Bonefish Heaven

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By Louis Cahill

This tiny key is the only dry land in sight. Just a rise in the sand with a little knee high vegetation, interrupting a seemingly endless white sand flat.

The skiff glides silently around it’s shore. The water is Coke bottle green and glistens in the bright Bahamian sun, a breath of breeze keeping it playful and light. In the distance, I can barely make out the dark stripe of deep water between us an Cuba. This is the southern keys. The place where South Andros breaks up into a complex of keys, shallow sand flats and, finally, faint sandbars before giving in to the sea. It’s bonefish heaven.

About a hundred yards ahead there is one sizable cluster of mangroves hugging the shore. Everything else is white sand and water. My eyesight, after seven surgeries to save my right eye, makes the whole scene resemble an impressionist painting. It’s beautiful and, at once, disorienting. Everything in my life now has an extra layer of challenge but I find that standing on the bow of a skiff, searching for bonefish is as comfortable an occupation for me as anything I do. Easier than driving and far easier than anything involving a computer screen. I know what bonefish look like, even if Monet or Dali are pushing the brush. I know how they behave and how they think. Perhaps most importantly, I know who I am standing on the bow. I don’t have to think to do this.

“I don’t care if you can see. You can point that rod and you can cast. We’ll catch fish,” Ronnie Bain told me when I stepped on the boat that morning. 

A year ago, when I was in much worse shape and really shouldn’t have been here at all, I fished with Ronnie the first day of the trip. I had been in bed for six months. Three months I was not allowed to roll over. I became so degraded I couldn’t walk without help. The doctor told me to sit on the couch and hold my head up straight for thirty minutes a day, and when that thirty minutes was up I was exhausted and had to sleep. It was so disorienting I thought I might puke the entire time. I’d only been back on my feet a couple of months when I stepped onto Ronnie’s boat. I wasn’t at all sure I could stand on the bow and I could nearly see my hand in front of my face. I put on a smile and made a good show but I was afraid. Afraid that fly fishing, and specifically bonefishing, was over for me.

We had run down south that day too. A long ride down and when Ronnie stopped the boat he beached it on the back side of a little key and told us to get our wading boots on. Quietly, I panicked. There was no way I was up to wading. Not only was I not going to catch fish, I could seriously hurt myself. I was slow getting my gear together and Ronnie got his other angler set up on a wade line and came back for me. He helped me out of the boat and, with my arm over his shoulders, carried me across the flat. The bottom was rough with coral and I couldn’t see where I was putting my feet. My legs shook with every step. Ronnie held the back of my shirt as I cast and guided me, his voice soft and calm.

“More left, more left, a little longer, put it down.”

Within a minute I was hooked up to a bonefish. In the two years of ordeal and pain and helplessness, no one but my wife had been as compassionate with me as Ronnie Bain was that day. I don’t know if he has any idea what a gift he gave me, or if he could see through my dark glasses that I was balling like a child when I released that fish. I’ve caught a lot of fish in my life, but none as dear to me as that one. 

“Ok Louis, we got two fish coming, a hundred yards out. Big boys. Coming by that big mangrove right now. You see them? Take your time.”

I look and I do see them. He’s not kidding, they are nice fish. Double digits, both of them. They are coming our way down the edge or the shore. The bigger of the two is on the right side, next to open water. It’s a great set up. I just have to wait for them to get in range. That’s the tough part. I struggle with judging distance now. The first cast of the trip I’d put a good forty feet past the fish. I didn’t want to do that now.

“Ok, you can reach ‘em, go now,” Ronnie calls down from the platform.

He knows my casting and knows where I like to make a shot, so I trust him and cast. If I play this right, I can get the big one. There a couple of things I know I have to do. When bonefish get big, they behave differently from the eager little schoolies you see running around the flats like squirrels. They are cooler customers and you need a softer sell. I need to keep this shot long. Seventy or eighty feet. The fish needs to see the fly long before he feels the pressure of the boat on the water. A big fish like this will shut down immediately if he thinks something is not right. If I drop the fly between me and the fish, the smaller fish will get to it first. Assuming I hook the fish, I’m going to need to keep him away from that mangrove. I need to fight him in open water if I’m going to have a chance.

