For all its vaunted immediacy, television news has a way of transmuting even the most horrific of natural disasters into banality. Earthquake crumples Pakistan, cyclone swamps Australia, tornado thumps Oklahoma—ho-hum. We view the wreckage, listen to the shocked voices of the survivors, shake our heads sadly at the body count and pop another beer can. Unless we are there at the time or have been there, or, worst of all, have friends living—possibly dying—there, the tragedy impinges on our glutted sensibilities with the impact of a soggy paper towel hurled haphazardly from the next commercial. When Hurricane Fifi hit the Caribbean coast of Honduras last fail, killing thousands, the film clips were wishy-washy. Flattened houses, beached fishing boats, a few corpses bobbing in the cluttered tide. Yet for those of us who had visited there just five months earlier, the disaster was more than immediate.
We visualized the ruination of Roatàn, loveliest of" Honduras' Bay Islands. Coxen's Hole, the island's tiny, cozy capital, draped in seaweed. Oak Ridge Cay, where we had stayed, scoured to its bare coral bones by the furious sea, its cool, thatched houses reduced to soggy driftwood. Our stalwart fishing buddies—Bill Kepler, toothless Larry Jackson, silent Earl Cooper—dangling limp and round-eyed in the tangle of a swamped skiff while frigate birds circled overhead. And the bonefish flats—those delicate, pellucid playgrounds of some of the world's finest game fish—buried beneath a gummy cloak of marl. And the reefs where we snorkeled, their bright staghorns cracked and bleaching, lobotomized, with brain corals stacked like bowling balls among the palm trees....
We need not have worried. For Roatàn (nee Rattàn or Ruatàn) was once a pirate stronghold, and its people still know the sea—in all its furies as well as its splendors. No less a buccaneer than Harry Morgan himself used Roatàn as a base for sorties against the Spanish plate fleets in the 1600s. On the southeast side of the narrow island, the ruins of his three forts, whose guns controlled the dogleg entrance to Port Royal, stand as tough and craggy as the murderous old rascal himself. Modern treasure hunters with mine detectors and pickaxes uncover valuable artifacts of the pirate era; rum bottles, pannikins, sword and cutlass bells, old muzzle-loaders are there for the scraping, at the cost of a little sweat. More valuable than the pirate dregs, though, is the unspoiled nature of the place. It remains pretty much as the Royal Navy's cartographer, Lieutenant Henry Barnsley, found it in 1742, after the pirates had been burned out, and the island, which lies 35 miles off the coast of Honduras, became a British colony.
"This is a plentiful I Island," wrote Barnsley, "Abounding with Wild Hoggs, Deer, Indian Conies, Wild Fowl, and Quantitys of Tyrtle, and fine Fish &ct.... The South Side is very Convenient for Shiping, having many fine Harbours. The North Side is bounded by a Reef of Rocks that Extend from one End of the Island to the Other.... It is likewise very Healthy the Inhabitants hereabout generally living to a Great Age."
March 30, 1975
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Larry Bee Jackson of Roatàn. Though Larry has yet to Achieve a particularly Great Age—he is only 25—he is nonetheless very Healthy. Short, wide and plump, Larry is the champion beer drinker and barracuda eater of Oak Ridge Cay, a tiny coral islet off Roatàn's southeast shore. Since this is the side of the island "Convenient for Shipping," Larry is also an accomplished boatman. At least he is an accomplished fiddler with, and curser at, recalcitrant outboard motors. His curses usually work, uttered as they are through a clenched jaw, the upper front teeth of which are missing. As for the fiddling, Larry is all thumbs. Literally. He has two thumbs on his right hand, a smaller one growing out of the base of the main one. At first the sight of these freak digits puts the newcomber off. You shake hands with Larry Bee and you do a double take. Yuk! Why doesn't he have the "baby" thumb removed? Then you realize: Why should he? What other person on Oak Ridge Cay has that many thumbs? It is a sign of distinction, one to be proud of, and Larry is nothing if not proud.
