The Abaco Island Tarpon Experiment

The Abaco Island Tarpon Experiment

Bones, 'cuda, sharks and tarpon, if you're lucky.

  • By: Greg Thomas
  • Photography by: Greg Thomas

Click image for slideshow.

Armando Pagliari likes to get under people’s skin. In Quebec, I’ve heard him shout at his favorite salmon guide, Rodney Gallon, “Hey Rodney, you are the worst effin’ guide in the world.” But then, to compensate for his evil entertainment, Pagliari spoils Gallon with lavish tips.

So last winter, I wasn’t surprised when Pagliari and I met in the Bahamas and he immediately started in on our Bahamian guide, Marty Sawyer. Sawyer was just sparking his second Black and Mild of the day, and waiting patiently for his dude to tie on a bonefish fly, when that dude, Pagliari, said, “Hey Marty, how you feeling today?” To which the refreshingly laidback Sawyer replied with a laugh, “My feet hit the ground when I got out of bed this morning. So, I’m feeling good.”
Just then I spotted a big push of water breaking a mirror-flat surface 100 yards away and said, “Marty, what’s that, a tarpon?” Sawyer, who grew up in Cherokee Sound on Abaco Island’s east shore and has seen everything there is to see on the water said, “Wow, that be a dolphin on ah’ bonefish flat in maybe two feet o’ water! Don’ see that every day.”
As the dolphin pushed for deeper water I suddenly recognized this flat and said, “Marty, there are tarpon at the end of this flat. We saw them yesterday. We’re rigging a rod for tarpon, too.”
I’ve caught a few tarpon in my life, but this was Pagliari’s first saltwater trip. I turned and said, “If we see these tarpon, Armando, you’re throwing for them.”
Pagliari is an executive of the Toronto, Canada-based Martinrea Inc., which produces steel and aluminum parts, mostly for the automotive sector. He heads the human resources division and oversees 13,000 employees. He wears fancy shirts, stylish jeans and designer shoes, straps magnum-size watches to his wrist, smokes Player’s cigarettes at a reckless rate, and rubs elbows with the beautiful people. When he’s not fishing you might find him in Vegas whipping up on the pro poker tour. But what he likes more than anything is fishing.
In fact, he’s firmly planted in that can’t-get-enough stage, including buying every rod and reel that arrives on the market. Due to that zeal he once got a call from Orvis asking if he had opened a fly shop and wanted to pursue volume discounts. Teasing his excitement, I pointed down the flat and said, “Armando, if you hook one of these tarpon it’s going to burn that reel right off your rod and you’ll have to land it by hand.” Pagliari took a big drag off his Player’s, stretched his shoulders, peered at the man on the poling platform and said, “I tell you what, Marty. If you hook me up on one of these fish I’ll pay your regular tip today, plus another five hundred bucks cash. I don’t even have to land a tarpon. You just hook me up, Marty, and it’s an extra five hundred. How you feeling now?”
Sawyer was already off the platform, clearly a little frazzled, feverishly digging for his go-to tarpon fly. He looked up and answered, “I feel like Columbus with a speedboat!” And with that, we were off on what I now call the Abaco Island Tarpon Experiment.

