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THE BONEFISH: GHOST OF THE SHALLOWS

Feb. 02, 1959
Feb. 02, 1959

Table of Contents
Feb. 2, 1959

Cover
Quiet Morn
Jet-Age Secret
Golf
  • By H.W.W.

    California has given the 1959 pro golfing tour a palpitating send-off. And a Californian is the circuit's most talked-about personality

Pinckneyville
Track Power
Food
Hockey
Cards
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over
Pat On The Back

THE BONEFISH: GHOST OF THE SHALLOWS

One of the greatest fighters of the sea is shown on these pages—from the Inside out. In the X-ray photograph above, his fantastic, bony structure is revealed, and the cordlike cartilage of his fins vanishes. In the painting below, his silvery armor and whiplash tail are seen as they appear to the thousands of salt-water anglers who seek him out each year in the shallows of sunlit seas. The dramatic story of the bonefish, and that of the cult which has grown up around him, is told on the following pages

This is an article from the Feb. 2, 1959 issue Original Layout

A FISH TO REMEMBER

If names mean anything to ships of war, the U.S.S. Bonefish, which will join the Navy's submarine fleet in June, should be a real hackle-raiser, the rousingest piece of machinery ever to prowl beneath the surface of the sea. Certainly the Bonefish has a namesake to live up to, a fish that makes the heart of any angler turn over twice while dizzy visions flash before his eyes—and this is the time of year when any southbound salt-waterman is most susceptible to the fever. The submarine Bonefish weighs 1,700 tons wet and measures 219 feet with a beam of 29 feet; a bonefish of similar length would be about 34½ feet wide and would weigh 1,400 pounds. The sub is cleanly rounded with a slender conning tower; the bonefish is streamlined and steely, with a slender dorsal fin. The sub is diesel-powered, but the bonefish is atomic—or, as some say who have fished him in the Bahamas, he is driven by 10,000 frightened devils.

It is that kind of demoniac speed, combined with power and heart, that makes the bonefish irresistible to the angler. The first run of a bonefish can start a man trembling, and every bonefish guide can cite at least one case of "bonefish paralysis," which is total inability to lift a rod and cast. The victim recalls what happened the last time he hooked a bone, and this memory spreads through his nerves like novocain.

Some of the chaos of fighting a bonefish is attributable to the fact that it feeds in salt-water shallows called fiats. An eight-pound bonefish in one foot of water is the marine version of a bull in a china shop. The hooked bone can't go deep and start one of those 40-fathom tugs of war. It isn't a leaper; it is more like a warrior in one dimension, breadth; a warrior that leaves all its fight in the water and never grandstands in the boat. It may have enough left to flick its tail against the bottom of a skiff, but that is widely interpreted as an exhausted plea for a speedy return to the element it dignifies.

Nothing else about the bonefish is nearly as impressive as its gameness. It doesn't overwhelm anybody with its size. The all-tackle record bone is 3 feet 5½ inches long and weighs 18 pounds two ounces. It looks more odd than savage, lacking features that give the tiger shark a fighting scowl. Its scales are chromium bright, shading to greenish blue on its back. Its dorsal, tall and raked, is often flown above the surface along with the upper lobe of a broad-V tail. The head is armor-plated, evidently built to withstand abrasion from vigorous rooting on the sea bottom, which the bone performs with a pointed, hard snout that is piglike in overlapping the low-set mouth.

The bone's diet of crabs, shrimp and mollusks is crushed between a set of paved teeth on the back of its tongue and hard ridges on its palate, then passed back to a matching set of grinders on the upper and lower throat bones. This powerful apparatus can break a brittle fishhook and bend a wiry one barb to shank.

At one time or another, the bonefish has had—in addition to such addicts as former President Herbert Hoover, Ted Williams, Sam Snead, Benson Ford and many more—most of the top-ranking fishing "pros" on the line. John Alden Knight, Joe Brooks, Van Campen Heilner, Joe Bates, George La Branche and Zane Grey, for example, have all fought him. Such anglers are not easily impressed by a fish, but they have been impressed by the bonefish. Heilner, for one, wrote in 1937:

"The line goes so fast it makes a ripping sound. Four hundred feet.... The line bellies and sags...a 200-foot run back...he halts and sees you. Zing!...half your line...he circles the boat, tiring...seven pounds! Seemed like 50."

There is a clue to the speed and trickiness of the bonefish in its family tree, but it comes at the end, as a twist, as it does in the pursuit of the fish with rod and reel.