Until recently, Larry's employer was Captain William J. Kepler, owner of Reef House, one of only half a dozen resorts on the island. Most of the resorts are located at the west end of Roatàn in a kind of American-tourist enclave replete with the casinos, swimming pools, air conditioning, cabanas and rum-drink-camaraderie endemic to the Caribbean. Reef House, by contrast, is unobtrusive and simple—three tidy clapboard cottages open to the trade winds, a natural swimming hole back of the coral reef and, thanks to Kepler's two cooks, Juanita and Olive, the best cuisine south of Joe's Stone Crab in Miami.' 'This is a subsistence operation," says Captain Bill by way of explaining his $25-a-day rate. "I'm not here to make a fortune. I don't want the kind of guest whose main concern is how fast he can get from the airport to the poolside for his first mai-tai. Mainly I cater to the serious fisherman—the man who has refined his desires to light tackle, to permit and bonefish."
At the age of 59, Bill Kepler is tall, trim and leathery, with a jaw like a hungry barracuda and the mildly dictatorial air of a sea captain. Indeed, during most of his adult life he served as skipper of ocean-racing yachts, winning distinction in distance events on both coasts. During the late 1950s, he commanded a fleet of three 75-foot sport-fishing boats out of Cuba's Isle of Pines, an operation of such size and complexity that it amounted to the angling equivalent of commanding a minesweeping squadron. "We fished marlin and sail and wahoo and tuna on the outside," he says, "and were equally well equipped to fish the reefs and the flats. The way costs are going now, I doubt you'll ever see anything like it again."
What killed the Isle of Pines operation, of course, was the advent of Fidel Castro, who confiscated Kepler's fleet. "The U.S. Government wouldn't do a thing for us," he recalls bitterly. "Finally I told them I was taking at least one of the boats out of there, and to hell with the Cuban gunboats. I single-handed her back to Miami safely, but that was the end of big-time fishing for me. You can have excellence on any scale, if the money is right, but for now the best fishing has to be focused down tight to a single type. For me it's flats fishing, and Roatàn is a fine place for that pursuit."
As Kepler is the first to admit, the flats of Roatàn are postage stamps compared to the vast sheets of shallow water available to the bone or permit enthusiast in the Florida Keys or the Bahamas. But angling pressure is light by comparison, and the fish are quite regular in their habits, appearing on the flats nearly every day to feed on the rising and falling tides. Nonetheless, they are as wary as the rest of their kind in shallow water, spooking away from a bad cast with the shimmering speed that leaves an angler shaking in his sneakers. But frustration is half the fun of flats fishing, a masochistic game at best, adding as it does to the ultimate thrill of hooking, fighting, subduing and finally releasing the fish.
The bones are up on Helene flat. A long late sun hammers the thin water of a falling tide into a lumpy sheet of copper. As we ground the skiffs on the edge of the flat, Kepler points out the feeding schools. Their forked tails flick up briefly, ephemerally, as they feed—acres of peace signs, it seems, flashing at us from the sun. We ease over the side into the warm water and, spreading out, begin our stalk. Under his conical straw hat, Kepler's face is covered by a pink-and-green muslin mask—protection against sunburn. That, coupled with the goggling stare of his Polaroids and his stealthy, half-crouching gait as he moves toward the feeding fish, makes him look like some kind of marine mugger. But these are no easy victims. As the schools circulate on their evening rounds, we cast everything at them that we have: bucktail jigs in pink, white, yellow and blue; bushy-bodied flies of as many colors; even soft-bodied hermit crabs, called "soldiers" locally, cracked from their shells and impaled on small hooks. Again and again the bones flee at the fall of the lure or bait, flashing away in rippling panic only to turn far down the flat and come back toward us, feeding again but doubly wary.
At the far edge of the flat the water is only calf deep. Sea urchins stud the marl and coral bottom, their black spines wavering in the wash. The odd shark or barracuda sinuates toward us now and then, hunting as we are, but turns away when it catches sight of our legs. "What dat is?" asks Larry as a shadow moves toward us. "Dat's a cuda—cotch him!" I flip a jig across the small barracuda's path, and he hits it. After a brief flurry against the minimal drag of my eight-pound line, he comes exhausted to the rod. Larry grabs him by the gills, holds him up in the fading light and then punches him square between the eyes. The cuda shudders and dies. "Two mo' like dat," says Larry through his gap-toothed grin, "and I got me suppah." He sticks the fish head down into the hip pocket of his shorts. I wonder briefly what would happen if the cuda was merely kayoed by Larry's punch, and it came to and began chomping. Though the fish only weighs some three pounds, about a third of that was teeth.
