A dark gray, nearly black, torpedo appeared without warning in the shallow water near the edge of the flat. As if dispatched by some unseen submarine lurking in the deeper water, it tracked unerringly toward the bonefish. It was not just any bonefish, it was MY bonefish, struggling to free itself from the sharp steely sickle now fast to its jaw. Deceived by the array of hair and sparkle which had been affixed to the fly, the bonefish now faced double jeopardy. Death dealing teeth attached to one end of a highly efficient killing machine were moments away, while a behemoth wielding a graphite stick terminating in twelve pound flourocarbon applied as much force as he dared in an effort to extract the fish from the path of the onrushing annihilation.
The massive wave created by the impact of my wading shoes as I hurried to rescue my imperiled bonefish resulted in a mini-tsunami, much to the chagrin of my guide and my fishing companion Steve, some two hundred yards distant, engaged in the pursuit of a fish of their own. For my part, I remained laser focused on saving my bonefish from its demise at the hands, or more correctly, the teeth, of the famished shark. I shouted in vain at the shark, now setting about its deadly business of bisecting my bonefish for its mid-day meal.
“no!No! NO!” I admonished the shark, its mouth now engulfing the fish up to its dorsal fin. I reached the scene at the last possible moment and vigorously slapped the shark with the tip of my rod in an effort to discourage it. This shark, however, was not so easily frightened off, so I quickly exchanged ends of the rod, expecting eminently to see the water turn to blood. Suddenly, the shark turned tail, having had enough of being beaten severely about its head and shoulders. To my amazement, the bonefish swam lazily away, sans a blood trail. I felt no remorse about having intervened in a natural predator/prey interaction, as it was I who precipitated the entire affair.
As I watched the bonefish mill about, the realization that the fish was still attached to my fly, tippet, and fly line gradually solidified in my somewhat shaken head. Just then, the exhausted bone swam towards me, coming to rest between my neoprene shod feet, as a puppy might do. I could almost hear it say “I have had a tough day.’ “How about a break?” I bent over and gingerly removed the fly, taking care not to remove the fish from the water. I watched it make its way to safety and noticed the scrapes on the after part of its body. “Lucky fish” I thought. “Neptune has his eyes on you today.”
This had been the second bonefish versus shark encounter I had witnessed that morning. Earlier, as I roamed the same expansive flat, I encountered several schools of bones nervously picking at crustaceans and worms on the sandy tan bottom. I even managed to persuade several to pay me a brief visit after inhaling what they perceived as easy to catch shrimp, or whatever it is a bonefish thinks my fly may be. Between releases I looked around me and whispered a prayer of thanksgiving to The Creator. How magnificent He must be, able to bring into existence such an incredible place and its complex systems of interrelated creatures, all with just a thought. I count myself fortunate to experience His handiwork firsthand, up close and in all its splendor. As I pondered God’s infiniteness and my inability to grasp His unseen presence across the universe, I saw a bonefish swimming for its very life. The bone raced across the flat, a shark as desperate to catch it as the bonefish was to escape. The bone veered right, now making a perfect circle across the sandy sea bottom.A second shark joined in the chase. It was over in a nano-second. The water, now crimson with bone blood, was flung violently into the warm air as the sharks enjoyed bonefish sashimi. It was quite a ruckus to behold. As quickly as it began, the entire scene returned to normal and the sharks resumed their patrol. As I considered the event I just observed, it occurred to me that I was standing on the saltwater version of the Serengeti Plain. The lemon sharks, much like lions, occupy the role as the apex predator in this environment. The bonefish, similar to the gazelles, serve their role as prey, relying on their speed to escape predation and propagate their species. Cruel though it may appear, predation serves to further evolution, selecting those creatures possessing the greatest speed and fitness to pass their genetic material to the next generation. I am not certain if this was The Circle of Life, but it was clearly The Circle of Death for this particular fish. I find comfort in taking the long view that what I saw was indeed evolution in action, enhancing the quality of the species living on the Saltwater Serengeti.
“Foots”, out guide, directed Steve and I to reboard the Hewes and whisked us away to the next flat. Here the water was so deeply turquoise in color that it was nearly blinding. Beneath its blue topaz surface lay legions of bonefish, barracuda, as well as the omnipresent sharks. Goodly numbers of bonefish were located in short order and we brought a few to hand for inspection. They were quickly released to add to their gene pool. We spied an especially large cuda and I tossed my Woodchopper lure in its direction. This menacing looking lure is used primarily in the jungle rivers of South America for large peacock bass. It comes armed with three sets of six-aught treble hooks and sports noise generating propellers on each end. I began having some success with this lure after the cudas started systematically rejecting the old standbys such as tube lures.I made my presentation hopefully. The fish, in a most un-predator like fashion, shrank from the lure. I made a number of casts at the beast, hoping to entice this fine specimen of some four feet. No such luck!
