Bonefishing School 2018 – Crooked Island, Bahamas

Forward :- Steve Lawes is a fanatical angler at home on both still and running water. His latest pursuit saw him of to the Bahamas  for a salt water adventure. He has kindly written up a guest blog post for the site.

When I returned from a flyfishing trip to the Florida Keys with my usual fishing buddies back in April this year, I was full of renewed enthusiasm for this branch of our beloved sport. That was my third tropical saltwater trip and I felt that I had finally become semi-proficient and as a result had experienced some success that week with both my biggest Tarpon and Bonefish to date.

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It was therefore hard to face-up to the prospect of waiting another 12 months for the next adventure, so I started to look at options for an additional trip late Autumn. Advertised by the Fly Fishing and Fly Tying Magazine (and run by Go Fishing Worldwide) I found that the 2018 ‘Bonefishing School’ to Crooked Island, Bahamas had a single place remaining on the trip for 23rdNovember. Intrigued by the prospect of going on an instructional fishing break with a group of anglers I had never met, I took the plunge and booked. The trip offered tuition on Bonefishing tactics and techniques as well as 6 full days of guided fishing on what looked like a deserted tropical paradise.

I spent much of the Summer and early Autumn replenishing my tropical fly boxes with my favourite patterns in sizes 6, 4 and 2 and getting the remainder of my kit together. For those of you that have not experienced tropical saltwater fly fishing, the kit requirements in some respects are quite straightforward (9ft 7 to 9-weight rods, reels loaded with weight forward tropical floating lines – stiffer due to the air and water temperatures - along with tapered leaders and flourocarbon tippets in 12-15lbs).

"Then the real fun starts, as the Bonefish makes its first run and your reel’s drag screams as all your loose fly line and many yards of backing flies through the rings."

On Friday 23rdNovember, my (very understanding) wife Jan dropped me off at Terminal 5 Heathrow for my flight to Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas and it was during that flight that I was able to meet-up and get to know some of my fellow anglers for that trip. Mark Bowler, the Editor of Fly Fishing and Fly Tying Magazine has been travelling to the Bahamas to fish for Bonefish and Permit for over 25 years. As one of the co-hosts of the trip, he would be providing guidance, tuition and advice to the 10 anglers in the party. A number of my fellow anglers had been on the trip the previous year, so were able to share their experiences with me. All hoped for better weather than last year, which had been cloudy and windy (not good conditions for spotting and casting to Bonefish). In addition to some relative novices, there were some more accomplished anglers on the trip including Simon Kidd, Dave Mee and Peter Kempton.

On arrival in Nassau, after a 10 hour flight, we stayed overnight at a local hotel before returning to the airport the next morning for our 2-hour flight to Crooked Island. The Bahamas are a range of Caribbean islands sitting south-east of Florida and North East of Cuba. Crooked is one of the remote ‘family islands’ situated another 350 miles south-east of Nassau. As you would imagine, by this point excitement was certainly building.

When we arrived at Acklins Island (the sister island to Crooked) to drop-off some passengers (as it happened a party of Danish fly fisherman going for a 10 day Bonefishing trip), we were met with the sight of a plane wreck, just off the runway. This was disconcerting to say the least, especially when one of the comedians on board suggested that it was the remains of the previous flight in. A very short, 5 minutes later we landed at Crooked Island Airport (basically a 20 foot square hut) to a very warm welcome by the locals. 

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We were transported from the airport to our accommodation at Landrail Point on the Island. Crooked is one of the remote islands in the Bahamas, with a population of only 300 and was devastated by a category 5 hurricane back in 2015, the results of which could still be seen everywhere. Much of the accommodation that we were using had been re-built since the storm and was new and extremely comfortable. I was sharing with Dave Mee and we were lucky to have been allocated an apartment on the beach! 

