I’ve had it in salad. I’ve had it in fritters. I’ve had it deep fried. I’ve had it in chowder. My daughter has even had it raw.
When I think of the Bahamas, I think of conch. But… there was a time when you might think of the Keys when you thought of conch. I have a vague recollection of my dad having a conch salad when I made my first trip to Florida around… oh… 1984. But, you won’t find conch for sale in the Keys these days.
From what I gather the Keys conch fishery collapsed in the mid 70’s and all commercial and recreational harvesting of conch was banned in 1985. To this day… 33 years later, the fishery still hasn’t recovered.
The Bahamas has shown signs of stress and it keeps getting more and more pressure heaped on it as the out islands gather conch to eat locally and to send to all those tourists in Nassau and export markets.
Another year is in the books. Let’s see how it went.
I got three distinct chances to chase bonefish in 2018.
Spring Break in Caye Caulker, Belize.
Family trip to Oahu.
Week at East End Lodge.
Spring Break turned out VERY different than planned. I caught bonefish off the dock and managed one with Heywood before I got sick. Sick I stayed for 2.5 days. It wasn’t how I wanted my daughter to spend her Spring Break, but… ya know… things happen. My girl got her first snook… so, there was that. I love Caye Caulker and I’ll be back.
Heywood with my daughter’s snook
Oahu and I managed to get another day with Captain Kenny. He’s a great guide and I enjoyed my day. Managed another Hawaiian bonefish, which is a feat that haunted me until Capt. Kenny banished those demons in 2017.
A nice o’io on a cloudy day in Oahu.
The trip to East End Lodge was, in a word, fantastic. The weather in July, the last week they were open, was hot, but the winds were low. The fishing was first class and the guide was brilliant. Food was on point. Rooms were comfortable. Ya know… I kind of liked it there. I have a real fondness for that part of the Bahamas. It is where I caught my first bone a decade ago. It is where I caught my first DIY bone. I love it there and I love it more now.
That’s a pretty good year. I have to say. With family and job and lots of adulting going on, getting in the salt three times is damn fine work.
I didn’t get camping this year. Smoke and fires kept that from happening, and so my son and daughter didn’t catch a trout this year. I’ll fix that in 2019.
I didn’t fish the McCloud this year. I only fished the Upper Sacramento for about an hour. I didn’t fish the Truckee or the Carson or the Walker. I didn’t fish Montana. I didn’t fish Oregon.
I didn’t fish Florida. I didn’t fish Mexico.
The list is nearly endless of places I didn’t fish… but I’m happy with where I managed to wet a line in 2018.
Here is Elliott’s second part of the Bahamas trip podcast. In this part you’ll here about conservation efforts in the Bahamas and you’ll learn a bit about the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust and you’ll also come along with me as we deal with the aftermath of a dead bonefish. Yup… I killed a bonefish. I didn’t do it on purpose, but I did. We’ll explore some of the ethics around that and where I may have, momentarily, fallen down.
It is possible to have a lot of thoughts about where the line is… but sometimes… sometimes is it a little hard to see.
Bonefishing is a blood sport (the picture below isn’t from this trip even… if you fish for bonefish, this is going to happen, sooner or later). Fish will die, even when you do everything right. That’s why it’s so important to get everything right that you CAN control.
I had the good fortune to spend a week at East End Lodge on Grand Bahama with Elliott Adler, a writer for The Drake Magazine and the “Podfather” of the DrakeCast. We are separated by about two decades, but the gap narrowed on the bow of a skiff and we got on well. This was Elliott’s first bonefishing trip and he did very well, being a good caster and a generally fishy guy helped him come up to speed quickly. Here’s a short interview with Elliott on his first bonefishing experience.
We got to spend a week fishing in Grand Bahama for bonefish. What stands out from that trip? Are there one or two moments that replay in your head?
Having never really fished a saltwater flat before, this entire experience was pretty novel for me. The first thing that struck me was the layers of the horizon. This hit before I grabbed a rod. We were out on these flats where the water went from navy blue to turquoise until it hit a bright white sand bar, then behind that was a thin band of green mangroves, then the sky, then the cathedral of clouds, until finally directly above us would be blue sky. This is a classic image of the Bahamas which has been featured on the cover of probably every fishing magazine but it was still pretty breath-taking to experience in person.
While the focus of the trip was bonefish, I had just as much fun catching every other species out there. Between the two of us we probably landed 3 species of snapper and maybe 5 others that I can’t recall. Each one was new to me and they all put up a better fight than the average trout I encounter.
