The Bonefish Migration Along Abaco Island
April 17, 2018
The best thing about a life lived outdoors is the opportunity to experience moments of greatness in nature. These are the moments when everything is perfect, where you can stand in awe of what is happening around you, and feel truly lucky just to witness it. These are moments on slicked calm flats where the horizon is blurred, you can't distinguish the sky from the water, and there are glistening bonefish tails in every direction; when a hatch starts pouring off and every fish in the river is almost drunk on protein; a sabalo massacre in ankle-deep water as a pack of 30-pound dorados destroys them. These events are largely unpredictable, and the recipe for participation is a commitment of time.
I'm fortunate to be in wild places more than most people, which translates to being able to experience these moments of perfection more often. If capturing these moments is winning the lottery, I'm buying more tickets than almost anyone I know—and that makes me pretty damn lucky in more ways than one. Of all these ephemeral, random moments of perfection, there is one that I know of that is as predictable as clockwork. It happens annually on Abaco Island in the Bahamas, and the locals call it simply, "the migration."
In 2008, I had just moved to the Bahamas to build and open Abaco Lodge. I was learning about the island, the culture, construction, and the fishery. I'm a fishing guide at heart, and when I wasn't doing real work at the lodge site, I was exploring the labyrinth of The Marls—running through the endless wilderness in a 16-foot Carolina Skiff with a 25 hp tiller. I brought with me a handheld GPS unit, 5 gallons of water, and a sleeping bag just in case I left myself high and dry chasing tails, and had to spend the night.
When learning any fishery it's all about pushing boundaries and growing your knowledge. Your goal is to do something new every day, fish a new spot, look around the next corner, and see where that channel leads. I took this approach while learning The Marls, and I pushed that sphere of comfort a little further each time I ventured out. When the fishing is tough, it is easier to explore, to look for good habitat, and hope to stumble onto something new.
The day I stumbled into the migration, fishing in The Marls had been uneventful. It was clear and calm, but bonefish were hard to come by, and the ones I found all had a mysterious purpose—like they were late to a party. They would still opportunistically pick up a fly on the run, but for the most part, they weren't the happy feeding fish The Marls is known for. I didn't have an explanation, just an observation that something was off.
Finicky fish or not, I was committed for the day, and tough fishing meant more exploring. Around lunch I found myself on the outer edge of The Marls. The habitat changes dramatically there—the ground hardens, the colors change, it "feels" different. I was looking down a long white flat and I did a double take as I saw a literal highway of bonefish, 8 to 10 feet wide, that extended as far as I could see into the horizon. It was an endless train of moving bonefish.
I anchored the boat, and stood in awe expecting it to end soon. It didn't. So I pulled fish after fish out of the passing traffic pattern until I had enough. Then I sat on the bow, drank a beer, and watched this unbelievable event unfold. Eventually there were small pauses in the stream of fish, but it soon picked up again. I'd also occasionally see small groups of stragglers that had been left behind, and they seemed to be catching up to their friends. I had no idea what I was seeing, but I thought I'd found Shangri-La. I stayed out late and by the time I got home, I was still euphoric about the spectacle I had witnessed.
As soon as I could, I drove down to Cherokee Sound to try to find someone to share my experience with. It was Donnie Lowe who I told first, a veteran guide with that weathered look that screams "deep local knowledge." As I tried to spit out the information, he just laughed. "Of course," he said. "It's the migration. Happens every year."
I'd witnessed one of the most amazing sights of my life, and he shrugged it off as commonplace. He explained that it was all related to spawning.
The "bonefish highway" I had witnessed was the interstate they used to travel to the big date night. The migration lasts a few days while the fish move to aggregation sites. When the gathering is complete, they disappear into deep water on the night of a full or new moon to spawn. They return home hungry and happy in the days that follow.
I haven't witnessed this phenomenon every year since then, but I've seen it a number of times. It's still magical . . . almost surreal. The first time I saw it I felt like I'd found the end of the rainbow.
The "bonefish highway" on Abaco is a mass migration of bonefish toward specific aggregation and then spawning sites in deep water. Studies of these events and locations by BTT led the Bahamas to create The Marls and Cross Harbour national parks. (Adam Barker photo)
Photographer Adam Barker was on Abaco in 2017 to witness the migration, and was able to photograph what I call the bonefish highway. He called me that evening and said it was amazing, and in fact too good to bother with fishing. Luckily he was able to catch it on camera, along with some larger schools of bonefish we call pre-spawning aggregations.
Bonefish & Tarpon Trust has been doing research in the Bahamas for almost a decade. They have done an amazing job of coordinating with local guides and lodges. They listen to the people who are on the water every day, and they incorporate those anecdotes into hypotheses for real science. The tales from Abaco of the migration and of pre-spawning aggregations—giant masses of bonefish swimming in circles—promoted some intense research into the spawning behaviors of the most important gamefish in the Bahamas.
BTT has tagged over 10,000 bonefish in the Bahamas. This extensive tagging and recapture program puts solid science behind what the old-time guides already knew. Here are the key things we've learned:
- Bonefish travel a long way to spawn. One fish was documented traveling more than 100 miles in her spawning effort.
- Outside of that annual spawning migration, bonefish have relatively small home ranges. Most are recaptured within a kilometer of where they were originally tagged.
- The other key data revolves around specific spawning sites. As a result of BTT tagging efforts, these sites are now accurately documented, and it appears that most islands in the Bahamas have only one or two spawning sites.
I asked Justin Lewis, the program manager for BTT in the Bahamas, his thoughts on fishing for these migrating bonefish. You wouldn't (or shouldn't) fish for actively spawning brown trout on redds, but picking off steelhead or salmon en route to their spawning sites is a little different.
Justin's response followed the same logic. He has witnessed guide boats at an aggregation site "harassing" the fish as they were getting ready to spawn. He suspected it caused some of the fish to leave the aggregation site early without spawning. On the other hand, catching fish along the bonefish highway seems less intrusive, but there is no science to support that either.
Part of being a fly fisher or a guide is being a good steward of the environment, while practicing and promoting good conservation. BTT has been instrumental in sharing this ethos with guides and the local communities who are already aware of the value of bonefish and their habitat.Aggregation sites are where bonefish gather in massive schools in the days before the full or new moon when they spawn. The shoals attract sharks, and ethical fly fishers should probably leave these vulnerable fish alone. (Adam Barker photo)
This massive aggregation of bonefish, and movement of the species to a central location means they are inherently vulnerable. A significant part of the population is together at one time for spawning—that makes them susceptible to netting or other illegal harvesting that could have a truly disastrous impact on the population. The spawning locations themselves are also at risk for habitat degradation or development. Good spawning aggregation sites also happen to be great places for marinas.
The good news is that the information from BTT—with the help of local organizations, guides, and lodges—has led to the creation of several new national parks in the Bahamas intended to protect these important areas where bonefish live and spawn.
On Abaco, The Marls and Cross Harbour national parks were created in 2015 for this exact purpose. Hopefully, that means those great moments in nature I've witnessed along the bonefish highway will continue for many years to come.
Oliver White is a partner in two fishing lodges in the Bahamas—Abaco Lodge and Bair's Lodge in South Andros. He travels extensively, hosting small groups in exotic locations and guiding in the American West. He cofounded IndiFly (indifly.org)—a nonprofit that works to help indigenous people use sport fishing as a method of conservation.