January 12, 2022
By Herbert Miller with contributions by Olivia Lu
Director and producer Shannon Vandivier and his team at Cold Collaborative partnered with the American Museum of Fly Fishing, Costa, and Simms to create the film Mighty Waters, a 17-minute documentary that tells the extraordinary story of Ansil Saunders, a legendary Bimini bonefish guide. Mighty Waters was selected for the 2021 F3T film tour and the Mountain Film Festival, and has won the Social Awareness Award presented by the Wasatch Mountain Film Festival. “Ansil Saunders is one man who lives on a tiny island in the Bahamas, yet his voice and contributions to civil rights can still be felt throughout our country today,” said John Frazier of Simms, one of thousands who has fished with Saunders in Bimini. “He’s living proof that profoundly positive impacts can come from the smallest of places. And that’s why Mighty Waters and Ansil’s story have been such inspirations to us at Simms.” The following article is based on Cold Collaborative’s interviews with Saunders. To see the film trailer or to make donations toward an Ansil Saunders exhibit, visit amff.org/mightywaters.
Four days before his assassination on April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in a boat with Capt. Ansil Saunders in the mangroves of Bonefish Creek. It wasn’t the first time Dr. King visited Bimini. Saunders and King met previously in 1964, when King was searching for a tranquil place to find inspiration to write his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Saunders, an expert fly-fishing guide and Bimini native, took Dr. King to Bonefish Creek. King was fascinated with the snappers weaving in and out of the roots of the mangrove trees, the stingrays skimming along the creek bed, and the sounds of birds flying overhead.
“How could people see all of this life and yet not believe in the existence of God?” King asked Saunders.
Anglers know Bimini, and the Bahamas, for the bonefish that live in its shallow waters. When Saunders was a young man in the 1950s, he realized that there was high demand for good fly-fishing guides. In fact, there was only one other guide in Bimini at the time. A carpenter and boat builder by trade, Saunders learned from his brother-in-law how to fly fish in preparation for becoming a guide. It was then that Saunders fell in love with the complexity of the sport.
Smaller bonefish can be easy to catch in large schools, but it takes skill and luck to catch a bonefish weighing over 10 pounds. Guides like Saunders teach their guests how to look for the flashes and the shadows of the fish, and the casting techniques required to hook and land bonefish.
“If you present the bait right,” says Saunders, “you will get a bite 95 percent of the time. If you present it wrong, you won’t get a bite 100 percent of the time.”
Back in those days, though, idyllic island life in Bimini was marred by the malevolence of racism. Saunders experienced racism as a child in baseball, swimming, and diving, and he wasn’t permitted to eat at any of the hotels in Bimini or even at the Bimini Big Game Fishing Club, where most of his guests stayed.
“I’ve always had equality in my being,” Saunders says when recalling the segregation at the time. The Big Game Fishing Club was where all of the non-Black anglers and guests congregated and shared meals together. Saunders was effectively shut out of a significant part of the fly-fishing community because of the segregated policy against serving Black individuals. Saunders was undeterred. Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists in the United States, Saunders started a one-man sit-in protest at the club. “I sat in the Big Game Fishing Club for 41 days during lunchtime from noon until 1 P.M. without being served every day. No other guide wanted to join me.”
Saunders paid the price of loneliness and ostracization among the Black community in his effort to dismantle segregation in Bimini. “It was very lonesome because all the waiters, some who were also Black, would ask me, ‘Why are you here? Your mouth will drop off before you’re served here.’”
Television reports of civil rights activists and protesters in the United States motivated Saunders to continue his fight for equality in Bimini. After spending his lunch hour without being served at the Big Game Fishing Club, Saunders would return to work on an empty stomach. Saunders saw his opportunity to finally break the segregation policy at the Big Game Fishing Club when he found out that the owner would soon host officials from Nassau.
“I told some of the boys from around [Bimini] that if they joined me in my sit-in protest, I’d buy them all dinner,” says Saunders. Backed by his friends, Saunders told the Big Game Fishing Club management that, though he had been following Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nonviolent methods, he had no qualms taking a page from Malcolm X’s book by disrupting service while the owner and government officials were present. Management caved. “They served us like we were the King of England,” Saunders recalls. From that day forward, Saunders and other non-white individuals were able to dine at the Big Game Fishing Club.
