This starry winter's night the two of us were sitting in the bar of the Third Turtle Inn. Providenciales, Turks and Caicos Islands, one of the few remaining fragments of the British West Indies, a necklace of cays and islands and just over 7,000 people hung south of the Bahamas and 100 miles north of Haiti. This was our fourth night there, the air soft, warm, tranquil, our mood quietly euphoric.
"Tomorrow, then," said Art, "we head out there again with the fly rods."
"The fly rods only," I concurred.
"They are going to climb all over those flies," said Art. He had made that remark several times that evening.
March 12, 1979
"But we take it steadily," I said, repeating another of the evening's themes. "One man casts, lands his fish. Then the other takes over in the bow."
"Better still," said Art, "you take the boat and maroon me. Leave me on a sandspit and I'll ambush 'em as they come by. Later we can switch."
We stood up, yawning. "No more tonight, Frank," I said virtuously to the advancing barman. "We have a big day ahead of us tomorrow."
You may recall that some years back there was a cult among surfers—a search for the Perfect Wave. I never heard the outcome of that. But here in the Turks and Caicos, after a mere four days of searching, Art and I had our hands on just as glittering a Grail. We believed we had located the Ultimate Bonefish Flat.
Plenty of people had had the chance of discovering it before us, from Ponce de Leon on. (He arrived in the islands in 1512, but some think Columbus got there ahead of him.) The Lucayan Indians might have fished there before the Spaniards shipped them out to work the mines of Hispaniola. The early colonists from Bermuda, followed by Loyalists from Georgia and the Carolinas who fled to the islands after the Revolutionary War, were more interested in salt production than bonefish. The present-day islanders, mainly descendants of slaves, go after bonefish all right, but our treasured flat was far from any of their settlements.
So the discovery had been left for Art and me, representatives of the latest wave of invaders the islands had seen—cosseted, airborne pleasure-seekers from the West, though we did not consider ourselves tourists but serious researchers. Months before, poring over marine charts, we had felt the kind of triumph that industrial geologists must feel when, from theoretical evidence alone, they pinpoint a vast oil deposit below the ocean bed.
Those charts had bellowed bonefish'. The islands form a rough crescent embracing a vast area of shallows and flats, 2,000 square miles altogether, and much more water than land, an enormous, bountiful area to fish, much of it, inevitably, virgin.
Probably the serious way to investigate such richness would be with a houseboat as a base, and a shallow-draft skiff to probe the creeks and channels. But that would have called for a prodigal investment of time of the kind that few anglers, since Zane Grey, anyway, are able to afford. A lightning strike would be all that we could manage. So we headed for Providenciales—as nobody actually calls it.
In the past, it had been Blue Hills, an island once notorious for its wreckers who hoisted lights to lure sailing vessels onto the rocks. Then, when modest development took place—some villas, a couple of hotels, a landing strip and a dock—it was rechristened Providenciales, maybe because that sounded more chic. Swiftly, though, it was anglicized to Provo. Now it is less than chic to call it anything else.
We arrived in Provo just before dark. A black squall was sweeping across the west of the island, and for a minute or two the eight-seater Beechcraft was driving through blinding rain. But then we were out of it and landing in the last of the sunshine. All the way down from Miami there had been thunderheads and patches of low, thick cloud over the Bahamas. Winter cold fronts heading south. "Don't worry," Art said. "All these fronts dwindle to nothing before they hit Provo."
After dinner on our first night, it seemed that he might be right. From horizon to horizon the sky blazed with stars. We stood on a wooden bridge spanning a cut of water in the little marina outside the Third Turtle. A dock light shone down, picking out a dozen mangrove snappers lying head-to-tide. Then a big fish was sidling into the clear patch. Slender, forked tail.... "Hey!" Art whispered, "bonefish!"
