The Carnival Continues

Car-nee-val is very sweet
Don’t stop de car-nee-val
—Herman Wouk


Come for the bonefish, stay for the hog-roping

[by Jerry Gibbs]

FROM THE DOCK, chef Marie gently dispersed breakfast dregs under a morning sky made of tarnished lead. Gray snappers, big ones, boiled and frothed the gray water, squirting off like street dogs mouthing knuckle-size balls of bread. At night, under the lights, these dock fish are noticeably less interested in our flies and jigs. Other fish come at night, too. One first-time visitor to Great Abaco Island, and the eponymous lodge where Marie feeds her snappers, had never caught a truly large fish on a fly. He cast to the intersection of electric light and tropical dark, and was shocked when a tarpon ate. He landed it, too, untroubled by the lemon sharks that also patrol the shadow line. One night Bruce, my afternoon skiff partner, drifted a gray snapper on a circle hook along that line and found himself listening to his reel losing most of its line and to his wife, on the mobile, describing domestic disasters 3,000 miles away.

“Fresh puff-holes of feeding bonefish riddled the bottom, the current fanning sediment like spilled urn ashes to show the direction the fish were traveling.”

Gray, more than 50 shades of it, had been the daily weather since our arrival, making for skies as marbled as Akro Agates, wicked-tough sight fishing, and insouciant (to say the least) bonefish,. Paul Pinder, Abaco Lodge’s elder statesman in the guide pool, said that during such weather the fish eat only if they have to. “They’ll hang,” he said, “not doing much, then glide over the flats.”

Bear in mind that we’re talking about the normally sure-bet Marls, that 300-square-mile sweep of outback flats and mangrove islets on Abaco’s west side. This area was off anglers’ radar until 1994, when relentless local tourist promoter Nettica Symonette decided that her Different of Abaco lodge in the island’s south needed skiff access to this western wilderness. In a move that would amaze even the old-guard Army Corps of Engineers, she had a 100-foot channel—now known as Nettie’s Ditch—bulldozed through friable bottom to deeper water, thus opening the Marls to her guides.

Nettie’s operation is gone now. Today, although three established lodges—Abaco, Blackfly, and Delphi Club (the latter two located in the south)—fish the Marls, you’ll rarely see another skiff during a day on the water. Only Abaco Lodge gives direct Marls access, but I’m told by managers Anne and Ken Perkinson that the other operations are mutually cooperative on fishing areas.

You might think the expanse of Marls would be prime nursery grounds for juvenile bonefish as well as a range of sexually mature specimens (which, interestingly, can be as small as 15 inches). But it isn’t. Ongoing studies on Abaco and Eleuthera funded mainly by the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust show that baby bones don’t use the tidal flats or the mangrove creeks but instead focus on shallow protected shorelines close to deeper channels or basins. The little guys have also figured out that there is safety in numbers. They consistently run with much larger schools of yellow mojarra (called shad in the Bahamas), greatly reducing predation on the young bones.

Acoustic tagging studies are also showing that bonefish move to specific shallow staging areas near deep water before performing their violent pre-spawn dance, then rushing to and actually spawning over water more than 1,000 feet deep. In the case of the Abaco Marls, fish are migrating 40 miles south to the Cross Harbour area to access those deep-water staging areas. The obvious takeaway is that any impact on migrating, spawning fish outside the Marls will sorely damage the world-class Marls fishery itself. “It’s only findings like these,” says Ken Perkinson, “that stall rapacious developers.”

WITHOUT SUN, without tailing fish, we can spot bonefish only in the extreme shallows of the Marls. Here, wind produces far more impact than normal tidal flow. A steady westerly can result in a slow incomer all day. Extended easterly winds can blow the water from the Marls, shutting down its fishing. To hunt the good places, guides must play the breeze, and in our case, they must also play the present dour weather.

Guide Trevor Miller knows the good places. “He has amazing eyes,” Anne Perkinson offered. “He’s sometimes a bit hard to get talking, though.” But Trevor talked to Bruce and me, this after a few of our hapless “Fish? Where?” flubs. Trevor had two pairs of sunglasses on his neck lanyards. “You try to use the same ones in bright weather as when it’s like this—it ain’t gonna happen.” But we got on to his game. Fresh puff-holes of feeding bonefish riddled the bottom, the current fanning sediment like spilled urn ashes to show the direction the fish were traveling. When Trevor silently turned toward a mangrove bank or cut, we knew we needed to pop our eyeballs right now to find the fish. We also needed to cast, and did, and sometimes we were right. If we weren’t, Trevor would sigh, “He’s gone,” his expression reminiscent of Dave Barry’s depiction of Patriots coach Bill Belichick, “A man who, at his happiest, looks like irate ferrets are gnawing their way out of his colon.”

Then we were truly in the mangroves, and the game evolved into one of thread the needle. The fish, when hooked, fled in zigzags around every visible and invisible obstruction. My first bonefish in the maze was doing this as Trevor pleaded to “Let him run!” Which I thought I was, though against a normal drag. What Trevor meant was with no drag at all. Translation understood. We began taking fish, often because Trevor went overboard and traced the leader to a bonefish hanging from a mangrove shoot like a winded dog. A fellow angler, Ross, who suffered a line knot, tossed his rod after the running fish then leaped overboard after the disappearing rig. He caught the fish, too.

The needle game continued with independent guide Tom Albury on Abaco’s ocean side, a 15-minute skiff ride from the lodge. This time we saw tailing fish, though unhappily they had reverted to aloof mode. After countless snubs, Bruce finally convinced one to eat, though only after he switched in frustration from a normal coaxing strip to a Hail Mary line jerk. Then it was my turn, and with Bruce hissing, “Jerk! Like I did!” I jerked—and caught a barracuda. Now things got tense, with two tailers locked in position behind a giant menorah-like mangrove, Tom pleading in one ear for me to cast left while Bruce, in the other ear, implored me to cast right. Telling them both to shut up, I split the difference and hooked the mangrove.