Anglers will often talk about bonefishing as being like hunting. I think that’s fundamentally wrong. I get it, you are out actively looking for fish and even stalking them but that’s the easy part of the game. A hunter stalks an animal, but once found, and once the shot is clear, the hunter shoots and the animal falls. The hunter is in total control. With fishing, bonefishing anyway, the fish is in the drivers seat. The decision to eat the fly is his and his alone. I’m not a sharp shooter, I’m a salesman. It’s up to me to convince the fish to make a bad decision. Eating the fly has to be his idea. Bonefishing isn’t hunting, it’s dating.

I make a long cast and drop the fly about six feet to the right of the big fish. This accomplishes four things for me. First, it’s not too obvious. The fish will catch sight of the fly in his peripheral. It will look like something he missed, not something that landed. Second, The smaller fish, if he even sees the fly, is much further from it and would have to get past the bigger fish to eat it. Third, it keeps the game at a distance. If the fish turns to eat the fly, he is no longer closing the gap between himself and the boat. Lastly, it turns him away from the big mangrove and towards open water.

“Perfect,” Ronnie says softly as the fly lands.

The fish turns and eats the fly without hesitation. Dinner and a show, now we’re dating. As I watch my flyline disappear, I feel Ronnie turn the boat and pole for open water. He’s really good at this part. We’re fighting the fish together. Without shouting instructions we are acting as a team. I know by the position of the boat how I need to fight the fish and Ronnie knows by how the fish runs, where I need help. It’s efficient and it’s fun, especially with a fish this size. We’ll be seeing a lot of that bright orange backing before its over.

We fight the fish well, and we’re lucky. He pulls hard for the mangroves at one point, but he’s already run to far into open water and Ronnie has put some good distance between the boat and the shore. There are no big sharks around, so we aren’t under any pressure to land the fish early or let him go. It all goes down exactly like you’d want it to. Not easy, but not complicated. We land the fish and step out in the shallow water for a photo.

What a difference a year makes. This is the biggest bonefish I’ve caught in at least two years. It’s the kind of fish, and the kind of shot, I was afraid I’d never see again. I have at least one more surgery left to go on my right eye. My vision could get a little better and, though I don’t like to think about it, it could get much worse, but I now know that, regardless of the outcome, I am not done bonefishing. Not by a long shot. My best fish is not behind me. The soft sand gives under my knees, the warm water laps around me, and the big silver fish slides from my hands and glides calmly across the flat, There is a bonefish heaven and I am there.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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22 thoughts on “Bonefish Heaven

  1. Man! Louis!!! That is so encouraging to read – good for you. I’m almost buried in the hopelessness of ever getting out to anywhere worth fishing this year.

    Thanks so much.

  2. Good story about a magical place with great water and great guides. Best of all, you are on your feet and catching fish again. Way to go, Louis.

  3. Louis, This brought tears to my eyes. I am so happy for you as these last few years have surely been hard for you. As I approach my seventy fourth year, I am aware sometimes that the things I do could be the last time I do them. Wading the marsh flats here in Georgia fall into that category. Thanks for Hope.

  4. Louis, Beautiful writing, and your joy of being back on the water
    is palpable. I read this lovely piece aloud to my now blind friend
    and we both cried-hard. Thank you for sharing and I’m so glad
    you’re back on your feet. Sending love.

  5. Louis— for some reason I have been (re)reading Tom McGuane and Roddy Haig-Brown. Your piece is as good as any of theirs: perfectly written, balancing the fishing and emotion masterfully. A wonderful tribute to Ronnie,as well. I loved “we’re on a date!” Hope to see you again in 2022, in Andros.

  6. LOL, Ronnie’s a great guide — as are all the guys @ Bair’s — but Jesus Himself can’t see three bonefish 100 yards away!! Perhaps you meant 100 feet?

  7. I love the hunt, seeing the fish, making the cast and the challenge of bringing to net a beautiful fish! The thought of losing that joy is frightening and sad. I was loosing my vision and had a successful brain surgery which restored my sight. I have returned to the joy f fishing with a reinvigorated passion. Hope that you continue your recovery and best wishes for another successful surgery. Thanks for the beautiful story. I could picture myself on the bow and feel the thrill of the hookup! Hope to join you at a future bone fishing school.
    Blessings to you!

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