Our guide Cecil really made the trip. I remember him saying something along the lines of “clients don’t come back to these lodges because of the management, they come back because they had a good time with the guide.” I whole heartedly believe this to be true. Without him I would have had a real tough time landing my first bonefish. But much more important than that, he was just really fun to be around. Great attitude, told good stories, and gave really frank on-the-record answers to my questions about environmental damage over the past 30 years and other problems in the Bahamas even though he knows I work for a fly fishing magazine. A lot of lodge owners and guides won’t do that out of fear of harming their livelihood.
How did bonefishing live up to or fail to live up to the hype?
I had always heard bonefishing was about stalking a fish and then that initial run once you get them on the reel. Almost like a positive reenforcement for putting in the hard work and making the right cast. I had a couple fish that made my reel scream and I’ll definitely remember them, but in both of those cases the guide did most of the work for me, which made the reward less sweet. So in those cases the hype seemed to be a bit overbuilt. What got me the most excited was walking the flats on my own trying to put it all together by myself. I managed to land a couple fish without any assistance. They were both small but those will be the most memorable fish of the trip and that individual aspect will be what makes me come back in the future.
What were your impressions of the Bahamas?
In short: Great people, great food, great fishing. You don’t want me to go into my thoughts on the economics of the place.
What’s something you learned from Cecil in our week of being on the water with him?
I relearn this every time I fish with a guide, but it’s always good to be reminded how well many guides know their water and the time and dedication it took for them to gain that knowledge. Cecil was one of the more dedicated fisherman with whom I’ve had the pleasure to share a boat.
Is there a blown shot you’d like to have back? If so, describe it.
I missed so many shots that its hard to pick a single one, but the first fish I threw at sticks out. Maybe it’s because this was the first bonefish I had a chance at catching, or maybe it’s because 40% of its back was out of the water, but I think that was the biggest fish I saw. Of course I landed the fly right on its back and the thing spooked immediately. On a positive note, that fish really grounded me in the flats fishing mindset which was necessary and probably helped me for the rest of the week.
Elliott with a solid East End Lodge bonefish.
Bonefish… great fish, or the greatest fish?
There’s no doubt that bonefish are a great fish, but calling it the greatest would be premature. There are so many incredible species I haven’t even seen. So the jury is still out. Besides that, steelhead still probably hold the #1 spot in my heart.
It was nice being on the water with you Elliott. I hope our paths cross again.
You can check out Elliott’s podcast , The DrakeCast, from our week together here.
Man… what a week that was at East End Lodge. It’s been a while since I’ve had 6 straight days of fishing and it was glorious. I don’t think I’ve had 6 days of such good weather in all my flats fishing life (only a decade of doing this, so others certainly have a longer time-span to compare).
The fishing was solid. We had days that were better than others, but overall there were plenty of fish around.
I was accompanied on this trip by Elliott Adler, a guy I had never met before. That’s a risk, fishing with a guy who you don’t know. It worked out well and we fished together well. He’s a good caster and easy to share a skiff with, and I’m not saying that just because he let me catch the first fish, although that helps.
We really got to explore the East End on this trip and I remain impressed with the size of the fishery. There really are a lot of options out there and Cecil, our guide for the week, had enough room to enable him to dodge the squalls and thunderheads that would loom, threateningly off in the distance, conjured from the afternoon heat.
A few memorable moments…
The permit shot – wasn’t expecting one. I had it… I missed it, but when you don’t permit fish often every shot is a memory.
Elliott’s first bonefish – always nice to be there for someone’s first bonefish. It is sometimes the start of obsession.
Paddling crabs – we found a bunch of crabs hitching rides and paddling on mangrove leaves. I had heard about that once before, but had never seen it. They were using tools! Somehow we didn’t get a picture of those.
Late nights with Rob – Rob was a great host and we spent many hours at the bar late into the night talking about everything from Rob’s childhood (which was very different from my own) to politics to Bahamian flats fishing regulations to life on the East End.
Some memorable fish – the cruisers along the shoreline the last day, the fish in the mangroves, the shark munched bone that was hit by both a cuda and a shark.
It was the second to last day and we were on the skiff with Cecil. The tide was coming in, the fish heading up into the mangroves, some hanging around the edges. I was up on the bow and Cecil called out two fish cruising in and out of the mangroves, just 40 feet away. It seemed they might move further in and the shot would be gone.
I had a window to make a cast. There were two mangroves about five feet apart and a dinner table sized area of white sand. The fish were cruising left to right. I made the cast, didn’t hang up in the bushes and the fly (a tan shrimp) landed well.
In cases like this I figure you hook the fish and then see where things go from there.
The fish jumped on the fly, I managed not to trout set or pull the fly out of the fish’s mouth and the game was on.
