Thursday, April 4, 2019

Holiday Bones: Christmas in the Caribbean

Editor’s note: This is a tale told by my friend Tommy Baranowski. It highlights a type of fishing that doesn’t grace these pages often, in a place I’ve never been, but his story and photos make me want to change that. 

Ever since things got serious between Amanda and me, we discussed spending the holidays far away from the usual hustle and bustle. I never thought we would be able to pull it off our first year as a married couple but thanks to a mix up by our wedding caterers, a little money found its way back to us and the planning snowballed from there.

As we both had the week off between Christmas and the New Year, the when was already settled; we just needed nail down where we were going. Eddie, a close fishing friend of mine, is a seasoned veteran of sight fishing for bonefish in the Bahamas. He’d told me for years I needed to get my ass down to the Abaco Islands to experience it. It only took a few discussions between Eddie and Amanda before she was sold. The trip was booked.

The months leading up to the trip entailed stockpiling an obnoxious amount of gear for a few days fishing. I have a habit of doing this every time I go on a fishing trip. For me the preparation is half the fun. Researching fly patterns, scouting on Google Earth, and grilling friends with experience in specific fisheries—these things help build anticipation. By the time we boarded our plane at Bradley, I had enough flies to supply every angler in the Bahamas.  My fly boxes teemed with Spawning Shrimp, Gotchas, Crazy Charlies, and a crab pattern my buddy Todd had perfected. The final rod count was absurd as well—five fly rods and two spinning combos for good measure.

Although our adventure got off to a rocky start, we eventually found all of our luggage as well as our rental car and were happily driving along on the opposite side of the road.  At our rental, we met Rex and Judy, our hosts for the week. They were honestly two of the nicest people you could ever meet. They helped us get situated and I got to work assembling rods and gear for the next day’s guided trip.

The following morning we woke up to the sound of a shitload of Abaco parrots. I think the island’s whole population was roosting in the trees next door. Things got real when JR, my guide for the day, pulled up in the driveway with his Hells Bay in tow. He stepped out of the truck in a full camo jumpsuit—my kind of dude. JR is a native Bahamian that happened to live just three houses over from our rental. We hit it off swapping hunting and fishing stories on the way to the boat launch. JR told me about the history of the island and its famous fishery, as well as what he does when he’s not guiding…hunting wild boar.

We turned off Abaco’s main highway onto a single lane logging road. It was straight as an arrow and went on so far that the two tire tracks on the ground seemed to disappear into the horizon. The thick pine and palmetto forest eventually thinned out and opened up to a small boat launch called Netty’s Cut. After splashing in, JR hammered down the throttle and headed to the fabled Marls of Abaco, a vast expanse of prime, wilderness and bonefish habitat situated along Great Abaco’s western shore. It consists of miles of mangroves and mud flats. The only way to reach them is in a skiff or small craft.

JR cut the motor and poled into the first spot.  We immediately spied water being pushed along the mangroves. After poling toward the commotion, we found a nice, lone bone milling around. JR positioned the boat and I launched a 40’ cast. The fish swirled on the fly, ate it, and peeled off to the races, putting me into my backing in seconds.

It’s hard to put down in words that feeling of catching my first bonefish on a fly that I tied. For as long as I’ve been into fishing, it’s a moment I’d dreamt about. A species that’s always been high on my bucket list. And, there I was, in a tropical paradise with a perfect specimen in my hand after a hard fought battle. Day one went on like that. Poling new areas, spotting fish and making casts. It was everything I wanted it to be.

The agenda for the ensuing days following the first guided trip went something like: wake up, eat breakfast on beach, walk up and down shoreline with wife and rod-in-hand, eat lunch, hammock nap, explore flats on foot while my wife reads in said hammock, watch sunset, eat dinner, sleep and repeat.

After a few days, I had learned a few things.  One being sun and clear skies were vital to sight fishing success. Being able to see the fish before it sees you is crucial. Two, wind sucked and I knew it would. Everyone I spoke to about fishing the Bahamas in December had one word of caution…wind. Not only does it make casting a bitch, it kills the ability to spot fish. Combine slightly overcast skies and a stiff wind and good luck with that.

On the day before my second guided trip, we took a ride to Cherokee, a small town that is home to the longest pier in all the Caribbean. The pier is situated on a picture perfect flat and while standing on it we spotted schools of cruising fish. Amanda and I found a spot on the small beach at the base of the pier where she could relax and read while I ventured out to fish. As I searched, I let myself get distracted by the crazy amount of conch shells I saw.  I stopped to pick one up that had particularly wild colors. When I picked my head back up, no bullshit, there was a school of at least 40 bonefish swimming by me. They were cruising up and down the shoreline and for the next hour I tried everything I could to get one to eat. Longer leader, lighter tippet, more lead time—it didn’t matter. On a whim I tied on one of the small crab patterns that Todd taught me a few months back. I made a cast and began stripping. A single bone in the big pack that kept swimming by peeled off like a rocket and wolfed down the crab! That eat was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.

The weather turned to complete shit for my second guided trip. The day promised cloudy skies and wind forecast to 40mph. Yet, the show had to go on. This time the ride out to the Marls was wet and nasty. JR had to anchor the skiff once we set up on the spot. Not exactly how you draw up an ideal bonefish outing but fishing isn’t always sunny skies and butterflies. We waited and watched. I have a difficult time just sitting idle on a boat, so i stripped a bunch of line off the reel and started blind casting. A small patch of turtle grass about 60’ straight out in front of the boat caught my eye and I put my fly right in the middle of it. As I stripped it back, I was paying more attention to the scenery than my fly. When I focused, there was a monster bonefish right behind it. I didn’t even have time to think, just stripped, came tight, and let a string of profanities flow out of me. 

That fish was in a different class altogether than anything I had come in contact with prior. Just crazy strong. The first run was so long that the fly line completely disappeared out of sight. When I finally gained back the line and got the fish boat-side, it called bullshit and made the same exact run. This back and forth from the boat to my backing happened four times! Even when JR finally landed the fish, it was still green and didn’t give in easily.

I needed every bit of my nine-weight rod was to tame that fish, a battle-scarred beauty of seven or eight pounds. After a few quick photos to capture the moment, the fish swam away strong. It was surreal; absolutely unbelievable. I took a little time to collect my thoughts, but was back blind casting before long. This time I didn’t see the fish before it ate the fly, but I could tell by its initial run that it was another brute. With the bone now in my backing, we saw what you don’t want to see—a dorsal fin poking out of the water behind it. The line went limp and a shark won that round. A heartbreaker.

At that point in the day, the wind was no longer bearable. JR pulled anchor and we began the bumpy, wet ride back to the launch. Even leaving on that note, it was a truly a day to remember. A day that I am going to be telling other anglers about for the rest of my life. Before flying back to the frozen north, we savored a few more days on the island. We spent them soaking up every ounce of relaxation we could, already scheming about the next time we could return. 

With just a few hours left of our trip, Amanda and I ventured down the beach one last time to an area I had spotted a few fish earlier in the week. The wind had yet to let up but at least the sun was shining. I waded out to a small piece of flat scattered with patches of coral. A few rays and a small shark swam around me. As I stalked up to some coral, I came up on a bonefish so big it made my heart sink into my stomach. The fish was a rod’s length away, partly obscured by waves that were now crashing into me. Before I could do anything, the bone saw me, turned, and hightailed the hell out of there. The long walk back to the cottage gave me plenty of time to think it over. On one hand it was a tough way to end our Bahamian holiday, but on the other hand “the one that got away” meant that I had some unfinished business to take care of. Until next time, Abaco!