Due to wild weather and world events, some anglers are wondering where to find their next bonefish.
[By Chris Santella]
If you were to write a country song in the fall of 2019 about the state of bonefishing, it might start something like this:
Old Dorian, he blew down the Bahamas
Maduro’s got Los Roques in a bind
There’s gunfire over Ambergris
Saint Brandon’s anything but free
Your silver ghosts may sure be hard to find…
Given these developments, the prognosis for bonefish enthusiasts seems grim. Hurricane Dorian ravaged portions of the Bahamian islands of Grand Bahama and Abaco, temporarily shuttering several lodges and closing one for good. The political turmoil in Venezuela makes Los Roques off-limits to all but the most intrepid anglers. (Make that extremely intrepid—by all reports, those Caracas jails are no picnic.) The unfortunate shooting incident that occurred last June off Ambergris Caye in northern Belize—which resulted in the murders of a local guide and a fly fishing cardiologist from Virginia, the latter of whom was not the primary target—is widely believed to be connected to the guide’s main gig as a drug runner, thus an anomaly . . . but still. And while the flats of the Seychelles remain pristine and undersubscribed in terms of angling potential, it’s a fairly finite group that can afford the time and outlay to partake of the privilege.
Add to this reports of tainted alcohol in clubs around Cancún, which is linked to at least one death, and drug cartels on the Yucatán, uncertainty about the legality of travel to Cuba, rising ocean levels that could swamp Christmas Island in our lifetime—and one is left wondering, Is there anywhere I can go to chase bonefish?
These are certainly interesting times in the history of bonefishing. Look back a few years, and one could say that we’d entered a golden age in the pastime—new venues were coming online with solid infrastructures; sociopolitical barriers to sought-after flats were falling; and a host of competent booking agents (abetted by the internet) were available to make adventures to far-flung places mostly turnkey. On the face of it, the tables seem to have violently turned. But upon closer examination, things are not nearly so bad as they seem—which is to say, rumors of the death of bonefishing have been exaggerated.
“When you’re looking at the state of bonefishing, there are two things to consider,” said Jim Klug, founder and director of operations at Yellow Dog Fly Fishing Adventures in Bozeman, Montana. “One is the infrastructure; the other is the resource. I’d say that while the infrastructure has some challenges, the resource is in excellent condition, maybe better than it has been for ten or fifteen years. Catch-and-release fishing in places like Belize has aided populations, and there are movements afoot to ban netting. Where communities have been able to tie bonefishing to economic opportunity, there’s a stronger inclination to enact laws to protect the fish, and to enforce those laws. My favorite example is the Bahamian coin. In the United States, we put dead presidents on our money. In the Bahamas, it’s bonefish. They recognize the value of bonefish to their economy.” Speaking to booking agents who focus on saltwater travel, we’ve attempted to provide a roundup of bonefishing opportunities as they exist now.
On September 1, Hurricane Dorian made landfall on Great Abaco Island, with sustained winds of 185 miles per hour and gusts over 220 mph. The following day, it reached Grand Bahama. On a human level, it’s hard to measure the devastation. McClean’s Town, on the east end of Grand Bahama, had a direct hit from the storm after it moved west from Marsh Harbor.
“Dorian pretty much devastated Mclean’s Town,” said Robert Neher, owner of East End Lodge. “Wooden homes are completely gone, like someone picked them up and took them away. Concrete structures are mostly gone, beyond some rubble. Five people died, and at least nine others are missing.”
East End Lodge is closed for an undetermined time, though owners hope to reopen.
“We employ thirteen people from a settlement of one hundred forty,” Neher added. “I feel a responsibility to provide some economic opportunity for the people of McClean’s Town, as job prospects on the East End are grim.”
But it’s not all bad news. “From conversations I’ve had, H20 [in Freeport] will be ready to roll in November,” said Joe Codd, saltwater department manager and North America big game program manager for Frontiers International Travel in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania. “North Riding Point is also slated to open in January. They missed the storm by the skin of their teeth. The hurricane was so compact, you could’ve almost fished through it at the other islands.”
It’s important to remember that while parts of the Abacos and Grand Bahama were hit very hard, most of the other 700 islands that make up the Bahamas were largely unscathed.
“People should know that, by and large, the Bahamas are open for business,” Klug noted. “From the long-term perspective, a tragedy like Dorian hits the reset button, and could improve the fishery. We saw this after the last hurricane [Irma] hit northern Cuba in 2017. The last two years, fishing there has been sensational.”
