Matt Harris has a memorable trip to the Bahamas where he went in pursuit of bonefish – ‘proper ones’.
Ask most anglers about saltwater fly fishing and chances are theyâ€™ll start talking about bonefish. These silvery speedsters are the quintessential saltwater quarry, and the fish that got the whole thing started back in 1924, when Holmes Allen caught the first bonefish on fly.
Iâ€™ve got a bit of an admission to make. Iâ€™m ashamed to say that Iâ€™ve allowed myself to become a bit of a snob. On my first trip, to Cubaâ€™s prolific waters back in 2000, I caught about a million bonefish, relentlessly obliging little fish mainly weighing 3-4lb that queued up to eat my fly. I had a few nice fish up to a little over 7lb, but after the initial exhilaration of the first successful day, I found myself asking: â€œWell, Iâ€™ve done that, whatâ€™s all the fuss about?â€
Bonefish are great, of course, but catching them in the meccas of Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico and the Seychelles can be almost embarrassingly easy, and, once the basics are mastered, the fishing can almost verge on the monotonous. Once youâ€™ve seen a 75lb yellowfin tuna empty half a kilometre of backing off of your reel in a matter of seconds, your average bonefish can seem, well, just a little pedestrian.
However, Pete McLeod of Aardvark McLeod, a good friend and bonefishing aficionado whose opinion I value greatly, recommended I try Grand Bahama for â€˜properâ€™ bonefish. When Pete tipped me off that North Riding Point has produced some of the largest bones caught anywhere in the world, I knew that I had to go there.
After being greeted by my hosts, Mercedes and Tim, I grabbed a quick shower and was soon wandering off down the golden strand with fly rod in hand. The sun came out and a beautiful 5lb bonefish came sauntering down the flat to inhale my fly, first cast.
I made it back to the lodge just in time for pre-prandial drinks and having passed me a hefty gin and tonic, Tim told me with a wink that tomorrow might just be a special day. The forecast â€“ clear skies and virtually no wind â€“ looked perfect, and Tim let me into a secret.
The guides at North Riding Point have discovered a very special place. Itâ€™s a long run from Grand Bahama or just about anywhere else, and involves a substantial journey across deep blue water, which is potentially hazardous and enormously uncomfortable in anything but the calmest weather. However, when the wind drops and the sea flattens to a millpond, you can race out across the glassy surface and suddenly find yourself in a bonefishing wonderland. Tomorrow, if the weather held, I would get to go there.
I rose early and was thrilled to see the first pink rays of the dawn lighting up the eastern corner of a perfect, crystal-clear sky. I met up with my guide, Leroy, who is one of a kind: one of the most charismatic guides I have ever met. He is a sheer joy to fish with, calling out the shots with an easy laconic charm that puts you at your ease. He applauds the good casts and commiserates with the bad, and from the first moment that I started fishing with him, I knew we would do well together.
And we did. We fizzed across the flat calm in Leroyâ€™s skiff for little over an hour and then, out of nowhere, I spied a small cluster of low-lying keys, barely poking up over the horizon and shimmering in the heat-haze. We explored the keys for a couple of hours, and for a while saw nothing but barracuda, big, lazy killing machines lying listless and dormant in the early-morning sunshine.
Leroy seemed relaxed, and after one nice bonefish of around 5lb, we upped sticks and headed further out into the blue, to another tiny archipelago.
Iâ€™m not going to tell you the name of that place â€“ itâ€™s too special to go sharing around – but Leroy will take you there. A gaggle of tiny keys, painted onto a simple canvas of brilliant blue skies and stunning white sandflats, where bonefish from the wilder shores of your fly fishing dreams come swaggering into view and set your heart rate rattling through the roof.
The fish were visible from way off â€“ not huge shoals of ten-a-penny schoolies, but the real deal: ones and twos. Forget all that guff about elusive silver ghosts: these magnificent creatures are betrayed from half a mile away by their vast black shadows looming across the hard white sand.
The first one we spotted was absurdly big â€“ I suggested that it was a small shark and Leroy laughed at my innocence. That fish never came within 50 metres of the boat, but the next one did, another impossibly big dark shadow flickering across the undulating sands. Iâ€™d decided on the house favourite, Jim McVayâ€™s classic Gotcha fly, and feathered it gently down in front of my quarry as best I could. As the fish approached, a short strip produced a tiny puff of sand reminiscent of a shrimpâ€™s desperate attempt to preserve itself by burrowing, and in a blur, the fish was suddenly rushing to wolf down its escaping lunch. I watched transfixed as the huge bonefish tipped up to root in the sand and in a magical instant, everything came tight. I set the hook hard and felt solid resistance. And then, suddenly, I finally got to know what all the fuss really is about. This wasnâ€™t a plucky four-pounder or even a good solid seven â€“ this was a â€˜properâ€™ one.
That bonefish revved its engines and then it simply vanished. The running line shot up through the rings in a blur and then close on 200 metres of backing went sizzling after it. Leroy laughed loud at my spluttering incredulity. The fish was suddenly a very long way away and the line appeared to be travelling parallel to the waterâ€™s surface. My guide cackled garrulously and mentioned casually that I might want to make sure that I didnâ€™t get â€œspooledâ€. I stammered back that I had 400 yards of backing on my reel, and as the fish set off across the flats again, Leroy was asking if I thought that was enough.
Small bonefish normally wear themselves out pretty quickly, but this great gleaming greyhound seemed to take an age to subdue. Finally, we brought the huge creature to hand â€“ one of the most stunning fish I will ever catch. Twenty-six and a half inches from the tip of his nose to the fork of his tail and, yes, a little over 10lb in weight.
Leroy loves these fish as if they are his own, and after the few quick pictures, I watched him carefully nurse the magnificent beast back to full strength. We watched it cruise off across the white sands and the incomparable Leroy offered me a big high-five and passed me a cold Kalik from the cooler. As I toasted my brilliant mentor and the delicious icy beer slaked my thirst, my guide grinned his big toothless grin and told me not to waste too much time celebrating: â€œPlenty more oâ€™ those big boys right here, mon.â€
So there were. In that long golden day we managed fish of 5, 7, 7, 9, 10, 10lb and, with the last cast of the afternoon, a lissom stunner that measured 27″ from nose to fork and weighed in at a little over 11lb.
It was no fluke. Four days later, I got an extra dayâ€™s fishing due to a British Airways strike â€“ and what a day it was! Once again the wind subsided and we went racing out to Leroyâ€™s special spot.
Ten bonefish weighing 3, 5, 6, 6, 7, 7, 7, 8, 9 and 10lb came our way, and I lost another, a real heartbreaker that Leroy put at 14lb. Each and every one I caught â€“ and will ever catch â€“ was a â€˜proper oneâ€™.
Photography by Matt Harris