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Ragged Island: New Fishing Opportunities in the Nearly Uninhabited Jumentos Cays

The Southern Bahamas has outstanding fishing for large bonefish and mature tarpon.

Ragged Island: New Fishing Opportunities in the Nearly Uninhabited Jumentos Cays

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In a juxtaposition of epic storm detritus and polished repair, an emerging fly-fishing destination 60 miles north of Cuba is doubling down on being hidden in plain sight. In fact, it’s been hidden in the spotlight. Two recent news-making events put the Bahamas’ Ragged Island in the public eye—a history-writing hurricane followed by the promise of a cardinal recovery. Now, a lifelong resident has smoothed out the edges of these circumstances to launch the only fly-fishing operation on the remote, sparsely populated island.

“This is our home,” says Lost Key Lodge co-owner Phicol Wallace, whose family has lived on Ragged Island since the 1700s. “We knew the island was going to come back stronger after the hurricane, and we wanted to be part of that. So we worked hard to get the lodge up and running. We are welcoming guests now, and it’s rewarding to see them enjoy this place that we love.”

A fishing guide and fly angler wade thigh-deep in an ocean flat.

On September 8, 2017, Hurricane Irma gut-punched the 110-mile long Jumentos Cays in the southern Bahamas. The Category 5 storm’s direct hit on Ragged Island—amped by 180 mph winds—devastated Duncan Town, the only settlement in the island chain. When the wind and rains subsided, the Bahamas government deemed Duncan Town uninhabitable, and ordered all the residents to remain evacuated to allow for cleanup and restoration of services. The government vowed to convert Duncan Town to a sustainable “green city.” Construction of what Bahamian Minister of Public Works Desmond Bannister calls the “largest, most modern solar field in the country” began two years later. Minister Bannister says the solar farm and its battery storage system is on track to provide more than 95 percent of Ragged Island’s energy needs starting mid-2021.

“It’s a tremendous savings to go solar,” says Phicol. “We were using 1,000 gallons of diesel a week to run the generators, and now we’ll only need to use diesel for backup.”

The microgrid project, built with Category 5 hurricane resilience and the first solar baseload generation in the country’s national grid, is flanked by infrastructure improvements ruddered by the $8 million underpinning pledge made by Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis after the hurricane. The main road through Duncan Town is so smoothly paved it could have been designed by longboard skaters. Internet service is snappy, strong, and reliable, and the gin-clear, good-tasting water from the faucet is provided by a new, state-of-the-art desalination plant.

A Bahamian guide gives a peace sign, standing in a doorway.
Capt. Phicol Wallace is a diesel mechanic and offshore fishing captain. His family has lived on Ragged Island since the 1700s, and his Lost Cay Lodge was one of the first buildings rebuilt on the island after Hurricane Irma. It’s the only sport-fishing operation of any kind in the 110-mile-long string of islands known as the Jumentos Cays.

Under construction at the town’s nucleus is a large building that will house a school, community center, and storm shelter. Public works officials say it is likely the most challenging construction project that the government has ever undertaken, due to supplies needing to come by barge, and a camp that had to be built to house workers from outside the island.

Today, a total of 65 people live in the Jumentos Cays, all of them in Duncan Town, not counting the two dozen or so construction workers. Residents are eager for completion of the reconstruction, hoping their friends and family members will finally return after the evacuation that stretched out over three years.

Phicol says locals are pleased to see Ragged Island taking its place among the more well-known fly-fishing destinations within the greater 700-island Bahamas archipelago. Given the Bahamas’ long-standing reign as the bonefishing capital of the world, it’s hard to imagine the country has any flats left uncharted. Yet, pioneering is happening at this very moment on Ragged Island.

“We are discovering more about this fishery every day,” says Phicol. “We’ve got permit, bonefish, and barracudas on the flats. We have tarpon and triggerfish at the rocks. We have large schools of pelagics like marlin, wahoo, and tunas out in blue water. But we are careful. Ours is the only sport-fishing operation, and we allow no more than four anglers at a time. We don’t want to stress the fishery.”

At Lost Key Lodge you’ll quickly notice that the operation is a family affair. Phicol’s wife, Erica, cooks the meals and orders the food and supplies. Their daughters D’vonte and Deniteria are hostesses and waitresses. Their son D’Marcio is a fishing guide, their niece Mercedes is housekeeper, and their godson Draco is the charter plane pilot. Their three-year-old daughter D’Leya is ever twirling and singing as her family works.

