Abaco Life Magazine

Abaco Life, An Island Magazine

 
   
       

Where The Bonefish Live


Abaco’s worldwide reputation for bonefishing
has created a multi-million dollar segment
in the tourist industry, and no one appreciates
it more than Abaco’s many bonefish guides.

By Jim Kerr

Neil and Karen O’Shea discovered Abaco and Green Turtle Cay and decided to get married there in 1998. Traveling more than 4,000 miles across the Atlantic from Cheshire, England near Manchester, the most important thing they brought with them for the honeymoon ahead was their bonefishing equipment. Aside from each other, the thing they looked forward to most was rising early, packing a lunch, lathering up with sun screen and heading off to the flats with their fly fishing tackle
A bonefish honeymoon may seem a bit unusual, but traveling to Abaco primarily in pursuit of this sport is not. In the past decade, Abaco has become one of the hottest bonefishing destinations in the world. Several small resorts have sprung up catering to Bonefishing Abaco Bahamasbonefishermen, and others have happily adopted packages and other ways to accommodate enthusiasts of this sport. Along with eco-tourism, bonefishing is one of the most positive developments spotlighting Abaco’s tourist industry in recent times; a sport which not only conserves resources and highlights the environment, but also generates millions of dollars a year for Abaconians. Unlike lobster fishing, there is no closed season on bonefishing, although January through April is best. In the past 15 years, several dozen local men, most of whom once specialized in lobster fishing, have become full-time bonefishing guides, a fact which has relieved some of the pressure on the depleting lobster fishery. And while revenue from bonefishing visitors filters through myriad businesses, no individuals have benefited more in recent years than the guides themselves.
“Tourists wanted to go bonefishing, “ remembers Marsh Harbour-based Town Williams, a lobster fisherman until he took up bonefish guiding about 16 years ago. “I didn’t know anything about it, but I knew where to go. I knew where the bonefish lived. The clients, who had done it before, said ‘just take us there, and we’ll show you what to do.’”
He went on to work 150 days a year as a bonefishing guide himself, part of a global business with clients from around the world who found him primarily on the Internet. There are more than 35 active bonefishing guides in Abaco, from Sandy Point to Coopers Town and beyond, and the number is growing as demand increases. They have traditionally charged an average of $350 for two anglers for a full day, and $250 for a half day, although rising costs, such as fuel, have caused them to consider raising rates. Abaco’s bonefishing guides learned at an early age that bonefish - spooky and fast, but not much good to eat - live on the flats. Catching them, however, is an art they learned through practice, and from experienced bonefishermen who came to Abaco, including the legendary baseball great Ted Williams.
Williams and others knew that Abaco, like the rest of the Bahamas, was ideal for this kind of fishing. The silvery, almost translucent bonefish reside in water usually one to three feet deep. The name “Bahamas” comes from the Spanish term “Baja Mar,” or shallow sea. The islands are fringed by shallow banks, and while an Atlantic coastline with a barrier reef makes Abaco ideally situated for beaches, diving, snorkeling and deep sea fishing, the western side of the cays and mainland make for some of the best bonefish habitat in the world. The Marls, a series of small atolls amid shallow, marshy waters on the west side, cover more than 120 miles from north to south. Here, small shrimp, crabs, worms and shellfish, the bonefish’s favourite dinner, live in abundance, as do an unlimited number of bonefish. The west side of many of the outer cays, like Green Turtle, Manjack and others, offer more of the same, as does the eastern side of Great Abaco from Snake Cay to Cherokee Sound.