Dammit, they were right there in the hotel! Later, in the bar, a guest confided that, yes, he'd been out that afternoon and he'd got 15 bones in an hour and a half. No calculator was needed to figure that this meant seeing, casting to, hooking and landing a fish every six minutes. Those bones could not have been very big. But who cared? Wasn't that the pattern in this area? Small fish but plenty of them. Deprived of bonefishing for many months, our appetites were as un-discriminating as a tiger shark's.
So in next morning's predawn blackness it was with a miserable sinking of the heart that we heard the small-arms rattle of rain on the windows and the wind howling in the bush. "Nobody informed that front that it was supposed to dwindle," I told Art.
There seemed no need to hurry. As we sat at breakfast, the sky was still a mess of tattered clouds, and surf boomed on the reef a mile offshore. Only the fact that this was our first morning made us consider going to sea at all. And it turned out to be the first time that either of us had been bused to a bonefish flat.
The rain was a result of a norther, coming right onto the shoreline where the hotel stood. Though the reef gave partial protection, there was still a lot of rough water to be crossed before we got into shelter, maybe 20 minutes of wet, bouncy ride. But delicate creatures like Art and me, the management had decided, should be spared this. So the guide took the boat alone and we were loaded onto a pickup for 20 minutes of dry, bouncy ride all the way to Leeward Going Through, the sea passage off the northeast end of Provo. There, waiting for us with the boat, was Lemuel Stubbs.
A name with a fine 18th-century ring to it, and well in character. Not far from where we stood on the little quay there was a small island named Stubbs Cay and a gap in the reef called Stubbs Cut, named for some salty ancestor of Lemuel's who had hauled so many crawfish out of the rocks there that he had a kind of title to it. This latest Stubbs, square-cut, a little dour-looking perhaps, a man not inclined to speak unless he had something to say, seemed well in the tradition.
Some fishing guides are arrogant. Art and I would be spending several days in Lemuel's company and he in ours. It was natural for us to give some time to mutual summing up. Lemuel led with the first test question. "Bring your own tackle?" he inquired.
"Well, some people is beginners," he apologized when he saw our gear. "They aren't fishermen, but they want to catch a bonefish. So I takes 'em to the mud."
No mud fishers we, he was assured. For us, the classic stalk on the flats. To start with, we'd fool around with six-pound spinning outfits, just to get our eyes accustomed to sighting fish, just to get the feel of a bone on the end of a line again. Then we would switch to fly-fishing. "All right." said Lemuel briefly. We headed out along a dark, deep channel until the flats were plainly in view.
For a time, maybe for an hour, there is no necessity for bonefish to be present on a bonefish flat, especially on your first trip in a long time. The pleasure of poling along the flats is enough in itself. You see boxfish moving clumsily out of the way of the boat, barracudas hanging like poised spears, great rays churning clouds of white mud. Later, though, with no bones showing up, you start getting restless.
And on this first day out with Lemuel, he was restless long before we were. To start with, the visibility was poor—too much movement on the wind-stirred water, the sun breaking through only occasionally. "See, today, with the bad weather," Lemuel said, "this was the only place I could bring you. And this ain't the best of places."
On the horizon we saw a white boat, a 20-footer it appeared to be, heading in. "Man," Lemuel said, "that boat going to be tilled with bonefish. They been out on the mud." Fishing blind, that is, into the smoky-white patches of mud stirred up by shoals of small bones in the deeper water outside the flats. Fifteen bonefish in an hour and a half! Of course, that guest in the Third Turtle had stacked up his score in the mud. "If you" want, I can take you to the mud," Lemuel said. It was another test question. We set his mind at rest. No mud fishers we.
The white boat came by us, the crowd aboard waving happily. "Tourists," Art snarled, failing to raise his arm. For a while we fished on, but it was hopeless. On the way home we cast MirrOlures into the deep channel in case one of the resident tarpon was in a questing mood. Only a big horse-eye jack showed interest but turned away when he saw the boat.
"What I'm going to do," Lemuel said, "is, when we get ashore, I'm going to drag the boat out, hook up on the Jeep and take her right over the south side. That will take me the afternoon. Tomorrow we'll fish in the lee of the wind on the other side of the island."
