Fly Fishing for Coastal Gamefish
When you get right down to it, there are really two kinds of fishing trips, or to be more specific, two ways we define a trip once it=s all said and done. Mostly, we talk about the trips we remember because of the fish. We remember the amazing numbers of fish caught or perhaps their large size, or maybe that one monster fish that came to hand. These are usually the trips that spawn the stories we tell from the bar stool or around a late night camp fire, and although the stories don't need to be we often embellish them a bit more with each telling. This magnification of past events accounts for the unspoken understanding among anglers that 20% of fish size and 30% of numbers are automatically, subconsciously, subtracted from the tale by the listeners. Maybe that's why we embellish the stories in the first place B because we know of the 20/30 subtraction, we are subconsciously compensating by adding that much from the beginning. But that's a whole Pandora's Box of its own, and one that I'll leave closed for now.
But there are also trips that aren’t defined by the fishing. These are the trips we talk about only occasionally. The fishing was OK, but not spectacular, and in some cases downright poor. Most of the time we don=t have much to say about trips without fish because there just isn't much to tell: it was raining and cold and the fish were sulking; the flat was devoid of fish all day; the fish just plain weren=t around. But the potential power of these types of trips is that when we’re not catching fish despite our best efforts, we tend to notice and remember more of the other things.
But sometimes, even trips that had good fishing are more memorable because things beyond our control rise up to take center stage, and often obscure memories of the fishing. All things being equal, that we can define a fishing trip based on memory of something that is actually peripheral to catching fish is probably a good thing - it would get monotonous if it was only about catching fish. This is an account of one of those trips.
We awoke before dawn and rolled out of the tent into the still and wet tropical air. The air was already heavy, heralding the warm humid summer day ahead. Only the slight hint of a breeze occasionally stirred the palm fronds into a soft whisper. The advancing glow of the rising sun had not yet begun to color the eastern sky, and the crescent moon had set hours before, so the clear night sky was brightly lit with endless stars in the enveloping darkness only the open ocean can render.
We'd packed a lunch and water, and organized our day packs, fly rods, and flies the night before in order to make a clean break in the morning. We had an afternoon flight off the island and home, so we wanted to make the most of our last day. We always made a point to fish the flats for tailing bonefish at dawn at least once during our stay, and we had done so already on this trip, but I wanted to make the walk one more time. Bill also woke pre-dawn, but decided to head in another direction to search for tarpon.
After numerous trips to the island, I've settled upon an efficient dawn patrol procedure. I wake before dawn, grab a cup of coffee from the batch sitting in the machine of the nearby restaurant from the night before - it's not tasty by any means, but it does the job intended - shoulder my pack, and head down the road toward the flat. The road is packed coral sand, packed hard enough in some spots to be concrete, and runs a course parallel to the coast, some 60 yards inland. Scrub brush and small trees on land, and mangroves along much of the shoreline, block the view of the water for much of the walk.
The walk is two to three miles, and takes about a half-hour, but the flat terrain and coolness of the morning tend to make it less of a strain than you might expect. About two-thirds of the way to the flat, a one-lane bridge carries the road over a small, mangrove-lined creek that connects a large, shallow lagoon with the ocean. I usually stop briefly at the bridge for a quick breather and to make a check of the tide.
Once I reach the spot I've marked on the road, I cut right, weave through the scattered scrub brush, and emerge from the brush onto the start of a narrow sand beach that marks the beginning of my favorite flat. The beach continues to the right, and is the shoreline edge to a narrow strip of especially shallow water sprinkled with stunted mangroves. This is a good spot to see tailing bonefish at first light. Immediately to the left a large stand of mangroves protects the shoreline, and forms the inner edge of a large sand flat that extends a half-mile off shore and parallels the shoreline at least as far.
Upon arriving on the beach, I set my pack on the beach, and as I assemble my gear for the day I always keep an eye on the ribbon of shallows to the right for a sign of feeding bonefish. More than once I've spotted and cast to fish in this stretch of shallow water, and then stumbled my way through the scattered stunted mangroves freeing my fly line from thickly encrusted mangrove roots as it follows a hooked bonefish first along the shoreline and then into deeper water. But this flat is just a distraction. My true destination is the large flat to the left.
It's nice to have dry clothes to change into after a day on the flats, so I usually make the walk along the road in shorts, a t-shirt, and sport sandals, and change into my flats-wear once on the beach. I put a few snack items and some water in my waist pack to take with me onto the flat, and stash lunch and water, along with my dry clothes, in my backpack and stow it under a bush to keep it out of the sun. After a morning of fishing I usually head back to the beach to take a break and, if the fishing was slow, think about other locations to try.