Teleostei, the super order of bony fishes, spawned the bonefish. Isospondyli is its order, Albuloidei its suborder, Albuloidae its family and Albula its genus. Up to this point, the genealogy stresses general whiteness and boniness, but now it specifies: Albula vulpes, or the white fox.

Putting fish and fox characteristics together produces a good description of the bonefish: white, bony, smaller than a wolf and noted for craftiness. It has a keen nose for bait and a sense of hearing so acute that it will shy at the rap of a rod butt against the bottom of a skiff 100 feet away. Evidently it picks up vibrations of human voices, because all bonefish guides talk softly when they are on the prowl. Its eyesight is sharp enough to keep the angler at a most respectable distance.

Cubans call the bonefish macabi, which is a Spanish adaptation of an Arawak Indian name for the fish. (Puerto Ricans call the ladyfish, or ten-pounder, a macabi, adding nominal confusion to mistaken identity.) Where the bonefish's other names, banana fish and sanducha, originated is anybody's guess. One guess is that sanducha should have an exclamation point after it because it is probably a profanity launched by the first Latin who hooked and lost a bonefish. Banana fish seems an insult to a battler that doesn't eat bananas, although its tapered snout may have suggested the name.

A tropical internationalist, the white fox is as wide-ranging as a modern submarine. It has been caught off Natal, South Africa and is also known to Hawaiians, Japanese, Australians and Indians. It spooks along in shallows off Bermuda and Cuba, most of the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Venezuela (where it is supposed to be hard to catch), Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Windward Islands. Its tail has been seen waving above flats of the Red Sea.

In the United States, the bonefish ranges from the Mexican border to Monterey on the California coast and from Key West to Cape Cod on the Atlantic coast. Serious bonefishing, however, is inseparable from the Florida Keys, and "bone" specialists pin it down to specific locations off the Keys and even to portions of these locations favored by some of the skilled guides. Thus bonefish may be said to congregate in the marine backyards of Harry M. Snow and Roy Lowe at Marathon, Vaca Key and range eastward to the bows of skiffs poled by Jimmy and Frankee Albright, Bill Smith, Rollie Hollenbeck, Dixie and Billie Knowles at Islamorada, thence northeast to the moorings of Calvin Albury and Slim Pinder at Tavernier. Northerly from Tavernier, their range extends to the Key Largo Angler's Club and a mile farther north to the Ocean Reef Club, where Pete Perdue ties his skiff and Holly Hollenbeck (brother of Rollie) holds forth as guide emeritus and dockmaster.

Of course, there are days when the bonefish evade these particular guides and range around Reggie and Jack Russell at Windley Key, or Bill Wyss and Ed Friday at North Key Largo, or around some of the other guides in the Islamorada area. But there is no real question about where the bonefish is. The real riddle is where it comes from and the strange manner of its growth.

So far as anybody knows, the bonefish spends its entire life on or near the flats, but nobody has ever seen bonefish eggs, a spawning bed or the spawning procedure. This lack of information has given rise to a theory that the bone is spawned in the southernmost Caribbean and carried north as a larva in the Gulf Stream.

Such a larva has been seen. By sheer chance, one swam into the curious gaze of a lady member of the New York Zoological Society a few years ago while she was vacationing in the West Indies. She netted it, transferred it to a tank and watched it shrink from an eellike three and a half inches, pure white and transparent, to about one inch. At the end of this reverse growth the tiny bone was a perfect miniature of the parent fish. Its first color was in dark blotches mixed with yellow, which changed to dusky silver. It died, however, before its rate of forward growth could be determined.

Tiny bonefish have also been caught on small baited hooks and flies, and Jimmy Albright has a mounted two-and-a-half-inch bonefish. He could sell it for $100 an inch if he wanted to.

Professor Luis Rivas, Curator of Fishes at the University of Miami's Ichthyological Laboratory and Museum, has two young bonefish that belong, he says, to a second species of bonefish widely unknown to anglers, Dixonina nemaptera. (Dr. Henry W. Fowler of Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences was the first to describe this second species, found off Santo Domingo. He wrote it up in 1910.) These fish have dorsal and anal fins and "whips" peculiar to the tarpon. Instead of the inverted black U on the white fox's snout, they have black marks that resemble mustaches. Both specimens were on a string of bait fish handed to Professor Rivas six years ago in Jamaica, where he was working on a bluefin tuna migration study.

The two chief hazards for bonefish are cold water and man, in that order. Within a few days after a bad spell of abnormally cold weather in the Keys, bonefish will school up and move out of their cold-water flats, presumably in search of warmth and safety. Mullet and mackerel netters have seen masses of numb bonefish in alien territory offshore and have sometimes mistakenly netted them for mackerel or bluefish. One such error in the '30s produced an estimated haul of 20,000 pounds of bonefish which the netters desperately tried to dump on the spot.

