Feb 10

Davin, aka Flatswalker, Part II

Here is Part II of my interview with Davin Ebanks from Flatswalker.com and the guide service Fish Bones in Grand Cayman.

Grand Cayman

Q. Around the Caribbean in places like Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the US Virgin Islands, gillnetting and over fishing have devastated bonefish stocks to one degree or another.  Is that an issue in the Caymans?

A. Gillnetting is not an issue in the Cayman Islands. It’s strictly illegal. In fact, Cayman was one of the first Caribbean nations to enact a Marine Parks law, complete with a ban on gillnets. Cast-nets and sweepers are the only nets allowed, and those only for schooling baitfish (like Sprats, glassminnows, etc.). There was a brief period in our history where Caymanians were well-off enough to purchase gillnets, but they did little damage to the flats fishery before being banned.

Q. What’s the general health of the fishery?

A. I’d say it’s good. Not amazing, but good. We have big healthy bonefish – five to seven pounds average in some areas – and each winter/spring we see schools of babies pop up on the flats – fish barely 12 inches to a pound – and occasionally we do find those giant schools of several hundred fish (which makes you wonder where the hell they were the rest of the time, or is this just all the fish in one area schooled up for spawning or something). That seems to be a good measure of a fishery.

Snook are definitely making a comeback after hurricane Michelle years ago. Before that I whacked some good sized snook (up to 30 inches) and after that storm they seemed to vanish for years. Now we’re seeing more and more – on the flats too. And we’re catching them.

Permit are still our weakest area, and there’s a simple explanation for that: of the “big three” they’re the only ones the locals really eat. There must still be a spawning population out there – every spring I see tiny permit along the shore – but without protection for them we may never see them return to the flats like the old days. Permit, unlike bonefish or tarpon, are suckers for a soaked piece of conch or crab bait, the same stuff folks use to fish for mutton snapper in the spring. When caught, they go straight into the ice chest.

Tarpon are here in good numbers, but they mostly keep to the deeper reefs. There are a few places where they gather to feast on scraps thrown from local fishermen cleaning their catch, but that seems more like shooting fish in a barrel than fishing (never mind how many times I’ve given in and done it). Occasionally we do see them on the flats, but that’s a late summer affair.

Q. Being on the water a lot generally means you see some things no one else gets to see.  In my mountain trout fishing I’ve seen a snake catch a trout… I’ve seen it three times.  Is there something like that, something you’ve seen that others probably haven’t?

A. Lessee… I’ve seen a hammerhead hunting baby stingrays, but that was maybe 50 yards away… and it got farther pretty quick (or maybe I got farther away)! Coolest thing I’ve seen up close was an octopus hunting and catching a crab. Came practically onto dry land to grab it, too.

Davin, low and ready in Grand Cayman

Q. What do you love best about guiding?

A. Pretty complicated question. I guess I love seeing people catch fish, that’s the main thing. Remember that. (Course, now that I think about it I could just watch YouTube and get that fix.)

I’ve been fishing since before I can remember, but until I was out of college it was always a practical endeavor. We fished for food or money. Period. Sure, it was pretty fun, and I’d probably have kept fishing without either (and occasionally did when the fish weren’t biting), but we usually expected something tangible out of it. Even when I fished the tournaments for big game like marlin it was partly practical: everyone involved would get a share if we won.

Growing up I fished with my grandfather – a retired sailor – and we sold most of our catch to the community out of his back yard. That was a type of supplemental income to him, and anyone who went out with him got a share. Here’s how it worked: say there were 3 people on the boat, including him, the profits would get split 5 ways. Each angler would get 1 share, the boat owner (who was my grandfather) would get a share, plus the boat itself got a share. (That share was put away to fund maintenance and repair of the boat, engine, gear, etc.) If I asked a friend along, they too would get a share once the catch sold. So, when I started fly fishing the whole guiding thing seemed backwards. Even though I had started strict catch and release habits, I still thought it weird that folks would pay me to take them fishing. Even though no fish were kept, that habit of paying each member of the team was just ingrained in me.

