Last week I fished with the folks from H2O Bonefishing, who operate out of Pelican Bay Hotel in Lucaya, Grand Bahama. I was there on the invitation of Orvis, who wanted to gather “pros” and amateur anglers together to assist in the tagging and fin-clipping of bonefish for Tarpon & Bonefish Unlimited. BTU, if you didn’t know, has made great strides in the past ten years in determining the spawning habits, range and species differentiation among bonefish (not to mention gathering extensive data on tarpon as well). This was Orvis’s first foray into saltwater research, and during the week dozens of fish were tagged or fin-clipped so that BTU could add the fish of that area to their ever-expanding database.
I fished only two days — just enough to stretch the line on some very nice fish and remind myself that not all bonefish want a fly stripped cautiously. In fact the fish on the northern flats of Grand Bahama chased the flies we were throwing — mostly weighted size-4 “McKnife” patterns with toad-like yarn bodies, red eyes, orange crystal hair tails and chartreuse thread — like barracudas.
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I lost the first four fish that ate my fly because I wasn’t stripping fast enough. These weren’t peewees: most of the fish we caught went more than three pounds, and on my boat alone there were a few six and seven pounders. From the jaded perspective of a former Keys guide, the fact that we ended up fishing only 17-pound tippet was a pleasant awakening.
A few flats on the north side of Grand Bahama are wadeable, but for the most part wading is not going to get you to the better fishing. The most productive areas seemed to be thin flats bordering mangroves and the edges of basins that required some long boat rides. After escaping one persistent thunderstorm, however, we did have some great fishing for tailing bones on a softer flat that made me wish I weighed 50 pounds less and had bigger feet. But the water was crystal-clear and the fish were easy to see, even when our light wasn’t optimal.
For comparison’s sake, some of the group also spent time fishing the flats on the east end of Grand Bahama, which the Deep Water Cay Club fishes fairly hard, and the fish there were quite a bit more educated. “Not only do the fish know what fly you’re using,” our canny young guide said, “but they know who tied it.” We did catch some fish in the east using smaller (size 6) Meko Specials and white Gotchas with tan bunny fur collars, but we also had plenty of refusals. H2O, to their credit, makes a point not to fish the same flats more than once a week — a luxury they can afford because of the vast network of flats that stretch out from the northern shore of the island.
Orvis has a reputation for being discriminating in choosing destinations for their customers, but this trip was unique, even for them, combining good fishing with an education on bonefish behavior and science. I’d never attended an event like it, and I actually think everyone came away a bit surprised at the richness of the experience. No small credit goes to Dr. Aaron Adams, BTU’s director of operations, who gave two or three detailed presentations and convinced me, at least, that no one knows more about bonefish and what they eat, how fast they grow, or how far they swim. Turns out there are at least three species of bonefish in the Caribbean and that they often intermingle. But more importantly, recent data shows that because of ocean currents and spawning patterns, the bonefish in the Florida Keys are often “recruited” from Belizean juveniles — a fact that emphasizes the critical significance of protections not just locally but in the Caribbean as a whole.
A word on rods: Orvis supplied anglers with eight-weight Helios tip-flex rods for the trip, and these rods performed terrifically, both with matching lines and when overlined with a nine. I fished the rod with an eight-weight Orvis Wonderline and had not a single problem (I did cut off the slightly bulky triple nail-knot loop that comes with the line and replaced it with a speedy nail knot straight to the butt section). But I cast a couple of rods that were overlined and have to say that a nine might be preferable for some. Two rods broke during the week — one bouncing around the back of the van (fittingly owned by Jim Lepage, the Helios designer) and one when a guide decided to catch a fish and high-sticked the rod. But it was the performance of the rod that made me want to baby it a bit when sliding it into the rod holders, not any fear that that it might break under stress. In fact just for kicks I cranked the drag down on a Large Arbor Battenkill down to about five pounds and caught a fish on 17-pound tippet with max pressure. That a rod this light can stand up to such pressure is no doubt due to the efforts of Lepage, who several years ago threw away all the subjective measurements being used to rate Orvis rods and their resistance to breakage and reduced everything to testing and flex profiling. In fact “Orvis tests not just their own rods,” Lepage said, “but every rod you see on the market. We break rods until we know exactly where ours fit in the mix, then we adjust the tapers, grind the ferrules and change the flex profile until we are sure our rods are as strong as anyone else’s.”
Lastly, I want to mention that H2O Bonefishing exceeded my expectations for an outside-the-U.S. operation. I’ve fished in dozens of places all over the Caribbean, and Greg Vincent and Jason Franklin, the co-operators, were among the most congenial and knowledgeable hosts I’ve ever fished with. H2O sells guided trips only with lodging as part of the package, but the amenities at the Pelican Bay Hotel are top-notch. We did have a couple of hiccups while we were there — rooms not being ready for immediate check-in and someone reporting no hot water — but the rooms are extremely comfortable and much more spacious than any lodging I’ve experienced while bonefishing. I wouldn’t hesitate to return.
As Aaron Adams and I stepped off the plane and walked through the south Florida heat to Ft. Lauderdale Airport after a short flight back, we both were thinking the same thing: “Here we are back in the land where people aren’t polite as a matter of habit.” We braced ourselves for a faster pace and less genteel manners, once again. The Bahamas will do that to you.
For more information on Grand Bahama Island or other fly fishing destinations, contact Orvis Travel at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 1-800-547-4322.