As the bonefish bulleted away with my line, my heartbeat seemed to lurch into fast-forward. Here in the Marls, a 300-square-mile expanse of tropical flats off the west coast of the Bahamas’ Great Abaco Island, the fish must’ve sensed that it could run forever. I let the reel whir until the line slackened slightly, then I cranked like mad to haul it back.
The fight went back and forth like this for two marvelous minutes before my rig suddenly slackened altogether. Looking at a straight rod, I realized I’d lost my fish. I felt cheated enough to howl.
“Nothin’ you coulda done about that,” said Travis Sands, who was poling me around the shallows beyond Abaco Lodge. Living in Colorado, I’ve lost my fair share of trout for reasons both obvious and inscrutable, and I know that breakoffs are just part of the game. But apparently, I’d hoped angling’s laws might work differently down here in the Bahamas. And we’d seen so few fish that day that I worried I might’ve flubbed my only chance to bring a bonefish to the boat.
Grey Ghost Paradise
This was my first trip to the Bahamas, and I expected warm temperatures—or at least sunshine and those blue-opal waters found nowhere else. But as luck would have it, the same weather system that was dumping January’s “bomb cyclone” on the mid-Atlantic coast was also roiling the water here at Abaco Lodge, situated on the labyrinth of mangroves and mud flats known as the Marls.
These vast swaths of shallow water hold huge numbers of bonefish, which helped earn this area its National Park designation in 2015. Marls fish, on average, aren’t huge—5 pounds ranks as big—but they are plentiful. In May and June, Sands tells me, the fish are so thick that you can’t wade without kicking them.
That’s what prompted Oliver White to establish Abaco Lodge in 2009. A globetrotting angler and adventurer, White has scouted fisheries from French Polynesia to Guyana, and he knows an uncorrupted gem when he sees one. So, when he stumbled upon a ramshackle waterfront property on the west coast of Abaco Island, on the Marls’ very doorstep, he rounded up some investors and turned the dilapidated former hotel into an 11-room fishing lodge and dock.
The lodge lounge is comfy (its sofas are flanked by an open bar and a big-screen TV) and the décor is sleek but relaxed: The small waterfront yard includes both a fire pit and a black stone swimming pool. But direct access to the flats is the lodge’s standout feature. Instead of having to trailer a boat to the put-in (as most Abaco Island anglers do), guests at Abaco Lodge roll from coffee to dock—and in the afternoon, from dock to Kalik lager—with a 15-second commute.
Fishing from the dock wasn’t an option when I arrived, though. Whipping winds, grey skies, and cold, murky water sent the bonefish fleeing to warmer depths. But as Sands and I set out on his flats skiff on the first of three days, he seemed cavalier about the unfavorable conditions. “We’ll find some,” he assured me. He beamed even brighter when I selected a dun-colored Coyote Ugly shrimp fly that Drew Chicone had sent me for this trip. (The author of the book series Top Saltwater Flies, Chicone has taught fishing workshops from Abaco Lodge and knows what works on the Marls.)
With the wind consistently topping 20 mph, Sands chose to hug the tall, pine-covered coast of Abaco proper rather than venturing into the low-lying mangrove islands offshore. We spent the morning drifting through sheltered bays that warmed up quickly during the brief periods of sun that let us peer into the water. Even then, we saw almost no fish.
“All the little guys are afraid of getting beached, so they’re hanging out in the deep,” Sands said, explaining that wind affects these depths even more than the tides and that only the bigger bones feel comfortable enough to feed in such changeable water. Targeting giants struck me as a fine idea, but the fish I eventually hooked (and lost) was mid-size at best, and thickening afternoon clouds shut down the action altogether. That day’s consolation prize was conch fitters and buttered lobster tail back at the lodge.
The next morning I stepped onto the dock to find that the water was clearer but the wind just as strong. My guide Michael Taylor (guests at Abaco Lodge fish with a different guide each day) ran us 20 minutes offshore into the gust-hammered Marls. For four hours, we searched the roughed-up water for fish. We glimpsed no other boats, no shred of any human evidence anywhere in the vast, open flats. Mesmerized by the immensity, I stared at the mangroves’ arcing legs, and tried to conjure fins.
Finally, we spied a trio of big, brawny bones feeding hard along a sandy beach. Taylor brought me within 30 feet of them, but I couldn’t handle the crosswind, and we soon watched the three bonefish zipping away. The next pod we located offered easier casting with a tailing wind, and two long strips after I laid down my Coyote Ugly, I felt the tug of a hooked bone. The photos we took reveal it to be an average-size fish, unremarkable in any visible way. But as I leaned over the hull and cradled its belly in my fingers, the fish seemed like a staggering gem. Exhilarated to have driven the skunk off this trip, I decided that catching any additional fish would be gravy.
Thing is, I soon found myself hungering for heaping helpings of that gravy, and my final morning at Abaco seemed likely to serve it up. Clouds persisted but the wind had died, presenting us with glassy water that spotlit tailing fish. Ashron Williams, a third-generation bonefishing guide who was born and raised on Abaco Island, poled us through the Marls’ watery crannies.
“A lot of guides are afraid of the Marls,” said Williams, who’s logged so many miles on these flats that he long ago lost any qualms about getting lost or stuck aground. Within minutes of cutting the motor, he spied a small school of bonefish feeding against the mangroves. I dropped the fly silently, but too far to the left.
“Leave it,” Williams said. Holding my breath, I watched the lead fish munch its way toward my Coyote Ugly.
That’s the great thing about fly-fishing in the Bahamas: These smooth, sand-bottomed flats are more forgiving than reefs. Bonefishing in Belize, for example, demands absolute accuracy, because letting the hook rest on the bottom is likely to get you snagged on a coral head. But the Marls let me be more approximate with my casts. Once the fish finally nosed toward my line, all it took was one long strip to spark a chase. The hooked bonefish rocketed toward the mangroves, but I managed to steer it back toward open water and reel it to the skiff.
As the day stretched on, we never did spot the massive pods of bonefish that the Marls are famous for, but the fish we did ambush were greedy eaters. My friend hooked a bone on his second presentation, after the fish refused the fly on the first pass. And most of the fish we caught were bigger than the Marls’ 3- to 4-pound average.
The biggest, though, made those mid-size fish look like guppies. Williams spotted it form 100 yards, tailing 6 feet off a skinny crescent of sea-lapped sand.
“There’s three of them, at 11 o’clock,” he said.
As we began our silent, slow chase, I kept my eyes fixed on the trio of tails jutting out of the glassy water, like tiny black-edge flags flutter in a languid breeze. Finally, we drew close enough to make out their bodies underwater. The lead fish was a giant—8 or 9 pounds, Williams estimated—and feeding hard. I unleashed my fly, made two false casts, and dropped the fly right where I wanted, about a foot beyond the fish’s nose.
Or, so I thought. The moment my fly hit the water, I watched the three biggest fish sprint away from the boat, spooked. My presentation would’ve been perfect for the 4- and 5-pounders we had been seeing, but this bonefish was twice as long, and I misjudged the distance between its wake and its mouth, inadvertently landing the fly on its back.
“With the really big bones,” Williams said, “you’ve got to lead them more than you think.”
I lost that trophy. But next time, I promised myself, I’ll parlay the lesson to win.