Guess what I’m trying to say is I didn’t get into guiding for the money alone. In fact, my first guiding experiences were non-professional. Local friends would have folks visit them from the US or wherever and I was about the only local they know who fly fished. So, they’d ask me to take their friends fishing as a favor to them. It was on these trips that I discovered I actually liked guiding – distilling something as complicated as saltwater fly fishing into a few basic maneuvers and communicating that was actually a lot of fun for me… and very interesting. Each guest, each day, and each tide provided new challenges, and when they caught fish I loved it. So that’s the main answer: I love to see folks catch fish.

But, after doing this for a while I think I’ve hit on another answer, and it’s not the most PC, but here goes. I hit on this while talking to a friend of mine – an amazing fly fisherman and all around angler – who said he didn’t think he could ever guide: he’d just want to fish for himself. I replied, “You know, man, when I’m guiding, I am fishing.” For me guiding is just a more challenging form of fishing. I mean, that’s what we’re all about as fly fishers, right: the challenge? And what could be more challenging than fishing through someone else? Of course, this isn’t always the case – some of my clients are very experienced – but more and more I fish with beginners, total neophytes, novices to the bonefishing world. They usually can’t see the fish, so they don’t know where to cast. They don’t know how to move the fly to get the fish to eat, or how to hook the fish once it does eat. Without more or less constant coaching they have about as much chance of catching a bonefish as winning Dancing with the Stars. Now, it took me about a year to catch my first bonefish on the fly, fishing just about every day. Yet, I’ve guided lots of anglers to their first bonefish on their very first outing. It’s not easy, but we do it together as a team and when I see that look in their eyes after the release and know that they’re now addicted I know exactly why I do it.

Q. What do you love best about fishing on your own?

A. The hunt. The space. The silence. The sound of my reel and the slice of backing through water. Simply being one… with the water, the tides, the ebb and flow of life: one with the now, as they say.

I think it’s part of the modern condition of humanity that we suffer from a “multiplicity of being”. Let me explain, say you’re having lunch with a friend, for example, well, that’s not all you’re doing because while you’re sitting there you’re also thinking about how the sushi isn’t as fresh as last time, and maybe you want to say something to the chef but you see yourself as being too picky and whiny and maybe that would turn off your date (if you’re on one) or make your friend roll their eyes. The whole thing gets incredibly complex and hard to even think about properly since there can be so many selves, each watching the others that it’s difficult to figure exactly how many selves were talking about here and we give up on the whole thing in frustration. Suffice to say, though, that we realize there’s more than one… most of the time. But fishing, well, that provides a chance to change all of that. When I’m on the water, following the tide and wind, I’m simply me. As my mind turns outward those other voices are silent and my senses are fixed on the marine world around me. No longer am I watching myself fish, nor is part of my mind worried about tomorrow’s trip or what-have-you, I am – like the bonefish, like the osprey, like the shark – merely, purely, one.

This purity of being is something we rarely experience as humans (though I imagine animals are like this all the time). It is our multiplicity that usually dilutes experience, and so we have to trick our minds. Paradoxically, by turning our mind outward, we allow ourselves to experience something as our true selves. You’ll have to forgive my tendency to pop-philosophy, but this is what I think I love about being on the water alone. A Buddhist might say, “I am the ten thousand things” or “You must lose yourself to find yourself.” Christians might say, “He who would save his life must lose it.” Either way. Alone on the water I have no thoughts of competition or glory, nor do I suffer from the nagging doubts, vanities, and insecurities that accompany me on my trips with buddies or guides. I can simply fish. (The goal, of course, is to reach the point where you can fish on those group trips just as if you were alone… and I’m not there yet.)

Q. The US economy taking a header has impacted a lot of operations and guides in the Caribbean .  How badly has the Cayman economy been hit?