I didn’t arrive on Abaco Island to fish tarpon. Instead, I accepted an invite from Oliver White to chase bonefish. White is part owner of Abaco Lodge, which sits on the island’s west side. It occupies a point of land that juts into the heart of the Marls, a 200-square-mile expanse comprised of tiny islands, lengthy flats and numerous creeks. Some say there are more bonefish per square mile here than anywhere else on earth.
White bought the place in 2008 when it was a modest, if not dilapidated, motel. He put a lot of sweat equity into the project and then, with a partner, threw a couple million dollars into it. Abaco opened in March 2009. Shortly after, White sold an interest in the lodge to Nervous Waters, a fly-fishing travel company that owns nine prime lodges sprinkled around the Bahamas and South America.
Today, the lodge runs a tight ship, catering to a dozen anglers at a time, offering private or double-occupancy rooms and a fleet of fine Hell’s Bay flats skiffs, manned by some of the best guides you’ll find anywhere in the world. Fishing drew me to Abaco, but I can’t deny that just ambling around the property—whether chatting with fellow guests on the expansive lanai, sipping cocktails in the main lodge or kicking my feet up around a firepit while watching that massive sun dip below the horizon each evening—wasn’t a big part of the draw. Most of us consider the Caribbean to be paradise, and I thought no differently while cruising around in my shorts and sandals at Abaco.
While the Marls hosts a plethora of bonefish, the big bones, meaning four- to eight-pounders, are rare. Some people call the Marls “Dinksville,” and others shy away from it because that muddy bottom forces anglers to fish almost exclusively from the bow of a skiff instead of wading in the warm water with the fish. However, nobody denies that the Marls is a really great place for beginners and anyone else who wants shot after bonefish shot. In addition, because there is so much turf to cover (and so many fish on the flats) most of these bones haven’t seen many—if any—flies, so they suck them up more readily than they might in other places. Another bonus is this: Even if the wind is onshore, you can find protected places to fish. In addition, the Marls isn’t as dependent on tides as many other bonefish locales. Put all of these together and you have a predictable and consistent fishery. Twenty-fish days are possible here, and even when things are “off” you still might land a half-dozen in a day. If you can see them.
Ah, spotting bonefish, one of the world’s great angling challenges. Bones are typically small, and their olive backs and silver sides mesh perfectly with the bottom and those angled surface reflections, making them nearly invisible. This is especially true if you chase bonefish only occasionally, the point being that even during a five-day trip you’ll see these fish much better on days three, four and five, than you did on day one or two. That was our experience during the first couple days at Abaco, with bonefish shooting right past our boat before Pagliari and I ever saw them. We’d let out a sigh of real frustration when either Sawyer or guide David Tate said, “Ah, moving away now, fast,” which meant we’d blown our chances. But those guides were good and they picked Pagliari and me up by always saying, “Hey man, no worries. It’s just a fish. We’ll see more.”
And we did see more, more and more by the day, and I felt a certain pride when, on occasion, I’d pick out a fish before the guides saw it, an event that always drew this affirmation, “Good spot,” a catchphrase that Pagliari and I adopted for almost anything, whether that was the butter or wine at the dinner table, a lighter for some magnum-size Cohibas, and even the cute and outgoing barmaid we’d meet later at Da Hang Over bar at the Nassau airport. That sense of pride at seeing a fish before the guide locked eyes on it, that sense of teamwork and contribution, was enhanced one day when Sawyer said that the clients he’d guided a week before us “couldn’t have spotted a whale on the flats,” adding, “they had more bad opinions than good casts.”
The “spot” I remember best happened on the outside of the Marls, near where the ocean breaks into the islands. Sawyer was poling in a shallow bay, in the lee of the wind, when four bones moved into view. Just as I locked onto those fish Sawyer said, “Four moving right to left, 10 o’clock. Quick. You’ll get one shot.” When a guide spots bonefish he or she describes their location as if the bow of the boat represents the 12 on a clock. A day earlier, possibly as a result of the number of Kalik beers that Pagliari and I took on the boat for, um, hydration purposes, and just after Sawyer said, “Nine o’clock, Greg, a big one,” I cast directly opposite of the fish, to the 3 o’clock zone. Sawyer said, “Yea, Greg, he was at 9 o’clock.” Pagliari squinted at me, shook his head and said, “What kind of clocks do you have in the states?”
That’s why it was so cool to spot those four bones, including the biggest I’d seen on the trip, moving toward the ocean, but not fast enough that I couldn’t sneak a quick 60-foot cast, directly at the 10 o’clock instruction. The lead fish was the biggest, perhaps four or five pounds, and he saw the fly first, which allowed him to dart quickly to my shrimp imitation, pause momentarily, and then suck it in. I strip-set, that boy took off for the ocean, and then I methodically worked him back to the boat. Sawyer has seen his fair share of big bonefish, many much larger than the one on the end of my line, but he leaped off the poling platform, helped me land that fish, and shouted, “Oh yeah, Greg, that is a nice Marls bonefish! There are bigger, but this is a nice fish.”