"You eat those things?" I ask him. "I thought they were poisonous, that they carry a disease called ciguatera that makes your hair and teeth fall out and blinds you to boot."
"Not dese cudas," says Larry. "I loves 'em fried fo' suppah. How you tells if dey poison, you cuts off a bit and throws it to de chickens or to de wee wee ants. If dey don' eat it, you don' eat it. But dey always eats it."
Lots of luck, I think.
Midday. We are staked out on a long narrow flat under the cliffs of Pulpit Rock on the north side of Roatàn, a flat the shape and consistency of a giant fingernail clipping. Massive thunderheads are building to the east—we can see the dirty white sheets of rain beneath them—but here it is dead calm and hot. We chug away at bottles of ice-cold Salva Vida, an excellent Honduran beer that indeed proves a lifesaver in this sultry weather. Nothing moves on the flat except the ubiquitous small barracuda. Larry badgers us into catching a few for his suppah. They are more fun on the fly rod than on spinning tackle, but still no great shakes. Kepler peers through his muslin mask, silent for the most part, like the weather, but now and then proclaiming the presence of fins and tails we cannot see. Nor do the fish that bear them ever appear on the flat. But the rain does.
In a sibilant, slashing rush it is upon us, rain as hard and strong as BB shot, cold with the sea wind behind it. We have already stripped to our shorts, securing our shirts and trousers in a big wooden chest to keep them dry during the downpour, and the pelting of the rain is like a monstrous needle shower. Before the blow passes we are all shivering as violently as ever we did on an Adirondack deer stand in late November or in a Chesapeake duck blind in the January sleet. Then the thunderhead is gone and the sun pounds down again. Welcome warmth. But still no bones.
Toward dark one night Larry and I check out a tiny flat east of Helene. To the south the mile-high peaks of the Honduran mainland loom above the horizon. We study them for a long moment, then wade onto the flat, sinking ankle deep in the muck and the slimy turtle grass. The fish are there. A small school is tailing just ahead of us. least a white and yellow jig to the nearest fish. It lands just as the bonefish drops its head to suck up an unwary crablet. Then I feel the fish hit, hook up and take off—all in a single motion, it seems. The fish streaks straight off toward Larry, runs right between his legs as he grins foolishly and hops clear of the line. Then the fish turns and runs toward me. I crank-like mad, picking up the line. The fish veers off and struggles weakly, rolling on its side not 10 feet from where I stand. I walk up slowly and reach down to release it. Free it steadies itself and then eases out toward the safety of the deep water.
"Mistah Bill always let dem fish go," says Larry later. "We eat 'em."
"Eat bonefish? I thought they had too many bones."
"You can get de bones out of 'em easy. Jus' crack de spine up near de head and give a big yank on de tail. Dey's good suppah, but not so good as dat fried cuda. You know why dey's so few bone here right now? De folks here been nettin' 'em. Over on de mainland de folks is all Catholic, and dey eats a lot of salt fish on Good Friday. We nets up all de fish we can get and salts 'em down and sells 'em to de mainland. A man can net fish for two months a year, and earn enough so he don' have to work no mo' dat year. Dat's why de bone is scarce right now."
Riding back that night, a vast pall of smoke rises from the hills of central Roatàn. The farmers are burning the bush, preparing for another growing season. The blue smoke spreads into an amber fan, obscuring the first stars. Larry is singing above the engine yammer: "Dem bones, dem bones, dem shy bones; dem bones, dem bones, dem sly bones...."