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Sunday was the first of our six guided days and I was paired with fellow angler Bob Bradley and a guide called ‘Shakey’ (the most experienced of the team of guides). For that first day we fished from the Skiff, a short boat with a high platform at the back (from which the guide poles the boat into position) and a smaller platform at the very front (from which you fish). Being in an elevated fishing position is certainly advantageous in terms of being able to spot and cast accurately to Bonefish. As with all guided tropical fly fishing, listening to and reacting to your guide is absolutely essential and you get used to their excited tones as fish are spotted: “Bonefish at 11 o’clock, 40 feet, no cast further, more left, more left, drop-it now, strip, strip, STOP, strip, strip, set, set, set!!!”.Then the real fun starts, as the Bonefish makes its first run and your reel’s drag screams as all your loose fly line and many yards of backing flies through the rings. Then the fish decides to run all the way back towards you and you reel-in like a maniac in order to remain in contact. There is nothing like stalking, hooking and landing a Bonefish for pure excitement. (Note: A good reel with a smooth, efficient drag and capacity to reel-in line quickly is essential).

"There is nothing like stalking, hooking and landing a Bonefish for pure excitement."

By the end of that first day I had landed 5 Bonefish and a large (c.12lb) Horse-Eyed Jack (a beautiful fish with a bright yellow tail, which ran for about 80 yards and took about 20 minutes to land). For the last hour of fishing, as the sun was setting, we left the Skiff and waded a shallow sandy beach, casting to a large school of tailing Bonefish, one of which (weighing about 6lbs) I managed to land just before we motored back to the harbour. 

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The Bonefishing on Crooked Island was certainly the best that I have experienced thus far on my quite recent tropical fly fishing adventures. Over the course of the week, I landed over 40 Bonefish (the biggest 7-8lbs) having fished in a range of different scenarios both from the Skiff and wading.

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 The scale and scope of the fishing there is phenomenal with hundreds of square miles of shallow mangrove lagoons, creeks, sand flats, mud flats, beaches and there were a number of stand-out memories that I will cherish:

- Playing a large Bonefish on a sandy beach-flat and, while bringing-in the fish after a great scrap, seeing the water in front of me explode as a 6ft Lemon Shark took my fish and most of the leader!

- Casting to a school of about 300 Bonefish in turquoise-coloured, clear water (while the guide and my fishing partner ate their lunchtime sandwiches)

- Stalking and hooking tailing Bonefish in a shallow mangrove lagoon (in less than 6 inches of water) and watching the guide sprint after each fish, while untangling my fly line from the mangrove bushes

- Hooking (but then losing) a Trigger Fish, one of the species that I really wanted to catch that week. Pete Kempton managed to catch one though (something which he constantly reminded me of by doing a dodgy impersonation of a Trigger Fish’s dorsal fins) 

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- Stalking and landing a number of Bonefish on our last day, wading the vast sand flats near Acklins Island, without help from the guide and feeling like I had somehow ‘graduated’ from the School. 

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For those of you interested in the flies, the four most successful ones for me during the week were: Tarantula Crab s.4 (tied with EP Tarantula Brush in Sand), Tan Gotcha s.4, Sand Gotcha with Orange-tip Silli-legs s.4 and a small Bonefish Squimp in s.8 (for stalking tailing bones in really skinny water. For Bonefish, I’m not convinced the fly pattern is that important, as long as it is presented in the right place, at the right depth and retrieved in the right way. (i.e. where the guide tells you to put it and how to retrieve it!)

I had a fantastic week, we were lucky with the weather (mainly sun and light winds), I learnt a great deal more about tropical fly fishing and especially targeting Bonefish. I really enjoyed the company of my fellow anglers (Dave x3, Les, Rob, Pete, Matt, Simon, John, Bob and Mark). All the guides were excellent and made the fishing even more enjoyable (Shakey, Randy, Coco, Mike, Clinton, Jeff). The hospitality we received from the local people was warm and enthusiastic. As a tropical fly fishing location it would be hard to beat Crooked Island for the breathtaking scenery, the variety of locations and volume of fish. I will certainly be planning a return trip there in the future.

Steve Lawes