Holed up in the Orange Hill Beach Inn for a day much like checking ourselves in to a David Lynch movie we’re finding it difficult to get a straight answer from the dockmaster’s office about when the Captain Moxey actually sails to Andros, when it gets in and exactly where it goes. We can take our pick from a handful of times and places. I give up on the phone call, deciding instead to head to the docks and ask on the boat. As I hang up a tousled and unusually skinny American comes blinking into reception, flip-flops clacking under his reluctant feet.
“How does a guy get some sleep round here?” He looks at me like it’s my fault. “Did you call me? Someone called me. I’m just trying to sleep for chrissake. Just make sure you don’t call me again, willya?”
And off he flip-flops. Though it is past midday I have some sympathy. The previous night I’d been condemned to wakefulness by strange emanations from the room next door a sort of surreal mélange of ecstatic moaning and a conversation about golf. But this is Nassau. I’ve stayed at the smart end. Give me Mulholland Drive any day. You know things will happen there beyond being asked for a gratuity on top of the tip. Matt and I are, after all, doing bonefish on a shoe-string down in steerage. In part because our coffers aren’t full, in part because we want to prove it can be done and in the biggest part of all because we suspect, like in the movie Titanic, that’s where the real party is.
Down at the docks I get a straight answer from the chef cooking onions in the galley who I think might just be the captain too. He sells us two tickets for $30 that buys us a cabin and tells us to be back at 11, no later. The Moxey sails overnight from Nassau to Driggs Hill, which leaves us across the water from where we’re heading Mickey’s place on Mangrove Cay: home of giant bonefish. When we check in the dock is alive with trucks and cars disgorging people, onion sacks and brick pallets on to the mailboat the lifeblood of cheap inter-island hopping. We share our berth with a Rasta called Lucifer and his pal, who Lucifer calls Stinking Biddy and who calls himself Denzel Washington. Biddy learns we are from London and worries that we might be terrorists and Lucifer suggests there are no terrorists in the Bahamas on account of the witches. The conversation is so crazy I begin to regret the two beers and a seasick tablet that have felled me like a rhino dart, but Matt holds up our end and as dawn breaks we glide silently into Driggs Hill.
Mangrove Cay, our paradise, shimmers tantalisingly on the horizon, the far side of the Southern Bight and a long swim from where we sit with our rod tubes, rucksacks and chocolate biscuits (in case of shipwreck) all around us. But we’ve struck up a chat with Lionel “just call me chef, everyone else does” who takes pity on our plight and introduces us to Roy, a deaf crawfisherman who blew his ears out long ago free-diving.
“You wanna go to Mangrove Cay?” “Yes please.” “Huh?” “Yes please!!” “OK. That ain’t a problem.”
I try to negotiate a fee, but Roy tells me to put my money away till we get to the far side, that just a few bucks will be fine, and we set off, sharing the ride with a very extended family and their extended luggage, the water lapping just a few inches short of the gunwales. I turn to Matt and suggest that this has simply got to beat first class: we’re already three chapters into an Odyssean adventure and we haven’t even started fishing yet. The fishing comes soon enough.
Mickey’s place is only half a mile from the quay where deaf Roy left us. We’re there by breakfast, dropping our bags on the porch of one of the half-dozen timber huts that decorate Mickey’s small acreage of thick saw-blade grass and coconut trees. I can stand on that very porch and if I choose to flick peanuts across sand so white it makes me blink into one of the funkiest bonefish flats I have ever seen. It is like landing feet first in a bonefish arcady. Mickey, ex-Boston commercial diver, with a US TV cop-drama accent, knocks us up an Elysian breakfast of melon, mango, pancakes and coffee so thick and so eye-thumpingly feisty that despite the journey I’m on that flat by nine and into a big, fat bonefish by nine-thirty.
The flat is flanked all along the west by a thin crescent of white sand, a delicate line of dried turtle grass marking high water and higher still the gnarled, bleached and dried roots of fallen trees. To the north is a small cay about 100yd offshore and a quarter of a mile long. Locked inside this ampitheatre of coconut trees and pines are about 50, maybe a hundred acres of shallow water mottled in bright turquoise and black. Every so often the oven-baked silence is shattered by a coconut dropping 50ft into undergrowth. Matt and I tell each other at more or less exactly the same time that more people are killed by coconuts than sharks. This is always a good mantra before wading in a tropical sea.