That evening in the hotel, Art and I could have done with T shirts with something like WE DON'T FISH THE MUD emblazoned on them. The innocents who had been out in the big boat didn't understand concepts like wind and visibility. "I caught four," caroled a plump lady as we dourly sipped our drinks at the bar. She got about half a thin smile. At dinner Art dealt with his grouper fillet with silent, savage intensity. We went to bed early.
The sky looked better next morning. The wind was down, too, and over on the south side of the island the water shimmered. For half an hour we ran along small, perfect beaches, the sand white as bleached bone, and low cliffs tunneled with caves. Ospreys soared over us. Only puff's of white, fair-weather cumulus hung in the sky. The cliffs gave way to low ground and then we were into bonefish country again.
That second day we did a little better. One place, especially, an indented bay of white sand, held a school of a dozen good fish, and it was possible to slip out of the boat and stalk them. For the moment it was enough to see the fish turn in unison at the one-eighth-ounce pink shrimp that I flipped just ahead of them, follow it toward me and the leader of the shoal take it firmly. After that the well-remembered, endless wail of the drag, the rod held high to keep the line from rough patches of bottom.
That first bone was a six-pounder. In the next hour, three more fish hit and were landed. All of good size: these were clearly not the small fish in big schools that one finds in many places in the Bahamas. It all looked promising, but from then on we ran out of sightings. Maybe it was the turn of the tide that did it.
"You ever talk with Tommy Coleman?" Lemuel said on the way home. "He used to have a bonefish camp, private little bonefish camp, on the south side here. Lives on Parrot Cay now. Used to fish all the time."
"Maybe it wouldn't hurt to talk to Tommy," Art said.
"You still have plenty of time left to fish," said Lemuel. "Tommy knows a lot. I could take you over tomorrow."
Coleman, in his 50s, baked brown, was, he proudly told us next day, an ol' Florida cracker from Saint Cloud, 20 years out from home via Nassau and the Exumas. "I'm the only man I know," he said, "that called it quits at the age of 30. With no money. But I made it so far. I was 31 when I hit Nassau, and I'm still fishing for my frying pan."
He sat in his rocking chair as if it were a throne, and indeed he was king of his small island domain. United Parrot Republic, said a coat of arms on the wall. Fittingly, also, at first he talked about treasure, not fish.
"Most of the treasure 'round hereabouts," he said, "come after that slaves' uprising in Haiti. 'Bout 1800, was it? All them French plantation owners came here. Real rich. All this fancy silver and gold. Buried it when they come ashore. But my treasure, it came from ol' King Christophe. He built himself a retreat here, and he reckoned, if the French ever kicked him out of Haiti, he was going to come pick up his treasure and head to New Orleans. Now for 16 years I was looking for it. I used to bum a ride from the Exumas and walk the shore. Then about six years ago, well, hell, here was the treasure. Matter of fact, it was a fellow over from Provo that found the first gold coin. So, man, I got my buddies together, we got one of them metal finders and we went over and we dug a place. It was all scattered, the box was all broke up. But it was there."
Naturally, Tommy told us, he had put it back exactly where he found it. "Do I want the government to come to me? Taxes? Claims? Man, forget it. It's still buried where it was." He looked at us unflinchingly.
Provo and the cays around it might well be hip-deep in treasure. It is no legend that Teach and Morgan quartered there and so did those two demonic women pirates, Ann Bonny and Mary Read. The Spanish treasure ships used to come out of Port of Spain, Trinidad and use the deep Caicos passage to clear the Indies. Provo was a perfect ambush point. Parrot, as in Parrot Cay, is a corruption of pirate.
Art and I were concerned with a different kind of treasure, though. We steered Tommy onto fish.
