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“Against the Drag”

by Stephen McGrath
photos by Stephen McGrath

fly fishing for bonefishThe wind is supposed to pick up again this afternoon. Fifteen to twenty out of the northeast. But this morning, there is no rustle to be heard from the palm fronds outside and the full moon is casting their still shadows  against my bedroom wall.

I’ve spent three days waiting out a cold front brought on by the tail end of a big system moving up the East Coast. I’ll have an incoming tide and am already visualizing a push of fish and glistening tails. I am drawn to extreme locales. But I’m fortunate enough to live in a beautiful Montana valley laced by perfect trout streams and to wake up on a picturebook island in the Bahamas surrounded by miles of pristine flats. My luck is not lost on me.

The Jeep starts on the first try, something I don’t take for granted anymore. A thirty-year-old island resident and mine for the last ten, its body shows the cancerous rust that eventually befalls any vehicle surrounded by salt water. The biggest spots are at the lower corners of  both doors—fist-sized openings that allow me to feel the rushing air and occasional moisture when driving in a squall. They do, however, serve as great drainage sites when I wash out the detritus collected on the rubberized floor after a week on the flats. I’m thinking of suggesting that Jeep install this prototype vent in their new Eddie Bauer Special Edition Bonefish model. It’s my automotive version of the “potcake,” a mongrel dog species that inhabits our island. Some are domesticated but many are feral, witnessed by the occasional forlorn female with teats almost dragging on the ground that you see slinking through the pines on her way to her bush babies. Amazingly adaptable and tenacious, they are epitomized by the little scamp that we recently found living in a discarded washing machine next to one of our launch sites.

As I hookup my skiff, the disparity in the condition of my two modes of transportation is glaringly obvious. She is a sleek beauty, with clean lines highlighting a perfectly functional design. Built nine years ago by Tom Gordon, a master who plied his boatbuilding craft for far too few years, she retains her stunning appearance like that rare breed of women who actually get more beautiful as they age.

Driving down the road, I spot an old Haitian man walking home to the settlement that is just north of my put-in. He has miles to go and is without the aid of the old bicycle that locals often use to get around. Initially surprised when I pull over and gesture for him to get in, he now enthusiastically jumps into the passenger seat. Conversation is minimal beyond an initial hello but he offers a Caribbean-lilted “ God Bless You” and a big smile when I drop him off. It’s a nice start to my day.

As I maneuver the boat through a winding mangrove creek that will open up into a larger bay, the sunrise illuminates a low cloud bank to the south. But I will have total sunshine and glassy conditions until the tide pushes me off the spot that I intend to wade today. Even though a slight chop on the water makes the fishing a little easier, I would never trade it for these dead-calm early conditions. There is an otherwordly vibe when the horizon line is blurred between sea and sky and the whole ocean is like a giant spring creek. Coming up onto plane, I notice how extreme the full moon low tide is and have to pay more attention than I like while running the boat in eighteen inches of water. Luckily, I don’t have too far to go and eventually I settle into a rhythm that lets me enjoy the fresh air and freedom of a morning trek to a favorite flat.

fly fishing for bonefishRunning so shallow, I spook some of the bay’s citizens far in front of the skiff .The morning is filled with promise.  I kill the engine well before I reach the edge of the flat. I will pole in the final three hundred yards since I can already see the nervous water created by schools of bonefish waiting to ride the tide into the creek mouth, which leads to a vast inside mangrove lagoon. A bonefish can’t even fart today without giving away his location. Standing atop my poling platform and surveying my salt water playground is admittedly one of my most cherished pastimes. The difference between this perch and the bow of a skiff is that of a regular movie theater and an IMAX. I have the world’s biggest aquarium and all of its wondrous inhabitants at my feet.

After anchoring the boat, I work my way silently around the point of the island which frames the flat. Looking out across the great expanse of water in front of me, it’s easy to see why bonefishing is 90% hunting and 10% fishing, and that wading is the ultimate expression of the sport. This flat reminds me of the rolling stubble fields of central Montana where coveys of huns are yours for the finding. Later on, the rising water will allow the fish to get way back into the mangroves where you can often hear them splashing after discovering a hapless crab. Totally inaccessible at this point, I think they relish the fact that you know they are there and there’s nothing you can do about it. At this moment, they remind me of those Bighorn cock pheasants cackling away in an impenetrable cattail jungle.

Scanning the slick surface downlight, I see my first tail of the morning. My initial excitement is quickly dampened by the darker color and a serpentine swimming motion. It’s a medium-sized lemon shark  attracted like me by the pull of a rising tide. You always want to see sharks when wading. Their presence usually means that you are not the only two organisms on the flat.