Within yards of the shore a fat bonefish cruises into sight. I beat my chest to still my racing heart. That coffee really was fiery and the bonefish really was big. Moments later a pair of bigger fish materialise in front of us. This time I get a fly in front of the lead fish, which swims up to it quickly, eyeballs the fly and takes off, dragging his mate behind him.
The bonefish round here are not going to be easy. After all, we’ve hitched a ride into the big-bonefish capital of the world, on the edge of Andros’s Middle Bight: we could stay down the road for a gazillion dollars. To the north are Big Wood Cay and Moxey’s Creek places that have become intertwined with the idea of enormous bonefish, places that have seen a lot of good anglers.
The light dips as a cloud drifts over the sun. But as it does I see, or think I see, a movement to my right, beneath the grey, slate surface where my window into the water is nearing its blurred edge. I make a cast and as the fly settles and I make the first strip on the fly, the mid-teleport ghost of a fat rat scurries from one dimension to this one. The ghost stops as it reaches what must be my fly and I strip to see if anything is there. The line pulls into something solid and just as suddenly pulls away, connected now to something manic and fast. All the time-bomb tension of the previous few seconds, the held breath, the frozen body, the eyes straining for information, is suddenly released when a bonefish takes. I doubt there is anything else in sport to rival that uncoiling rush. It’s like a drug and I for one am addicted to it. This first fish weighed about 5lb smaller than the others we’d seen, but a big fish nonetheless and it gave us the impression we had really landed in the gravy. In fact its easy high induces a day of cold turkey as Matt and I pound the Mangrove Cay Tarmac on our bicycles trying to find another to match it.
Beyond Mickey’s flat, there seem to be two or three others we can reach ourselves, leaning our bikes against coconut trees and walking off the road into the water. The locals assure us big fish swim in them but it takes Ralph Moxey to lift a day of this fishless curse. Ralph is one of the oldest guides on Mangrove Cay, his enormous moustache as legendary as his boat-building and guiding skills. He’ll do days for Mickey’s guests if Mickey asks nicely. His skiff has done some serious mileage, he has no poling platform and as far as I can see he punts us along with a garden fork on a stick and his shades aren’t polarised either. But he has a nose for bonefish. We’re in front of good fish all morning, landing them steadily, and missing one good chance at a real monster. At about noon the weather turns downwards while the wind picks up and the fish fade away, leaving us to wonder whether our chance for a whopper has passed. Then, as we near the end of one long fishless creek we see a shoal of five shimmying fast across a sandbar. The lead fish, the biggest, pounces on my fly like a cat chasing a ball on a string. While I wrestle with it Ralph leans back and gazes around. He’s seen it all before. He asks Matt to pass him a sandwich while I cradle the heftiest bonefish I’ve ever held, grinning like an idiot!
Our shoe-string Odyssey takes us on in the days following, across the Middle Bight, to North Andros and on again to Green Turtle Cay. We find enormous fish, chilled out guides and cheap lodgings, flats we can walk right on to, fish that have seen it all before and one or two that temporarily forget they have and get caught by us: the perfect antidote to winter blues and a shallow pocket.
HOW TO CATCH BONEFISH WITHOUT LIGHTENING YOUR WALLET (TOO MUCH)
1 Look for connections to out-islands via Miami. Flights to Miami are much, much cheaper than to Nassau, and there are hops from there beyond, direct to the out-islands.
2 Buy a copy of The Bahamas Bonefishing Guide by Kim and Stephen Vletas; it gives
details of all sorts of flats that can be walked to from the roadway, as well as places to stay to suit all pockets.
3 Be brave enough to self-guide some days, and recruit guides direct on the others.
4 Consider self-catering too: some bungalows can be really cheap to rent for the week.
The Field recommends
The Rainbow Inn on Eleuthera with guiding by Gershum Pinder. Gershum will charge only $150 a day to ride around with you, tell you stories and find you fish. All of the flats on Eleuthera can be reached from the road.
The inn is very comfortable and reasonable. Email Ken.
Mickey and Joans Seascape Inn on Mangrove Cay Writers favourite; great food and lodgings. Cabana $150 a day plus tax, a bonefish flat out front, bicycles. Mickey can book days with Ralph Moxey or Mark Bastian as guides. Email Mickey.
Frankie Neymours Two Boys Inn The lodgings (for eight) are simple but Frankie is fab company and a fab guide. There is a whopping flat out the front of Cargill Creek where he lives, so you dont have to take every day out with Frankie. His wife cooks lovely food. Email Frankie.
Island Property Management on Green Turtle Cay Some inexpensive cottages within falling-out-of-bed distance of big bonefish. Check in 3pm/out 10.30am. Email Julie