Bonefish, back where they belong.
As the sun rose above the east end of Grand Bahama Island, Justin Lewis, Bonefish & Tarpon Trust’s Bahamas initiative manager, poled us into the north fork of August Creek, his skiff gliding over white sand and between mangrove stands. We were not sure what to expect, as we were among the first anglers in over 60 years to access this branch of the creek, which connects the Bight of Abaco and Mcleans Town Creek and provides habitat for bonefish and a variety of other fish species.
Schools of mangrove snappers and blue-striped grunts hovered in the shadows as crabs scurried along the shore and tricolored herons and endangered reddish egrets glided overhead. The meandering creek narrowed until it was hardly wider than the skiff. We pressed on, determined to discover if bonefish had returned to the surrounding flats.
In the 1950s, a 600-yard causeway was constructed across the creek so that logging companies could harvest pine trees on August Cay and haul that timber to the mainland. The three-to-four-foot tall causeway essentially dammed the creek, blocking the tidal flow and making it impossible for bonefish, or any other fish species, to utilize the habitat. The flats dried up, the remaining water grew stagnant, and bonefish were long gone. The logging operations ceased in the 1960s, but the causeway was left in place.
In 2013, East End guides and residents appealed to Bahamas National Trust (BNT), a nonprofit dedicated to conserving the nation’s natural resources, and its partner, Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (BTT), to reopen the creek. Last year, BNT obtained permission from the Bahamas Environment, Science & Technology (BEST) Commission and then turned to BTT to fund and facilitate the project.
Lewis and Dr. Aaron Adams, BTT’s director of science and conservation, developed the restoration design. “We chose to make three cuts in the causeway that would open the north branch and maximize flow to the secondary southern portion,” Lewis said. “The approach would restore the original tidal flow pattern and allow for fish passage.” BNT approved the plan, and work began in late 2018.
“The project took about ten days,” Lewis said. “Our crew spent the first five days clearing the road to the causeway so we could bring in the earthmoving equipment. Within hours of the cuts being made, there were fish using all three channels. I counted fifteen different species, including jacks, sharks, cubera snapper, and bonefish.”
Several local guides from McLeans Town recently visited the site, including Cecil Leathen, head guide and partner at East End Lodge. “I think the restoration of August Creek was an excellent idea,” he said. “We’re starting to get more and more bonefish back there. One of our guides is even fishing those flats now, which we haven’t been able to do for years.”
As Lewis and I ventured onward, the creek eventually widened, revealing a series of mangrove-fringed flats covered by the rising tide. Within minutes, he spotted a pair of bonefish feeding deep in the mangroves. The fish were out of casting range, but we were nonetheless encouraged by the sight.
Bonefish are vital not only to the local economy of the East End, where several lodges employ a large percentage of McLeans Town’s population, but also to the entire nation. An earlier study, commissioned by BTT, estimates that the annual economic impact of the bonefish fishery to the Bahamas’ economy is $141 million.
We soon reached a stand of mangroves in the middle of the creek. “I’ve got two more fish at ten o’clock,” Lewis said as he quietly poled the skiff into position.
The wind had picked up, but despite the ripples I could make out a pair of grayish figures facing into the current. As the fish slowly moved from the sandy bottom into a green patch, their colors darkened. I waited until the pair slipped into an opening between the mangroves, and made a short cast. The fish raced to a spawning shrimp pattern. The first one to reach the fly took it aggressively.
While this bonefish was far from the largest either Lewis and I have caught, it was a special one. The fish was among the first in decades to be landed in the north branch of August Creek. And its presence in the restored creek is testament to the efforts and foresight of a local guide community that was able to make change that should benefit future guides and anglers for generations to come. —Nick Roberts
WHAT ABOUT EFFECTS FROM HURRICANE DORIAN?
A note from BTT:
BTT’s work to restore August Creek was not affected by Hurricane Dorian. However, the mangroves in the area, as well as in other areas of Grand Bahama and Abaco, were severely impacted by the storm. BTT is currently working with Bahamas National Trust and other partners to assess the mangrove damage from Dorian, which will guide mangrove restoration efforts. In addition, BTT is building upon the successful restoration of August Creek, and is in the early stages of planning additional mangrove creek restoration projects in the Bahamas.