Bonefish and grouper and remoras... oh my!
Fly-fishing, especially fly-fishing in saltwater, can often be a myopic endeavor. When an angler schedules a bonefish trip to Belize, targets redfish in Louisiana or late-season stripers in New England, that usually means there will not be much interest paid to the ancillary species such as barracuda, sea trout, or bluefish. Focused fly-fishing can be limiting, and from my perspective life is just too short for that. Consequently, I have scheduled a fishing trip to Crooked Island in the southern Bahamas.
I am going to pack as many fly rods as I can possibly carry, rig them all with different flies, and then I am going to cast to anything that moves. My pal David Decker has agreed to join me. I once described him in print as being the"ultimate predator," which probably succeeded in having his name being added to a FBI file somewhere. He is an angler of uncommon passion and skill. David, owner of the Complete Fly Fisher on the Big Hole River in Montana, lives for the feeling of that big yank at the end of his fly line. He will be the perfect companion for this trip because in the rich waters surrounding Crooked Island there are species of fish—both large and weird—that will yank harder than either one of us can crank.
Crooked Island is not an easy place to get to, and that is its saving grace. It is an island that is 30 miles long with only 300 inhabitants. Located above the Mira Por Vos Passage, it is considered a gateway to the West Indies and is marked by two magnificent lighthouses, Bird Rock on the north and Castle Island to the south. There are no commercial airports, and scheduled flights are rare. Even in my single-engine airplane, it is 300 long miles over open water from Key West with routing that clips Cuban airspace and military warning areas. The short, rough runway at Pittstown Point has seen more than its share of bent airframes careening into the coral rock. This keeps the angling pressure to a minimum and helps maintain the extraordinary fishery…
Long-time Jackson Hole guide, Carter Andrews, is the de facto Godfather for anglers wanting to fish Crooked Island. He and his wife Heidi can be credited for not only the development of this fishery, but preventing the exploitation of it as well. As director of the Crooked Island Fishing Association for nearly a decade, Carter has helped train a group of guides that have proven themselves to be among the most skilled in the Bahamas. For the past three years, head guide Elton (Bonefish Shakey) McKinney has represented Crooked Island in the Bahamian National Bonefish Championships in Abaco, where he has placed in the top five each year. Crooked Island may be a remote destination, but all the ingredients are here to provide a world-class fly-fishing experience. For David Decker and me, it began with a blue marlin. The water a half-mile off the dock at Crooked Island drops off into hundreds of fathoms. From the air, we watch shoals of skipjack tuna driving bait against the steep underwater wall. For marlin, these tuna are bait themselves. On our final approach into Pittstown Point, the only other traffic is a lone frigate bird circling the drop off. We know the bird is flying in that holding pattern for one reason only; somewhere in the depths below it a big fish is feeding. We tie down the plane and go fishing immediately; I like this kind of schedule. Carter rigs a teaser spread behind his 36-foot sports-fishing boat Thunderbird, while Heidi steers from the bridge. She focuses on the water under the frigate bird."This is as close to a guarantee as it gets," Carter says. David has stripped out a custom 18-weight marlin rod in the corner of the cockpit. Last season on the Thunderbird, 20 blue marlin were caught and released on 23 trips using conventional gear. Two of those fish were over 600 pounds. Offshore fly-fishing is new here. There are virtually no other boats fishing deep water at Crooked Island. The island has a legacy for bonefishing but the possibilities offshore are untouched. There are tuna, wahoo and billfish swimming literally within sight of the dock. David and I agree that we would be most comfortable with a"little" blue marlin in the 200-pound range. We wouldn't want to make a 600-pounder angry. Heidi's voice calls out from the bridge like a song."There it is, finning on the surface. Blue marlin. Big one!" The ocean has calmed like pond water. The dorsal of the blue marlin flares. Its tail is a scimitar etched against the horizon. The frigate bird tracks overhead hoping for scraps of skipjack or whatever the marlin will leave behind in its feeding wake. David, holding the rod, is twitching like a dog; his jaw is jutted forward, his nostrils are flaring. We wait for the purple shadow to accelerate behind the boat and the crease of a bill to come slashing into the wake behind the teasers. We wait. And we wait…"The fish has gone down," Carter says quietly. I look into the sky and the frigate bird is nowhere to be seen. On shore, we meet Eugene"Papa Vibe" Gibson, who gives us a lift in a battered Toyota painted in Rasta colors. The car shimmies like a washing machine on an unbalanced spin cycle. The steel belts sticking out of the rubber from his tires leave sidewinder tracks in the sandy road."Welcome, welcome, welcome," he says."I'm the Old Underground Serpent. Anything you need, just ask Eugene.""Well, then…how about a Kalik beer?" David asks."Oh, no sir," the Old Underground Serpent says."No beer here. This is a church community." Eugene drops us off at the kitchen of Wilhelmina Gibson ("Please call me Willie"), who has platters stacked high with snapper, grouper, conch, tuna and dolphin. With these