While some locals still somehow manage to prepare and eat bonefish in stew or crushed into cakes, the bones that make up its anatomy have always made it less than popular as a food source, and today the fish is protected as a sport fish only. As such, it is always caught and released. The majority of bonefishermen and women use fly fishing techniques somewhat similar to mountain stream trout fishing, but with some significant differences. The fly, a light-weight lure usually crafted by the fisherman himself with personal intuition regarding how to attract and fool the fish, is cast as far as 50 or 60 feet, so that it lands softly at least ten feet in front of the fish. But before that can happen, the fish have to be found.
Most guides use 14 to 17-foot shallow draft boats powered by outboard motors to get to the fishing grounds, then pole their boats silently across the flats looking for signs of fish.. The guide, often scanning the waters from an elevated platform, spots the tell-tale signs of the fish, which sometimes travel in schools of 30 or more. Their tails and dorsal fins often break the surface when feeding in the shallow water. The cast is sideways so that the fly falls lightly. Plopping the fly in the water, or casting too close to the fish, will almost certainly spook them into a quick departure. Once hooked, however, a bonefish zips away at incredible speed, often running 100 yards or more on its initial flight. They generally weigh from four to six pounds, but ten-pounders are not uncommon in Abaco. Besides casting, it takes finese to set the hook, let the fish run, play out the line and keep him out of coral or marsh where the line might tangle or break. After netting him for a quick photo, the bonefish must be properly released unharmed and in a manner insuring he will swim away to perhaps fight another day. It’s not easy, and even a good bonefisherman will lose half the fish he hooks, getting a strike on one out of ten casts. Nevertheless, there are plenty of fish, and the chase is often the greatest reward.
“It’s the stalking that’s fun,” says Neil O’Shea.
The English couple have been back to Green Turtle Cay four times since they got married in 1998, staying at the New Plymouth Inn. And while they have utilized local guides like Ronnie Sawyer, they like to go on their own, wading knee deep on the “town flats” just south of the settlement. Other locations in Abaco offer similar opportunities to bonefish without a guide. At the Sunset Resort, located on Abaco’s west side five miles north of Marsh Harbour, owners Janeen and Silbert Cooper work with a number of guides, but say it’s also “simple to just walk off the dock.” A flat, shallow expanse of water from their shoreline that stretches to the horizon is dotted with small, green atolls where ideal bonefish waters are five minutes away.
Many bonefishermen describe the experience as almost spiritual, as well as an addictive encounter with nature. It’s quiet and totally serene. The flats are habitat for fish and birds of all types. Herons, egrets, rays, barracuda and sharks are plentiful, as well as tropical fish. Sharks and barracuda stalk bonefish, and some guides rely on their presence as a strong indicator that bonefish are near. Visiting fishermen are often focused, and dedicate most of their vacation to the sport.
“Typically, fishing guests get up at 6:30, have coffee and talk about bonefishing,” says Janeen Cooper at Sunset Resort, which also has two bonefishing skiffs of its own.. “They fish until 4 pm, come in for snacks, a swim in the pool, clean up, have dinner, talk about bonefishing and go to bed.”
Other bonefishing lodges in Abaco include Nettie Symonette’s “Different of Abaco,” in Casurina Point, Rickmon’s Bonefishing Lodge, Pete and Gays Bonefishing Lodge, and Oeisha’s Resort in Sandy Point. Green Turtle Cay, Treasure Cay, Hope Town, Guana Cay and Marsh Habour are also popular locales with a number of guides in residence or close by. All provide pickup service with optional equipment. Lunch is usually not provided. A good pair of UV sunglasses, sun screen and head covering for protection from the sun and being hooked is always a must. Guides are highly recommended for novices, and even for experienced fishermen. Finding the best fishing grounds in the company of a local guide greatly enchances the occasion, and is most likely to make it a memorable one.