Guides tell of cold-stunned bonefish having been washed so close to shore that they could be picked up by the dozen. With the onset of warm weather the same fish reverted to their skittery selves.

That self is the one that attracts the bonefish angler. He gladly pays $40 or $45 a day in the Keys for a guide and a skiff to go hunting for the bone, and hunting is the word for it. Of all varieties of fishing, bonefishing comes closest to being a shotgun sport, and it is particularly close to upland bird shooting.

The salt-water flat replaces the upland thicket or meadow. A plywood-hulled, 16-foot open skiff with top-sides sheered to minimize freeboard and poled along by a guide replaces hunting boots and leg muscles. For a shotgun, substitute a salt-water spinning rod loaded with a live shrimp hooked through the collar, or with a lead-headed bucktail, preferably yellow. The guide's sharp eyes represent a bird dog's nose.

The angler-hunter sits in a raised chair bolted to the skiff bottom while the guide stands on the foredeck. The outboard power, single or paired, that hustled the skiff to the flats is tilted up on the transom as the guide poles upwind and uptide or cross-wind and cross-tide, or lets the skiff wander quietly in a controlled drift.

A salmon or bass fly rod may be used instead of a spinning rod, but guides in the Keys are nearly unanimous in saying that the fly rod is a handicap to an angler unless he can haul and shoot 70 to 100 feet of line, with two or three false casts at the most, and place a bucktail accurately. The bonefish is a moving target, and the angler must "lead" it as the shooter leads a crossing bird. An inadequate caster will either "flush" a bonefish with excessive rod waving and splashy presentation of the lure, or he will have to be taken so close to the target that the skiff routs it.

Whatever his choice of weapons, the bonefish beginner should stay in his chair and give the guide a chance to earn his fee. By standing, he cuts the guide's vision and reduces his own chances considerably. The guide, from his elevation at the bow, has a higher sighting angle and a longer sighting range than the seated customer, and he is paid to make the most of it.

Bonefish move onto the flats with the flood tide and drop back with the ebb, betraying their presence in two specific ways when they are on the feed. They must assume the angle of a diving submarine in order to root food on the bottom. In very shallow water this angle sends the bone's tail above water, where it flutters spasmodically, a dead giveaway.

In deeper parts of the flats the bone's vigorous plowing riles the bottom, sending up puffs of mud that slowly diffuse, staining the water smoky white. These puffs usually indicate a good-sized bonefish, because the larger fish tend to feed alone, while the small ones school up like bluefish. When a school is feeding, it converts an acre or more of crystal water to a milky way. Guides swear the bonefish is chameleonlike, appearing dark over weeds, light over patches of marl and virtually transparent between head and tail during the summer months.

The secret of spotting bones is to look with relaxed eyes, never staring, and to watch for movement in the water. Any movement should be compared with something that can't be moving. That's Pete Perdue's formula, and Pete can see a puff of mud at 150 feet that looks to his customer like a light patch on the bottom.

On two successive sun-washed days I fished with two guides out of Ocean Reef, Bill Wyss in the bow and Holly Hollenbeck in the stern. The first day we drifted southward along Key Largo, bordered on the west by solid masses of mangroves and everywhere else by water. We poled along opposite a place on the Key where Sinclair Oil bored a hole 11,980 feet down in 1953, but we found no more reward than Sinclair did.

At another place, where a Spanish Main captain piled up his treasure ship in 1715, we saw a bone in three feet of water, and it saw us, and that was the end of that encounter.

Toward 4 o'clock, after lunch in the skiff, Hollenbeck caught sight of a bone in water where 13 galleons under Admiral Don Roderigo de Torres broke up in a storm in 1733. Hollenbeck picked up a spinning rod and sailed a shrimp into the air. It landed in the path of the bonefish, which kept on going. Like the admiral's treasure, it is probably still there.

Finally, opposite a pineapple plantation that Aloysius Pinder built in 1861, Wyss and Hollenbeck double-sighted a bonefish. The whispers that followed had all the tension of a grade-A Hitchcock sequence:

Hollenbeck: Eleven o'clock, about 90 feet. Left of the white patch.

Wyss: Yes, saw it, too.

Wyss eased the skiff forward about 20 feet and staked it by putting the pole through a nylon eye cleated to the bow and driving the pole deep into the soft bottom. Hollenbeck bent low like an infantryman on patrol and fired the shrimp. He left the line slack and the reel free-running.

Hollenbeck: He sees it.

Wyss: He's going for it.

Me: Where?