I will not see another boat today. The solitude that I will experience is both exhilarating  and sobering. Gone are the days when a manic obsession with these creatures kept me out all day and often unwilling to share my bounty with other anglers. While I still love the occasional solo foray, I now truly enjoy the companionship of others.

fly fishing for bonefishEver the dutiful husband, I tried to introduce my wife to the sport on a getaway to Exuma years ago. Rather than deal with the frustration of trying to expose a newcomer to the nuances of fly fishing, we went armed with an ultralight spinning outfit and a baggie full of shrimp procured from the obliging chef of an island eatery. To my great surprise, we had an awesome morning and brought five fish to hand. Obviously elated and not just a little impressed with my guiding prowess, I asked her what she thought of bonefishing. The reply of  “Can we go back to the beach now?” was on par with the glazed eye indifference that I’m sure I exhibit when she shows me drapery catalogs or an organic menu featuring produce and antioxidants straight from the Dr Oz show.

My current cast of co-conspirators runs the gamut of both size and ability. There is the dear friend, a huge former linebacker at UNC, whose enthsiasm is infectious. The only problem arises when he sees a bonefish. His excitement level permeates into his casting stroke, resulting in a swaying of his body that creates a world class hull slap. Not only does the immediate target rocket awaym but bonefish on flats miles away that we were intending to fish in the afternoon also get nervous.

I have a few other buddies that might see a bonefish for the first time fifteen feet from the boat.  They then have said fish exhibit extreme suicidal tendencies by wolfing their stationary offering at ten feet, which catapults them to Master Angler status. There are others like the obsessed radiologist from Boise and the New Hampshire curmudgeon who hates to travel, whom I cannot get enough of.  A few skilled Montana nutcases round out this rogue’s gallery.

But today I’m alone by design and have a half mile of perfect flat in front of me. There’s a disruption in the shallows about the size of a bathtub when a juvenile ‘cuda blasts into a school of airborne baitfish. Further down, I spot an ibis plying its craft. My friend Bill’s wife swears that a white bird guarantees that bones are around. The bird and I exchange glances, each seemingly knowing why the other one is here: there’s work to be done.

Fly fishing for bonefishThe first bonefish of the day is a beautiful five- to six-pounder slowly tailing and working his way towards me. As is often the case with these frontrunners, he is testing the limits of depth and occasionally spooks himself by venturing too shallow onto the bank. He has now settled down however. and is displaying that hypnotic forward motion indicative of a happy fish. I make a low side cast to get the working head portion of the fly line into play while gauging the distance for my next effort. With the glasslike conditions, I drop the fly about ten feet ahead, letting him swim up on the fly. Luckily he continues on his prescribed path, and when he is three feet from my offering I give it a gentle twitch. This is when everything comes together. He gives that immediate reaction and surges to the right. His whole back arches out of the water as he inhales the fly off the bottom. As my fishing buddies say: It’s all about the yank.

At the first bite of the hook he displays a moment of confusion and then begins to rocket off to deeper water. A roostertail of spray comes off the fly line as it arcs across the flat’s surface. The fish will make its typical series of two to three powerful runs accompanied by a frantic effort to escape at my feet. I find myself falling into an all too typical pattern of  scanning the terrain for other fish while this one is still peeling off line. This angling faux paus is typical of bonefishermen who have been spoiled by too much success and does a disservice to the quarry at hand. It’s a throwback to the aforementioned time when I simply could never catch enough fish. I need to correct this, among some other things in my life. I think the list is still on the refrigerator.

fly fishing for bonefishIt’s important to remember that while laboring against the drag imparted by my reel, the bonefish is in a panicked state and has absolutely no comprehension of my noble intention to release him unharmed. He is, quite simply, fighting for his life. Even as he arrives to hand and we briefly share eye contact, the comprehension of his new freedom comes slowly after I slip him back into the water. His barred back symbolizes the recent struggle as he works his way back out. Four more fish will complete my morning. Nothing could make the morning more perfect, despite the fact that the biggest fish came unbuttoned on the first run. As they say about the left field wall at Fenway: “The Monstah giveth and the Monstah taketh away”.

As I head back to the boat, I realize that we are all fighting the drag in one way or another. After almost forty years of bonefishing, a fleeting “senior moment” involving lost glasses or car keys will have me wondering how many more runs I have left in me. Right now, I feel like I can wade and pole forever but many of my contemporaries have recently installed “sissy bars” in their once unadulterated and proud skiffs. What’s next, an elevator up to the poling platform ? They tolerate my disdain for these contraptions while secretly waiting for me to fall overboard.

We’re all eventually going to get reeled in by the great eight weight in the sky, but I hope the bonefish have taught me a few tricks over the years. I’d like to break a few more tippets on some momentous runs and mangrove roots before the drag wears me down too.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Stephen McGrath is a retired dentist who lives in Bozeman, Montana with wife Taffy. He practiced dentistry in Livingston for 30 years. He also established Destinations, a flyfishing travel agency, with his partner John Boisvert. In addition to booking trips worldwide, we owned and operated the Yellowstone Valley Ranch in Paradise Valley and built the Mangrove Cay Club on Andros.
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  • Arthur Strauss, MD

    First time writer? I felt I was on the flats with him. Mr. McGrath has a definite flair as an author with an obvious love for flyfishing. Keep up the good works!