The next day we were scanning a flat when Sawyer emphatically planted his pole in the marl and said, “There’s a big barracuda at the end of this flat. Really big. One of you grab that spin rod or I’m going to catch him.”
Pagliari and I had repeatedly ignored opportunities to throw flies or lures to these fish and Sawyer had finally seen enough. So I picked up a spin rod that sported a foot-long, bright-green tube and, when the time was right, sailed the tube just past that ’cuda’s snout. Sawyer implored, “Now get it moving, get it moving.” I did so and a four- or five-foot-long missile, moving 30 miles an hour, smashed the lure, then took off on a 200-yard run that made me think, And people say bonefish are fast? A while later, Sawyer hoisted that toothy creature for a photo. When Sawyer asked if I wanted to hold it I answered, “No,” and at that very moment the fish flexed, our guide lost partial grip, and those teeth slashed into a meaty portion of Sawyer’s hand. He placed the fish, at least a 30-pounder, in the water and as that monster slowly swam away it had a look in its eye that said, Anyone else want a piece of me? Prior to that day I had no interest in barracuda, but now I doubt I’ll ever pass another big one without launching a long, skinny, green needlefish fly its way. As Sawyer cleaned his cut he shook his head and said, “Nothing going to top that barracuda on this trip. I tell you that is a fish of remembrance, man.”
We caught more good bones and another big ’cuda during our stay, and we even took our shots at a variety of sharks, but what I remember most vividly from Abaco was that day-long quest for tarpon. Oh, those tarpon. After Sawyer rigged his aforementioned “sure bet” tarpon fly and we’d drifted to the end of that bonefish flat, he said, “Armando, you get up there on the bow and strip off enough line to make a good cast. Usually there are three or four tarpon here. If they aren’t here we will go to another hole. And if we don’t find them there we will come back here. I don’t know for sure where they will be, but we will find some tarpon today.” And you probably know how this story winds up—we looked here, we looked there, we looked everywhere. When the fish didn’t appear we looked some more. And then things got real quiet. In fact, at one location, after a healthy dose of silence, I said, loud enough for Sawyer to hear, “Hey Armando, Marty sure is quiet back there. I think he’s praying but I can’t hear anything.”
Sawyer chuckled and, without taking his eyes off the water, said, “You can’t hear me because I’m praying in my head.” He added, “I’m sending these tarpon a message: Come here, you assholes.”
Those tarpon never appeared and Sawyer realized that a big tip—the largest he’d ever been offered—was slipping away. And I wondered, What lengths would a guy go to for a thousand dollars cash, especially in a country lacking personal income taxes, where a thousand bucks really is a thousand bucks?
Sawyer said we’d make one final run to a place where the tarpon were sure to be, and pointed the bow of that Hell’s Bay toward nothing more pronounced than a sharp, blue line on the horizon. I turned to Pagliari and said, “You really did it this time. I came here for bonefish, but Marty wants that tip and he’s desperate.”
Pagliari pulled the zipper a little higher on his jacket, looked out to the horizon and said, “He’s still looking for those tarpon, isn’t he? He wants that bonus bad. Where do you think we’re headed now?”
I frowned, pulled two Kaliks from the cooler, put my feet up on the casting deck, settled into the bench seat and said, “Get comfortable, because we’re leaving bonefish heaven and headed to tarpon Shangri-La.”
Pagliari asked, “Where’s that?”
“Oh,” I answered, “just round the corner there about 200 miles away in the Florida Keys.”
Pagliari sighed and said, “I hope it’s a full moon.”

Sawyer handling the big ’cuda, moments before The Bite.

Where: Abaco Lodge, on Great Abaco Island, just about 10 minutes west of Marsh Harbor.
When: Peak season runs from March 15 through June.
Why: Abaco Lodge sits right on the Marls, an area that’s considered one of the best places in the world for bonefish. In addition, anglers get plenty of shots at sharks and barracuda.
Expectations: The Marls doesn’t produce the largest bonefish on average, but it offers numbers galore. A good angler on a great day may land a dozen or more fish. Beginners get plenty of opportunities to hone their skills.
Logistics: Anglers fly into Marsh Harbor. Various flights connect daily from Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach and Daytona Beach.
Bookings: Contact Nervous Waters at 917-338-7186; e-mail [email protected]; www.