"Bonefish?" he said dreamily, his mind perhaps still on the treasure. "Listen, I eat a 30-pound bonefish one time. Well, I helped t' eat him. That was in Mayaguana, 50 miles from here. Listen, they've had them here, 20 pounds, in the seine nets. Never on a line. Biggest one I ever caught here, listen, I didn't weigh him because I had to eat him. 'Bout 10 years ago I built a camp, real, real pretty, over the western end of Provo. And when I was building it I had this boat anchored there, and me and the troops were sleeping on this boat, working, building things, and I thought I'd go catch a bit of fish for supper. I walked back and I saw a creek there, a hole. So I took my rod and threw my feather across it. And man, he had it! And I caught him! I said to this man on the boat, 'What he weigh?' And he says, 'Listen, man, that thing is 15 pounds!' But there weren't no road going over the island then, so I can't get him to a freezer, ship him to the States. So I was just stuck, eating the biggest damn bonefish I ever caught!"
We listened reverently to all this. "Fifteen pounds," Art said. "That's close to the record."
"World's record from someplace in Africa, ain't it?" Tommy said. "The record up around here is about 16 pounds, ain't it? Caught up in Bimini. But the world's record, 19 pounds, come out of Africa. Listen, we had a fellow here, Reindeer Sturges, he's one of the best bonefishermen in the world. But he don't write about it. He just goes bonefishing. Where there's bonefishing, he goes. He swears that the world's record will come from that place down there." Tommy's brown thumb jerked to the south.
Lemuel had been listening attentively to all this. He looked where the thumb was pointing. "Ocean Hole?"
"Right," said Tommy. "Ocean Hole, south of Grand Caicos. Supposed to be bottomless but it's 300 feet. Big black hole in the bank. North of there is the bonefish flats. Some of them flats ain't never seen a feather."
From then on, there was no possibility that Art and I would head anywhere other than the Ocean Hole, even though, Lemuel explained, it was a two-hour run from the Third Turtle Inn. We left Tommy Coleman to his treasure and his kingdom. We had preparations to make.
Next morning, at 5 a.m., I was listening anxiously for the patter of rain, for the wind to spring up. But the weather held. The sun was strong when we slipped out of the marina for the long haul south and east. The trip was strangely like climbing one of those hills when, every time you reach what you think is the crest, another is rising ahead of you. In the distance there would be the faint smudge of a distant cay. We would come up to it, then see that beyond it was another cay. Then another. It was the full two hours and more before we moved inshore again to the Promised Land.
It was good, almost from the beginning. At the first flat, Lemuel switched off the motor, picked up the pole and scattered a shoal of bonefish that must have just moved out of the deep. The only thing to complain of was the bottom. Mostly it was dark, making it a little difficult to spot fish. Nevertheless, there were abundant bonefish there and of a high average size, four pounds and upward. Upward to what? Eight or nine pounds, possibly. Tommy Coleman had probably eaten the bigger ones.
"Three years since I been here," Lemuel said suddenly as we poled along. "You ever hear of a man, Ted Williams? A sport player? I didn't know who he was till they told me. Good fisherman. He didn't want no mud holes, either." He gave one of his short, rare laughs. "He did some fly-fishing but not out here at the Hole."
Art and I had our fly rods in the boat, but so far we had not picked them up. It was a long time since we had met bonefish. Humanly enough, perhaps, we were settling for quicker action with the spinning rods and the lures. "Maybe after lunch we'll do a little fly casting," Art said.
How were we to know that after lunch we would come upon the Ultimate Bonefish Flat?
In the morning, over the dark flat, the sport had been modest but interesting. Now, with the sun high overhead, we followed the coast of Grand Caicos to the east. We all felt some kind of sharp anticipation, and the instinct was not false. We rounded a low headland, and there it was in front of us.
It was pure sand, a clear white. A band of it, perhaps 200 feet wide, stood out between the mangroves and the greenish, deeper water. It ran, I guessed, for close to five miles. Lemuel started the motor and we took a wide swing out to sea. The gentle breeze was from the north: we would head up to the top of the flat and pole down with it.
