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Goin' for Bones

Stalking bone fish (and dodging sharks) in the bahama flats is fly fishing's noblest pursuit
By Jim Daniels | From Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97
Goin' for Bones

From his narrow perch on the bow of a 17-foot skiff, Mel Magidson squints into the crystalline water, struggling to see the drifting shadows of translucent bonefish that lurk beneath the glare of surface reflections. A couple of vague, dark shapes off to his right hold some promise, which causes his pulse to rise instinctively and his left hand to close on the graphite shaft of his $1,000 fly-fishing rod.

The fingers of his right hand gently cradle the fishing line that trails down to his feet like coils of pink spaghetti. The dark shadows turn out to be a pair of boxfish traveling east and Magidson lets out a deep sigh. Just then his guide, Joseph Pinder, announces, "Bones at 10 o'clock!" and points his long pine poling stick in the direction of the fish. Magidson raises his arm and methodically begins to whip the line back and forth in the air, letting out more and more. He looks as if he were driving a team of invisible horses.

After a half dozen casts, he lets the fly down softly on the water. "That's it," Pinder encourages, "now strip!"Pulling his hand back in a smooth motion, Magidson draws in the line with a series of strokes--"stripping" it to put the fly in motion in an underwater display that proves irresistible for this cold-blooded bonefish. The fish takes the bait and bolts, and the reel begins to scream. In seconds a hundred yards of line are gone as the eight-pound bonefish explodes to speeds nearing 35 miles per hour.

Over the next 15 minutes, Magidson slowly coaxes the fish closer to the boat. He is just about to step into the shallow water to continue the battle when Pinder shouts, "Hurry mon, there's a shark goin' for your fish! Reel it quick now!" Magidson decides to stay in the boat. There's a sharp tug on the line and it suddenly goes slack. "Too late," Pinder says with a laugh. They pole over to where they last saw the fish and the guide reaches into the water and pulls out its head with Mel's hand-tied fly still hanging on its lip. The bonefish has been severed in a clean crescent shape right behind the gills as if it was done at a fish market. Magidson looks at the decapitated fish with disappointment. He has gamely battled one of the most elusive fish known to man, ferreting out its nearly invisible form and fighting to overcome its lightning speed. While he comes away empty-handed this time, somewhere out on the East End flats, a five-foot lemon shark is grateful.

In the eyes of true aficionados, fly-fishing represents a zen-like practice of purity and beauty that sets it apart from lesser forms. They will tell you that spinning rods are distasteful things--unless, of course, they happen to be attached to something substantial like a tarpon--and the only way to catch fish is to hunt and stalk your prey (with the help of a good guide), to hook it on a fly you made yourself and then release it unharmed. They will tell you that in the rarefied air of fly-fishing, catching bonefish in the Bahamas is a truly spiritual calling.

Not that fly fishermen don't like comfort. Even in a pursuit as sacred as this there's room for a little hedonism. Both Magidson and his fishing buddy, Bill Rich of Tamworth, New Hampshire, are fishing the flats as guests of the Deep Water Cay Club, an upscale bonefishing lodge located on a private island off the east end of Grand Bahama Island. The two men met at the club in 1995 and have fished together often at Deep Water as well as other locations around the world.

Established in 1958 by the legendary fisherman Gil Drake, Deep Water Cay Club is the oldest bonefishing resort in the Bahamas. With its assortment of well-appointed cottages, tastefully landscaped grounds and beautiful private white beach, it is also by many accounts its most luxurious. The warm, wood-paneled lodge features cathedral ceilings, a championship pool table, boxes of fine cigars and even a computer that offers guests up-to-the-minute satellite weather forecasts. There's fine dining and choice wines and a well-trained staff that can outfit you in anything from monogrammed T-shirts to fishing tackle to Cohibas. The club has 11 boats and 11 guides, which usually means two guests to a guide. Most of the lodge's guests are current or retired executives who can afford the price, about $400 a day per person, which includes room and meals, guide and boat. You can arrive via the charter flight from Fort Lauderdale, landing on the lodge's private airfield. They must be doing something right, as more than 80 percent of their guests are repeat customers who often end their week of fishing by leaving a deposit for the following year.

A typical day has the fishermen gathering at the dock at about 8:30 in the morning. A ferry brings the guides over from McLeans Town, on the mainland. Sheri Hall, who with her husband, Peter, are the managing partners of Deep Water Cay, oversees the matching of guides to guests each morning. Many guests will request the same guide from year to year and will pair up for the week they are there to fish. For their part, the guides take charge of the fishing and decide where and when to fish. They are extremely professional men who take pride in their considerable knowledge of the more than 250 square miles of bonefishing flats near Deep Water Cay Club. It's customary to tip a guide at least $30 a day.

The peak seasons for bonefishing at the lodge are the spring and autumn months, with fishing continuing throughout the year. Deep Water is closed Aug. 1 through the middle of September, partly because the guides are busy at other fishing and partly to give the flats a rest. The fishing is still great during the summer, but because of the heat, the fishing takes place in the early morning and late afternoon.

