Options abound for a do-it-yourself bonefish trip to the Bahamas—and here are 4 CLASSICS.
[by Jon B. Cave]
WHENEVER I LOOK AT A CHART OF THE BAHAMAS OR FLY OVER THE ISLAND CHAIN, I’m always impressed by the seemingly endless flats that dominate so much of the archipelago. To the saltwater fly fishing enthusiast, it’s a glimpse of paradise—mangrove shorelines and clear-water shallows merging into quintessential bonefish habitat. The possibilities appear as wide as the flats, and I can only imagine the vast numbers of bones that must silently cruise beneath the thin, transparent veil of water.
When it comes to bonefishing, it’s simply “better in the Bahamas.” Flats throughout the island chain support not only incredible numbers of fish, but also larger fish compared to bones found at other notable flats destinations. Schools with more than 100 bonefish are relatively common, and while average size can vary from one island to another, three- to four-pound specimens are the norm, and anglers regularly catch fish exceeding 10 pounds.
In the more than 30 years I’ve been fly fishing the Bahamas, there has been an enormous increase in the number of anglers who travel there to fish the flats. As a result, fishing lodges with knowledgeable guides are abundant in the most popular locations, such as Andros, Grand Bahama, and Abaco. It seems that every operation that once had only rooms to rent now specializes in guided bonefishing. Some places are pricier than others, but even the least expensive lodges will cost at least a few grand.
While it’s certainly easier to book a trip to a bonefish lodge, and you’re likely to catch more fish in the process, my favorite way to fish the Bahamas is a do-it-yourself (DIY) trip. Although you won’t have the mobility and local knowledge that come with a professional guide, the satisfaction derived from stalking bones and catching them on your own more than makes up for those limitations. You can also save a considerable amount of money in the process, although that’s usually only a secondary consideration. Nevertheless, a DIY trip is the perfect way to turn bonefishing dreams into reality if you don’t have deep pockets.
Shelter and Access A DIY bonefish expedition might be easier than you think, but it takes a lot of planning. The first order of business is to find a location with large areas of prime bonefish habitat that also offers convenient opportunities to fish. Although there are usually several areas on most of the main cays with good bonefishing, some of them offer better prospects than others. Accessibility is the primary factor in selecting an appropriate base of operations. Unless you’re lucky enough to find an establishment that offers or rents a skiff, canoe, or kayak, stay only at those places that are within reasonable walking distance or a short drive from good fishing. Navigational charts, maps, angling magazines and books, the Internet, and fly fishing acquaintances who have visited the Bahamas can be a big help in finding a place to stay. One of the best ways to get the lowdown on fishing is to check with local inns. Most freely give advice if they think you’ll be staying with them, and a few even offer a comprehensive DIY bonefishing program.
A WORD ABOUT TIDES
The tide’s effect on bonefish movement can’t be overemphasized; therefore, an understanding of that influence is a prerequisite to successful fishing. In general, bonefish move from deeper water onto the flats when the incoming tide has raised the water to a sufficient level for them to navigate. During the highest part of the tide, fish will often swim close to shore and in flooded mangrove areas. As the tide falls and the water becomes too shallow for bonefish to comfortably move about, they will return to greater depths. In deeper water, keep an eye out for opaque white plumes of silt, or “muds,” created by bonefish plowing the bottom for food. —J.B.C.
In addition to good bonefishing, an ideal location should have comfortable accommodations, vehicles for rent or great fishing within walking distance, a grocery for snacks and drinks, and at least one restaurant that’s open all day, every day. Air transportation is another factor to take into account. Some airlines have direct flights from the United States to the most popular islands, whereas remote cays often require a costly overnight stay in Nassau in order to clear customs and make a connecting flight to and from your final destination.
If you’re up to the challenge, here’s a list of DIY locations that offer world-class bonefishing for very little jack.
ABACO AND LITTLE ABACO CAYS
The adjoining islands or cays of Abaco and Little Abaco are excellent locations for a DIY trip, as they offer many fantastic roadside fly fishing opportunities and have all the facilities and services needed to make your stay a pleasant one. Restaurants are plentiful, and rental cars are easy to find as well. There are several lodging options. You can reserve a room at one of the many high-end resorts, rent a condo or house, or stay at an inexpensive mom-and-pop establishment. You’ll have no trouble making travel arrangements either, as the Abacos are among the more easily accessed islands in the Bahamas with direct daily service from Florida to airports in Marsh Harbour and Treasure Cay.
Most do-it-yourself fly fishers on a tight budget opt to stay at inexpensive establishments with simple amenities. One of the least expensive and most popular places is the Tangelo Hotel and Restaurant at Wood Cay on Little Abaco, which offers rooms, a restaurant that serves tasty local dishes, and a full-service bar. If high-count sheets and a wine list are priorities, this isn’t the place for you. On the other hand, if you’re fixated on catching bonefish on your own, the Tangelo might be just the place to drop anchor. The owner can recommend some excellent locations to fish and might even agree to take you if arrangements are made in advance. It will save you a considerable amount in car-rental fees.
