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Selected feature stories from Abaco Life magazine

WHERE THE BONEFISH LIVE
By Jim Kerr
Abaco Life Editor

In the past decade, Abaco has become one of the hottest bonefishing destinations in the world. Several small resorts have sprung up catering to bonefishermen, 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," says Marsh Harbour-based Town Williams, a lobster fisherman until about 12 years ago. "I didn't know anything about it, but I knew where to go. I knew where the bonefish lived. The clients said 'just take us there, and we'll show you what to do.'"

Today he works 150 days a year as a bonefishing guide, a global business with clients from around the world who find 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 charge an average of $350 for two anglers for a full day, and $250 for a half day, which translates for most into annual gross income of more than $50,000. Like Town Williams, they may not have known much about the art of catching them, but they learned at an early age that bonefish - spooky and fast, but not much good to eat - live on the flats. The rest they learned by practice and from the experienced bonefishermen who came, 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, a bonefishing fanatic who travels to Abaco with his equally enthusiastic wife, Karen. The English couple, who travel 4,000 miles from their home in Cheshire near Manchester, 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.

E-mail: jimkerr@mindspring.com

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