Twelve O’clock, Forty Feet

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Photos by Louis Cahill

By Jason Tucker

I stand in white-snow sand and water, the sun shining weakly down from a blue sky muted by haze high in another atmosphere removed from the one I breathe, scanning below me an atmosphere likewise foreign, searching for shadows which themselves search for the scuttling, twitching objects of their own desire, oblivious to my interest in them. Bonefish.

Ronnie Bain, proud native Bahamian and guide, is trying to put my friend Brad onto bonefish while I hang back in search of my own. They are focused on a small pod of fish that continues away from them when suddenly Ronnie turns to me and says “Jason, give me a cast, thirty feet.” As he says this a lone bonefish slides into view, a ghostly apparition floating over the pale sand. It approaches to within twenty-five feet before I land my cast. On the second strip my line comes tight, and then my drag sings a merry tune as the fish peels off two hundred fifty feet of line in seconds. The fight doesn’t last too long, but is fought hard and well. Ronnie tells me to look around for sharks. We’ve seen a lot of sharks.

It has been a difficult week of fishing, with high winds and heavy rains frustrating our efforts. We have worked for every fish this week. A moment like this is pure bliss, in which a fish, despite our best efforts at searching, magically appears above the sun-blasted sand bottom and presents an easy shot. There is serendipity in bonefishing after all.

Standing on the bow rod in hand, the sound of rain pelting my raincoat has drowned out all other noises, until even my inner dialogue recedes into the background. Leslie is poling us west- or is it South, or even east? I’ve lost track, the sun is not there to guide us, and I suspect the wind of changing directions to throw us off.

It is strange how difficult bonefish are to spot, and how obvious they are once you do.

Here they come, two torpedoes approaching at speed, collision inevitable. I call them out to Leslie, who has yet to spot them. “Two fish, twelve o’clock, coming in fast. Big fish.” I say as I wind up my cast. As my fly hits the water they juke hard to my left, already aware of the boat. I cast to them again, but as I do I spot movement ahead. It is a large lemon shark, eight feet long, in hot pursuit of the bonefish; these bonefish, huge specimens pushing perhaps fifteen pounds, and probably feeling squeezed between the boat and the shark, shoot off to the east (?) and the shark surges fruitlessly after them. In a week of seeing big bones these are the biggest I have seen.

They say if you come back in April you will have shots at schools of fish numbering in the thousands, but that they will average much smaller and the big fish will be gone. Personally I prefer this, hunting for fish, seeing these big bones, and the sharks that never seem to be far behind them.

Leslie says I probably saved the lives of those fish by not hooking one.

“Jason, give me a cast, twelve o’clock, forty feet.”

Ronnie Bain says this in an eerily quiet, calm voice. I wind up my cast and land the fly right in front of the fish just as I spot it. It looks like any other bonefish we have seen that morning.

Up until that moment I was supremely discouraged to the point of agitation. I missed a couple easy shots made difficult by wind and scattered clouds. Then I set the hook on one, too hard according to Ronnie, and lost it. I have decided if I blow the next shot I’m stepping down and letting Canadian Chris back on the bow.

But I land this cast and on my second strip the fish takes. I strip set and the hook makes contact with a thud. There is no give, only a hard, dead stop as if I have hooked the limestone bottom. It turns with the deliberate movements of a large fish, its acceleration steady and smooth. When the line laying about me is gone and it feels the rod it streaks off even faster in a white-hot blaze of speed. This is the hardest test my drag, rod and knot tying skills have ever faced. Did I tie those blood knots correctly and symmetrically? Is a triple surgeons knot good enough?  Thank god I bought those expensive hooks. This is perhaps the wrong time to be asking these questions, but now I need to face the answers.

I have caught a lot of big fish over the years; I have also lost a lot of big fish over the years.

Luck, good or bad, plays a role in both equations. So does skill or carelessness. When I really want to land a fish I make it work the rod, I pay attention to my drag, I let them run when they want, and work them every second they try to rest. Every moment a big fish is on the line the whole enterprise is at risk. At times, say, during the salmon run, when I have caught a few fish, I begin to get careless. Each fish is no longer special. I make mistakes or take chances, and fish get away.

This fish has my full attention. I’m careful not to touch my reel during this initial run. It takes one hundred yards of line in just a few seconds, and I feel my reel beginning to heat up. I put some pressure on when it pauses, but it takes off again, taking another fifty yards. I’m beginning to worry about my backing. The fish turns hard left, taking more line, and I raise my rod tip high to reduce drag against the water. Far across the water I can see my fly line bouncing on the waves.

The fish comes in reluctantly but steadily, but when it gets within fifty feet of the boat it seems to become aware of the nature of its predicament. It surges off again on another hundred-yard dash, as urgent as its first run. Once again, I nervously watch my fly line disappear toward the horizon. It gets one more decent run in after that before coming in to the boat.

When Ronnie lands the fish, I drop my rod and reach for my camera. We revive the fish a little before taking some shots. Canadian Chris asks Ronnie “Is that thing ten pounds?” and Ronnie responds “It is definitely ten pounds. 

When your guide wants a picture with your fish you know it’s a good one.

James Hamilton has been talking about tarpon at the Little Creek bridge. James, along with his partner Liz Ziebarth, is the manager at Bair’s Lodge. With the schedule they keep- up before breakfast and still going at ten o’clock at night. Every day. I’m assuming they get some time off. 

James says that at night giant tarpon hang out at the Little Creek bridge and feed on shrimp and bait being swept  from open water into the creek. He says he’s jumped a couple. So on Wednesday night Canadian Chris can’t take this talk anymore, and James offers to take him to give it a try. In the course of things they invite me.

It’s late, I’m tired and just want to relax, and yet I ask myself “What would Dave Karczynski do?” The answer is obvious. Good stories are not the result of sitting comfortably at the lodge sipping rum drinks.  Good stories are the result of taking that rum drink and a couple Kaliks, climbing into the back seat of the Hilux with your camera, and going to witness whatever may ensue.

We park at the bridge next to a bar that is closed at the moment. Apparently bars on Andros are only open for a couple hours after work. As we approach the bridge we can hear fish crashing in the dark.

You cannot see tarpon at night with a light. The only way to see them is with your eyes by the pale gleam of a distant street light. By that faint illumination they light up when they feed; great silver slabs swimming deliberately on their sides so that they shine like hammered silver armor, four and five feet long. Every now and then we would get a glimpse of a great eye staring up at us from the surface of the water, accusatory, as if we were witnessing a forbidden ritual. The tarpon worked in a circle, swimming from upstream of the bridge, past the abutment, then rolling on their sides as they engulfed shrimp and baitfish, before rolling back upright and circling back upstream.

We did not catch a tarpon, though Canadian Chris got a grab, and James jumped two. Everywhere in the darkness we could hear the splashes and rolls and great sucking sounds as food got inhaled near the surface. In the darkness beyond the bridge we heard voices heated in argument, and a dog, barking insanely, came and threatened us until a man stepped out of the dwelling and called it back.

Jason writes the fine blog Fontinalis Rising

Jason Tucker

Gink & Gasoline
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