A hand-drawn map of the Jumentos Cays in the Bahamas.

Until Lost Key Lodge opened in March 2021, fly fishing was rare on Ragged Island, because the only transportation was via the mail boat, which comes once every ten days, or an expensive charter plane. There wasn’t a place for people to stay, or eat. Phicol says he tried running a lodge in the past but didn’t have a solid partner. In 2018, he teamed up with destination fishing entrepreneur William Blair. Will has guided, managed, and owned fly-fishing operations in Alaska and Russia for more than 25 years.

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In 2019, Will and Phicol put together an exploratory team of experienced anglers to gather recreational fishing reconnaissance around Ragged Island. Elliott Hall, a fly-fishing guide in Alaska, was part of that team. “We found bigger bonefish than people were catching in other parts of the country. We knew there were enough healthy flats to support a small lodge operation,” says Elliott. He stayed on at Lost Key Lodge as host, and continued gathering intel on the fishery alongside the Bahamian guides.

Will says that the Ragged Island operation has similarities with Kamchatka, Russia, in that both are on the edge of human influence. “It’s been fished enough to know what is possible,” says Will. “But infrequently enough that it’s unspoiled and exploding with fish, plants, animals . . . life. We have a responsibility now to keep it pristine. That’s why we only allow four anglers per week.”

A fly angler kneeling in a shallow ocean flat holding a bonefish.

Alone on the Flats

Scott Walcott and Jackson Angle are longtime friends and next-door neighbors in Sacramento, California, and have fished together all over the world. On their trip to Ragged Island during Lost Key Lodge’s inaugural spring session, they caught nine different fish species, as well as having shots at tailing permit and laid-up tarpon.

“The unique part about this place is that throughout our week, we didn’t see another angler,” says Scott. “In six full days we never worried about showing up on a flat and having a boat already there.” Scott says, aside from the variety of sport-fishing opportunities, he enjoyed learning about the importance of the area’s robust conch and lobster fishing.

Getting to Lost Key Lodge used to be challenging before American Airlines started offering daily flights out of Miami to George Town on Exuma Island, and Delta began frequent flights to George Town from Atlanta. From George Town, the lodge charters a plane for their guests to land at the Ragged Island airstrip.

In the final leg of my visit from Montana to Lost Key Lodge on a clear May morning, the smooth, half-hour-long charter flight from Exuma to Duncan Town gave me a bird’s-eye view of the vivid blue-green flats, coves, and reefs to explore throughout the week. As we descended on Ragged Island, I wondered which of the coves was Blackbeard’s Bay, said to once be a headquarters for the infamous pirate. The island was reportedly used by pirates for the fresh water coming out of a spring known as Blackbeard’s Well.

A fly angler holds his rod under his arm while digging through a fly box on an ocean flat.

Host Elliott Hall and two of Phicol’s daughters met us at the airstrip and drove us a few blocks to the cheery, one-story lodge overlooking the historic commercial salt ponds and the open ocean beyond. “Duncan Town was named for Duncan Taylor who developed those salt ponds in the 19th century,” explained Elliott, gesturing toward the wide, shallow pool. He says the salt industry used to be a big deal here, but operations gradually moved to more prosperous islands. “There are still families that harvest the salt and the government manages part of the ponds, too,” says Elliott.

After guests Scott and Jackson and I unpacked into our private rooms, we rigged up our 8-, 9-, and 10-weight fly rods, chatting as we watched the feral goats and roosters grazing and pecking in front of the lodge. Rods in hand, we ventured to a nearby cove just beyond the town’s cemetery. Almost immediately, Scott caught a small jack, then a small grouper. I saw a 40-inch barracuda about 20 feet from where I stood in knee-deep water. Since I had not yet set up a barracuda rod with wire leader, I planned to simply tease the toothy critter with the baitfish pattern and pull the streamer out of the way before the ’cuda had a chance to grab it. But the speed, strength, and tenacity of the fish set me on my heels, and, within seconds of my first strip, the fish had darted forward, grabbed the fly, and banked out toward the center of the bay. The fish shot into the air once, then twice, then a third time, jumping with dramatic, powerful body whips before its teeth finally sliced through the fluorocarbon.

The next day, after a breakfast of buttery grits, ham, and veggie omelets, I met up with my guide, Terry Lockhart, and Elliott, who both explained that many of the larger bonefish (some pushing 15 pounds) had left the flats for their spring spawn. That knowledge steered us to hunt for other species including permit, tarpon, triggerfish, barracudas, jacks, and snappers.