“Many of the bonefishing hot spots in the Bahamas are on the outer islands, like Andros and Crooked,” said David Leake, who manages the travel department at Tailwaters Fly Fishing in Dallas. “While it’s a tremendous bummer for the lodges on Abaco and Grand Bahama and their regular clients, I don’t know if the average guy who wants to go bonefishing in the Bahamas is lacking for options.” Leake also pointed out that the lodges that were impacted have been doing a great job refunding or relocating their anglers to other places.
“Overall, I believe the situation in the Bahamas is better than people thought,” Codd continued. “The human impact is great, but from a lodge perspective, things could’ve been a lot worse. With several lodges lost, I anticipate some inventory problems this winter. But overall, there’s still lots of good fishing to be had in the Bahamas.”
Los Roques, Venezuela
For bonefish anglers who like to wade hard sand flats for shots at bigger bonefish, Los Roques is near the top of the list. But it’s off the itinerary now.
“Once you’re off the mainland, things are fine,” Klug said (although everyone who might fish there would have to decide what level of fine they’re comfortable with). “The guides are there,” Klug added, “and the resource is untouched, and I’d guess fishing is better than it has been in twenty years. But people don’t want to go. We used to send hundreds of anglers there, but bookings are down ninety percent.” Codd from Frontiers said he hasn’t sent a client there in two years, because the risk isn’t worth it.
After significant thawing during the Obama administration, US relations with Cuba have cooled. No one disputes the quality of the fishery, whether you’re south of the mainland in Jardines de la Reina—an archipelago the size of the Florida Keys with just a handful of skiffs poling along each day—or north of the mainland at Cayo Cruz or Cayo Romano. But can Americans go? Legally?
The answer is yes, if you look closely at the details.
“I think it’s important to note that Cubans welcome American travelers to visit their country and are some of the nicest people you’ll meet anywhere,” said Kristin Tripp, Cuba and Bluewater program director for Yellow Dog. “You’re not going to end up in a Cuban jail just because you visit the country, a common misperception. It’s the US Office of Foreign Assets Control [OFAC] that cares. They don’t want Americans to spend USD in Cuba that supports the Cuban government. The entities that we work with have assured us that they don’t do any commerce with any government-owned entities or those on OFAC’s [roster of] ‘blacklisted’ businesses.
“In June 2019, the Trump administration revoked the legality of trips to Cuba under the ‘educational activities / person to person’ category (with a grandfather clause for trips already on the books),” Tripp said. “However, of the eleven legal categories of travel remaining, ‘Support for Cuban People’ [515.574], and the ‘Public Performances, Clinics, Workshops, Exhibitions, Athletic and Other Competitions’ [515.567, which can extend to fishing] are both legitimate categories as long as you have the appropriate trip documentation. This is the real kicker in being sure that your trip is legal. Cubans are really suffering right now, so income from tourism is sorely needed.”
“Cuba has exploded, and it’s here to stay,” said Brian Gies, director of travel operations at Fly Water Travel in Ashland, Oregon.
“The destinations are quite varied, some boat-based, some land-based. Some people go just to fish, some mix in cultural activities. Everyone we send is going through the official licensing process, as established by OFAC. Completing the documentation is pretty seamless, and takes only ten minutes or so of online paperwork. We provide guidelines.”
“Cuba has done a good job in terms of creating reserves where harvest of bonefish with nets is prohibited,” Klug added. “They’ve also regulated the number of skiffs in each fishery. The result is that the fishery is incredibly strong overall, and will likely remain that way. It’s one of the few things that Cuba has gotten right.”
Note: As this magazine went to press, the Trump Administration announced it would ban all flights to nine destinations in Cuba, outside of Havana. If put into effect, this would add an extra challenge for anglers visiting the Cayo Romano/Cayo Cruz and Jardines de la Reina fisheries, as direct international flights from the U.S. to Camaguey would no longer be available. Anglers booked into Cayo Largo, Isla de la Juventud, Playa Larga or Zapata would not be impacted, as travelers currently reach these destinations via flights arriving to Havana.
Despite the proposed ban, the airlines that serve Camaguey—JetBlue and American—planned to sell tickets up to the December 10, 2019 cutoff. Bottom line? Flights will continue to operate as scheduled, at least through December 10.
“This is Cuba,” Tripp said shortly after the ban was proposed. “It’s always changing and hard to keep up with navigating regulations and rules affecting American travelers.But (the fishing) is worth the tenacity that it takes to get there.”