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Grays Best

Birthday Bones

Wherein Brains has a memorable 40th, and so do we all.
by James R. Babb

I don't know whether to blame the bright Bahamian sun, broiling the brains of a winter-pale northerner stalking bonefish flats and mangrove creeks. Or whether it’s all those bonefish over the past week—all of them, every flashing, slashing one of them burned bright and silvery into my mind like the big chrome bumper of the 1949 Buick I too closely encountered on the bike I got for my sixth birthday.

Or maybe it’s simply the inevitable synaptic erosion of someone born the same year as that Buick, someone who increasingly disremembers how to tie knots he’s tied for 40 years. Or maybe it’s just a touch too much wine, or all those hellfire-hot bird peppers Les pounded into supper’s cracked conch.

Whatever scrambled my cerebrum, I’m losing five points off my already-meager score because I can’t keep straight whether diamonds follow spades as trump, and whether I ought to bid high and try to win or bid low and try to lose, thereby actually winning in this odd English card game called Contract Whist.

But at least I’ve remembered, unlike Patrick, not to speak in a fake Punjabi accent until after diamonds come trumps—an automatic loss of 10 points in a new rule Jonathan imposed to restore a measure of decorum here in the homey lounge at Acklins Island Lodge—this despite his own intermittent lapses into Lerner and Loewe, a temporal-lobe digression we all mindlessly follow like coyotes hallooing the moon, spurred, no doubt, by the vast shoals of bonefish a few miles north in Lovely Bay, a place so perfectly named it has cast its spell and left us dazed, searching loudly for a room somewhere with one enormous chair... Oh wouldn’t it, we ask Les, the lodge manager and chef de cuisine, be loverly?

At which Les shakes his head and leaves for the night, muttering something about The Crazy English that fails to exempt me, the token American. The guides have left already, and Birch has gone off with them pub-crawling in a place that has, as near as we can tell, no actual pubs. But he feels the drums calling, or so he says—calling the Caribbean blood of his father, a C of E Vicar from Tobago—and he’s off into the night, baying at the moon and Being Birchie. We’re sitting cozily around the table with warm faces, warm hands and warm feet— sunburned, actually—reliving the day, inventing bizarre handicapping rules for whist, engaging in recreational vituperation in affected accents and generally laughing ourselves silly.

For this, after all, is a party. Brains is turning 40, and to celebrate this epochal watershed he’s gathered together his friends—me, Jonathan, Patrick, Rod, Birchie—for a week of bonefishing on Acklins Island in the Bahamas. What better way to celebrate this chronological dividing line between ascent and descent than to go fishing with people who you know will relentlessly make fun of everything, including you?

It’s an eclectic group—five Oxbridge Englishmen and an East Tennessee Hillbilly—collectively aggregated into multiple occupations: two magazine editors, three writers, one lapsed crafter of Tudor furniture, one rehabilitator of ravaged chalkstreams, one rehabilitator of ravaged cartilage and bone.

Over the week this motley crew has relentlessly ravaged the local bone population—or at least briefly annoyed them. While deducting another 10 points from Patrick of the Punjab, Jonathan, our mathematically deft scorekeeper at whist and at fishing, announces that over the course of this week the six of us have collectively caught 375 bonefish not counting “naughties,” meaning bonefish derricked from deepwater muds and not spotted and specifically targeted. Jonathan, ever the arbiter of proper form, declines to keep score on the week’s naughties, but hazards a guess of somewhere over 50.

Anglers believe all fish are gifts, and that bonefish are rare and special gifts, but during this weeklong celebration of Brains’ eventual demise we have all been well blessed. In Copperfieldian terms, Brains has had a memorable birthday. And so have we all, with scene after scene flashing through our collective memories like slides from a PowerPoint presentation:

Flash: Flats-stalking beneath a sweeping sky in slow half-step, the strains of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” impossible to suppress, the flats lifeless except for a turtle the size of a $20 pizza, dodging and weaving in a dazzling display of evolutionary perfection achieved 280 million years ago. Then patches of nervous water shimmer far to windward. Muscles tense, brows furrow. At last sickle-scything fins materialize in range and then that first hopeful cast, that first tentative strip, that first foom, that inevitable yaaaaaaaaaaaah!