A collage of images of fly fishing in the Bahamas.

After a short run from the harbor in an 18-foot Beavertail Skiff, Terry anchored the boat in a white sand cove, and, as we waded to the beach, I made a mental note to take a swim in the clear blue water after our fishing session. With no sign or obvious trailhead, I wondered if we would be bushwhacking through the thick trees. Then, Elliott motioned to a bit of ocean trash—a plastic doll head poking out of a woman’s purse that someone had hung on a tree branch to flag the path. The doll’s eyes seemed to be stuck gazing into the bushes, apparently pointing the way to the trail. We walked in the direction of the doll’s gaze, where a slim trail emerged. As we began our hike, plastic doll hands, feet, and arms lashed to trees and bushes indicated the correct route. “See? The trail is clearly marked. At least ocean trash is good for something,” joked Elliott.

The hot, 20-minute hike took us up and over the cay, opening into a wide, striking cove where giant ocean waves crashed onto shallow cliff walls and coral heads before mellowing into the wash where sea grass and plastic trash gathered on the soft beach.

We walked along the rocks to the south, where we found a large triggerfish feeding in the soft pocketwater between the coral heads. As we got into position to cast, Terry climbed onto the cliff’s outcropping for a better look. A narrow channel pushed large, rolling waves from the ocean into the cove. “Hey!” yelled Terry. We looked where he pointed, and our eyes keyed in on three dark shapes just under the surface of the rollers.

“Tarpon!” Elliott and I said in unison. “And they’re adults, too!” he added.

A black-and-white image of a jumping tarpon.

We didn’t expect to see tarpon, so we scrambled to re-rig the barracuda rod for the species of the moment. Terry stayed high on the cliff to spot for us, and Elliott and I waded into the swirling water, steadying ourselves on the rugged, uneven surface as each wave lifted me onto my toes. With the cliff behind me, I didn’t have much of a backcast, so I flicked the black-and-blue baitfish pattern out in front of me to see what I was working with. I’d need just 20 feet beyond that to get the fly into the big waves where we saw the tarpon. I used the 10 feet of space behind me for a short backcast and shot another 10 feet in my forward cast. Almost immediately, the dark shadow turned on the fly and followed as I stripped it back. As I ran out of line at the end of my rod, I paused the retrieve. At the same time, I held my breath. In an explosion of whitewater, an 80-pound tarpon erupted from the drop-off in front of me, hurtling its massive body into mirroring moon shapes, so close we could hear the fish’s gill plates rattle. Its splash engulfed me, creating a second-long whiteout. I shook my head to clear the water from my face at about the same time the tarpon shook the hook from its lip. I knew I didn’t get a good hook-set. It didn’t matter. I was thrilled.

I knew there were more big fish out there, so I started to bring my fly in to reset. As I did, Elliott yelled over the crashing waves, “Wait! Follow, follow, follow!!!” A second tarpon, as big as the first, had rushed in and was now just feet from the tip of my rod. I paused the fly and watched it disappear. Another eruption of whitewater and silver light rocked my personal space. The fish banked on the fly and took off toward the deeper swells, treating us to three wild jumps before I turned it back toward our perch. As the fish veered toward the open ocean and swam against the waves, we saw that it aimed for the shelter of a large coral head 20 feet in front of us. “This thing wants to take cover like a trout!” said Elliott. I brought my rod high, trying to keep the tarpon above the jagged corals, but it had the upper hand. “It’s going to break me off in that sharp shit!” I yelled. “I’m going to try to shake it off.”

Elliott, wide-eyed, nodded and I fed slack into the line; hopefully enough to allow a long-distance release. A couple of head shakes did the trick to loosen the fly, and the tarpon took a freeing, dramatic jump before its shape faded into the channel. Elliott and I fed and jumped four more tarpon, each one a display of acrobatics and beauty.

A pattern of jubilance and reverence filled the next minutes, and Elliott and I backed off the rocky shoreline and made our way to the beach, talking over each other to recount the scene with gibberish-ridden play-by-play and color commentary that only anglers understand. The sun was setting, and we had already stretched the day as long as we could.

Terry, making his way down the cliff simply said, “There’s another place like this . . . D’Marcio can take you tomorrow.” Elliott and I chugged water and hoped for “tomorrow” in the way a child considers it on Christmas Eve.

