Bonefish on a budget
The Bonefish of the Bahamas. Geoff Maynard suggests you empty the piggy bank, cheat the kids out of their inheritance, sell non-existant TVs on eBay. Whatever. Just get hold of the money somehow and DO IT!
Okay. The title is a joke. A flyfishing trip for bonefish is never going to be cheap if you live in Europe. If you are one of those lucky few who can afford those fantastic holidays offered by the specialist angling holiday companies, read no further. This piece is for the rest of us. If however, like me, you have extremely deep pockets and very, very short arms - and perhaps you yearn to experience the ultimate fishing trip just once before you pop your clogs - you will be interested in how to do it on the cheap.
I needed an excuse so, with my 60th birthday looming on the horizon, I decided to treat myself for one of those one-off trips of a lifetime. I figured that if I waited until I had enough money to spare, it would never happen. So I sold the wife and kids on the Internet, pawned the dog and hit the credit cards. Not before I’d conducted a little research however and it’s this I would like to share with you.
If you think you are going to be able to fly out to a prime location with bonefish flats and do it on a shoestring, you can’t. It all costs money and, if you are from Europe, quite hefty money. For my once-in-a-lifetime trip (which I plan on repeating as soon and as often as possible) I chose to pick somewhere that would give me the best possible chance of catching. It would have been crazy to try to save money by going somewhere that seemed comparatively inexpensive and blank, so I chose to go to Andros Island in the Bahamas, a location with the nickname ‘The Bonefishing Capital of the World’. Surely with a handle like that, even I had to be in with a chance!
“Give me thirty-five feet at 11 o’clock. No. I said eleven o’clock. Pick it up and do it again. Now pick it up and put it another ten foot to the left.”
I was fishing blind. Casting to directions given me by Bonefish Bradley, the young man on the poling platform. I couldn’t see a damn thing, so I was just doing as I was told. Or trying to. According to him, the water was alive with fish but I couldn’t see any. Yet the water was crystal clear and only two foot deep. Well, apart from the sharks. I could see those, loads of those.
“Pick it up again. Another ten foot to the left. Stop. Strip. Strip. Stop. Wait. Long strip!”
A tug. I felt a tug… whoo, whooooooo…… fish on! The line hissed through the rings, a bonefish was hooked. I could see the fish now! An area of water the size of a tennis court was suddenly transformed into a huge shoal of dark grey-green, torpedo shaped shadows fleeting away. The rod arched over, the line lifted off the water, spray making brilliantly coloured rainbows through my polarised lenses. The line lifting higher, drag-set spool spinning, now down to the backing, the fly-line completely airborne now, just half the leader in the water… and it stopped. It’s coming back towards me. I crank the handle as fast as I can. That’s all the backing back on the spool, and now half the line…
More advice coming from the poling platform; “When it sees the boat it will run again”
But it didn’t. A damn great shark had been hiding under our boat. As soon as it saw the hooked bonefish it shot out and grabbed it!
“Doh!” said I, intelligently.
There was a flurry of action and Bradley was suddenly beside me, pole in hand, jabbing the shark until… it let go! I skulldragged a bemused bonefish back under the boat, reached down and hoisted my first ever fly-caught and, it must be said, slightly tatty bonefish into the air! Dunnit! Mission accomplished!
Bradley has a grin from ear to ear. So have I. And the penny drops. He caught that fish. Not me. I just happened to be holding the rod. Well. Some might argue with that but it’s how it felt. That first fish was all down to Bradley. But I soon learned. Over the sessions we spent together my fish spotting skills gradually improved. I managed to put a few fish in the boat each trip but my conversion rate of hook-ups to landed fish was very poor. My strip-strike needs work. A better angler would have had ten times as many fish. The first session, for every fish I saw, Bradley saw fifty. By the last day, it was down to about twenty. My cast-to-catch rate was appalling on that first day. By the time my third session came around, it was up-rated to ‘crap’. I had cast to so many fish and spooked so many it was embarrassing. Without Bradley I may have caught none. The point I am making is this: A guide is not a luxury on the once-in-a-lifetime trip. He is an essential. He’ll cost you around $400 a day, or $250 for a half day. The USA tipping rates apply here so look at another 15% on top of that. Unless you have done this several times before, you cannot do without him.