The fish ran back into the mangroves, line screaming off the reel and I tried to lighten the drag to give the fish less to pull against.
We could see the fish thirty feet from the mangroves, back over the sand, unable to move any further. We tried to find the leader or line, but couldn’t see either, so we went back to where the line went into the jumble of roots and twigs. I put on my boots and jumped out of the boat to trace the bonefish’s route back to open water.
It worked. I followed the backing back to the line and then back to the open water. The fish still had some gas, but not much. He came to hand moments later, a nice fish, about 5.5 pounds (maybe 5).
The cast, the fight through the mangroves, landing the fish, the good release… that was my favorite fish of the trip.
Back from a week of fishing at East End Lodge and my liver is thanking me for the respite.
The set-up at East End Lodge has a bar in the common room/dining room where you can normally find Rob, co-owner of East End Lodge, working away at his laptop in the morning as he pours over weather reports, or in the evening as he mans the bar pouring a cocktail or two.
Let me just say, I’m pretty sure Rob tried to kill me one night with rum. Every time I looked away (and even when I didn’t) my glass was magically re-filled, an impish grin on Rob’s face. Luckily, his plot failed and I survived, able to fish the next day with no ill effects.
OK, that may be a bit of an overstatement.
Truth is, the place had a great vibe, Rob and Cecil (business partners and friends) are great hosts. The whole staff was friendly and accommodating.
I got back home just a few hours ago from East End Lodge. This is the second week of July and it closed out their season. After six days of fishing this last week, here’s what I can tell you about fishing the Bahamas in July (experiences may differ).
There are trade-offs in everything… opportunity costs. To get thing A you give up thing B.
What you get by fishing in July is silky smooth conditions, the only breeze being the boat ride from one spot to the next. Previously, I think I had seen one day of flat conditions and in the six days of fishing I had there was only a half-day of light wind.
Glass is forged in heat.
I didn’t know it could be like this.
The last morning
That’s what you get, but what do you give up?
The July sun without wind is a baking kind of heat. It is a “Your phone is too hot to properly function” kind of heat. If you can deal with the hydration-stealing, sweat-dripping heat, and there are those who simply can’t (I’m looking at you dad), it may be the most wonderful time to fish (I’ve heard conditions are similar in October, but I haven’t fished that month).
You also have storm cells which build in the heat of the day and can unleash torrents of rain and sheets of lightning. We were driven off the water a couple times, ending the day an hour or two early, but that seemed a small price to pay.
We did find some water which was simply too hot. When water temps get to 85 bonefish will find cooler, usually deeper, waters. There were plenty of places still getting a good flush of tidal water.
The geography of Grand Bahama and the alertness of our guide, Cecil, meant we simply dodged the storms. We could go North or South and weave our way around the dark clouds. We got rained on for a grand total of about 45 seconds, which is all credit to Cecile.
If the fishing is so good and the conditions so inviting, why do pretty much all the fishing lodges close down? Hurricane season? Maybe, but while we were there Rob, co-owner of East End Lodge, turned down several trips for August. People are still willing to come. So, what is it?
One word… lobster.
It’s pretty much about the lobster. All the guides will be out checking their lobster condos come August 1. I’d be surprised if there was a guide in all of the Bahamas who won’t be out collecting lobster once the season opens. It is a critical component to a Bahamian’s income and even more so a part of Bahamian culture.
If you are a wind hater and enjoy hobbies like smelting or glass blowing, July just might be for you.
One thing the govt. is trying to address is the mother ship issue where some operations bring in skiffs and have their crews act as guides for paying clients. That, pretty much, sounds not good. Bahamian waters should be guided by Bahamian guides. I have only seen one person opposed to that during this whole debate and any such restrictions would not be opposed by 99.8% of the fly fishing public. The 2:1 guide ratio was trying to get there, but also caught up the guy who built a home, retired, paid the duty on his on skiff and would be prevented from taking his wife out with him. Clarity and specificity here would be good to address.
Where the rest of this goes… we shall see, which is something it feels like I’ve been saying for about two straight years.
I’m less than a month from my return to Grand Bahama where I’ll be visiting East End Lodge. I can’t express how much I’m looking forward to all of this. It has been a while since I’ve had that many days dedicated to bonefish. It’s been years.
I don’t even need to close my eyes to see the flats. I straight up daydream of those waters with my eyes wide open.
Clint Kemp from Black Fly Lodge in Abaco and the Bahamas Fly Fishing Lodge Association spoke about the regulations battle today. He didn’t have any updates or news to share, but he did have some perspective to share and I think it is worth listening to. So… here’s Clint.