Coming in early one afternoon Kepler and I decide to go snorkeling. The water in front of Reef House is clear and calm. Kepler has chopped a channel through the coral from the natural pool just in front of the main cottage to the reef proper. Iron stakes mark the passage, and it is a simple matter to paddle through, though the sea urchins waving just inches beneath one's belly cause an involuntary, but no doubt healthful, tightening of the gut. Beyond the channel the water drops off, pale indigo, to a forest of coral formations. Gaudy parrotfish nibble at the elkhorns. Fleets of yellowtail and blue runner circulate through the limestone forest. Squirrelfish, goggle-eyed and bright as tanagers, hover under the overhangs. The edge of the reef drops off sheer into blue-black water—800 fathoms, Kepler says. There are caves in the cliff face, he adds, where the tarpon sometimes hold. Only 40 feet down. I hyperventilate and swim down the face, hoping for a flash of silver. What a sight it must be, the huge bright fish circling in and out of the dark, their giant minnow-mouths working silently. I find caves, but there is only darkness within—darkness and the antennae of a small langouste that disappears before I can grab it. So much for tarpon dreams.
On the way back in I am tailed by a barracuda. It looks huge through the faceplate, its evil eye unblinking, its jaws grinding in an unpleasant manner. Though we all know that barracudas are dangerous only in murky water, where they sometimes mistake the flash of a hand, or a bracelet or ring, for a bait fish, I still find them disconcerting. I swim at this one fast, roaring at it around my snorkel mouthpiece, and it moves off slowly, reluctantly. I flash on the recent story of the Florida swimmers attacked by ravenous bluefish. Maybe things are changing under the sea. Maybe Hitchcock should do a movie called The Fish.
An overcast morning with the fishing slow. We decide to go on a treasure hunt. Captain Bill has his brand-new metal detector with him in the skiff, so we run into Port Royal Harbour. Our first stop is Fort George, the most seaward of Morgan's three forts. The walls were once 10 feet thick and twice as high, but nature and man have reduced them to heaps of dark, coralline rubble. Crabs scuttle angrily where pirates once walked, and coco palms thrust their way gracefully through the rotten embrasures where the cannon stood. Down the beach a quarter mile from the fort is the powder magazine. A small airstrip has been hacked from the jungle behind the fort. The metal detector finds nothing.
Across the bay we climb through a stand of cashew trees to the site of another fort. This one is open to the sun—high, grass-grown earthen embankments with a stone drainage ditch running through the middle. Kepler admires the masonry. "Of course," he says, "with slave labor like they had, you could do damn near anything. But look out at the harbor. You can see how secure this location was. The reef protected them from any seaward invasion, and the guns of the three forts brought a crossfire to bear on the harbor mouth. The way it finally fell was when Morgan went over to the side of the good guys. The British made him governor of Jamaica. His first act in office was to round up and hang all his old pirate buddies. I guess the only thing worse than a reformed drunk is a reformed pirate.
"Then the Spanish came and besieged Port Royal. They landed a force on the far side of the island and kept up a steady bombardment on the forts. The infantry hacked its way through the scrub and took the pirates from the rear. There were about 5,000 pirates and their women and slaves and kids here, and they were all either killed on the spot or taken off into slavery. The whole operation lasted only two weeks. That's why there's got to be treasure around here. The pirates must have buried it hastily when the siege began, and they never got a chance to retrieve it."
We hike up a small, stagnant stream through a thicket of thorn, elderberry and bamboo to the site of the old pirate town. The foundations of small stone houses lie among the underbrush. Shards of old rum bottles, thick and black, dot the ruins, and we find fresh holes where other treasure hunters have been digging. Deer trails crisscross the old townsite, and once I catch what appears to be the flash of a white tail. Kepler confirms that dwarf whitetail deer live on the island. There are a few old buck rubbings on the iron-wood trees. Parrots squawk metallically from the deeper bush. Finally the metal detector lets out a yip, then a high, sustained squeal. Hacking through the sunbaked clay soil, we find a piece of metal so gone with rust that it crumbles in Kepler's hand. "Looks like a hinge," he says.
We stand at the top of the hill in what had once been the heart of Pirate Town. The breeze dries the sweat on our faces before it can run. I think of all the good times that must have gone on right here a few hundred years ago and about the rum they drank and the chill they must have felt when the Spanish fleet hove to out there beyond the reef. They probably sweated a lot, but the smell of rum and burning black powder was stronger.