You might think you are good at spotting fish – I do - but spotting bonefish is a special art. These fish have silver flanks so reflective that it’s like trying to see a mirror suspended in the water. They reflect whatever they are swimming over so the best you can hope for is to see the shadow of the fish. If the sun isn’t shining you won’t see fish even if there is a shoal just thirty foot away in eighteen inches of water. When the sun goes behind a cloud everything changes, and when that happens even the guides can’t see them. If it’s too windy you won’t see them either. It can be very frustrating because these fish are so spooky that an otherwise perfect cast that puts the fly closer than ten foot to a fish is liable to spook it. And when one fish is spooked and vanishes, it takes the rest of the shoal with it.
You simply can’t take your eyes off the water. You will learn that when a Doctor-fly lands on your bare foot and bites you, as one most certainly will every 30 mins or so, it’s just like a horse-fly bite, and hurts like hell. But it won’t let go. You learn to keep your eyes glued to the water whilst quickly removing your baseball cap and slapping the fly with the hat to kill it, then replacing the hat on head and never once will you remove your eyes from the water. If you do, it will ruin your scan. You’ll see what I mean when you get out there!
You have to intercept these fish. Cast well in front of it and wait for it to come close before you start the retrieve. Here is a tip from a beginner. Look for sharks. Find sharks and there will be bonefish nearby. See. I did learn something!
Direct flights from the UK are not cheap. A return ticket London to Nassau with a prime mover such as BA runs out at £550 - £600 and then you still have to get over to Andros. The cheapest way I found to get to Andros was from Florida, via Nassau. Charter flights are the cheapest way. They can get you from the UK to Florida for dirt-cheap money out of season; I have paid as little as £150 return to Sanford (Orlando) with a charter, and there are lots of them going that way - but in peak season (think school holidays) it can still cost a hell of a lot. Fortunately Andros has great bonefishing all year round so you get the chance to fly low-season. If you can’t wait, lots of airlines fly scheduled routes but BA and Virgin are usually hard to beat.
Once in Florida, the second step is a flight with Jet Blue airways from Orlando to Nassau. This is how budget flying ought to be. Brand new comfortable aircraft with leather seats designed for seriously overweight passengers – and prices designed to allow even the most meagre wallet some respite. An example is: Orlando to Nassau at just $50 each way. Ah bliss! If only they flew to Europe!
You could get a direct flight to Fresh Creek airport on Andros from Ft Lauderdale in Florida with a charter company but it’s not exactly cheap. The more cost effective way means flying to Nassau (which is on another island) and then taking the two and a half-hour ferry, which, inconveniently, currently only runs a service on Fridays and Sundays and costs about $90 return. Or you can do what I did and catch a puddle-jumper flight from Nassau to Andros. This is a ten-minute flight for about $150 return with Western Air - or use a charter taxi-flight for about $100 with one of the smaller operators. If you have anything more than a very light carry-on bag, you should go with Western Air. Those little planes are not designed for huge suitcases. If you try emailing Western Air, don’t hold your breath awaiting a response. You can’t book ahead with them either, it’s first come first served but there’s usually a lot of space.
The tiny village of Fresh Creek is probably the friendliest place I have ever been in the entire world – and I’ve been most places. The people are the best thing about the place and it’s easy to see how visitors become so enamoured with it. The only down side is the fact that just about everything here has been imported and so costs a lot more than you would expect it to. It’s probably the only place I have ever been that has third-world conditions combined with first world prices. Interesting. It’s also virtually empty for most of the year with the exception of the Crab-festival weeks in June, so you usually don’t even need to pre-book a room.
Fresh Creek is set on both banks of the crystal-clear creek, at its mouth on the eastern side of Andros Island. The south bank of the creek has three points to note.
