Bucket List

WHERE THE BONES NEVER REST

After I saw the splendid and funny movie The Bucket List, I made my own list. It contained none of the unexpected yet beautiful things such as “Laugh until I cry” or “Witness something majestic” or “Climb a pyramid” that you saw in the movie. No, I am not that complex. In fact my list had only one item: Go bonefishing at More’s Island.

This is such a simple and uncomplicated thing that it will disappoint many who saw the movie, but those who fish for bones will understand.

People can’t even agree on how to spell the name of the island: Moores, Moore’s, Mores, or More’s, but they usually go for the last version. T
hose who have fished this out-of-the-way little Bahamian sand bar can, however, agree that it is a nautical version of Jurassic Park and
probably the best place on the planet to find big unpressured bonefish.

We fishermen search for mystical waters where our fate and our destiny might collide and we can latch onto the fish of a lifetime. We dream of the hookup that starts the music – a reel screaming like a Valkyrie – as we lose backing at a prodigious rate while, far in the distance, the line slices through the water leaving a roostertail of spray. We lust in our hearts for that Mr. Rocketman of a bonefish, a big-shouldered double-digit guy who will take the fly to another Zip Code before we turn him, bring him toward home, and then see him erupt in another run as powerful as the first.

For reasons I have never understood, our dreams often take us far from our home waters. It is almost as if the farther we go, the bigger we think the fish might grow. For some their dream waters are at Christmas Island or the Seychelles or some other God-forsaken place in the Pacific where the air fare to reach the nearest hotel would settle the debt of several third world countries. For others it is a remote part of Mexico or Central America, for still others it is the west side of Andros. All of these have been described in one publication or another as the best place on earth for bonefish.

Those who have fished More’s Island read all this hype, nod indulgently, and smile at their memories.

I have no memories, only stories that made me want to go to the island. One story was of three preachers who went there and within minutes one hooked a bonefish, the second a permit, and the third a tarpon – a grand slam from the same boat at the same time..

One of those preachers is a friend whom I know to be one of God’s good people, and I believe his story. I attributed the grand slam shot to the special dispensation allowed preachers; that was, until Paul Pinder, one of the most respected guides on Abaco, told of seeing a bone tailing in water too deep for tailing. Pinder stuck his push pole in the water where the bone had been and measured the depth at twenty-seven inches. But bones don’t feed standing on their heads; they feed tipped over at an angle. Pinder figured the fish was in excess of thirty-five inches. He says schoolies on More’s Island average out at about seven pounds – big enough that they often are mistaken for schools of barracuda – and that singles and doubles are well into the double digits.

I heard of one bone that grayhounded across the flats for more than two hundred yards, then hung in a pool for five minutes, the fisherman unable to budge him, before the fish took off on another run that snapped the 20-pound backing. I heard of bones that are not the silvery ghosts one expects, but dark green marauders, unlike anywhere else in the Bahamas, that roam the flats as if they own the very sand beneath them.

I went to the Fish Hawk, an Atlanta fly fishing store, and mentioned all this to one of the people who work there. As I talked, his eyes darted nervously about the store toward other customers and then he leaned toward me, cupped his hand over his mouth, and whispered, “We don’t like to talk about More’s Island.”
All this caused me to enter More’s Island as the only item on my Bucket List; the only thing I truly long to do before I kick the bucket. Being of an anal temperament, I sat about to read everything I could find about the island before I went there.

Beyond nailing down the location, there wasn’t much. First, go to a map of Abaco, move your finger down to the south end village of Sandy Point, and then measure 18 miles on a heading of 330 degrees. There is More’s Island, a thumb print of an island with a population of about 1,000, most of whom live in the village of Hard Bargain. (You can’t make this stuff up.) The island is bordered on the east by flats and on the west by unknown ocean depths; the perfect combination for big fish who rise from blue water to feed in the shallows.