In fact, we could have gone higher up than we did: there seemed almost an infinity of water to fish. But there was no need. Lemuel cut the motor, got the skiff into its fishing position and said, immediately, "Bonefish." Quietly, like that. Not the least of his virtues as a guide was that he never shouted, let alone shrieked as some do, putting the caster off.
Now I could see the bones, a pair of them, fish maybe five or six pounds, inshore of our boat. I flicked my little lure to them. One lunged and took it. Over that white sand, the visibility was perfect. One extraordinary thing we saw was that the other bonefish did not immediately vanish. For several seconds it held position, as if puzzled.
It would be repetitious to detail the events of the next two hours. Like waves of hapless infantry committed to a frontal attack by a mindless high command, schools of bonefish moved toward the boat as we poled slowly down the sand corridor. Some of the schools numbered 30 or 40 fish. None of them were small. The biggest we hooked was around eight pounds but others might have been bigger. We hooked more than we landed: inevitably, on the six-pound-test, some fish crashed the mangroves and cut the line. Fishing etiquette went lamentably by the boards in the excitement after we discovered that one angler could hook a fish and not spook the school, giving the second man a shot. There were more double hookups than anybody needed. The only calm man in the boat was Lemuel. And the fly rods, forgotten, lay where they were.
We kept no account of the fish, releasing them as they came to the boat, and by three in the afternoon we found ourselves in a state that must be very rare in angling history. We were satiated with catching bones, and the only one not willing to call it a day was Lemuel. It distressed him, clearly, to quit. We had to sit down, like men on strike, before he reluctantly started the motor.
The Ultimate Bonefish Flat. Big, unsophisticated fish. Perfect visibility. Firm sand, so that, had we thought of it, we could have waded with ease. And used the fly rods. Before we had arrived back at the Third Turtle, the thought was already tarnishing the pure pleasure of the afternoon.
But we could return next day, in a more suitable frame of mind, with the fly rods. It was with controlled glee, that night in the bar, that Art forecast with what abandon those bonefish would climb all over our flies the next day. It could not have been 10 minutes later that the wind sprang up. A big wind. From the south, right into the Ocean Hole.
That would seem to have been that. The Ultimate Bonefish Flat had one drawback only, as we saw it. It could not be fished in a southerly wind. We went to bed accepting that there would be no last, fly-fishing day. It would have been less messy, certainly, if it had been left at that.
But at breakfast the next morning the wind had gone down, though heavy swells—rising, no doubt, ahead of a big front—were breaking over the reef and running into the sheltered bay. The first half hour of our run to the Ocean Hole was rough and wet, and the waves were breaking white over the sandbars we had to cross. We weathered all that, though, slid into the Leeward Going Through passage and punched east for the bonefish.
It looked pretty good when we got there: the water was calm. Art demanded-to be put ashore with his fly rod, and so he was. Lemuel and I headed a couple of miles up the flat, promising to pick him up later.
This time there was no instant action, but that, we felt, was easily explained. The water was still very shallow: the tide had not yet begun to rise on the flats. Art must have realized the same thing. It seemed a kindness to pick him up again, we felt, to wait for the flood to start.
So there, in the end, were the three of us, watching and waiting. And, of course, as it always does, eventually the tide started to run. If there were any bonefish in it, though, they were well concealed from us. For instead of its pristine transparency of the day before, the water was the color and opacity of milk. The overnight storm had compounded a thick emulsion of water and mud. The fly rods, after all, would not be used on the Ultimate Bonefish Flat.
But at least we were in a stronger position than that organist who mislaid the Lost Chord. We know precisely where what might well be the finest bonefishing flat in the world is located. We saw it again the next day when our Miami-bound Beechcraft flew low over the Ocean Hole, and for a moment Art looked ready to hijack the plane and order it down on the nearest sandspit. Understandable. Hell, his fly rod was right there at his side.
THIRD TURTLE INN