Wyss: He's got it.

Hollenbeck: I know it. Here take the rod.

Me: Me?

The bonefish felt the driven hook and exploded from the spot. It ran in a beeline for a long, long way, unstoppable, at a speed that forced my mouth open. It stopped and raced back, bedeviled and panicky. A shovel-nosed shark swam across the skiff's bow, and a second later my line went slack. The shark had cut it.

Bonefishing in the U.S. with rod and reel is a sport whose entire history resides in the memory of a man who, when I saw him last Christmas in his home in Islamorada, was recovering from major surgery. The man is Preston Pinder, dean of the Keys' bonefish guides, who began poling customers over the flats off Upper Matecumbe Key (now Islamorada) in 1906. His 100-pound, 4-foot-10 frame barely dented the mattress of the bed in which he lay like a slender compass needle, his white head indicating the Atlantic reefs and his blanketed feet pointing the Gulf. His face was as pale as a summer bonefish, but at 84 his memory was almost as sharp as the coral edges of Islamorada, where his Bahamian parents had settled in 1875.

"Who was your first customer, Mr. Pinder?" I asked.

"Senator Martin, from Kentucky," he answered. "He fought the Civil War, that fellow, and he was in his late 70s when I guided for him."

That fellow was William Thompson Martin, who was born in Glasgow, Ky. and later became a Mississippi district attorney and state senator. Since he was probably the first guided bonefisherman in the United States, his successors might want to know that he was a Unionist by principle but a Confederate by action, commander of the Jeff Davis Legion that fought McClellan throughout the Peninsular campaign. Actually, he was 83 in 1906 when Pinder guided him, and he died at 86. He called bonefishing "sharpshooting," which amused Pinder, then a wiry little man of 31 with religious beliefs so stout that he refused to "fish the senator" on Sundays. Martin paid Pinder $3 a day to guide him from sunup to sundown.

Pinder guided most of the dozen or so charter members of the Matecumbe Club, built about 1909 for bonefishermen. The old guide remembers finding fish for Irvin S. Cobb, particularly because Cobb sent him a Bible from Paducah, Ky. as soon as he got back there. Pinder lost the Bible in the devastating hurricane of 1935, and it grieves him to this day.

In the mid-'20s Harry Snow, grandson of a Cape Cod sea captain, came to the Keys as an engineer with that engineers' heartache, the Miami-to-Key West link of the Florida East Coast Railroad, which came a cropper in the '35 hurricane after a series of marine bashings. Snow recalls that the bone anglers of that period used Vom Hofe salmon reels and red-marked their nine-thread linen lines at 25-yard intervals so they could measure the runs of the fish. Snow is now 57, having guided since 1937.

Zane Grey discovered the bonefish about the same time Snow did. Grey called it "the gray ghost of the flats." He fished off Long Key, staying at the Long Key Beach Hotel which, despite its name, was another bonefish club. He and George La Branche were guided by Edmund Albury, father of the Key Largo Angler's Club guide, Calvin Albury.

Pinder confirmed another veteran guide's report that the Matecumbe Club asked for the resignation of a member who published a bonefishing article with pictures in a northern newspaper. The man was censored for "letting the cat out of the bag"; it was feared his article would bring a horde of anglers who would overrun the Keys trying the new sport.

The stampede never came, though Zane Grey wrote headily about bonefishing and another writer predicted that it would become one of the biggest attractions in salt-water angling. The lure of bonefishing was not ready to threaten the American home and, in fact, helped to shore it up in Islamorada.

One of the Matecumbe Club members, impressed by Pinder's consistent refusal to guide on Sundays, donated $4,000 to Pinder to build a local Sunday school. While his customers dealt the cards or tried another guide, Pinder took the Gospel to the willing and showed up Monday mornings with new resolutions.

Last year Pinder was pensioned by one of his customers who found great relief from corporation pressures in stalking bonefish and talking with Pinder as they drifted about the flats off Islamorada. He is H. Smith Richardson, who rose from a selling job to the top of Vick Chemical Company.

Bonefishing languished during the Depression of the early '30s, but it picked up somewhat after Van Cam-pen Heilner included an enthusiastic chaoter on it in his book, Salt Wafer Fishing. In 1949, as fishing recovered from World War II, Joe Brooks, Miami fisherman and writer, took a group of outdoor writers to the Keys to demonstrate the effectiveness of the fly rod on bonefish. The following year bonefishing began to go, building toward a boom. Today, fly casting for bones is done by a talented minority. Every seasonable winter all the guides are busy and the bone is a much-hunted fish. The respected Jimmy Albright, who began guiding in 1938, says Keys bonefishermen are increasing every year while the bonefishing is "falling off" because "there are too many boats on the flats." Like any other sport that is suspenseful, demanding of skill, concentration and devotion and thrilling in its peak moments, bonefishing is getting more popular annually. Many top guides are booked weeks in advance and some a year ahead.