BONEFISHING GUIDES IN ABACO

Editors Note: While there may be more than three dozen active bonefishing guides in Abaco, the 11 profiled below represent a cross-section from various communities, including Sandy Point, Cherokee, Casurina Point, Marsh Harbour, Treasure Cay, Coopers Town and Green Turtle Cay. More information can be obtained from various resorts, the Abaco Chamber of Commerce, by searching the webor going to www.abacolife.com

NAME: Junior Albury
AGE: 44
HOMEBASE: Casuarina Point
CONTACT INFO: Tel: (242)366-3058; website: www.jr’sbonefishabaco.com; e-mail: none
PROFILE: On the day we talked to JR, he had caught the biggest bonefish in his 31 years of guiding - more than ten pounds. Growing up in Cherokee, he chummed the channels at age 13 with conch on a hand line from an eight-foot wooden skiff with a tiny Sea Gull outboard. Today he lives a bit closer to Marsh Harbour in Casuarina Point, and usually keeps one of his two custom-built Carolina skiffs at the ready in the marls near Marsh Harbour.
FAVORITE FLATS: Just about anywhere in the 120 miles of marls on Abaco’s west side. But if you think you can retrace your fishing grounds in this maze of shoals, creeks and islands, forget it. JR does not allow anyone with a GPS in his boats.
TIP: His nine-year-old son, Charles Whitman Albury III, who caught his first bonefish at age three, ties a superfly “that’s guaranteed to catch fish.” He learned it from a client who brought the original materials.

NAME: Buddy Pinder
Age: 45
HOMEBASE: Cherokee
CONTACT INFO: Tel: 366-2163; website: www.abacobones.com; e-mail: skeeterone@oii.net
PROFILE: Eleven years ago, he started “filling in” the months of March to August, which are closed to lobster fishing, with a bit of bonefishing. It was so successful he sold his lobster boat and began bonefishing full time. Early clients taught him tricks and gave him pointers, but “I knew where the bonefish lived,” he says. The business grew, and today Buddy is booked 200 days a year.
FAVORITE FLATS: He picks up his clients anywhere they might be staying and chooses an area in the marls, where he knows of many superb areas for bonefishing.
TIP: “Get a guide, it’s the best money you’ll ever spend.” Instead of struggling to get two or three, you’ll catch 15 to 20 fish.

NAME: Anthony Bain
Age: 44
HOMEBASE: Sandy Point
CONTACT INFO: Tel: 242-366-4107; website: none; e-mail: none
PROFILE: As a young boy, he used to help around a fishing camp near his hometown of Sandy Point, and when he was about 14 he was asked to take the fishermen’s wives bonefishing across the flats in a Boston Whaler. Passengers of the Helen S fishing excursion boat, which visited Abaco regularly back then, became quite interested when one passenger’s daughter landed a six to eight-pound bonefish. At first, he and his partner, Patrick Roberts (242) 366-4286, guided for free, hoping the sport would catch on. It did.
FAVORITE FLATS: Three to five minutes away from Pete and Gay’s Bonefish Lodge in Sandy Point is a spot he calls “Tourist Flat.” There bonefish “eat like crazy,” and it’s not uncommon to catch 15 a day.
TIP: Never use bait. Look for “nervous water” where a fish’s tail flashes, and “water push” caused by a fish’s wake.

NAME: Jay Sawyer
AGE: 37
HOMEBASE: Marsh Harbour
CONTACT INFO: Tel: (242) 367-3941; website: www.bonefishundercover.com; e-mail: flyfishabaco@coralwave.com.
PROFILE: He always knew there were plenty of bonefish in Abaco, but he first got hooked himself watching the TV program “Walkers Cay Chronicles,” which dealt primarily with fishing adventures at Abaco’s northernmost resort island. “I went out first as a sportsman,” says Jay. “It’s very addictive.” He’s been guiding for 14 years, strictly with flyfishing rods, using his own hand-made flies. “ It’s more of an art skill rather than just catching fish. It’s the ultimate.”
FAVORITE FLATS: The marls provide good bonefishing everywhere, but Jay likes a place called Joe Downers Cays, about three miles from Sand Banks on Abaco’s south side near Treasure Cay. There’s a big flat, and you can fish either from the boat or wading in the water on the hard bottom.
TIP: Use a tan or pearl-coloured fly with a silvery flash in it. It looks like a wounded bait fish, and the trick is to make it look alive.