consumables, who needs beer? I have always enjoyed eating fish on trips like these to remote destinations because what comes out of the kitchen is the most accurate report of the local fishing. Moreover, for me it is also a form of religion. I eat fish as if it was communion, and from Miss Willie's kitchen, this fish is truly a gift from God. We also meet up with Capt. Robbie Gibson who will be our guide in the morning."If you think today was exciting," he says,"just wait until you see what happens tomorrow." He tells us that we will be fishing the edges of the flats and shallow cuts on the west side of the Bight of Acklins. Robbie and Carter will cast-net pilchards then chum with them in four to six feet of water over a rocky bottom. We will not have long to wait for the fireworks."Everything eats pilchards," Carter says. David and I will be ready with standard baitfish flies on nine-weight fly rods. Those who have done this before describe the boiling frenzy as"water turning orange with feeding mutton snappers." Sweet dreams, Carter says, as we head back to the cottage. No kidding, I think. So, who needs beer?"I do," peeps David Decker. The only thing Capt. Robbie Gibson is missing is a patch over one eye. He has the stories of a modern-day buccaneer. He is a pilot who has flown hundreds of hours having never taken a lesson or securing a license. He is a master diver who walks with a limp because he left part of his leg in the mouth of a gray reef shark. He has a plaque on his boat that reads:"I am the captain of this boat, and I have my wife's permission to say so!" And he does know where the fish live. With two or three casts of the net, we have a bait well of pilchards. We run south past miles of pristine bonefish flats. The weather is flawless. In a year of what seems like blown-out fishing trips, this day alone makes up for all of them. The aquamarine hue of the deeper water contrasted against the hot white of the sand of the flats is so intense that it almost seems hallucinogenic. When the water turns orange with mutton snappers it will likely produce complete cerebral overload. The first foray into the pilchard chum is a hungry pack of horse-eye jacks. David casts, there is an instantaneous take, and his knees are pinned to the transom. He looks back and makes his satisfaction known with a single syllable-Ha! Then the muttons appear-not quite turning the water orange-but they are unmistakable, they are large and they are aggressive. They are also spawning so we let them go, even though I can almost taste Miss Willie's fried snapper fingers. The next cast is a yellowtail. Then a fat mangrove snapper. A cero mackerel. And lo! David hooks a big Nassau grouper on a fly rod. You do not see that happen very often. And, all of this is sight casting in shallow water, with a little help, of course, from our chum. I'm thinking about some underwater photography of this event when Robbie shakes his head no, and points at his leg. The party ends soon thereafter when the sharks appear. There are bulls, blacktips, lemons and Robbie's old nemesis, the gray reef shark. Of course, this does not keep the ultimate predator himself from continuing to fire casts into the fray. This is David Decker's own private feeding frenzy. A blacktip shark swirls, but something else eats the fly first. Then the two fish vanish from sight. This is a good yank, a line clearing fish that is pulling hard drag. The sharks desperately want to eat whatever it is but David applies full heat and the fish is quickly alongside the boat. It turns out that David has ripped a remora off the back of a hungry shark. And not just any remora, either. Field guide references describe remoras as growing to a maximum size of 24 inches. This one is nearly a three--footer. With its upside down eyes, odd, wing-shaped pectoral fins and a sucking disk the size of a shoe, Davis Decker holds in his hands the mother of all remoras. Ha! On our final day, bonefish guide Derrick Ingraham takes us into the bight for some wade fishing on the flats. The bonefishing on the south side of Crooked Island can be epic. When Carter Andrews first arrived here, the locals were still netting bonefish and sending them to the market in Nassau. Derrick was a commercial fisherman until he realized that a released bonefish would put more money in his bank account than all the fish in his traps. Carter also helped the guides understand the detriment of fishing pressure. By limiting their numbers to just six boats per day and rotating the flats among them, Crooked Island guides are preserving the quality of their fishing. In addition to bonefish, there are a surprising number of permit and some tarpon in the vicinity of Long Cay south of Crooked Island. So, for a couple of fish hogs like David Decker and me, it is enjoyable to be stripped out and ready for anything and everything. Derrick brings us to the fish-lots of them-but apparently we have used up all of our good cards in this poker game. We are humbled, which is a polite way of saying that on our last day in Crooked Island, we have been skunked."So what's up with that?" David says."Now we can't even catch a bonefish?" But, what the heck. When one has been among marlin, and the mother of all remoras, asking for anything more just doesn't seem right. Travel notes: Anglers interested in fishing at Crooked Island should contact Carter or Heidi Andrews at www.crookedislandfishing.com. Ellis and Hylene Moss have comfortable accommodations at the Royal Palm Villas for $90 per night. Wilhelmina Gibson-Miss Willie to friends-serves the best food on the island. She can be reached at 242-359-0238. Don't leave the island without tasting her fish-head soup.