The frontier of bonefishing has moved to the Bahamas and the Caribbean. There it is still possible to find this fishing as it must have been in the first years of the Matecumbe Club and as it remains in the memory of Preston Pinder. West End on Grand Bahama; Green Turtle Cay and Sandy Point on Abaco; Cat Cay; Bimini; Harbour Island, Spanish Wells and Rock Sound on Eleuthera; the Exumas; Pot Cay and Andros Town on Andros—these are the places. In Cuba the place is Isle of Pines.

Choosing by coin flips, I boarded a Bahamas Airways amphibian at Nassau and flew to Sandy Point on the southern tip of Abaco. As the Widgeon circled for a wet landing, its wing shadow ghosted across vast bonefish flats on which nothing floated, not even a piece of driftwood.

Alfred White came to the dock to meet his customer. He is 42, the No. 1 guide out of the Sandy Point Fishing Club, civic leader, local agent of the Bahamas Airways and 16-mm.-movie exhibitor in Sandy Point, a cooperative crawfishing community of 565 colored persons and the two white persons who manage the club.

An hour later White poled his sky-blue Bahama dinghy over the beautiful salt-sea pastures of Abaco, standing in the bow in a bright orange shirt and a blue yachting cap. Beneath us in water marvelously clear, brown sea fans undulated. A barracuda flashed away from the dinghy's shadow. A small shark grudgingly yielded the right of way.

The sky and the ocean beyond our boat had been there long before we left the dock, but slowly they became personal belongings, exclusively ours. In long silences, we took title to both of them.

"One o'clock," White said in an almost inaudible tone.

I looked at my watch, resenting time's intrusion in this loneliness of personal sea, sky and sun.

"Bone," White said. "One o'clock."

Sixty yards ahead a school of bones moved rapidly uptide, making sudden changes of course with balletlike precision. White poled uptide to head them off, and as they came closer, we saw how they rippled the surface. They were a darting patch of windblown grass on a great lawn of calm.

"O.K.," said White, waiting. He did not pick up a rod.

I stood and stripped coils of line from the reel of my salmon rod to the deck of the dinghy. The rod whipped twice, and the third cast shot a yellow bucktail across the shallows.

"Pretty good," White said quietly.

Unseen by me, one of the school bones veered and picked up the buck-tail, signaled the taking with a gentle tug. I struck, and the fish instantly took off on a slashing run of 300 feet, far into the backing on the reel, whose handle was a white blur as it rotated.

The bone stopped cold, hesitated a moment and screamed off at right angles to its first run. When the fish finally came close enough to see, it looked small.

"Three pounds, maybe," White said. "There are lots more."

And there were lots more, more than 200 that day, roughly estimated, but I caught only four. Alfred White seemed sad as we drifted homeward toward water deep enough for the outboard motor. He paused now and then to net a conch from the sandy bottom for tomorrow's chowder, and I asked why he was sad.

"Just that I like to have a customer catch a lot of fish," he said.

But some customers will settle in joy for catching an impression of how bonefishing probably felt and looked in that misty time when it was virtually the secret of a dozen men in a comfortless camp in the Keys. And some will settle for what I settled for—bonefish not big but small, not many but enough, enough to think about for a long time to come.

THREE PHOTOSILLUSTRATIONJACK KUNZ

ABOUT THIS ARTICLE

For their invaluable aid in the preparation of this study of the bonefish, the author and the editors wish to thank Dr. Charles Lane of the University of Miami's Marine Laboratory, who overcame the difficulties of taking an X-ray picture of a bonefish; Professor Luis Rivas, Curator of Fishes at the University of Miami's Ichthyo-logical Laboratory and Museum; Edward C. Migdalski of the Bingham Oceanographic Laboratory of Yale University; and Miss Francesca La-Monte, Curator of Fishes at the American Museum of Natural History.

THE CAST
Poling quietly across the flats, the guide sees the spotted telltale swirl and puff of mud of feeding bonefish. As he steadies the boat, the fisherman, crouched, tense, careful, makes his cast, aiming just ahead of the fish.

THE PREY
Flitting shadows on the dappled sand, a school of bonefish ghosts over the shallows. When feeding, they will root along the bottom, searching for crustaceans, prodding vigorously and sometimes waving tails and even dorsal fins above the surface like tiny flags that tell the searching angler where they can be found.