By: Tricia Ricks
The warm, salty breeze flowed through the window, rushing over our bed and gently waking us from our sleep. The tide laps rhythmically against the beach. This is paradise. We are only one day into our vacation and I have already lost track of the date and time. Oh well, it’s Island Time for the next six days. Bringing my coffee out to the front porch of our beachside bungalow, I take in the amazing view.
Dawn is breaking over the Caribbean, and it’s as if all my favorite colors in the crayon box have melted into a postcard-worthy cliché. I scan my eyes across the flats, looking for the telltale signs of feeding fish. With no tails in sight, I gather my things and prepare for the day. Swimsuit – check. Rod and flies – check and check. Kalik in the soft cooler – double-checked! My, oh my, do I love saltwater fly-fishing!
We walk the endless sand and coral flats along the edge of the mangroves looking for signs of Albula vulpes, more commonly known as bonefish. Sunlight sparkles off the ripples of the incoming tide, making it difficult to spot the well-camouflaged iridescence of our quarry. I remember to look for shadows along the sandy bottom, giving clues to their location; movement catches my eye.
A shadow drifts in and out of a pool at the edge of the mangroves, betraying the location of a feeding bonefish. I cast my fly several feet in front of the dusky apparition in hopes of intercepting its path. The fly settles and I give it a bump to imitate a small shrimp scooting along the bottom. Wait. Strip. The fish turned. Strip. Pause. Strip. He’s on it. Strip, strip. I watch the fish tip down and take the fly. With their soft mouths, a gentle strip-set is all that is needed. Feeling the prick of the hook, the fish takes off like an outbound bottle rocket; a rooster tail sprays as the line cuts through the water.
With the hook set, the next immediate challenge becomes clearing the free line of leader-breaking tangle-hazards like reel handles, fighting butts and mislaid wading boots. After three good runs, I manage to coax him in for a photo. I lift the fish from the water and admire its graceful lines; its scales reflecting the Caribbean sun, reminding me of so many freshly minted dimes. Like a well-muscled thoroughbred, these fish always look fast, even when standing still. I return the fish to the water and keep it close, protecting it until the stress-induced mottled coloration dissipates. In a surge, he’s gone and I smile inwardly.
As we wade along the breathtaking coastline of Long Island, I find myself lost in thought, reflecting on the adventures of the week with my husband. I was somewhere in sun when an anomaly on the cerulean flat jerked me from my daydream. Once the optical illusion comes into focus, I realize I am looking at a large barracuda lying perfectly still, waiting in ambush. Quickly, I switch to the 10-weight rod already rigged up with a popper clipped to a steel leader.
I cast well in front of the fish and a hard strip on the running line causes an audible “glunk” as the popper plugs through the sea. The fly that once looked like a chartreuse children’s finger-trap back in Montana has now come to life, gurgling and chugging its way back towards shore. I pause the retrieve, causing the fly to float to the surface mimicking a wounded fish. The barracuda stiffens. A few more rips causes the ‘cuda to lean in the popper’s direction and he begins trailing.
Before I know it, we’ve run out of room, predator and prey a few rod lengths away in ankle-deep water. With the leader inches from the rod tip, my only option now is to tease the barracuda with slight twitches of the fly. The take came violently. Suddenly all the line that was floating coiled at my feet is gone as the reel begins to wail. For a time, the fight seemed to be as much out of the water as in, as the barracuda repeatedly takes flight, clearing the ocean’s surface with breathtaking leaps. Carefully, I keep my rod bent perpendicular to fish, keeping the fight on the shock-absorbing rod, rather than the line. I grin and enjoy every second. My first barracuda on the fly! After a few quick “grip & grins”, I release what was surely over 40 inches of apex predator back to its domain. As the barracuda sulks away, it’s easy to imagine him plotting a revenge strike on the next unsuspecting school of baitfish to happen by.
With the sun setting on a week of pure escape, I reminisce about the fish we caught, the laughs we shared and of course, the ones that got away. A spell in the Bahamian sun is medicine for the soul during the long Montana winters and every time we are here, we promise ourselves, next time will be two weeks.
Want to know more?
We used 7 to 10-weight rods with corresponding saltwater lines. All flats fish are renowned for their line pulling capabilities, so match your rod with a saltwater safe reel and at least 200 yards of backing. Even though they’re saltwater safe, it is still best practice to flush your equipment with freshwater at the end of each day.
Bonefish don’t seem to be particularly leader-shy, so don’t worry too much about finesse. We used commercially made 9-foot tapered leaders and enjoyed great success. One thing to consider though, is mono vs. fluorocarbon; mono floats, fluorocarbon sinks. Both have their strengths depending on the action you are trying to impart on your fly. Bring a spool of each to serve as tippet and you’ll keep your bases covered. When targeting barracuda, be sure to use a quality nylon-coated steel leader if you ever want to see your fly again. Rio makes a 7.5-foot leader called Toothy Critter that worked perfectly.
Casting ranges can vary from a rod length on out to your best 90-foot double-haul. Don’t be discouraged if you are a beginner and cannot punch it that far. Remember, a lack of casting ability can be offset with stealthy wading. On the bright side, there are very few things to snag on your backcast!
For bonefish, fill your fly box with Merkins, Gotcha’s and Crazy Charlies in sizes four to eight, with and without various sized dumbbell eyes. Varying the weight of the eyes will allow you cover a wide range of water depths. Likewise, mix and match the color schemes to accommodate the myriad shades of flats-bottom you will be fishing.
We packed along many different types of streamers for barracuda, but found top-water poppers to be by far the most exciting and productive way to elicit a strike. After experimenting with a couple different types, the Ka-Cuda was ultimately the fly that stayed tied to our designated barracuda rod. Take our word for it: it WORKS!
Polarized sunglasses and comfortable flats boots are a must. Other than that, I fished in my swimsuit most of the time while my husband preferred to wear as much UPF clothing as possible. The Caribbean sun is intense so sunblock is crucial.
Licenses and Guides
When we were in the Bahamas, a fishing licenses and use of a guide were not required. However, it would be prudent to check the local regulations to verify this is still the case. If you are beginner on a budget, try to hire a guide with a flats boat for a day or two and ask about places that you can wade-fish unguided later on.
Regardless of skill level, having a guide for at least a portion of your time is money well spent. They know the area and how the fish tend to move based on water temperature and tides. In addition, they will be extremely helpful in learning to spot fish. Staying at a lodge can get pricey but there are often affordable vacation rental homes available. Try searching for local realtors that double as property managers to find the best rental deals.
Since all grocery items must be shipped in, prices seem to be based on weight, with heavier items (like peanut butter and beer) costing more than lighter items. I found the local food to be phenomenal and the people warm and inviting. Many locals will grant you access to the flats by walking through their property, and although few fly-fish, most can tell you where fish are likely to frequent.
For more information regarding fly-fishing the flats, I highly recommend the book Bonefishing! by Randall Kaufmann.
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