NAME: Justin Sands
AGE: 36
HOMEBASE: Marsh Harbour
CONTACT INFO: Tel: (242) 367-3526; website: www.bahamasvg.com\justfish.html; e-mail: justfish@abacoinet.com
PROFILE: After many days just watching bonefish in the water, he spent an entire summer learning to catch them from more experienced mentors Jay Sawyer and Buddy Pinder. “I had to figure out where they were at different tides, what they ate, whether it was shrimp or crab, and what their patterns were in different areas,” he says. But while Justin has only been a guide since 1997, he won the Abaco Island Wide Bonefish Tournament in April, 2002, placed second overall in the subsequent Bahamas National Bonefish Tournament held in Grand Bahama last October and fifth in the Bahamas World Invitational Championships in November.
FAVORITE FLAT: “I like the marls, but the fish are not as big as on the east side at Snake Cay and the Bight of Old Robinson,” says Justin. If a client is experienced enough, he’ll go there, but more fish are likely to be caught on the west side.
TIP: Try to match the bottom with the kind of fly you use. If it’s sandy, try a light natural brown. If it’s rocky, use a dark colour. A food source that contrasts with the bottom would have been eaten long ago. The fish needs to know its dinner is supposed to be there.

NAME: Ricky Sawyer
AGE: 44
HOMEBASE: New Plymouth, Green Turtle Cay
CONTACT INFO: Tel: 242-365-4261; website: www.abacoflyfish.com; e-mail: bonefish@abacoflyfish.com
PROFILE: A protogee of both his father, Fred, and grandfather, Sammy, who was Green Turtle Cay’s first bonefishing guide, Ricky started working on the fishing boat Mary Ann Kate at age 15. In 1973, on his first mission driving a Boston Whaler off the mother ship, his solitary client was a somewhat stuffy, but experienced, angler who eventually warmed up and taught Ricky a trick or two. The man was legendary baseball great and expert fisherman Ted Williams. In 1990, after 20 years of working with his dad, Ricky went on his own, and while he will do a combination of deep sea and bonefishing, he now works almost exclusively on the flats.
FAVORITE FLAT: There’s plenty of bones around the settlement, but Ricky particularly likes Carter Cays, a 40-mile trip north that takes about an hour and 20 minutes. “There’s no pressure on the fish except from Walker’s Cay,” he says. “I know the best spots and don’t go when others are up there.” He often stops on the north side of Little Abaco, or at Manjack Cay creek, zipping back to Green Turtle in his new 17-foot Maverick Master Angler in time for a bragging session at cocktail hour.
TIP: “It’s not as easy as it looks on ESPN. You have to work at it and it takes time. Everyday I learn something different.”

NAME: Orthnell Russell
AGE: Sixtyish
HOMEBASE: Coopers Town
CONTACT INFO: Tel: 242-365-0125
PROFILE: Born on the deepwater side of the Abaco Mainland, he liked the flats on the other side where, as a kid, he spent many days watching the habits of the silvery bonefish. He caught his first fish at age 11 and was hooked himself. “Then I get good,” he says. When Clint Murchison, owner of the Dallas Cowboys and the island of Spanish Cay off Coopers Town, asked around for a bonefishing guide, Orthnell stepped forward. Later he worked at Treasure Cay, but today he’s independent, working from his home.
FAVORITE FLATS: South of Coopers Town is a shallow basin with an assortment of cays, including one he calls Rat Cay because of its shape. The water is less than a foot deep, and long years of experience have taught him where to look. “I know where they don’t be, and where they does be,” he says.
TIP: Fish in the early morning, before the fish head for deeper water in the hot afternoon. From March to May is best.

NAME: Ronnie Sawyer
AGE: 46
HOMEBASE: Green Turtle Cay
CONTACT INFO: Tel: 242-365-4070; cell phone: 242-357-6667; website: www.go-abacos.com/ronnie.
PROFILE: As a teenager, Ronnie was taught the mechanics and special nuances of fishing by his father, Joe Sawyer, a pioneer fishing guide. Carrying on a long tradition, Ronnie has been a guide for 24 years, and these days fishes 200 days a year. He was featured on ESPN’s Salt Water Sportsman recently, bonefishing around the settlement of New Plymouth and at Manjack Cay where, he says, the fish average five pounds and up.
FAVORITE FLAT: He calls it “Town Flat” because it’s near the settlement. Ten-pounders are not that uncommon here, and he himself has landed bonefish as large as 14 pounds, he says.
TIP: Fly fishing for bonefish, which is the way eight out of ten sportsman catch them, is unlike flyfishing in a trout stream. “You need to cast the line 50 to 60 feet, and I can teach them to do this,” he says. “It’s all in the timing.”

