"What are y'all doing in here?"
Our guide was giving us some good-natured ribbing,
delivered in his (think Jamaican/Caribbean)
accent, accompanied by a huge grin.
The big-block Ford engine on the 24-foot airboat
had barely stopped and he was telling
us to, "Get out. You can't fish in the boat!"
Our group of five grinned back, a wordless acknowledgment
that his instructions were not necessary. We were
getting out of the boat as fast as possible, chomping
at the bit to begin our pursuit of the illustrious
and elusive bonefish.
The roar of the airboat's twin, counter-rotating props
had carried us across miles of water averaging a foot
deep. Out here, within the semicircle of the Caicos Islands,
the coarse flat sand stretches as far as the eye can
see, covered only by a sliver of water. Mile after
mile of this tropical plateau stretches to the horizon
and beyond. The tell-tale emerald green of deeper
water loomed far beyond our vision.
This is the Nirvana known to salt-water fly fishermen
as "the flats." And it was
alive, teeming with thousands of bonefish.
In the world of fly fishing, bonefish are one of the
most prized species, combining challenging stalking
and presentation with world-class fighting ability.
Articles about these silvery creatures abound in fly
fishing magazines, and all resonate with the same
message: These fish are hard to catch.
That's only partly true. A well-presented fly in front
of a bonefish is rarely turned down, so in that way
they are actually easy to catch. The trick is getting into a
position where that presentation can be made.
These fish have an unwavering reputation of being
spooky, which is true, at least some of the time.
A single fish or a small group cruising the flats
can be very wary, and a quiet, careful stalk into
casting range can be tricky. But large schools
are less likely to dart away from a clumsy footstep,
and feeding bonefish -- called "tailers" because their
silver forked tails break the water's surface as they tip
their heads down to feed on the bottom -- are otherwise
occupied and less likely to hear or feel an approaching
As our guide, Ganger Lockhart, pointed to several schools
of bonefish, we stepped into the shallow and surprisingly
cool water of the early tropical morning, fanning out
from the boat like points on a compass.
My fishing buddies for this trip included Joe Bruce,
owner/operator of The Fisherman's Edge fly fishing shop
in Baltimore, Md.; Joe Erickson, of E&B Erectors in Lakeshore,
Md.; Joe E.'s brother, Bob Erickson, a retiree from Lapata,
Md.; and Bill Zeller, who works for a printing company in
Essex, Md. Three of our group were bonefishing veterans.
Bob and I were the rookies.
"The two Joes," as I like to call them, have chased
redfish with me many times in the marshes of Terrebonne
Parish. I was in the Caribbean on their invitation.
Walking farther and farther from the boat, and from
the assistance of the veterans, I realized another
element of the bonefish mystique. While stalking can
be difficult, just seeing them in the first place can
be a challenge. Bonefish have bright, silvery
sides, which are nearly metallic and have the ability
to act like a mirror, reflecting the color of the bottom
they are cruising over. And if there is grass on the bottom,
their dark backs blend in perfectly, completing the illusion.
For a while, I started to wonder if I had chosen the
wrong direction to walk, void of fish, or perhaps I
simply wasn't seeing them. Adding to my difficulty was the
stiff trade winds, which Ganger assured us encouraged
the fish to feed more actively -- "You don't want a calm
day. You catch nothing" -- but seeing through the waves
As I walked I contemplated the importance of wind on
this trip. It was wind that rushed through the commercial
jet engines that carried me from New Orleans to Providenciales,
"Provo" to the locals, then wind surged through the
propellers of the Cessna that carried me from Provo
to South Caicos. Wind pushed our air-boat over the flats, and
now, wind was stirring the water, motivating the fish
to feed and helping to guarantee my success.
Then it happened.
I spotted my first bonefish, less than 20 feet away.
After two quick false-casts, I sent my fly forward,
but the line arced in the stiff wind, landing my offering
on the fish's back, spooking it and sending it out of
sight in the blink of an eye. For a moment, I stared
at the empty water in disbelief, then started walking again.
It didn't take long to spot the next opportunity. Single
fish can hide in the waves, but a school of 50-plus
swimming straight at you is pretty obvious.
With my heart pounding and my back against the wind,
I made a back cast, then a forward cast, and drove my
No. 4 Norminator right between my shoulder blades. Once
again, in a rush, I didn't compensate for the stiff wind.
As the school casually split in two, swimming around both
sides of me, I contorted myself to free the fly from my
OK, this was getting embarrassing.
But redemption wasn't far away. Following the retreating
school was another, even larger school, easily 100 strong.
My heart began to pound again, but I whispered
to myself, "Slow down." I put out a 40-foot cast,
landing it well ahead of the school, and waited for
the first fish to reach my offering sitting on the bottom.
When I was certain the lead fish was near my fly, I gave
the line a short strip -- enough to attract attention,
but not enough to startle the fish or move the fly out
of striking distance -- and it was hungrily gobbled up.