Segregation in Bimini extended beyond restaurant walls. “If you weren’t white, you couldn’t get a high school education at the time,” says Saunders. It was through fly-fishing guide work that Saunders received an informal but no less valuable education. “You can hold a good conversation with someone while out bonefishing.” While bonefish have excellent eyesight and sense of smell, their ability to hear is limited. “The bonefish aren’t going to hear you talking unless you’re very close to them. Through my work as a guide, I had some of the best teachers in the world.”
Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the first Black American to be elected to Congress from New York, was among Saunders’s clients. It was Powell who persuaded Dr. King to visit Bimini when the civil rights icon wanted to go somewhere tranquil to write his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Powell introduced Dr. King to Saunders, and Dr. King immediately connected with Saunders and the island community. He walked with locals and sang songs with them, and Saunders occasionally joined Dr. King for meals at the Big Game Fishing Club. The club where Saunders led his King-inspired sit-in protests was now a place Dr. King frequented. Dr. King often ordered cod fritters and ginger ale, a combination Saunders found unusual, but Dr. King loved.
Although Dr. King didn’t fly fish, Saunders took him up Bonefish Creek so that he would have a quiet place to think. When Dr. King marveled at the life and spiritualism he found there, Saunders offered to share his own thoughts that he had written as a psalm.
His name of love is written on every tiny raindrop.
His name of wonder crowns the mountain peak, swirls across the seas.
Who else could stretch rivers like silver ribbons across the continents, or fill the darkest recesses of the oceans with life.
Only God could create the morning sunrise that burst the horizon in a blaze of glory. Some mornings that gray and gold sunrise is so beautiful that one cannot tell whether the heaven ends, or the earth begins.
For the full psalm, watch the film Mighty Waters.
“When I got through with the psalm, Dr. King had tears running down his cheeks,” says Saunders.
Saunders’s keen observations and developed rhetoric impressed more than just Dr. King. Saunders became a prominent member of the Bimini and Bahamas communities. As a community leader, he met Queen Elizabeth II during her 1966 visit to the island. Saunders was commissioned to make a necklace for her out of a gold shell. “It was a shell just as big as your fingernail,” says Saunders. “It was a tedious thing because a lot of the shells break when you drill through the shell to string on the gold chain.” Years later, Saunders saw the same necklace on display in the Tower of London.
Dr. King returned to Bimini in March of 1968. This time, though, was different from the exuberant and joyful visit in 1964. “He had this look on his face like he knew something was going to happen to him,” says Saunders. Behind Dr. King’s smile, Saunders saw sadness without fear, but the look in his eyes was gentle. “King had love flowing out of his eyes,” Saunders recalls.
Saunders took him back to Bonefish Creek, where Dr. King worked on a speech which he planned to give to Memphis sanitation strike participants in early April. “It was like he was in a dream or looking far into the future,” says Saunders on Dr. King’s demeanor during this final visit to Bimini. “That’s how he looked to me that day: like he couldn’t figure something out or that there was something unfinished.”
Dr. King delivered his final speech titled “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, and it is available on youtube.com, wikipedia.com and many other sources.
Saunders was devastated when he learned that Dr. King was assassinated the very next day. “I put the television on and watched when Walter Cronkite took off his glasses and announced Dr. King’s death. I couldn’t eat. I put my flag at half-mast. Some people laughed at me for doing it, but he was my friend. He died too early.”
Saunders honored the memory of his friend and his work by continuing his own activism in the Bahamas. He joined the Progressive Liberal Party as a ranking member, but he never gave up his work as a fly-fishing guide. He balanced duties such as introducing the newly independent Bahamas’ first Prime Minister, Sir Lynden Pindling, at international conferences with setting the world record with Joshua Levins for the largest bonefish ever caught in 1971.
These days, you can find Saunders in Bimini helping the Boys and Girls Club and guiding anglers. If you join Capt. Ansil Saunders for a day out on the water, he might take you to Bonefish Creek, where he’s carved a bust in the likeness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I miss my friend,” Saunders says. “He helped me find my voice.”
*Ansil Saunders’s original interview is in the Bahamas dialect, which has been modified for readability. You can listen to his story in his own words in the short film Mighty Waters.
Herbert Miller is an associate professor of instruction and senior lecturer at McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. This is his second piece for Fly Fisherman. The first was “The Color of Fly Fishing” in the Feb.-Mar. 2021 issue.