We hike back down to the boat and those cold, cold bottles of Salva Vida.
On the final day, while the others work the flats for permit and bone, Larry and I troll the reef in a dory. What the Roatànians call a dory is a 30-foot-long mahogany log hollowed out and powered by a 9-hp Wisconsin motor. It rolls mercilessly in the gentlest of seas, yet in the hands of a good boatman is faster and smoother than a pounding ride in an outboard-powered skiff. The red and yellow feather I troll picks up a few blue runner and yellowtail—"fry jack" and "pug jack" in the local parlance, Larry informs me—but nothing of any size. Then, just as we approach Helene, something big takes the feather.
It comes up out of the coral forest like a log and vaults half a dozen times while the drag squalls and Larry curses, furiously trying to turn the dory back toward the fish and run with it while the line peels off the spool and the sea catches the dory and rolls her insanely, and I figure we have lost it all. But finally those two thumbs pay off and Larry gets the boat sorted out. When the fish comes to the boat, it proves to be a barracuda the length of my leg. Larry chooses not to try his knockout punch. Instead he gaffs the cuda and bludgeons it to death with a handy wrench.
"Oh, my," he says, all gaps and grin, "dat make a mighty fine suppah. Maybe two!"
Tonight, after dinner, we learn about the Spanish sweat. Retiring to the sitting room of the main building, as is Kepler's wont, we sip our coffee and brandies as Captain Bill discusses the Honduran political climate. Twilight has already thickened into Prussian blue, and candlelight gutters against the spines of many books; the coffee table is an old hatch cover, highly varnished but scarred beneath the gloss.
"That's the good thing about this place," Kepler says. "It's a tough government that will back you up if you've got the money, a government along the lines of a Spanish military dictatorship. There's no horsing around with the law here. Anybody who gets out of line—pow! Things aren't likely to go the way of Cuba or the Bahamas or the Virgins. They have a device called the Spanish sweat that they use on recalcitrant political or social villains. It's a steel band that fits around the forehead and the temples. Loosely at first. They ask a question and if they don't get the right answer, they tighten the thumbscrews. And so forth...."
That night Kepler and I go nightclubbing. You do it by boat on Roatàn. We bounce through the dark and a spatter of rain to the Happy Landings Bar, about a mile down-key. There is country music on the jukebox, and the girls, despite their craggy, 17th century English pirate features, are friendly and graceful on the dance floor. The men look like anyone you might meet in a roadhouse outside Valdosta, Ga. After a few beers we leave.
"Good thing Larry isn't here," says Kepler, standing spraddle-legged at the tiller. "He'd keep you out drinking all night. He loves his beer, old Larry does. There's lots of wrecks on a Saturday night, when the drunks go roaring home in their dories. Lose more people a year that way than to sharks or the weather—haw, haw!"
How right he was. Last Sept. 18, when Hurricane Fifi came bellowing up the channel between the Bay Islands and the mainland with winds of 120 to 140 mph, the Roatànians simply rode out the storm as their ancestors have been doing since the days of Morgan. "I haven't heard of a soul being killed," Kepler advised us when communications to the island were reestablished. "The only bodies discovered were three that washed over from the north coast—probably from La Ceiba. These people are good sailors. I know of only one boat that came up on the reef, and that was one from the neighboring island of Guanaja. Sailors understand these things."
Structures fared a bit worse than sailors, though. "We lost a couple of roofs, a straw cabana and our seawall," Kepler added. There was little damage even to boats, though Fifi, in her fury, blew an outhouse into the bay and carried it full tilt into six moored dories, smashing them to flinders. None, however, was Kepler's boat. Total cost to repair the storm damage came to a scanty $4,000 for Reef House, and the resort is once again in full function. But how about the bone-fish? Any damages there?
"The bonefishing and everything else will be back in two months," said Kepler's neighbor and fishing friend, Earl Cooper, a laconic Ohioan who retired to Roatàn a few years ago. "The fish are smart. When hurricanes come, they head out to deep water."
Yes, indeed, in the fine old pirate tradition.