To understand why the island is so unspoiled you have to know that people on the island are primarily lobster men or commercial fishermen. There is a single modest hotel and a couple of guides, but they are not dedicated guides with flats boats; they guide only if there are no traps to pull or if the fish are not running. And they use lobster boats to take out fly fishermen.

More’s is not a hundred miles from Florida but getting there is not easy. You won’t find anything about the island on any Bahamian tourist web sites. A Bahamian airline flies in once a day from Marsh Harbour, and a cargo boat from Nassau stops in once a week.

Fly fishermen who know of More’s Island usually base on Abaco and make the 30-
minute run from Sandy Point early in the morning. The water is shallow – about 20 feet – and if the wind is honking, the trip is a boat ride from hell. Outboard motors in the Bahamas have only one speed – wide open – and this trip has shattered coolers and reduced big city fly fishermen to tremble-knee droolers in search of a drink and a TV set.

So, unless a fishermen specifically says he wants to go to More’s, the guides of Abaco usually take their clients to hunt for big bones on the north or south end, or to find lots of smaller fish at the Marls in the middle of the island. It is simply too much trouble, except on a calm day, to go to More’s Island.

The two exceptions are Paul Pinder who has fished More’s Island for the last ten years and knows it better than any other guide, and Clint Kemp, my preacher friend who has abandoned the pulpit for the poling platform. These two are the dynamic duo of fishing More’s Island and if you go with either one of them, know that good things are going to happen.

I was ready to go. From Atlanta I made arrangements through The Black Fly, a fishing store in Jacksonville, Florida and the only place that specializes in fishing More’s Island. I would fish both with Clint and Paul. Four nights in a new Beach Club and three days of fishing. The stars were all aligned and the portents were good.

I picked May, usually one of the better months for fishing the Bahamas. But if, as the poet wrote, April is the cruelest month, then May can be a romping stomping bitch kitty. One Monday around noon I stepped off the aircraft at Marsh Harbour and found an overcast sky, 20-knot winds, thunder rumbling in the southeast, and a black squall line approaching.

“How soon can you be ready to fish?” Clint asked. He is as good a guide as he was a preacher, and he once had the largest church in Nassau. He can find bones as good as he could find lost souls. A hard core waterman he is.

“We going to More’s Island in this weather?”

“No, we’ll go tomorrow. I know a place we can fish in the lee of the wind today.”

Soon I was on a western flat where I found bold and aggressive fish, that, when they saw the fly, bolted for it. Even though I was fishing a relatively sheltered spot, the wind from the southeast pushed over the island and down upon me, causing me to re-think my casting abilities. Eventually I put a fly in front of a big bone but when he turned and lurched at the fly, I stripped too fast and was successful in keeping it away from him.

Deep breath. Look over my shoulder at the weather. Re-calculate the wind strength.

“Fish. Eleven o’clock. Forty feet,” Clint said, pointing.

I threw about ninety degrees across the wind and put the fly 10 feet in front of the bone. He attacked, and a few minutes later I had my first Abaco bone, about three pounds. Before the afternoon was over I had put a fly atop the head of several big boys, chasing them out of the neighborhood. I wasn’t fast enough on the trigger to get off a shot at several others, and simply couldn’t cast the fifty or sixty feet necessary to reach some double digit guys. The wind was killing me.

Tuesday morning I awoke to hear the wind keening around the eaves; it was at least 25 knots and the rain was coming down sideways. Squall lines with thunder and lightning marched through one behind the other. We had a baby hurricane going. The only happy note was that the rain was warm. More’s Island was out, but I was going wading, my favorite way to bonefish.

Clint drove his truck along a flat that came right up to the road and when he saw fish emerging from the mangroves we waded slowly into the water and set up to ambush them. The wind was so strong that I was casting 90-degrees off the fish, but even so I caught a two-pounder and a four-pounder, both of which came up within 30 feet before I cast. I figured Clint was doing some heavy praying to get bones in that close, but he said the wind so disturbed the water that the fish couldn’t see us.

