RUNNING A FISHING LODGE SOUNDS LIKE AN IDYLLIC LIFE, but the logistics, strategies, and skills needed to run one— and make it look effortless—have been compared to the multilayering of an immense Vidalia onion. From refereeing the diverse and sometimes vying personalities in the guide pool to maintaining the physical facilities in a remote location, it’s a career that grays the hair, engenders collywobbles, and begets nervous tics. Sometimes it even leads to physical danger.
Take, for example, the story of Oliver White, a former fishing guide whose client, hedge-fund impresario Bill Ackman, was so impressed that he brought White into the firm as a financial analyst. After two years on Wall Street, White yearned for a return to the barefoot lifestyle. Backed by Ackman, he negotiated the purchase of the run-down hotel that became Abaco Lodge. Its reconstruction could have been a chapter in Herman Wouk’s rollicking Caribbean-based novel Don’t Stop the Carnival. But it hit a low note when a local ne’er-do-well, smelling Yankee dollars, kidnapped White and tied him up in a car. Oliver escaped by claiming he needed to access an ATM. Once the bad guy was in lockup without bail, White acquired a protective German Shepherd named Bono.
Abaco, like other Bahama islands, is home to many descendants of British Loyalists who settled in the islands following the American War of Independence. Some are so fiercely independent that they make today’s flagwaving Libertarians look like poncing lefties. Consider, for example, Abaco guide Marty Sawyer.
Marty speaks with the typical Abaco accent, faintly reminiscent of London’s East End, with words beginning in H losing them, and words that don’t have Hs gaining them. As in, when someone not unlike a fool or a donkey removed Marty’s hose without prior authorization: “Which hass took my ’ose?” His conversations slide around the plastic mouthpiece of an ever-present Black & Mild cigar, informing you that his family has been here 200 years, that his grandaddies built the larger vessels once used in island trade, and that he went from years of lobster diving to guiding anglers, on and off the islands, from blue water to the flats; and that for personal sport he’s hunted the bush, potholes, ponds, and mainland ranches for feathered and furred game with firearms and bow.
And Marty has rules. The day’s lunch cooler always holds two Cokes . . . for Marty. Mistakenly take one, and he’ll return to the lodge for his ration, regardless of the fishing. His skiff, among the lodge’s fleet of Hell’s Bay Watermans, is customized with several tweaks, including under-gunwale rod tubes that accept the tips pointed aft, meaning clients needn’t stumble back beyond the console to stow their rods. He also maintains his boat like a hospital operating room. In the mornings, when the guides arrive for the day, Marty will sense trespass with the acumen of a bird dog on a hot scent, growling if someone has touched, or, worse, stepped on his boat.
I was going to fish with Marty. He had previously led my new boat partner, Jim, to a good ocean mutton snapper— arguably spookier than bonefish—a trigger fish, several larger-than-average bones, and then permit. “There were two of them together,” Jim said, “And Marty was shaking as badly as I was. I got in a good cast and came tight and Marty was screaming, ‘You got ’im,’ but what I got was a jack that came out of nowhere, and the permit blew out.”
The gray curtain went up, the sun came out, and we were out on the open flats, glowing as though resurrected. The fish came as singles, doubles, schools humping the calm shallow water. It was a morning of near perfect choreography as we sighted fish, began to cast, and listened to Marty calmly directing our aerialized lines or urging us to give him “more thread, more thread.” Or, best of all, “Twelve o’clock; take ’em!”
Marty was happy. “Guess these hands can catch bonefish, too,” he said, eying Jim, who exploded in laughter at the reference to a former lodge guide who regularly presented himself to new anglers with, “You see these hands? These hands were made by God. And these hands were made to catch bonefish.” He once laid this hubris on a Noted Fly Fishing Luminary, who without missing a beat said, “Well, these hands were made for eating fried fish!”
Marty has no such arrogance, but he does follow his own drumbeat. Once, visiting Oliver White’s mainland residence, Marty noticed a whitetail deer out back, grabbed the bow he’d brought for a later hunt, arrowed the deer, then chased it down barefoot through the adjacent suburban backyards.
Then there’s this: One morning, motoring from the lodge with his day’s angler, a lady from the states, Marty spotted a large wild boar that had ventured from the mangroves to the water’s edge. Island hogs are Marty’s normal prey and on his standard dinner menu. He ran the skiff ashore, leaped out with the bow line, grabbed the fleeing pig, leg-wrapped it rodeo-style, tied its mouth shut, wrestled it over the gunwale—his angler cringing in the bow, eyes like sunny-up eggs—and roared back to the lodge where he commandeered a wheelbarrow and ran the thrashing, squealing pig up to a storage shed. The clamor alerted Chef Marie, who came running with a dual forearm slam to the shed door. The boar had four-inch tusks and weighed an estimated 160 pounds. Then Marty returned to the boat and went fishing with his client. A vegetarian.
While the Marls are Abaco’s handsdown front yard for bonefish and occasional permit, the east or ocean side, including places like Snake Cay, Robinson Bight, Cherokee Sound, and Casurina Point, will test your A-game on larger and often quite difficult fish. Some of the flats are harder white sand, with wading potential not found in the softer Marls. And then there’s Moore’s Island a tad under 30 miles northwest of Abaco, a potential add-on trip depending on the weather. Here the bonefish routinely run large, but despite the remoteness they can be extremely fussy. What most anglers really focus on here are permit, with the best concentrations found from April into June. And when those infuriating creatures have you muttering or turning the air blue, more than a few finish out the day fly fishing for Moore’s always available blacktip and lemon sharks.
That said, it’s still hard to fault the logic of stepping into a skiff several cast lengths from your room and be fishing the Marls in minutes. Who knows, you might even be a participant in a pig-roping.
Being a sucker for pulled pork, the author will request wild hog-roping as a standard option when booking his future Bahamas bonefishing trips.
If You Go
Abaco is one of the easiest of the Bahama Islands to visit, with multiple daily flights by Delta, American, JetBlue, United, and Bahamas Air. Marsh Harbour or Treasure Cay are Abaco’s airports, with Marsh Harbour being closest to Abaco Lodge. It’s sometimes possible to reach Abaco in one day, but most travelers end up overnighting either in Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, or Nassau for an Abaco flight the next morning. The boutique airline AirGate Aviation (flyairgate.com) headquartered in New Smyrna Beach, FL, offers scheduled Abaco service that avoids big airport headaches.
Many angling booking services handle Abaco Lodge, including Yellow Dog, Orvis, The Fly Shop, and Frontiers Travel. Most also represent Blackfly Lodge and Delphi Club, in south Abaco, venues that offer different experiences. Or visit their own website at abacolodge.com.
Abaco Lodge hosts guests in 10 private rooms during the October through June season; rates include drinks, meals, and fishing. There is a small but wellstocked lodge shop for any tackle needs, along with fishing clothing and accessories, from sunglasses to sunscreen.
You’ll want an 8-weight for bonefish and a ready-rigged 9- or 10-weight in the skiff for permit. Floating lines cover things well, but an intermediate sink tip could be handy for the heavier rig. Various spawning shrimp incarnations are the favored flies here, but carry a variety of popular bonefish patterns as well as crabs for possible permit. Ten- to 12-foot leaders normally suffice, but be prepared to extend them when the fish are spooky. Your booking agent can finetune further equipment suggestions. Blue water fishing trips can be arranged from Great Abaco Island, and remember to investigate Moore’s Island as a possible add-on adventure.