Mel Magidson has bonefished all over the Bahamas and, while he appreciates the comforting amenities at Deep Water, he's returned to the lodge 20 times because of the fishing. "The guides are by far the best I've seen anywhere. They know the water and the fish. They're trained to look through the water." He adds that their guides are avid fly fishermen themselves and know the challenges of fishing the flats. He says that the guides will position the boat to minimize wind disruption that causes the fly line to sail, and they're always careful to allow ample room for the backcast.

Not all Bahama bonefish lodges are on the same scale as the Deep Water Cay Club. At Moxey's Bonefish Lodge on Mangrove Cay, a long cast off the south end of the Bahamian island of Andros, there are only two or three guides and the amenities are modest, but most of their clientele are there just for the fishing. Whereas Deep Water might have 22 guests at a time, Moxey's will have four or five. The atmosphere at the lodge and the town where it's located is low-key and simple, and everyone, it seems, is named Moxey.

Lundy Moxey, a jovial man who runs the dining room and the bar at the lodge, serves puffy conch fritters prepared by his mother as he regales guests with stories of monster "bones" hauled out of Middle Bight, or the time his brother, Carl, guided Ted Williams when the baseball legend caught more than 100 bonefish in a single day. (Former President George Bush is another avid bonefisherman.) Lundy also confides that he's even developing his own fly, to be called the "Hungry Moxey."

Eighty-five-year-old Phil Winslow, a retired orthopedic surgeon from Islamorada, Florida, is a well-traveled angler who's fished salmon in Russia and Iceland and rainbow trout in the lakes of Chile. He says he likes the bonefishing at Moxey's because of its austerity. "There are fewer fishermen here and there's less pressure on the fish," he says. Another guest, Casey LeCasse, an avid sportsman from Greenville, Maine, came to the Bahamas on his friend Winslow's recommendation. Most of the bonefishing done out of Moxey's takes place a short 15-minute boat ride from the dock in front of the lodge, which is located in--where else?--Moxey Town.

It takes four parts to make a successful bonefisherman: one part hunter, one part angler, one part meteorologist and one part ichthyologist (a zoologist who studies fish). As a base note, it doesn't hurt to be a little clairvoyant as well. On one windy, overcast day, Dick Lamberton of Lake Oswego, Oregon, and his guide, Whitney Rolle, headed out of the Deep Water Cay Club in search of bonefish near the sandy schools off Brush Cay. They'd been out for almost three hours and had tracked down a fair number of fish, with Lamberton even managing to accurately throw his line despite a 20-knot wind and arthritis in his right arm. But no bones were biting. He tried the most favored flies: "Gotcha," "Pink Puff" and the ever popular "Crazy Charlie." Finally, Lamberton and Rolle agreed it was time to head home. "They're real spooky today, must be a big storm comin'," Rolle said. Lamberton explained that the fish will respond to a drop in barometric pressure by not eating, which only intensifies their already nervous condition. "The bonefish will school up when a storm comes and they take on a collective mind," Lamberton added. That night at the lodge, as Lamberton was finishing his glass of Cabernet at the dinner table, a tropical depression blew out of the east and hung over the flats for four days.

There are two ways to catch bonefish: from a boat or wading in the water. An informal poll of guests at the Deep Water Cay Club seemed split on which method they preferred. Many of the older clients seemed to like staying in the boat. "There're too many sharks," one man whispers as he looks around to make sure noneof his peers was listening. But an equal number truly fancied getting out in the water and stalking their prey on foot. Presenting the purist's perspective, the waders felt that true fly-fishing was meant to be done walking the sandy flats, straining to see fish through the water as you pursue them in their own element--despite the sharks.

And make no mistake, there are plenty of sharks. Black tip, nurse, mako, lemon and hammerhead are all in abundance in the Bahamas. They are simply part of the landscape. As one guide put it, "Where there's bonefish, there's sharks. You got a flat with no sharks, you got no bones."

In fact, as a testament to behavioral adaptation, it's common to see sharks following the bonefishing boats at a respectful distance as they pole along the flats. But reports of attacks on humans are almost nonexistent. The sharks are interested in bonefish, after all, especially the weakened ones that are fighting for their lives at the end of an eight-pound-test line. Pity the poor bonefish. As Peter Hall, managing partner of Deep Water Cay put it, "Bonefish live in fear and die in terror." While it may be catch-and-release for humans (they're not suitable for the dinner table), bonefishing is strictly à la carte for the sharks.

Mel Magidson, Bill Rich and Joseph Pinder have been cruising the East End for about an hour when Magidson starts getting a little antsy. A strong, warm breeze nudges small swells to rise on the electric-green water, and the intensity of the sea's color casts a pale green wash on the underside of the clouds that drift overhead. "Time for some tunes," he says, smiling. He pulls out a small cassette player, sets it down on the boat's fiberglass seat and drops in Bob Marley's greatest hits. The aqua-green world of the early morning is broken by the wails of reggae.

Rich, lighting his Cohiba, frowns in mock disgust. Pinder continues to pole along the mangroves while looking out over the water for fish. Magidson starts to dance, rolling his arms and rocking his hips. "Bonefish love reggae," he says, laughing. Sure enough, in a matter of minutes, Rich has a feisty seven-pound missile running on his line and it appears headed for Cuba. There's a serious if contented look on his face as he begins to slowly bring his fish in. *

Jim Daniels is a Maine-based writer-photographer who reports frequently from Latin America.