Bonefish Or Bust: A Bucket List Trip in the Bahamas

If you've never fished for bonefish, Isaac Schuchat's recap of a Spring Break spent in pursuit of this bucket list fish will help you understand the thrill of the journey and the catch. Read below and it just might help you prepare for a bonefishing adventure of your own in the Bahamas.

Bundled up, and staring out the window at the two-foot accumulation of ice and snow, I realized the last memory of a fly rod in hand seemed ancient. Instead of studying for midterms, I sat in the library studying google earth satellite images of Bahamian flats. I was ready to finally check bonefish off my bucket list. The criteria for my trip was somewhat oxymoronic: on a tight budget, I wanted to go somewhere remote, yet accessible, with ample DIY opportunity. Without copious research, an enthusiastic fishing buddy, and booking a trip through Fisher Guiding, my dream spring break would not have come to fruition.

Overstuffed with leader, reels, line, and flies I was pleasantly surprised my carry-on luggage was not pulled aside for further inspection. Flying out of the New York area with fishing gear, I usually find myself explaining that my fly reel is not a weapon to T.S.A. agents. One time in the security line, the lady behind me pointed at my rod case and quite loudly questioned: “Is that a gun?”

Bahamian airports were a refreshingly different scene, where rod cases accessorized the luggage of many travelers. Tourism is the most important industry in the Bahamas, and fishermen visiting spend over $140 million directly to target bonefish. Since our trip was to be largely DIY, the Bahamian airport layovers supplemented our lack of time milling around a fishing lodge bar. I chatted with excited, pale fishermen in transit to their flats destination, but I sought out the tanned and relaxed looking guys in the airport, who had clearly just spent their vacations fishing and were on their way home. The airport reports I gathered came as a mixed bag: Andros was fishing decently for early in the season, but Long Island (my destination) and Acklins were hit or miss thanks to spotty weather.

Thirty square miles of flats awaited our exploration, and “Bonefish Dwayne” significantly simplified our search. Remnants of a salt cultivation operation were evident as we navigated through a maze of trenches that branched out to old salt ponds and natural mangrove lagoons. There was no visible or intuitive progression from inland flats to ocean flats because the channels feeding the flats were so twisted. Following the tide throughout the flats as it ebbed and flowed was a challenging task because proximity to the ocean from a bird’s eye perspective did not necessarily correlate with tidal level. To complicate things, recent hurricane Joaquin breached new areas of the barrier islands, exposing previously high and sheltered lagoons to direct tidal flow. Without Bonefish Dwayne, it would have been nearly impossible to figure out the hydrodynamics and each flat’s respective elevation to sea level.

An aerial view of a portion of the flats we fished, demonstrating the maze-like tidal flow we learned to navigate.

I have travelled to many destinations emblematic of pristine water. The Caribbean, Hawaii, Mexico, and even the trout rivers of Tierra Del Fuego pale in comparison to the water quality of Deadman’s Cay. The water we fished was stunningly crystalline, a step beyond “gin clear”. When the clouds covered the sun, a frustratingly frequent occurrence that reduced our ability to spot fish, the channels turned emerald green. Even at night with a full moon, we still enjoyed at least sixty feet of visibility and could see individual hermit crabs perusing the basins of the channels. In the ocean, the color turned to an electric blue that looked artificial. At the heart of the flats matrix, it was easy to orient ourselves because the clouds would reflect the neon hue of the open ocean.

Electric blue ocean water, a color reflected in the clouds above.

The weather was not our friend throughout the trip, and our first day with Bonefish Dwayne was no exception. We spent as much time running to the fish as we did running from the rain. To complicate matters, the fish either straight-up ignored our flies, or spooked instantly when our offerings hit the water, even with weightless flies and leading the fish by 15 feet. Anxious to break the ice, I asked Dwayne to run us out to open water so we could play with jacks while we waited out slack tide. This was enough to satiate some of our nervous energy, and as the tide started to flow, we headed back, still in pursuit of our first bones.

Blue-gray feeding holes speckled the bottom around our feet and it was only a matter of time before the grey ghosts materialized. Dwayne whispered “on your right”. I made a short cast towards the oncoming fish and watched my fly sink to the bottom. Immediately, the alpha fish surged forward. In a split second, it pinned my fly to the bottom with a puff of sand, and made a 180 degree turn as I strip set. What ensued was too quick to comprehend, and when I moved to clear my line, my thumb caught in a loop. With barely a touch of uneven tension I had broken my 10 lb fluoro leader. The school veered left, and Jane was able to flick a cast. On her second strip a fish nailed the fly, and split her loop knot open as she set the hook a little to excitedly. Adrenaline pulsed through our veins as we tried to re-tie as quickly as possible with quivering hands. The fish taunted us, swimming around us in circles. By the time I had cinched down the knot, they darted off into the deeper water. For the next four days, we would not get another bonefish to eat.

When the bonefish don’t bite, you can always count on barracuda to be hungry.