A. Actually, we’ve been very lucky so far. Our economy relies primarily on tourism and banking. Banks have been hit hard around the world, but for the most part the banks here have remained open, so folks have kept their jobs. As for tourism, we’ve been lucky there too. We’re close, safe, family friendly, English speaking and we also cater to both a high-end and budget clientele. As for the guiding business: lucky again. Fly fishing as a whole is growing, and with the explosion of videos online bonefishing has just gained huge exposure recently. Basically, since this is a vacation spot, folks are ok with dropping a little money on something they would never get a chance to do back home, and they can bring the fam along at the same time. Not something you can say for every fishing destination.

Q. Being situated an impossibly difficult drive from new gear, how easy is it to resupply with fly tying gear, fly lines, tippet, etc?

A. I have a great bunch of guys I work with at Flymasters of Indianapolis. Kind of a long story there, but basically I take a trip up there about once a year and grab what I need. Also, generous clients often offer to bring down basic stuff like leaders, tippets, and hooks. (Full disclosure here: I get pro deals from Galvan, Winston, and Smith. That’s it.)

Q. If someone is coming out to Grand Cayman is there a place to eat they need to check out?  A cool bar or place to avoid?

A. Yes, they must, must, absolutely must grab some jerk chicken from Margine’s Jerk Chicken Stand on Hell Rd., West Bay… unless they’re vegetarian, then forget I said that. (They’re only open on Fri and Sat nights.) As for bars, try out one of the local joints – Mango Tree, Pirates Cove in East End, Driftwood Village in North Side – or Rackam’s Pub in George Town Harbour where they feed tarpon at 7pm (and the drinks aren’t bad either).

As for places to avoid, well, some of the more touristy places on 7-Mile Beach. (I probably wouldn’t eat at Legends, for example, unless you get the Rasta Mon Berger.) Keep away from most of the hotel beach bars – expensive, bad drinks – and the bloody Hard Rock Café.

Q. What is your favorite rig?

A. Easy: my 9’6” BIIx, by Winston with a Lightspeed 3.5 by Lamson. Using that rod almost seems unfair (which is your only clue as to why I’ve named it the “Jolly Roger”).

Q. What is the strangest thing ever caught on a guided trip?

A. A lizardfish, I think it’s called – the shallow water version, not the monstrous looking deep sea creature that looks like something from one of your more feverish nightmares.

Davin Ebanks is the author of Flatswalker.com, and owner of Fish Bones, a guide service in Grand Cayman.

Feb 10

Interview with Cayman Guide Davin Ebanks – Part I

This blog has always been about the arc of discovery, the journey to learn more about bonefish and the places and people that relate to them.  I quickly discovered the Flatswalker blog and read about the author’s experiences as he learned the bonefish game in his native Grand Caymans.  Davin Ebanks writes Flatswalker and  has a guide service in Grand Cayman called Fish Bones.

I put some questions to Davin about bonefishing and Grand Cayman and this is Part I of that interview.

Davin with a happy client in Grand Cayman

Q. Grand Cayman got hit pretty hard by Hurricane Ivan back in 2004.  Were you there at the time?  Has the Island recovered?

A. Grand Cayman got hit the hardest of our three islands, but I was (luckily) not there at the time. I’d left a week prior on personal business to Jacksonville, FLA and at that time the storm was predicted to hit Haiti or Cuba, not Cayman. They were wrong. I was in contact with family as early as the next night, but was unable to get back home for about a month! There was such a limit on basic supplies (like water, food, sleeping space, etc.) that it just didn’t make sense to add to the burden. There wasn’t even power available to start making repairs or cleanup for about 2-3 weeks. So, I stayed in Florida and went fishing for a month.

When I got back I was very relieved to see that though there were thousands of fish killed by the storm surge, bonefish were not among them. More importantly, the flats were almost exactly the same as I’d left them – same holes, same drop-offs, a few more rocks and random debris but that’s about it. Given the state of the shoreline (which looked like someone had used it for bombing practice and then sprayed it with a few thousand tons of Agent Orange for good measure), I couldn’t believe something as soft as turtle grass could survive. But it did.

