much to be desired. “It’s past the big turn and over the swamp,” he said. “It’s a long hike, maybe four or five hours.”

I was skeptical, but then he showed me terrible cell phone pictures to prove it. As it turns out, he had hiked there many times to net snapper, and haul them back to sell. I filed that information away for future reference.

My day to look for the blue hole was a blowout day for bonefishing. The wind was howling and there was no visibility, a perfect day to tromp through the bush in search of the mystery blue hole. Adam Barker and I went in search of the Rasta who might take us there. After a few hours of driving around an island with only one road, we tracked him down. He hadn’t been to the hole in some time but “There should be some fish there.” It was a little late in the day to start something like this, but off we went with gear, rods, lunch, and a little chum—just in case we needed it.

fly fishing cubera snapper Bahamas
Cubera snappers are toothy denizens of reefs, blue holes, and deep cuts between mangrove forests. (Cathy & Barry Beck photo)

Our guide was like a ninja, darting through the bush at breakneck pace. An hour and half into it, we were still excited, and walking on solid ground. By the third hour, we were in thigh-deep water and pulling our boots out of the muck on every step. It was getting painful. Flats boots may protect your feet from urchins and sharp shells, but they are not made for multi-mile hikes through the bush. I was hurting, but there was no turning back now.

Rastaguide was on point. As promised, it took four hours. As we neared the fabled blue hole our excitement level rose, but he knocked us down a couple of notches. He said that due to heavy rain, the knee-deep water we were walking through was normally dry ground. And as soon as we saw the mystery hole, the wind left our sails. It was the size of my Suburban, with brown water and no visible signs of life. It was nothing special. In fact, the only thing special about it was that anyone had ever bothered to walk out here to find it in the first place.

“Is this actually it?” I asked him. “Is this really where you netted those snappers in the pictures?”

“Yeah mon,” was his reply.

Underwhelmed, and filled with doubt and disappointment, I cast my fly into the hole. I let it sink and stripped it back. Nothing.

We worked the edges, put on heavy flies and counted to 60 and let them drift down before stripping them back. Nothing. We broke out the chum. Nothing. It was a giant bagel, a lot of walking for no reward.

As we turned around for the four-hour walk home, I thought how few of my adventures have actually been home runs. I’ve had many fishless weeks, traveled around the world to play cards and drink beer and watch the weather howl. Most fishing trips are riddled with hiccups and disappointments, and there are occasionally massive failures; boats break down, the weather sucks, the guide is really a taxi driver, the tide is wrong, the wind roars, the fish just don’t bite or aren’t there, the airlines lost your bags and you are stuck with a Zebco 404 and a handline, or you should have been there last week.

Measuring the success of your trip in the size or numbers of fish you caught will end in disappointment. My adventures are both successes and failures, but above all they are adventures, and I cherish every minute of it.

The failures aren’t great for magazine articles or photos of giant fish, but they are a very real part of fishing. Learning to relish the adventure and enjoy the journey is the key to genuine success.

Roll the dice, take the risk, explore and learn. Fishing is about putting in the time, eventually you are rewarded with moments of greatness when it all comes together. Chase dragons and one day you may slay them.

Oliver White owns Abaco Lodge in the Bahamas and co-hosts with Jimmy Kimmel, Jim Belushi, Lefty Kreh, Yvon Chouinard, and others the TV series Buccaneers & Bones on the Outdoor Channel.

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