One: A historic old lighthouse with a deserted beach just past it. This beach is rarely visited so you can usually have it to yourselves, if you take your lover. Or your wife. Or both if they are very liberated.
Two: The Lighthouse hotel. Similar to an average American motel, a small swimming pool, very comfortable rooms and with free wireless internet connection – which is why I ended up spending three nights there. Rooms start at about $150 night. There is a restaurant there but it doesn’t sell evening meals. Which is fine because…
Three: Kristina’s restaurant has everything you need to eat. Great food at great prices.
I highly recommend all three of these places. There’s also a batik workshop and a locals bar but I never made it to those.
The north bank is a fifteen-minute stroll over the bridge from the Lighthouse. This is downtown, where you will find the few shops that exist in Fresh Creek and where you will find a couple more places to take note of.
The first is the Chickcharnie Hotel, an old colonial style place with a wonderful staff and excellent food but the rooms are just a touch run down. Price here is about $100 for an en-suite room. We had a room here for three nights next to the terrace on the second floor. Looking down into the creek I saw a procession of fish; huge eagle rays, scary-large sharks, barracuda and even what looked like a wahoo. All no more than a couple of rod-lengths out. These can be fished for from the hotel’s boat-dock, along with many other species that swam too deep for me to see clearly. Including bonefish of course. I caught one baitfishing here and also had a few jacks on surface popping lures after dark, great fun!
A hundred yards away, next to the boat ramp, is Hanks Bar. More good food and the night-spot of the town. Hank also has rooms to let but I didn’t stay there because it gets a bit loud and rowdy for an old fart like me on Saturday nights. Most interestingly, Hank also rents out a couple of boats. Carolina skiffs with outboards for $80 day plus fuel. Mmmm…
So it is possible to go self-guided. But you’ll be a mug if you try that if this is your once-in-a-lifetime trip. With a good guide, you will see fish and you will catch fish. This is a breezy place. Allow twice as many days as you intend to fish - so if the wind is too bad for half the time, you still have a chance for the other days.
I chose Fresh Creek as my bonefish location for a reason. It was recommended to me by a hugely informed guy I found by accident and had a correspondence with on the net over a period of a few months. Michael Eichenseer has been fishing Andros for a dozen years and knows the place inside out. Virtually everything I write here is thanks to his input. Michael is himself a guide in Cape Cod but he also fishes Andros whenever he gets the chance, that’s at least a couple of times every year. Michael has written a book on Andros bonefishing that has everything you need to know about the subject. I had the luxury of reading a draft of the book before I left and it was invaluable reading. At the time of writing, it is still to be published and even the title is not yet decided, but when it is, you will need a copy, so put Michael’s name into Amazon before you go.
A couple of extra points: Be sure you get the plane to the correct destination. You want to go to Andros Town which is also called Fresh Creek. There is another airport much further to the north called San Andros, so don’t mistake it.
Tackle: Think positive. Borrow a 9 weight set-up from a pal on your favourite forum. Someone will loan it to you. Say thank you. And please can I take your fly box too? Trust me, I’m an expert. This system works and will save you a bomb! (My thanks to Phil & Glenn). Take a pair of wading shoes, loads of sun-block and a light scarf. Especially, take a couple of pair of good Polaroid sunglasses with amber or red coloured lenses. And lots of cash money. Few places take cards out there. Oh – and there is no need to worry about crime. There is none worthy of the name - and you won’t find any of the ‘attitude’ that mar some other Caribbean destinations either.
If you find yourself at Nassau airport and it’s lunchtime – walk to the back of the parking lot where the locals have a ‘fast’ food market set up. Be sure to try Bahamian bread (aka Johnny bread) the conch fritters (pronounced conk here) and the blended juices. Damn. I want to go back. Now. Humph.
These links should help
http://www.capecodoutdoors.com/Bahamas.html (Michael’s website)
Bradley’s phone numbers are: 1 242 357 2242 (cell) 1 242 368 4318 (home)