Back at the boat, I remembered to take the swim I promised myself. I set my gear in the boat and performed my best Nestea plunge into the clear pool. As a freshwater enthusiast, I always forget about salt water’s buoyancy, and mused that I could float there for an eternity. If only I didn’t fly fish, I thought, I could have a really relaxing vacation.

The next day, after we caught a few bonefish and barracudas in a wind-sheltered lagoon, D’Marcio Wallace took us to the cove Terry suggested. Similar in topography, but minus the long hike, the inlet sported high limestone cliffs and violent breakers that fed into a mellow wash of sargassum grass and inevitable plastic trash from faraway cities. We approached the beach carefully, aware that it might take our eyes several minutes to differentiate between grass patches, coral heads, and fish in the murky recess. I’m not sure why craning one’s neck mere centimeters makes an angler feel that she can see fish more clearly, but everyone seems to do it. We all craned our necks in synchronicity, coming to the same conclusion. A solo tarpon was laid up just 15 feet beyond the wash.

Author Hilary Hutcheson holding a large tarpon in the water.
The Bahamas is known as “The Bonefish Capital of the World,” and Ragged Island has outstanding fishing for large bonefish traveling alone or in small groups. However, the pristine chain of islands known as the Jumentos Cays also has good numbers of mature tarpon that feed along limestone cliffs and in quiet lagoons.

With the fish so easily in my casting range, I tried not to make the assumption that this would be a slam dunk. Tarpon fishing rarely plays out the way it’s visualized. As we slowly approached the water, the challenge was in keeping the fly line clear of the sargassum grass at our feet. It was clearly a two-person job. Elliott became my stripping basket, draping loose coils of line over his forearms like a waiter presenting a platter. With the tarpon lying so high in the water column, we knew there was a risk of a false cast spooking it, so I made one long roll cast just beyond the tarpon’s face and started my retrieve. Instantly, the fish took on the body language that told us it was going to eat. And it did. After just a few short strips, the fly was securely in the “button,” the fish banked and sped into the center of the cove. It launched several impressive jumps as I bowed and reeled. With the controlled fight confined to the mellow inlet rather than within the turbulent, breaking waves and gnarly terrain of the prior day’s session, I knew this was a fish I wanted to land. I refused to let it take too much line and too many jumps, and wrangled it back to the wash. As the tarpon got close, we noticed a second tarpon swim up to it, seemingly making sure it was okay. I waded in waist-deep, spooking off the second fish, and held the tarpon in the water while removing the fly. D’Marcio snapped a couple quick photos with my iPhone. As I released it, we saw the second tarpon return, and the two swam off into the cove together.

On the short run back to the lodge, we paused at a permit flat where Elliott and I took turns casting at 25-pound permit feeding off the backs of stingrays that were stirring up treats in the white sand. Dialed in on their legitimate dinners, the permit chose not to risk tasting our home-tied crab or shrimp patterns, although several offered convincing follows that got our blood pumping.

Looking out over the permit flat, it struck me that while we could see so many fish, fascinating birds, plants, reefs, and shells, no one could see us. Standing on the bow in the middle of a wide-open flat, exposed to the sun, wind, and waves with all other humans miles away, I felt wonderfully latent. Hidden, like Ragged Island, in plain sight.

Lost Key Lodge's buildings.

Book Your Destination

Lost Key Lodge runs a four-week fall season starting October 15, and an eight-week spring season starting in late February. The lodge hosts a maximum of four guests at a time.

Lost Key Lodge – lostkeylodge.com

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Two fly anglers squat/kneel next to a mangrove, looking through fly boxes and chatting.

With many multi-species opportunities, fly fishers will want to be equipped with an 8-weight or 9-weight rod for the large bonefish of Ragged Island; a 10-weight for permit, large jacks, triggerfish, and barracudas; and an 11-weight for tarpon. Several large permit were caught in the first season at Lost Cay Lodge, making it a very viable grand slam opportunity. Swimming crabs and spawning shrimp flies are best for permit, tarpon prefer black/blue baitfish patterns, barracudas will chase any shiny or fluorescent green needlefish pattern, and the bonefish will take most traditional shrimp patterns like Gotchas, Spawning Shrimp, and Mantis Shrimp.


Hilary Hutcheson started guiding fly-fishing trips as a teenager in West Glacier, Montana. Today she continues to guide the Flathead River system, and owns and operates her fly shop, Lary’s Fly & Supply in Columbia Falls, Montana, where she lives with her daughters Ella and Delaney, her partner Ebon, and their three-legged Labrador Jolene.




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