Excellent bonefishing is available nearby at the end of a dirt road that’s on the opposite side of the Great Abaco Highway from the Tangelo. There, a small kidney-shaped lagoon opens into a broad expanse of clear shallows. Due to its vastness, it takes the better part of a day to cover the area—and that’s if you’re moving quickly.
An 8-weight outfit is standard for fly fishing in the Bahamas, but a 7-weight is another good option. For smaller fish, consider bringing along 6-weight tackle as well. A floating line will handle most situations, but an intermediate or sinking-tip line can come in handy for bones mudding in deeper water. A 12-foot tapered leader is a good all-around choice, but keep a 10-footer handy in case the wind kicks up. In the calmest conditions, you may have to go as long as 14 feet. I like 10- and 12-pound tippets, not so much because of their strength, but more to ensure a good turnover. Check the backing for signs of rotting or fraying, and make sure that your reel holds between 150 to 200 yards of 20-pound Dacron. A selection of flies should include Gotchas, Bonefish Clousers, and Puffs. Other fly fishing necessities include quick-drying longsleeve shirts and pants (I like the kind of pants that convert to shorts), a Buff neck gaiter, sunscreen, a hat with dark underbrim, insect repellent, copper- or dark amber-color polarized sunglasses, wading boots, extra tippet material, a rain jacket, nippers, forceps, and a backpack or fanny pack for gear and lots of water. Also, bring at least one extra fly fishing outfit on the trip, in case of a malfunction. —J.B.C.
Another hot spot is the large cove alongside the main highway, about halfway between Wood Cay and Fox Town. Bonefish there are relatively easy to spot against the mostly sand bottom near shore but can be increasingly difficult to see as the water deepens toward the depression in the middle of the cove where large schools of fish often congregate. Adapt to the changing depths by slowing your wading pace significantly as you approach deeper water, especially if you think a school is present. In those situations where the fish are difficult to see, patiently standing in one spot and carefully scanning an area for several minutes can greatly increase your chances of spotting fish and making a careful, successful presentation.
Contact Information: Tangelo Hotel and Restaurant, (242)365-2222
The remote and largely undeveloped island of Mayaguana has a small population of around 300 residents and is a throwback to simpler times in the Bahamas. The rather dilapidated airport, a former NASA tracking station, is serviced by only three Bahamas air flights per week, which can make travel arrangements a bit problematic. The outstanding DIY bonefishing, however, makes the trek and inconveniences worthwhile.
Although there is at least one small guesthouse on the island, I would highly recommend staying at Mayaguana’s only hotel, Baycaner Beach Resort, which is owned by Earnell “Shorty” Brown. The oceanfront inn offers clean rooms, serves outstanding Bahamian dishes, and the friendly staff go out of their way to make your visit an enjoyable one. More important, Shorty has a program that caters to DIY fly fishers. You can rent one of his pickup trucks and drive it to isolated flats using detailed instructions and hand-drawn maps.
My favorite location is Curtis Creek, a wonderfully picturesque bay that is full of bonefish. Shorty provides canoes at that location so that guests can paddle themselves from one wading spot to another. Long wooden dowel rods are also available for those who prefer poling one of the canoes while a second angler stands ready to cast from the bow. It’s a little tippy, but certainly doable if you have a good sense of balance.
The biggest bones in the waters around Mayaguana inhabit the oceanside flats of Abraham’s Bay just west of the town of the same name. The heaviest fish I’ve seen caught there topped 11 pounds on my friend’s Boga-Grip, and my fishing companions and I have taken a few others in the 10-pound range.
“The biggest bones in the waters around Mayaguana inhabit the oceanside flats of Abraham’s Bay. . . . The heaviest fish I’ve seen caught there topped 11 pounds.”
Blackwood Point is another excellent place for bonefish, and some sizable permit cruise there as well. In order to be prepared for both species, I usually opt for a crabby-looking fly, such as a small Merkin tied on a size 4 hook. The bones eat that pattern just as readily as they do more traditional offerings, and it’s a proven winner for permit. Be sure to check out the resident American flamingos while you’re there.
Shorty also offers an optional trip to the isolated flats near Booby Cay at the easternmost tip of Mayaguana. The flats are absolutely gorgeous and I’ve always seen plenty of bones cruising there—some of sizable dimensions. Since no roads lead to Booby Cay, the only way to get there is by taking a rather lengthy and often very rough boat ride as weather permits.
The amount of fishable water around Mayaguana is limited and cannot adequately accommodate a large number of fly fishers at one time. To avoid any problems in that regard, check with Shorty to see if other anglers have reservations that overlap your projected dates.
