With a twist of lemon shark.
[by Miles Nolte]
My arms extend and pull the sea, leaving behind a wake of gray suspension as I swim to the edge of the flat. The guide I’m fishing with, Paul, reclines in the skiff, eating a sandwich, giving his eyes and his shoulders a rest.
Swimming at lunch is an essential ritual on hot days. Back home in Montana, summer days can stretch from warm morning to sweat-shimmering evening. Trout, unlike oceanic flats species, don’t like the heat, and 10 hours of guiding expectant anglers over lethargic fish is taxing, particularly when sweating through my shirt and wiping salt from my eyes. A midday swim offers a few moments of cool weightlessness, alone with myself in the water, not above begging it to give me something, or dipping oars into it, trying to maneuver over its whispers and roars.
My swimming ritual started as a break in long, hot guide days, but I take it with me whenever I go fishing in warm climates. It’s a good reminder. On this day, I cut through the Caribbean. The water is warm, but cooler than the air. This is a bonefish trip, but all I can think of, as I surface and dive and kick to the edge of the flat, are sharks.
Our day had dawned hazy, the sun emerging from the horizon with its light struggling to cut the equatorial humidity. Paul, who has been guiding at Abaco Lodge for many seasons, had motored away from the dock cursing the east wind at our backs. This was the second straight week of east wind, a bad wind, the guides all said. East wind pushes water out of the Marls, an already shallow basin of cays, mud flats, turtle grass, and mangroves. The Marls are a labyrinth of bonefish habitat, with cuts and channels that can be difficult to navigate during optimal conditions, and harrowing on a low tide with an east wind.
There was no color to the sunrise: it was silver light cutting through grayscale clouds. Paul staked off the boat in a shallow hook of mangroves, and we were waiting on wakes, tails—any signs of life. Tight to a mangrove finger, ripples appeared. Paul poled a few silent strokes, and I dropped the shrimp fly 10 feet in front of the rippling. I waited until I thought the fish’s nose was inches away, then stripped slightly, imagining rubber legs swirling up from the mud bottom.
I stripped more aggressively, making the fly jump off the
bottom. This time the wake turned and followed, but there was no tipping up, no glinting tail; just more deliberate movement. I kept stripping; the disturbance followed.
“Something not right dere. I don’ think dat’s a—”
The wake passed the fly without slowing.
I picked up quietly, turned to the right, and presented the fly again.
No response at all.
I tried a third time, slightly overpowering my forward cast so the fly plopped into the water. Generally, this isn’t an advisable tactic for bonefish, which tend to flee projectiles raining down from above. But when the presentation that is supposed to work fails twice, I experiment. Besides, it was my third day at the lodge, and I had caught plenty of bonefish.
I stripped more aggressively, making the fly jump off the bottom. This time the wake turned and followed, but there was no tipping up, no glinting tail; just more deliberate movement. I kept stripping; the disturbance followed.
“Something not right dere. I don’ think dat’s a—”
Before Paul could finish his sentence, the disturbance accelerated. I felt tension, a solid head shake—not the shivering wiggle of a bonefish, but a deeper body bend. Then slack. A two-foot lemon shark cruised past the bow, close enough to see through the misty glare of sunrise on seawater. I poked him with my rod tip and he kicked mud, escaping with my fly.
“That was so cool.” I grinned up at Paul, alight on his platform. He looked puzzled, but said nothing.
“I didn’t know lemon sharks would eat shrimp.”
“He didn’t want dat thing; you kept giving it to him. Dey eat anything easy.”
The island of Abaco is low and squat. It looks like a bleached reef that was slightly elevated above sea level and scattered with palmetto trees and salt pines. The primary economic driver today is tourism, but Abaco was originally settled in 1776 by British Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution. They started a cotton plantation that was successful for a few years despite the thin, shell-pocked topsoil. But it was a doomed enterprise, and many of the Loyalists fled to Britain, leaving only 400 residents by the end of the 18th century.
In the 1800s, Abaco was all about boats: building some, sinking others. An impressive shipbuilding industry thrived until the island was all but depleted of its native hardwoods. While some residents became shipbuilders, others became ship-wreckers, making their living by salvaging what they could from sinking ships. Legend has it that they increased business by using phony navigation lights to lure passing vessels onto the rocks.
Today, the ocean remains the primary provider of sustenance, though no longer in the form of ships drawn in like mosquitoes to bug lanterns. Commercial fishermen now harvest conch and lobster (crayfish, in the local parlance.) My first night at Abaco lodge, we dined heartily on both.
I asked Paul if we could target them. He shrugged as if to say, We can, but why would you want to? Perhaps he was just thinking, This idiot wants to catch a shark, and then I’ll have to take it off the hook.
The lodge sits on the Bight of Abaco; there are bonefish literally off the dock. Each morning a fleet of well-appointed skiffs heads into the Marls with high probability of success. I don’t know how many fish I caught the first two days, but it was more than enough. The fish weren’t big—between two and six pounds—but they were cooperative and forgiving, and even a two-pound bonefish can take you for a ride.
When that lemon shark bit me off on the third morning, I got curious; there had been a few prowling the flats on previous days. I had never caught a lemon shark before; never caught any shark on fly gear. I asked Paul if we could target them. He shrugged as if to say, We can, but why would you want to? Perhaps he was just thinking, This idiot wants to catch a shark, and then I’ll have to take it off the hook.
For the rest of the morning, I stood on the deck with a 10-weight rigged with a sinking tip, a wire tippet, and a big red-and-white pike fly that somehow migrated into my tarpon box. We poled across the flats and, more often than not, we found bonefish. I would grab the 7-weight and cast to them, often catching one, but I was restless. I wanted sharks. Turns out, sharks are far more discriminating than Bahamian bonefish.
I never did get one on a fly, and not for lack of effort. The guides were polite about my infatuation, but didn’t share my affinity for a species they see as a threat to their silver cash cows. The sharks were followers, like muskies, only pickier, calmly tracking the fly, sniffing for the scent of blood—which, of course, was absent.
I did, finally, catch a lemon shark, but no flies were involved. One evening Ken, the lodge manager, turned on the dock lights and set out a chum bag. The ocean glowed green, and sharks soon appeared. After a sufficient quantity of cocktails, some other guests and I baited spinning rods with mahimahi flesh and tossed large pyramid sinkers and circle hooks just beyond the lights, where shadows prowled. It took longer than I expected—sharks are smart—but I did catch one. I brought him close, handed the rod to another guest, reached into the glowing seawater, grabbed his sandpaper caudal, and lifted him onto the dock, where I could pin him against the boards. I learned later that one should not tail a four-foot shark as if it were a 20-inch brown trout. But I got away with it, without being bitten.
Catching a relatively small lemon shark under lights on bait isn’t supposed to be the narrative pinnacle of a weeklong trip to an exquisite fly fishing lodge. I’m supposed to gush about the seven-pound bonefish I landed, or perhaps the double-digit one I couldn’t quite reach. I remember those fish, and many others, but as another spring begins to tickle my fishing itch, the memories that keep rising in my consciousness are of toothy trash fish, secondary species.
Maybe this spring I’ll plan a carp trip.
Miles Nolte would like to encourage the readers of this magazine to consider supporting the Hurricane Joaquin Reconstruction Fund to help rebuild Abaco Island.