A MOST MEMORABLE FISH LOST:
For perhaps 20 minutes I’d been standing on the edge of the flats on South Caicos Island, waiting patiently with my fly rod in hand, for the first fish to arrive. My guide, Barr Gardner, had selected the spot carefully. First Barr had ensured we were stood sufficiently distant from the edge of the steaming mangroves so as not to suffer too much from the unwanted attention of biting bugs. The edge of a slightly deeper drainage channel that cut across the flat was a comfortable cast in front, what little wind there was at my back, and the sun had almost reached its zenith so we had excellent visibility.
Schools of bonefish, Barr had said with characteristic confidence, would soon be moving in from the deeper water outside of the flats, swimming through the channel with the flooding tide, before spilling out to feed amongst the mangroves roots and over the hard white coral sand of the flat.
Twice already my heart rate had surged, when I thought I’d spotted a bonefish. On the first occasion a bulbous bow wave had moved directly towards us, but as the fish swam slowly into view we saw it was a stingray. Shortly afterwards I had almost cast at a fish that I’d seen slip over the lip of the gully and start to move across in front of us, but this time the false alarm had been caused by a baby black tip shark. On the third occasion, however, there had been no mistake. The fish had moved up into shallow water then when it was barely 30ft from me it had upended and stuck its snout into the soft sand to dig out some tasty morsel. It had tailed beautifully, its forked tail glinting in the bright sunshine; the bonefish that at the time I had ever seen was right there in front of me.
“Feesh!”, Barr had hissed into my left ear, but it was so close now any sudden movement or attempt at casting overhead would have spooked the fish instantly. Being as careful as I could I attempted a side cast while keeping the rod as low, and it was not a good cast. The fly landed in the general area in which the fish was moving, then as I started to twitch it across the bottom it swam directly towards it, had appeared to suck it, yet somehow had managed to spit it out before I could set the hook.
Remarkably I got a second shot at that fish. By now it was swimming away from us, and still feeding, but it was moving at sufficient an angle to allow me to drop the fly in its line of sight. The fish, which Barr had estimated at 8lb+, went straight for the fly, I felt the line tighten and this time when I lifted the rod to set set the hook everything went tight and the fish scorched off across the flat. All i could do was hold the rod high and hold on as my reel handle spun in a demented blur.
You often read about bonefish making 100 yard runs though in reality most runs, as impressive as they always are, will be much shorter. This fish probably took somewhere approaching 120 yards of line and backing on its first run, though gradually it had slowed and I started to gain some sort of control over the situation. Even so it was several anxious minutes before the end of the fly line first came back through the tip ring, only to quickly disappear as again the bonefish shot off on a second long run that ate heavily into the backing.
For the most part I had a clear field on which to play the fish, a clear field that is with the exception of a single clump of mangrove shoots that stood proud and erect about 60 yards in front and slightly to my right of where I stood. Just one small, isolated mangrove among acres of otherwise deserted and snag free flat. Just the one snag between me and the fish of a lifetime, and of course despite my vain attempt at forcing the fish to swim the other way into clear water, this was precisely where my fish headed. The 10lb tippet stood no chance, and snapped cleanly as the bonefish with maintained its course and wrapped the fragile line around the shoot.
I cannot begin to describe my disappointment, but thankfully that day there were other chances at good fish, lots of them. During that first day and the many others I have subsequently fished with Barr I have caught plenty of bonefish on the fly, though sadly none were in the same league as that big fish.
The Turks & Caicos Islands are a little known, straggling chain of low lying islands which form a tiara around the northern rim of the Caicos Bank. Located to the south-east of the Bahamas and approximately 100 miles north of Haiti, certainly the Turks & Caicos Islands are one of the best kept bonefish fishing secrets in the Caribbean.
A relatively small resident population and as yet minimal impact from tourism has resulted in this pristine Crown British Colony remaining almost totally unspoiled. The Turks & Caicos consist of 7 inhabited islands and over 30 uninhabited small Cays of low lying coral limestone that are noted for their deserted beaches, crystal clear waters and outstanding dive sites.
Most of the population live on the island of Providentiales, ‘Provo’ as it is locally called, and next to diving, fishing is the biggest attraction bringing sportsmen to the Turks & Caicos. There is excellent blue water fishing for billfish and most other pelagic sports fish, while the standard of reef fishing for snapper, grouper and a plethora of other multi-coloured exotics is exceptional.
There are several fishing/dive operations based on Provo who will take you fishing for bonefish, but by and large most of these tend to concentrate on light tackle spinning over the Caicos Bank. Here immense shoals of small-medium size bonefish often several acres in size, are easily located by the huge clouds of coloured water they create that are known as mud’s. If you have never caught a bonefish then ‘mud fishing’ is fun and a guaranteed way to get your you your first couple of fish. One morning I took my children out for a short trip before lunch, and they each caught upwards of half a dozen bonefish, plus jacks.
Barr Gardiner is a soft spoken local, known as a ‘belonger’. He has been guiding clients in these waters for upwards of 30 years, and as I have found out his knowledge of the more remote, least fished and hence most productive flats is second to none. Barr is one of those all-to-rare guides who are not only exceptionally skilled in their trade, but a pleasure to fish with as well.
For me one of the great delights with fishing throughout the Turks and Caicos Islands is that rarely, if ever, will you encounter another angler on the flats. Barr runs a high speed Mako flats boat, which he uses to transport his clients out to the outlying islands and occasionally to fish from. His speciality, though, is shallow water wading, the hard packed, snow white sands and stunning clarity of the water over these exquisite flats provides the ideal scenario for wading and sight fishing. Casting from the bow of a flats skiff is great fun, but nothing beats the freedom of being able to wade free through such a beautiful environment.
During my first stay and several later trips I have never hooked a fish to match the one I described above, but I have come close on several occasions. Once I stood perfectly motionless as a pair of truly huge bonefish with shoulders like bulldogs slowly worked their way towards me. They were swimming in water that was barely deep enough to cover their dorsal fins, and impatiently I had made my cast too soon and presented my fly way too far in front of the fish. Instead of leaving the fly motionless and waiting until the fish got close enough to see it, I’d lifted to try another cast, which had the rather predictable effect of causing both fish to bolt like scolded cats!
On another occasion I came even closer. With a near perfect cast I had landed my fly in front of a sizable trio of bonefish Barr and I had been stalking in a small lagoon that cut in behind the mangroves for fifteen minutes or so. The fly sank swiftly, and as soon as I started to strip it back two of the group broke ranks and came for it. Success was almost mine, when suddenly a gutsy little two-pounder I’d not seen raced ahead of the group of fish and snatched the fly out right from beneath the snout of the lead fish, and sped off with it.
I’ve been fortunate and fished in many beautiful locations around the world, though rarely have I felt such an over powering urge to return and fish as I do whenever I think of days bonefishing in The Turks & Caicos Islands.