Contact Information: Baycaner Beach Resort, www.baycanerbeach.com, (242) 339-3726, [email protected]
DEADMAN’S CAY AND LITTLE DEADMAN’S CAY
There are excellent opportunities for a do-it-yourself trip near the small village of Deadman’s Cay, which is located on Long Island, and near the privately held island known as Little Deadman’s Cay. The fishing centers around the huge area of abandoned “ponds” once used to mine salt by the Diamond Salt Company. Except for a few dredge canals that connect one vast flat to another, Mother Nature has largely reclaimed the area as prime bonefish habitat with miles of wadable water. You simply need to find a place to stay, and here are the two most practical and convenient DIY options. The first option is stay at the Long Island Bonefishing Lodge. In addition to standard guided skiff fishing, owner and chef, Nevin “Pinky” Knowles, offers an assisted DIY program whereby fly fishers access the flats by boat shuttle or kayak, and receive instruction from a local guide on fishing the area. Although the cost is slightly more than a low-budget trip, the added benefits of Pinky’s beautiful waterfront cabins and exquisite cuisine (and I don’t use that term loosely) are worth the additional expense.
New Bahamas Flats Fishing Regulations came into effect on January 9th, 2017. Visit www.Bahamas.GOV.BS/marineresources (under “Notices”) for Flats Fishing Regulations and Flats Angler Application.
Submit Application To: Minister responsible for Fisheries Resources at [email protected].
NOTE: Fishing lodge owners and guides are allowed to complete and pay for licenses on behalf of expected visitors before arrival in The Bahamas.
Cost of License: Day License (valid day of issuance only) – $15.00; Weekly License – $20.00; Monthly License – $30.00; Annual License – $60.00.
Some Things To Note:
- These regulations will require all persons using the flats, such as guides anglers and DIYs to have a license issued by the Department of Marine Resources in New Providence, or the Family Island Administrators in the Family Islands and soon the licenses will be issued online.
- All guides are expected to be certified over time by the Ministry of Tourism and the Department of Marine Resources, in conjunction with approved fly fishing associations in The Bahamas.
- Bahamian certified fishing guides must be used if two (2) or more anglers are fishing in the flats by means of a vessel (skiffs, etc.)
- Only Bahamian-registered vessels will be allowed on the flats.
- Only Bahamians will be allowed to work as guides.
- All anglers over the age of 12 will need a license to fish.
- Do-It-Yourselfers or DIYs will not need a fishing guide.
- A conservation fund will be established for the conservation and management of the flats and its fishery resources.
- No commercial fishing will be allowed on the flats.
- The fishery covered by these regulations include bonefish, tarpon, cobia, and permit.
- The fines and penalties as set out in the regulations will be strictly enforced.
An alternative is to rent the only house on Little Deadman’s Cay, a small and privately owned 9½-acre island situated about ¾ mile from the main shore of Long Island. The better news is that house is even closer to the fishing. From the house it’s only a brief walk of 200 yards or so through shallow water and along the beach of another tiny cay to the former salt ponds.
The self-contained three-bedroom house is certainly nothing fancy, but it sits at the edge of a bonefish Shangri-la. A 13-foot outboard skiff is included with the house for exploring other nearby waters and taking trips to Long Island, but beware of regulations (above).
Contact Information: House on Little Deadman’s Cay, inquire about availability through www.bahamasrentalvacations.com. Long Island Bonefishing Lodge, www.longislandbonefishinglodge.com, (242)472-2609, [email protected].
GOVERNOR’S HARBOUR, ELEUTHERA
The rainbow Inn is an ideal base from which to bonefish on your own. In addition to its comfortable rooms and excellent table fare, the inn has a long-established DIY bonefishing program for fly fishers that was developed by Graham Pepler. Fly fishing guests receive a complimentary copy of Pepler’s Rainbow Guide, a pamphlet on how and where to go bonefishing on Eleuthera, along with maps that identify more than a dozen quality fishing spots. Over the years, fish at the most well known and easily accessed locations have become increasingly wary and tougher to catch, so don’t be afraid to explore opportunities on your own down the rugged, unpaved roads that run from the main highway to the flats. Some of these two-track trails lead to outstanding fishing. If you decide to take the off-road approach, I would highly recommend renting a vehicle (SUV, truck, Jeep, etc.) with high ground clearance, as many pathways are impossible to navigate in a car without damaging the undercarriage.
Try the flats at Savannah Sound, a large cove on the ocean side of the island. Some sizable bonefish cruise these flats, but they can be extremely spooky over the white sand bottom. To avoid alarming these fish, use a long leader (at least 12 feet) in combination with a lightweight size 6 fly. Move very slowly and pause often to scan the area for fish.
For large numbers of bonefish, visit the flats on the back side (opposite the ocean side) of Eleuthera around Alabaster Bay. Large schools of fish frequent the area, and although normally smaller than their oceanside counterparts, they are typically more aggressive feeders.
This list of DIY options certainly isn’t all-encompassing, but it does offer some outstanding locations to go bonefishing on your own without doing a lot of investigation. The hardest part in the process of planning your own trip may be deciding which place is the most appealing. After that, it’s simply a matter of booking a flight that’s headed to your chosen utopia. Just make sure you grab a window seat so you can dream of casting flies to bonefish on the untrammeled flats below.
Jon B. Cave operates the longest-established fly fishing school in the South and is the author of Performance Fly-Casting and FlyFishing Odyssey. Visit www.jonbcaveflyfishing.com for more info.