There is a bit of Ahab in every angler. The mythical fish, elusive piscine adversaries that remain untamed and untackled, swim through the pools of the mind, ever in sight, ever out of reach. As a freshwater fly fisherman, I have always been haunted by accounts of saltwater gamefish caught on a fly rod. Tales of powerful strikes from mammoth fish mocked me, making the fastidious habits of my lifelong mark, the rainbow trout, seem tedious.
Over the years, one fish continued to surface, taunting me through the stories of fellow anglers, its many names beckoning me to follow: the Abula Vulpes, the White Fox, the Macabi — or more commonly, the bonefish.
Last month, I gave chase.
We slip from the dock noiselessly. I watch the sun wade into the sky, reaching out across the malachite bay with its long orange arms. As the outboard gurgles to life, I survey Culebra. The island, an arcing cradle of earth lying 17 miles east of mainland Puerto Rico, is one of the last Caribbean backwaters and one of the most highly regarded bonefishing locales. Small, brightly colored houses dot the shrubby hillsides. Docks jut into the water this way and that like rows of crooked teeth. Above them, the façade of a luxury hotel gleams ominously. As the little fiberglass craft streaks into the bay, I get a sense that the island exists between two epochs, rooted at once in its humble past while being dragged into a future of development and eco-tourism.
The boat slows about 200 yards from where the tide is breaking on the edge of the flats. My guide, Chris Goldmark, slides into the knee-deep water and secures the anchor. For years now, Goldmark has been guiding anglers across the flats in search of the elusive bonefish. He is quiet. His eyes flash over the water, reading the shallows easily, confidently. He lifts a weathered hand and points to a handful of bright flashes on the surface of the water about 300 yards away. “Bonefish”, he says softly.
Silvery-white in color, weighing as much as 20 pounds and measuring up to 35 inches in length, bonefish are some of the strongest, fastest-running saltwater gamefish; this makes them one of the most sought-after marks in saltwater fly fishing, but also one of the most elusive. They enter the flats with the changing tide to feed on shrimp, mollusks and crustaceans, sometimes in schools, but often in small numbers. A feeding bonefish moves across the flats nose-down, making its tail stick slightly out of the water, a silver sail that catches the sun in brilliant glints.
A feeding bonefish moves across the flats nose down, making its tail stick slightly out of the water, a silver sail that catches the sun in brilliant glints.
We begin striding toward a handful of those glinting tails, pushing our shins against the incoming tide.
Before we can fish, we have to hunt.
In fresh water, the fly fisherman is blind, casting into parts of the stream or river where he or she thinks fish might be. Especially in the Northeastern US, where some of the best trout fishing is in small tributaries and headwaters, an angler is seldom required to make casts over 30 feet. In those narrow waterways, a well-executed single-haul cast is sufficient to hit promising water, even from shore, and the selection of the fly and an adequate presentation is all that can be controlled.
On the flats, the angler has the advantage of seeing his target, but must track it, choosing position carefully, taking into consideration the direction and speed of the animal and the ever-present wind. Casts of 40 to 90 feet are necessary to reach feeding bonefish, and because the fish feed head-down, a cast must be precise, six to eight inches in front of the targeted animal in shallow water, 12 to 14 inches in deeper areas. A cast too close to the fish will spook it; a cast too short will go unnoticed, forcing a subsequent attempt. Once the fly is in position, the angler must be attentive to the fish’s approach, hauling line at just the right speed so that the fly moves away, mimicking a prey’s reaction to the predator. Again, accuracy is key. Hauling too quickly will keep the fly from being seen, too slow and the fish will ignore it all together.
We wade across the flats, our eyes zeroed on the dark shadows of the bonefish drifting steadily toward the mouth of the bay, inky submarines probing the deepening water. We stalk them, widening our approach into an arc that will, with luck, intersect with the feeding bonefish. I feel a deep ancestral hunting instinct burning, igniting dormant neurons. My rod, a nine-foot, eight-weight Orvis rig, feels more like a spear.
We’re close now, less than 60 feet. The feeding fish are churning up soft sand, turning the blue water a milky brown. We wait, watching for outliers. Goldmark spies a few healthy shadows drifting along the edge of the school. We approach carefully and I prepare to cast.
Goldmark spots as I work the line out over the water, calling out targets with distance and direction. 11 o’clock, 40 feet; 1 o’clock, 50 feet. My single-hauls are meager and they fall short. Frustrated, we retreat and map another approach. We’re lucky, Chris reminds me, that the bonefish haven’t left the area. We stride left, flanking the drifting shadows. Once in position, Chris begins to scout. The fish are closer this time, but the wind is cutting diagonally across my cast. I turn into the wind and drop a back-cast about a foot from an approaching bonefish.
I haul. The shadow sees the fly and follows.
If the bonefish bites, the hook must be set with a decisive haul on the line. I remember this as I watch the fish track my fly, checking the urge to raise the tip of the rod, a motion that will almost always wrench the fly from the bonefish’s mouth (and perhaps even out of the water) and send the animal finning away. If hooked, a bonefish will explode into a run that can strip all the line and 100 yards to backing off the fly reel. The initial sprint is lightning fast and requires the fisherman to clear the coils of stripped line to ensure that it doesn’t snag or tangle.
I hold the line tenderly, waiting for it to tell me the fish has taken the fly. I brace for an explosion. My ancestral neurons are singing.
And then, nothing. The fish is gone.
Chris consoles me as we speed back toward his dock. Even seasoned bonefisherman, he reminds me, come up empty handed on the flats.
The sun peers down sharply, filling the boat with my shadow. I feel robbed. I think of Ahab and crack a crooked smile. We dock and I thank Chris for his time, and promise that by next year I will have mastered the double haul.
“Next year”, he says, smiling. “Next year we’ll catch that ghost.”