The school scattered as my fish darted, and my reel
screamed as line was peeled off with blinding speed.
It wasn't a big bonefish, in fact, it was the smallest
I caught in five days of fishing.
But despite its size, it still showed me the fight these
"ghosts of the flats" are famous for.
And many more would follow.
The average fish were 3 to 6 pounds. A "good" fish is
anything over 8 pounds, and anything in double digits
is a trophy.
By the end of the first day, I caught 15 bonefish; a
pretty good number for a novice chasing these wary creatures.
I have heard and read many stories about the line-stripping
runs of bonefish, but nothing prepared me for the reality
of the experience. It's not just the distance
they can cover, but the speed at which they do it.
Once hooked, they take off like a cannon-ball. Fingers
have to be kept clear of reel handles as they spin so fast
they are a blur, and retreating line can burn or even cut
I had loaded my fly reel with 35 yards of fly line and
200 yards of backing. The majority of the fish half-emptied
my spool. Twice, it almost wasn't enough. The success of
each day's fishing varied, as fishing always does. The
slowest day, as Ganger predicted, had little wind. The
casting was much easier, but there was little to cast to.
One day was also cut short by a breakdown -- a bad starter
that prevented us from changing locations. These things
happen, but in the end, the time was not lost.
After fishing Monday through Friday, we were scheduled for
a 1 p.m. Saturday flight, giving us just enough time for
a short morning trip back to the flats -- make-up time
for the breakdown.
The day was calm, and the airboat glided over miles of
empty flats. No bones in sight.
A change of strategy was necessary.Ganger headed inland
and took us to a set of mangrove-lined lagoons. There weren't
many bonefish, but a few small groups were foraging.
With time running out, it was our best, and last chance.
We stepped out of the boat and started walking.
Shortly after rounding a point and entering a lagoon, I
spotted tails glistening in the sun. Three bones were
feeding less than 20 feet from me, but 10 feet behind
me was a tall stand of mangroves. A back cast was
impossible. My only chance was to walk, very slowly
and quietly, at an angle away from the bank, getting to the
side of the fish.
But two questions gnawed at me. Could I walk quietly
enough in this calm, skinny water not to spook these
fish? And even if I could, would they stay there long
enough for me to walk out?
The walk seemed to take an eternity, slow and tiny
steps, but I got into position and made a cast.
The small fly landed about a foot on the side of the
trio, and two fish turned to check my offering. The
bite was immediate, and as I lifted the rod I began to feel
the satisfying weight of the fish.
Then, the unthinkable happened. The fish came "unbuttoned,"
Joe B.'s favorite term for an unhooked fish. I stared in
horror as my line and fly lifted harmlessly into the air,
certain I had just blown my last chance at a bonefish.
But incredibly, the fish didn't spook. The strike was so
short, it didn't startle the fish, and their tails flipped
back into the air as they resumed feeding. A second cast
found its mark near the fish, and this time, the hook held.
The sound of my screaming reel filled the lagoon as the
one took 150 yards of line and backing.
As I unhooked and released the fish, a glint caught my eye.
Another small group of bones was feeding about 100 feet
away, tails waving and shining in the sun.
After a very long, very slow walk, my offering was
accepted and another bonefish tried to empty my reel.
I only caught those two fish that day, but considering
it was a short trip, and in difficult conditions, I was
rather pleased with the results.
And, in the end, it isn't about the numbers.
Here I was, on one of the most productive flats God ever
smiled down upon, and I was catching bonefish.
Such beauty and success surpasses numbers.
South Caicos island is rather remote. Beyond the Blue
charters is the only guided fishing service on the island,
and they run the only hotel, Ocean Haven, which basically
exists for the fishing and diving charters. Other than that,
the island is basically a fishing village, with about 1,200
residents. They are extremely warm, friendly people, but it
definitely has a Third World feel to it.
The meals are part of the package, served at the hotel. They
are cooked by local ladies from the village, kind of home
cooking Caribbean style, and it is wonderful! If
someone is looking for night life or other distractions,
this is definitely not the place for them. But
for the person who wants bonefish, just bonefish, in
some of the most secluded, productive flats on earth,
this is the place. Because there is no other guide service
on the island, and because Ganger owns the only airboat,
you own the flats. For mile after mile after mile, there's
no one else...No TV's, no phones, just bonefishing
in a Caribbean paradise. For information on bonefishing
in South Caicos, visit www.beyondtheblue.com ~ Capt. Marty
Capt. Marty D. Authement owns and operates Marsh Madness
guided fishing service in Houma, Louisiana. He is also Lifestyles
Editor of his hometown newspaper, The Courier. He can be
reached at, firstname.lastname@example.org
or visit his Website at www.marshmadness.net.
The preceding article appeared in the April 20, 2003 edition of The Courier.