On the second fish, I was not checking the weather over my shoulder and suddenly felt several gusts and a squall line was upon us. The sky darkened, the wind rose, and we were lashed by the wind as I winched in the bone. Then we slogged back to the truck, waited out the squall, and were back in the water. The weather drove us back to the truck several more times. This was combat fishing at its best. But always in my thought was More’s Island. I had to check the island off my Bucket List.

Wednesday morning it seemed the weather had moved a bit to the east; enough so that Paul and Clint and I loaded and launched. Clint persuaded Paul to slow down but it was still a rough ride. Twenty minutes out and off to the east, only a mile or so away, the sky was black and squall lines paralleled our path. We could see More’s ahead Island but then it grew dim in the fog and rain before it disappeared.

“Hear the artillery?” Clint shouted in my ear.

I nodded. Thunder was booming ahead and to our right, echoing over the sound of the engine.

Then Paul made a decision that showed mature judgment. He knew that I had come to Abaco to fish More’s Island. But he has the experience to know when his own judgment should override the wishes of a client, and rather than pressing ahead he turned 90 degrees west toward a small island about three miles away; sitting there in bright sunshine, beckoning. Bahamians know the island as Gorda Cay. But the island is owned by the Disney Corporation which renamed it Castaway Cay. Disney cruise ships stop there so those aboard can spend a day on a deserted island. Let Disney and the tourists call it what they will, it is still Gorda Cay and it is a fishery very much like More’s. No Disney ship was anchored there today and there would be no tourists in kayaks slopping about in shallow water.

We coasted to a stop atop a flat that seemed endless, stepped out, and almost immediately I hooked a three-pounder. I was astonished when Clint grabbed the line, hauled in the still-rambunctious fish, and released it, saying, “There are too many big ones out there to bother with this little guy.”

Seconds later he said, “Ten o’clock. Sixty feet. Four fish coming straight at you.” Because of the wind I waited a few seconds, always a tricky proposition with vigilant bones. At forty feet the fish veered away but were not spooked. I put a fly in front of them and all four charged. But then a bigger fish came out of nowhere, pushed them aside, and grabbed the fly and was off on a Gorda Cay sleigh ride. I held the rod aloft and listened to the sweetest music on earth. Five minutes later I landed a seven-pound bone.

By now the clouds had thinned to the north and I could see More’s Island. “Do the fish up there fight like this one?” I asked Paul.

He paused a long moment and I thought he was not going to answer. Then he said, “A seven-pound fish on More’s fights a lot harder than a seven-pound fish here.”

Damn!

I caught two more bones then waded up a creek where I stood atop a mogul as a school of about a hundred bones circled me. Paul saw four permit and we chased them for two hours, getting multiple shots, but, as often is the case with permit, they were too persnickety to take the fly.

Then I went back to wading and saw a half-dozen sets of doubles, all of them well into the double digits. Most were too far away, but I did manage to land a fly atop the head of one of them. I was amazed at both the number and the size of the bonefish on this remote little island and told Paul I had never fished such a place.

“Gorda is sort of like More’s,” Paul said. “It’s not bad here.” He looked at the threatening sky. “Maybe we can get up there tomorrow.”

Mid-afternoon we boarded the boat and over my shoulder I watched More’s Island until it disappeared below the horizon. “Tomorrow, I’m coming,” I said to myself.

If the weather had been bad all week, on Thursday it was terrible. Not even Paul and Clint, who will make the crossing in weather that would keep 40-foot boats in the harbor, would consider launching. On Friday when I left for Atlanta it was still raining. I wondered if the sun would ever again shine on Abaco, and I wondered if some things are too magnificent to put on a Bucket List; that either they happen in a tumble of serendipity or they do not happen at all. I believe that if you want something to the exclusion of all else, you rarely receive it, but in the process you learn how ephemeral are the things of this world and you make some kind of spiritual progress.

I understand that I may have gained more by not going than I would have by going. But yet, there are days when I close my eyes and see More’s Island shimmering in the haze, low and green, and I long to be casting to that mythic fish cruising those mythic waters.

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