Flash: Birchie stings his first ever bonefish and instantly transforms from blasé chalkstream expert into bonefish madman, Mister Toad’s Wild Ride with screaming drags and rifle-shot casts and the mania of Toad seeing his first motorcar: O bliss! O poop-poop! O my! O my!


Flash: Bouncing along in JJ’s boat, pivoting around an otherworldly patch of deepest indigo set in a featureless expanse of pale jade—a blue hole, one of the Bight of Acklins’ 72 portals to a network of limestone caverns as labyrinthine as the London Tube and as deep as a Cornish tin mine, burrowing right under the island to the sea, jetting a fountain of seawater on an incoming tide and flushing like a toilet on the ebb. No one truly knows what fish live down there, but no one ever stops imagining.

Flash: As Brains watches, a lemon shark snips the stern half from a bonefish following his fly, and an hour later I find its head being tugged along by a brown-and-yellow mantis shrimp as big as a lobster. When I walk too near he whacks my wading boot with a blow I feel into my teeth.

Flash: At a chokepoint between Lovely Bay and a tidal inlet, an endless silver river of bonefish flows past like a herring boat hydraulically discharging its catch—more bonefish than anyone could ever imagine exists on the planet, never mind in one little Bahamian backwater. We cast once, twice, and they evaporate into the aether.

Flash: On a narrow strip of swimming-pool-blue flat sandwiched between a deep purple channel and thick green mangroves, Rod and I and a half-dozen lemon sharks await the oncoming tide and its flush of incoming bones. I assume the position in a mangrove-sheltered corner, and the bonefish come at me from all directions. I take only five, though all were over five pounds and two considerably over it, but I could have taken 50 had I evolved eyes in the back of my head, for when I’d be intent on a school coming in fast from the east another school would be coming in just as fast from the west, and when I’d cast toward the pod I could see, the pod I couldn’t see would flush like quail and temporarily vacuum the flat of life.

Flash: Rebuilding a leader macraméd by midair indecision. Standing stock-still for a good five minutes, messing around in my tackle bag and trying to remember how to tie a blood knot, trying to find another fly the right size and weight and color. Finally finishing and looking up to find myself entirely enclosed within an immense school of bonefish, feeding all around me, nuzzling against my feet, and when I move my head they explode in all directions, leaving me dripping and agape.

Flash: Skulking along small tidal creeks after bonefish cruising alone or in pairs, an action so much like fishing an English chalkstream we’re almost surprised to see green herons and mangroves instead of swans and ranunculus—although trying for the delicate brown trout of the so-subtle Meon or Avon couldn’t be less like battling bones in these narrow mangrove- delineated channels, where you abandon delicacy in favor of cable-stout leaders and a hook-setting technique akin to jerking a tablecloth from beneath a place setting.

Flash: The image, just a few hours ago, of three broad schools of bones ruffling the waters in Delectable Bay, and Birchie and me knocking up three consecutive doubles, and our laughter peeling across the flats and frightening an air-wing of shocking pink flamingoes into flight. And then, to cap the perfect day of a perfect week, the sight of three enormous bonefish—eight, maybe nine pounds —cruising slowly along as we wade ashore from Doug’s boat, our unrigged rods stuffed under our arms. They turned to examine us solemnly, and then casually, almost contemptuously, they flipped us off and resumed their evening meander.

We all remember snapshots from our birthdays—that special present, those friends gathered around a cake aflame with candles, the embarrassing singing of The Song, the tender glances from loved ones, the feeling of well-being and satisfaction at having lived another year despite the odds.

But this was a birthday we’ll all remember for a long time. One we’ll almost certainly never forget.


James R. Babb is the author of Crosscurrents, River Music, and Fly-Fishing Fool, all of which which are available from



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