Luckily, the island has mostly recovered since then. In fact, there are only a few places where you can even see signs of the devastation. There are a few houses still derelict and some dead mangrove stumps along the coast, that’s about it.  The biggest change is in the inhabitants’ hurricane readiness. We watch the Weather Chanel like hawks and board up our windows pretty much as soon as a major storm leaves the coast of Africa… and we leave them boarded up till mid-December when Hurricane Season is good and over.

Q. What about Grand Cayman sets it apart from its Caribbean neighbors?

A. Well, to start with we don’t have very many neighbors, unlike the eastern Caribbean islands. There’s Cuba and Jamaica, that’s about it. Also, even though we’ve just celebrated our quincentennial, we’ve been only sparsely inhabited for most of that time. That means that unlike Jamaica (to pick a random country) our water’s have not been fished into a marine desert.  (That’s not to say there’s no fish in Jamaica, but in those areas where there’s access the subsistence lifestyle of the citizens means almost anything edible has been fished and fished heavily.) Also, there’s a distinct lack of crime in Cayman. There are the occasion petty thefts, but by and large you can explore the shoreline with impunity.

However, I’d say the biggest difference is the ease of access to our flats. Being a mountain peak more or less isolated in the Caribbean basin, our flats are almost all Oceanside flats… which are firm and wadeable. We certainly don’t have the expansive flats of the Bahamas, but the common site of tailing bonefish begins to make up for that. (And I mean hard-core, third of their bodies out the water, face in the grass, tailing.) It would take too long to go into it here, but bonefish over hard-packed sand just don’t tail that consistently, not like they do over softer grassy bottoms. (e.g. The Florida Keys, Belize Oceanside, etcetera.) Casting to tailing fish in shallow water is pretty much the premier experience of the sport.

Q. What does a good day of fishing look like for you as a guide?

A. Ok, from a guide’s point of view, or simply the fishing? I guess I’ll just answer that as myself: for me a good day begins not with the most experienced client in the world, or even a great caster, but someone who will listen and (more importantly) keep fishing. Then all you really need is fish that are biting. You can deal with the weather, weird tides, cloudy skies, and all the rest, but if you have someone who just wants to catch a pile of fish, or fish that simply aren’t biting, the day is pretty much shot. I mean, we all want to catch fish, right? But, the thing about fly fishing is that it’s about the experience of fishing. I need my guests to be right there in the moment, not worried about catching fish, thinking about all the fish they caught that one time in the Abacos, or wishing the wind would blow lighter. Given a client who’s simply there to have a good time fishing, we’ll have a good day… and probably catch fish too.

If you wanted to break the thing down to basic numbers, the best day I can remember was at least 13 bonefish, a snook, and a couple baby tarpon jumped. As for the absolute best day all round: that was guiding my good buddy to his first permit on fly. Priceless.

Permit... a bonus

Q. Do you have a favorite fly?

A. Easy. The Usual. Hands down… if you’re not familiar, I’m not surprised. It’s a fly I developed specifically for smart fish on shallow, grassy flats. Check out the recipe here: http://www.fish-bones.com/flies.html#usual. It lands quietly, sinks fast, and has a lot of presence and life in the water.

The Usual

Q. Do you think the fly is really the secret or is it the confidence you have in the fly that makes it work?

A. You know, both. I think they feed each other. I had some confidence before this fly, but after a few fantastic days with it, now I simply believe. To be fair, though, I changed the way I was fishing when I began using that fly. That often happens; looking at the way a fly moves underwater can lead you to fish it differently than others, and the results can go either way. This time it was as close to magic as I’ve seen.

Check in tomorrow for Part II of my interview with Davin Ebanks, author of Flatswalker.com and owner of Fish Bones guide service/fly shop in Grand Cayman.