|Ricky Sawyer poles from his platform, scanning the shallow Caribbean waters for the elusive silver-gray bonefish. (Ricky Sawyer Collection)|
To the ends of the earth for this? Almost ...
GREEN TURTLE CAY — “Two fish, 90 feet out. Two o’clock . . . 80 feet . . . 70. Go! Go!’’
I followed Ricky Sawyer’s directions. He was my fly-fishing guide and knows the waters around the cay better than anyone. With a shaking hand I swung progressively larger loops of fat fly line into the air, feeding it out to get my fly closer to the elusive bonefish, our targeted species.
“Lay it down now! Now!’’ Sawyer barked. I dropped the fly where he directed. I hadn’t yet seen the fish, which isn’t uncommon in bonefishing. Their silver-gray bodies blend into the ocean making them almost transparent. Often only the guide, who stands on the boat’s elevated platform, can spot the fish.
“Strip! Strip line!’’ I pulled a length of line from the rod’s base, dragging my fly toward me. My rod jolted with energy. The line became tight, rod flexed nearly in half, and the gears in my reel began to scream as cord peeled out. The fish nearly took my entire line.
It was the first hour of my first day of fishing on the trip.
After 20 minutes of tenuous reel adjustment, feeding line in and out, I pulled the four-pound bonefish into Sawyer’s boat. This was my first bonefish, fulfilling a desire to catch one that dates to when I was 8 and became obsessed with the creature after seeing it on the cover of Fly Fisherman magazine.
Bonefish are one of the world’s most sought after game fish. These saltwater prizes thrive in warm equatorial water, perhaps most abundantly in the Caribbean, and are so fast and fight so hard they can empty the reel of a lucky angler in 30 seconds. When weather is pleasant, they glide out of the deeps to cruise the flats, shallow stretches of water that surround many tropical islands. These flats are often only a few feet deep and can stretch out a mile or more into the ocean. But even smaller flats can yield large, plentiful bonefish, assuming the guide is right and the crowds are small. Under the right conditions, even a beginner fly fisherman can have good luck.
Bonefishing is an elite sport. The fly rods used have price tags stretching into the thousands. It’s a low-yield form of fly-fishing, which leads most people to hire a guide. Plus, you have to get to the destinations, which are typically remote. And then there’s the cost of lodging. While there are many options, an underculture of pricy bonefish clubs exists, where plush lodging, fine dining, and top-rated guides can be bought for $10,000 a week. This doesn’t describe Green Turtle Cay.
This quiet cay, an idyllic island only 3 miles long, has 450 residents. Brightly colored buildings dot the rocky shoreline. There are no police. No chain hotels. No bonefish clubs. No ATM. There are only a handful of cars; most people get around on golf carts. Situated in the remote Abaco “out islands,’’ one hour by plane from the capital, Nassau, Green Turtle is primarily a destination for yachting, but it’s known to be a rich bonefishery. Here, life is simple, not overdone, the prices are low, and the fish roam in sheets.
Green Turtle Cay is one of the few inhabited islands in this part of the Abacos. It’s an island hopper’s oasis, surrounded by dozens of cays ranging from minuscule to miles long. Donnie Sawyer, Ricky’s cousin, rents 18-foot Boston Whalers to visitors wishing to venture out into the surrounding islands, which are protected by eastern barrier islands.
My partner, Lori, and I stayed at the Green Turtle Club, a small marina with quaint but polished amenities at a reasonable price. The grounds are adorned with groomed grass and hibiscus plants. A small pool sits atop the hill; open air cabanas and bungalows nestle among palm trees and bright flowers.
Donnie Sawyer dropped off a boat to us on our first day. A 20-minute ride and we were anchored on the edge of a knee-deep flat, a few hundred yards from a deserted beach on the uninhabited Fiddle Cay.
With no footprints, the only creatures sliding across the powdery sand were giant conch left ashore when the tide receded. The enormous snail-esque creatures were abundant, as they are on most islands in the chain. Conch, served cracked, fried, or grilled, is to the Abacos as the cheesesteak is to Philadelphia. I enjoyed its chewy, shrimp-like texture at almost every meal. But here on this slice of paradise, we weren’t eating. Instead we sat on the sand, watching a smoldering sunset fall into the azure sea, our anchored boat nearby.
The next morning Ricky Sawyer picked us up at the dock in front of our cabana. In the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, the law dictates that only native locals can guide. With over 25 years of experience and two certifications under his belt, Sawyer, 52, is the most experienced guide on the tiny isle. He typically works 240 days a year; on almost all of those days his clients land bonefish, an uncommonly high success rate.
His 17-foot Maverick “flats boat’’ is a specialized vehicle, extremely fast with a unique, high motor mount that allows it to navigate very shallow water. Sawyer stood 5 feet up on his platform, using a 20-foot graphite push pole to ease the boat over the muddy bottom and through the turtle grass. Occasionally our movement would spook one of the doormat-size green sea turtles for which the island was named.
Bonefish are odd looking. They have an oblique, powerful jaw built for sucking up and cracking crabs from the flats’ floor. When they feed, they burrow their snouts into the sand, kicking up clouds of silt in the water. This “mudding’’ is almost a fisherman’s most reliable indicator that bones are about. The only more definitive sign is seeing one feed, tilting its body and poking its sword-shaped tail through the water’s surface. Both this “tailing’’ and mudding mean one thing: You’re going to get a shot at a bonefish.
These fish spook more easily than almost any other type. One inadvertent slap of fly line on the water, cast of a shadow over the feeding fish, or clunk in the boat and they bolt. Hence, when Sawyer shouted for me to blindly cast at 2 o’clock, 40 feet out, I did it.
Sawyer intuitively navigated in and out of the flats, killing his motor at high speed and jumping onto his platform in one smooth movement. As he snatched his push pole, I could always expect two things. First: his command. Second: bonefish. Sawyer knew where to find them. He put me, an average fisherman who had never fished the flats, on scores of bonefish, guiding me to hook a dozen. However, my lack of skill meant I only landed one.
The Abaco chain is known worldwide for bonefishing. And while the well-known, neighboring Great Abaco Island and its marshy destination waters known as The Marls may have a wealth of bonefish, they also have a wealth of bonefishermen. And clubs. And guides. In my two, perfect-weather days of fishing, I didn’t see another fisherman. Not another boat.
On our last night, Lori and I cruised down the island’s main road in our pink golfcart. We were heading to Miss Emily’s Blue Bee Bar, a popular pub on Green Turtle Cay and the home of the Goombay Smash cocktail. Just before the cricket field, I took a sandy side street that ended in a shallow bay, known as the sand dollar flats. The sea was calm and we quietly walked down the shore, leaving our footprints, the only ones, behind us.
Just offshore a sparkle of light erupted from the water’s surface, piercing through the brilliant sunset. It faded as it turned, revealing the arc of a bonefish’s tail, waving in the breeze.
Brian Irwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.