In my eagerness to get in as much fishing time as I could on this last day, I'd made quick time on the pre-dawn walk. My clothes were pretty well soaked with sweat, so I laid them out on the pack and lower branches of the bush to dry in the sun. Since I hadn't seen any signs of fish in the shallow water near shore, I grabbed my fly rod and waist pack and headed out onto the large flat to the left.
In spite of perfect conditions - a nearly cloudless sky, a slight breeze, and high tide - the fishing was slow. I saw a couple of fish tail just after dawn, but had not been able to entice either into taking a fly. As the sun rose higher into the sky I made my way out farther onto the sand flat to look for cruising fish, but it was slow there as well. I saw a handful of fish, and was able to hook and land one, a strong fish of 6 pounds or so.
After a few hours I decided to head back to the beach for an early lunch, and then track down Bill to see if he'd found any hungry tarpon. Then it would be off to the airport. Once on the beach, I placed my rod and pack on a bush to keep it out of the sand, and sat down for a leisurely lunch of peanut butter and jelly.
After lunch and a brief snooze, I packed the remaining food and water and started to change clothes for the walk back. My shirt was spread out on the bush where I'd left it, warm and dry, but my shorts and underwear were gone. There was only a slight breeze, so they couldn't have been blown away, plus my shirt was highest on the bush so should-ve been the first to go if wind was the culprit. I lifted my backpack to make sure I hadn't placed it on my clothes, and even looked inside the pack in case I'd absent-mindedly packed them. I couldn't imagine anyone coming along and wanting my clothes, much less just my shorts and underwear, but I looked for footprints anyway. I searched the nearby brush, suddenly worried I had checked the wrong spot.
I was about at the end of my rope when I saw a flash of blue out of the corner of my eye. Looking closer, I saw my shorts sticking partly out of a hole under a small seagrape tree, 10 feet away. As I got closer I saw the hole was a large one, and as I reached for my shorts I realized it was the home of a rather large land crab. No, 'rather large' is an understatement, this thing must've been huge.
I grabbed my shorts and quickly yanked them out of the hole, expecting a Godzilla land crab to come lunging out the hole to grab the shorts. But there was no sign of the crab. The bad news was that my underwear was not in sight. I peered into the hole, ready to jump back if the crab came rushing out to defend its lair. Unfortunately, the crab had dug the burrow into a sharp right turn shortly after the entrance, so I couldn't see more than a foot into the hole.
Not foolish enough to stick my hand into the hole in a blind search for my underwear, I found a stick and, poking it into the hole, tried to force it around the bend and into the crab's den. The burrow must have turned again because I couldn't get the stick more than a foot past the first bend. It seemed my underwear was lost for good.
Defeated, I stood up and examined the scene. I found the crab's tracks - it was indeed a monster crab B and followed them from the hole to where my pack had been. He had taken a bee-line for my pack. Once at my pack, it didn't look like he'd done much exploring, as there were few tracks around the area, and none of the food that I’d left in the pack had been touched.
He must have grabbed both shorts and underwear at once because there was only one set of drag marks across the sand from the pack to his den. Either I had interrupted him upon my return to the beach, or the underwear and shorts were such a score that he didn't want the food from the pack, because he never came back. And fortunately, either my return or logistics (perhaps the shorts were too unwieldy to be tugged past the burrow entrance) kept my shorts from becoming permanent nesting material.
I changed into my shorts and headed back to camp. I got back to camp just as Bill was walking up the beach, so we packed up and headed to the airport. He had seen and cast to some tarpon but had no hookups, and had caught some small jacks.
During the ride to the airport I related the story of the crab and my underwear, which he thought was pretty damn funny. And the question of how my fishing had been that morning never came up. A fishing report wouldn’t have mattered, the trip had already been defined by the crab with a penchant for underwear.
The Fisherman's Coast approach focuses on how coastal gamefish interact with their habitats and prey. The more you know about the gamefish you pursue with a fly rod, the more often you'll be in the right place at the right time with the right fly making the right presentation. It's about catching more fish.
Our sister site Tribal Bonefish is all about conservation through responsible fishing. Tribal Bonefish shows you how to become a better steward of our coasts to protect our fisheries today, and ensure future generations get a chance to experience these fisheries.