The cuda repeatedly avoided the lure, so I wound it in, attached one of its manifold hooks to a guide foot ( No, not Foots’ foot!) and very carefully returned to its place in the rod holder. The Mercury fired up after a slight groan and we steamed to yet another slice of tropical paradise in search of Mr. Bonefish.
By now, the tide had reached its zenith, pushed even higher by persistent westerly winds. In this particular location, winds out of the west tend to not only increase tidal movement, but to prolong its duration as well. When the water covers the inner complex of mangroves, the bones scurry deep within the maze of tangled roots and assorted plant life, seeking shelter from those who would aim to do them harm. For those of us whose quest is a momentary encounter and connection with the power and grace of these mirror sided speedsters, the day is then done. Foots silently poled off the flat and pointed the bow towards Sandy Point.
The return voyage included passing through a very deep pocket of blue water that exceeds three hundred and fifty feet in depth. This piece of water extends to within a few hundred yards of the shoreline. We were astonished to see flying fish sailing alongside out eighteen foot flats boat, a phenomenon I have observed only far out at sea in large sportfishing vessels. Foots said that local fishermen had been catching dolphin, tuna, wahoo, and other species considered pelagic at that very spot.
As we returned to the shallows, Foots veered into a small creek. The creek made a hard turn to port near its mouth. As we rounded the curve, we faced a very shallow sand bar blocking further access to the creek’s deeper reaches. As I peered across it, I made out one of my favorite sights- small schools of bonefish tailing vigorously on the other side. These fish were unable to cross the bar, though several made the attempt. Testing the skinny water, they swam up onto the bar, whereupon I cast my offerings of fur and tinsel. I caught several in this manner. There is nothing more satisfying in all of fishing than to find tailling fish, then at their wariest, and successfully making the precise yet delicate presentation required to catch them. Soon, I climbed clumsily back into the boat and we once more set a course for home.
As we ran, I glanced down at my exposed arms, wishing that I had worn a long sleeved shirt. I saw no sun damage, but I was suddenly struck by how wrinkled and age spotted my skin has become. I thought to myself “Boy, I am getting OLD! I am a grandfather now! I have no concept what plan God has for me, but I must somehow live long enough to share this experience with my grandchildren.” After some twenty five years of travelling to Sandy Point, I realized that the sands were relentlessly pouring through hourglass of my life. I am not sure how many more years I have left to enjoy my favorite activity, but I am more determined than ever to ensure that I will be there to see my progeny experience this amazing place.
Once back at the lodge, Foots expertly slowed the boat as the bow gently kissed the beach. Steve and I exited the boat, removing our gear and presenting Foots with the customary tip. As this was our last fishing day, we exchanged our farewells. Foots departed for his home and family while Steve and I trudged up to the water hose to clean our equipment in preparation for packing. After showers, we enjoyed a fabulous dinner of cracked conch, then retiring to the rooftop “lounge” where we took in another Sandy point sunset.
Steve and I took a prolonged breakfast the morning of our departure, each enjoying an extra cup of coffee. As the grits and bacon settled in our bellies, Steve walked up the outside steps to finalize his packing. I decided to take a last long look at the waters I knew I would dram about until I managed to get back to Abaco Island. I traced the short distance to the beach, perhaps thirty yards away. As I glanced left, I noticed something. A few people quickly gathered about fifty yards away. I made my way to the spot and was totally shocked by what I saw. A lifeless body lay washed up on the beach. Rigor had made it clear that this man had been floating face down. When it was turned upright, the body’s arms were fixed outstretched from the chest, as if it were initiating a sit up. Thankfully, the sharks and cudas had not found the corpse, as it showed no evidence of attack. The constable was called and arrived soon thereafter. It turns out that a visiting fishing boat had left Sandy Point some twenty or so hours earlier, The leading theory at the time was a fisherman had simply fallen overboard and was not missed. Personally, I fear some darker workings resulted in this man’s demise.
Death is part of life, even more certain than the morning sunrise. Sand continues to run through the hourglasses of our lives, though we are unable to see how many grains remain. I have heard it said that the most cruel curse of all is to know the hour of your own death. Perhaps this is true. Thankfully, I have no knowledge of my day of death, only that it is inevitable. However, I do know this- I hold bonefish and the places they live close to my heart, but I hold my family much closer. As i consider exactly how to best utilize the time I have left to fullest advantage, my guiding principle will always be my family and sharing with them the things which bring me joy. I’ll return to Sandy Point and can hardly wait to witness my family’s reaction to the things God has brought into being in my favorite places.
When I leave this world behind me
to another I will go
If there are no bonefish in heaven
I’ll be going down below
( apologies to Mark Knopfler)