NAME: Ricardo Burrows
AGE: 38
HOMEBASE: Sandy Point
CONTACT INFO: Tel: 242-366-4233; website: www.rickmonbonefishlodge.com; cell phone: 242-359-6696.
PROFILE: Ricardo had to “force himself” to convert from traditional lobster fishing to bonefishing, but he has never regretted it. His friend, Patrick Roberts, was the only other bonefishing guide at Sandy Point 15 years ago when he started in the profession himself. Patrick was his mentor, but it was the client fishermen themselves who taught him the art of casting, as well as many other tricks of the trade.
FAVORITE FLAT: About seven miles from the settlement lies “Castaway Cay,” where Disney now brings its cruise ships, and while there is only one large flat there, it yields some pretty big bonefish. Like everywhere, fish can be abundant or scarce, but the best bet is when the tides are incoming, although Ricardo says he’s never had a disappointed angler there.
TIP: Novices tend to “outstrip” the fish. Bonefish are very fast, but don’t move all that quickly when feeding. “You have to stop stripping, and then start again,” he says. “You’ll see his tail up and his head down when he’s feeding, and learn not to cast too far or too short.”

NAME: Edmund “Town” Williams
AGE: 44
HOMEBASE: Marsh Harbour
CONTACT INFO: Tel: 242-367-7123; cell phone: 242-359-6013; website: www.bonefishtown.com
PROFILE: Town Williams still keeps busy with traditional lobster fishing during the season, but for 150 days out of the year he works as a bonefishing guide with a worldwide clientele, 80 percent of whom are repeat customers. While he knew where the fish were, and had occasionally caught them for sport on a handline, he initially lacked confidence as a guide. “Tourists wanted to go,” he says. “But I didn’t know much about fly fishing or bonefishing. They said ‘just take us to where the fish are and we’ll show you how’.” He did, and they did. That was 12 years ago.
FAVORITE FLATS: Anywhere on the marls, but especially around Mores Island, about 30 miles southwest of Marsh Harbour. It’s special because the fish are bigger, although the soft bottom rules out wading. The fishing is fine, however, from Town’s 16-foot flats boat with its poling platform.
TIP: “Some people are slow to catch on and some are fast,” he says, “but the basic rules apply wherever you go, and most master the basics the first time out. Half the trick is seeing the fish. If you do, you have an 80 percent chance of catching one.”

NAME: Paul Pinder
AGE: 37
HOMEBASE: Sandy Point
CONTACT INFO: Tel: 242-366-4061; e-mail: claudiapinder@hotmail.com
PROFILE: Twelve years ago, Paul was approached by a representative from Angling Destinations, an outfitter that puts together fishing trips. Along with several other commercial fishermen, he was given a crash course in fly tying, boat positioning, casting and the rest of it. This year for the first time he abandoned other fishing and became a full time bonefishing guide. “Most of the clientele used to think bonefishing was seasonal, but now most know it can be done year-round, or at least September through June.” He is also a Bahamas certified birding guide, but while he’s done several trips with birders, bonefishing is in much greater demand.
FAVORITE FLAT: He likes Mores Island, about a 25-minute ride from Sandy Point in his new 20-foot Action Craft. There’s a group of small islands around the main one, and you can always find a place to fish out of the wind. The fish here are also very large, and Paul believes the next world’s record bonefish catch will be made here.
TIP: “If you don’t see a shark, a ray or a barracuda, bonefish aren’t likely either,” he says. Rays eat the same food as bonefish, and sharks and barracudas feed on bonefish. Also, on the flats in the wind, right-handed casters should have the wind coming across their left shoulder and vice-versa for lefthanders. “You won’t be casting into the wind, and you won’t hook yourself.”

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©  Jim Kerr, Abaco Life Magazine
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