Dwayne taught us how to read the flats, and for the rest of the week we had no trouble spotting fish. We got within casting range of at least forty fish a day. First, frustration grew as we battled 25 mph winds. It was too windy for the fish to tail, and we could barely get a shot off unless the cruising fish swam directly at us, into the wind. When we were able to cast to fish, they had lockjaw, and we experimented with every pattern I had tied in my box. Crazy Charlies, Gotcha’s, mantis shrimp, puffs, and ghost shrimp patterns all got ignored. The night before our last day, we started to feel beaten up and desperate. Each day for the past four days, we had paddled between eight and ten miles, and covered roughly that same distance on foot with little to show.

Regardless of fishing conditions, the natural beauty of Long Island is worth the price of admission. Rainy days gave way to spectacular sunsets.

Jane noticed the abundance of hermit crabs on one of the flats and we had an idea. We threw a handful of them into the nearby channel and watched a hoard of mangrove snappers viciously gobble them up barely after they hit the water. For all of the time and effort expended on the trip, we were determined to not return empty handed, even if it meant using unconventional tactics that would enrage some purist fly fishermen.

Spirits were high on our last day as we set out refreshed and with a new game plan. The weather coalesced too, giving us our first full day of uninterrupted sunlight and a light breeze. We hit our first spot and immediately were on fish. I presented my hermit crab and it got ignored. Jane dropped hers under the lead fish’s nose and got no reaction. We figured these fish were not hungry and made a move. At the new spot, we quickly found fish again, and saw them feeding. We both presented our crabs and got no response. Exasperated, I threw a handful of small crabs I had picked off the flats. The bones even ignored these.

The sun started to set and we started to come to terms that our trip yielded no bonefish. On our paddle back in, I noticed a tiny lagoon nestled in between mangroves, and figured we may as well give it a last-ditch attempt. As soon as we beached the kayak, I could tell something was different about this spot. Golden hour sunlight washed over the water as schools of mangrove snappers idled about in front of the lagoon mouth. The entrance was a deep cut, and glass minnows flooded through the opening. A juvenile barracuda sat motionless just inside the lagoon, and as the glass minnows surrounded the barracuda, it exploded into motion, snagging one of the fish in its jaws. The lagoon teemed with life.

We silently waded forward, and suddenly something thrashed the water far off behind us. Startled, we both turned and watched a shark eat something 100 yards outside of the lagoon mouth. As I started to re-direct my focus back into the lagoon, a few small dimples on top of the water just outside the mouth caught my attention. Little fins created those dimples and poked out just above the surface. At first, I shrugged them off as the mangrove snappers considering I had just seen those fish in that spot minutes before. The sun, now on the horizon, illuminated the fins, and I realized that the shape was too pointed and the color was too silvery to belong to snappers.

I fired off a 60 foot cast and felt a powerful pick up. I missed the hook set. I stripped again, but this time felt the familiar attacks of small mangrove snapper. I stripped in fast to avoid the snappers, but inevitably hooked one.

I casted again, and felt another big pick up. Again, I missed the hook set but continued long, steady strips. Four bonefish chased the fly to my feet. My heart raced. For the third cast, I stepped forward, and landed the fly directly in the middle of the tails. As soon as the fly hit the bottom, I stripped once and my line peeled off in the opposite direction.

I wanted the fish to take me into my backing. On its second run, my backing became exposed, and I realized there was a knot. Glee quickly turned into panic as I prayed that the fish would slow, and turn back. By sheer luck, the fish relented six inches away from the knot.

The fish came to hand, we took a joyful photo, and then Jane caught her first bonefish while I dug out the knot in my backing. After Jane’s photo and release we both casted and immediately had a double header on our hands. Until this moment, the concept of bonefish feeding with reckless abandon was mythical.

My first bonefish and a typical “last cast” scenario to a fishing trip.

This time, Jane’s fight quickly went south when I spotted a big wake pushing behind her fish. I frantically yelled at her “PALM THE REEL, THEN REEL QUICK!” She soon realized the source of my panic when the lemon shark torpedoed straight towards us, and only turned away when I smacked it with the tip of my rod. We ran our fish to shore, and then released them into the safety of the lagoon to recover away from the shark. Fish still tailed, but we stopped casting out of safety concerns for us and the bonefish.

We got back in our kayak and drifted out to the tailing bones to watch them in the fleeting light of the sunset.  It turned out the school was much bigger than we thought. Though five tails still dimpled surface, nearly one hundred bonefish encircled the kayak, blissfully oblivious of our presence, and the nearby sharks. It seemed like a spell had been broken, where the bonefish no longer sought to elude us.

The sun set, and the grey ghosts slipped away into the darkness. We paddled home, this time with closure.

Acknowledgements: 

A special thanks to the Fisher Guiding team who helped make this trip accessible and affordable.

To my fishing buddy Jane, who joins me on my crazy fishing adventures, and who never stops smiling. Even after five days of no fish and only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

And to my family, who doesn’t see me often because I spend my free time on the water.

Fisher Guiding is the modern way to book fishing trips with guides, charters, lodges, and outfitters. Trips with Bonefish Paradise Fishing Guided Services are $500 per day, with weeklong packages including a stay at the Bonefish Paradise lodge also available. See more options for fishing in the Bahamas and around the world.