STRIP! THAT'S WHAT OUR SUPERMODEL DID TO PERFECTION IN STALKING THE WILY BONEFISH

February 21, 1997

It happened so fast there was no time to weigh the consequences;
no time to wonder if my wife, standing on the shore, would see
me sweep 21-year-old supermodel Niki Taylor out of the warm
Caribbean and into my arms. It was one of those moments when a
man does what he has to do. And as it turned out, my instincts
were correct, for Niki didn't resist. Far from it. As I lifted
her, she put her arms swiftly, wordlessly around my neck and
clung to me as if to discourage any notion I might have about
setting her back down. The look in her eyes told me all I needed
to know. She would have remained there, happily suspended, the
rest of the day and on into the velvet night if necessary:
however long it took for that goddam barracuda to swim back into
the deep, calling off its sudden and terrifying assault.

That I should remember Los Roques, that barren, rocky
archipelago 80 miles off the Venezuelan coast, not for the
bonefishing paradise that it is, with miles of sandy-bottomed,
wadeable flats; not for the shocking turquoise of its waters
lapping silkily against the white beaches of its islets and
cays; not for the island children playing baseball, with
driftwood bats, in the square; nor even for its luscious, steamy
evenings, cooled by iced rum and overhead fans...but, rather,
for a primal intruder devoid of romance or loveliness; for a
slab-sided streak of silver, mouth agape; for five feet of
savagery and slashing teeth leaping around our naked legs ...
well, it reflects on the black humor of Neptune. It simply isn't
right.

But such is the nature of life. Terror makes a more lasting
impression than beauty. Particularly unexpected terror: the
monster barging into paradise. Who or what unleashed that
monster, and what message the gods of the sea were trying to
impart, I'll leave for others to decide. But this much I know.
The next time someone asks me to take a supermodel
fishing--Claudia, Elle, Naomi and Chandra take note--I'm going
to have the good sense to decline.

I had no such prejudices when this trip was being planned. It
may even have been my idea: Let's take Niki Taylor fishing to
prove that a novice, with the help of expert guiding, can catch
a bonefish on a fly. That seemed like a reasonably stiff
challenge, even given Los Roques' reputation as a bonefishing El
Dorado. True, Niki had once modeled while holding a fly rod. And
her zodiac sign was Pisces. But she'd never actually fly-fished.
Throwing a fly line is a tricky proposition for a raw beginner
under any conditions. Doing so while wading on a windblown flat,
with two cameramen at your elbow and a sound boom waving over
your head, with only one morning free on your schedule and with
an entire rack of swimsuits waiting to be photographed back at
the lodge--that's another matter entirely. Especially when
you're throwing that fly line toward bonefish.

They're not the easiest creatures to spot. That's the first
hurdle. Streamlined and silver-sided, bonefish have such an
uncanny ability to blend into the greens and grays of the turtle
grass that fishermen call them the ghosts of the flats. They are
skittish from a lifetime of being hunted by barracuda, spooking
wildly at the slightest splash or shadow thrown by a wayward
cast. And they can be finicky eaters, preferring shrimp when
you're offering crab, minnows when you're offering shrimp.

Bonefish are not large; at Los Roques they range from two to 13
pounds, averaging about five. But they are strong and fast. No
fish that size will rip line off a reel faster than a bonefish,
and zig-zagging runs of 100 yards or more are not uncommon.
During these mad dashes, fly lines have a knack for wrapping
themselves around anything handy--guides, ankles, reels, rod
butts, mangroves or stands of coral. Then ping! goes the leader.
The whole experience is like hooking a frightened cat.

So Niki would have her work cut out for her. We had done her no
favors by booking our trip to Los Roques in late October. The
peak bonefishing season runs from March through September, and
June and July are the most productive months, according to our
guide, Frank Ibarra. The wind is calmer then, and the water is
low. The problem from October through December, he explained, is
that while the wind is tolerably light, the water in Los Roques
rises as much as two feet, allowing large barracuda to cruise
the flats. "Usually the water here is only knee-deep," Frank
said. "Bonefish get very, very spooky when it's this deep. Or
maybe they don't come onto the flats at all."

Fortunately, we'd given ourselves four days to scout the area
before Niki would join us, and there were dozens of places to
try. Los Roques is made up of 44 small coral islands and more
than 325 islets and rocks, plus the big island, El Gran Roque,
which towers, like the Rock of Gibraltar, above the rest of the
archipelago. Eight hundred people live on El Gran Roque
year-round; so do about 500 dogs--40 of whom seemed to live in
our hotel, the Vistalmar. They slept on the roof, conversing
(ceaselessly, relentlessly) with their canine pals around the
island.

Hey! Listen up, curs! It's Lop-ear. Let's bark.

Say what?

Let's bark our lungs out.

Cool. Everybody ready?

Louder! Can't hear you on this end of town!

We're gonna bark our lungs out for Lop-ear. Anything in
particular we're celebrating?

Some sweat-soaked human is trying to get some shut-eye
downstairs, and I want to bark about it.

Awwright. All night?

Why not? I'll start. Yap-yap-yap-yap.

Give 'em tongue, boys.

By day, I worried about the success of our mission. Frank had
been a guide at Los Roques since 1988, the first year that
tourists began to pour in for bonefish. Born in Caracas, he had
played shortstop at Tennessee in the mid-1970s, but his dreams
of a professional baseball career ended when he broke his finger
on his first day of minor league tryouts. "Any chance we'll get
our supermodel a bonefish?" I asked him. "Niki's not going to be
much of a caster. We'll need a trailing wind."

"I have a spot in mind for Niki," Frank said. "I'm saving it."

The places where we were seeing bonefish were very challenging:
Long, quick casts were required across the wind; lots of
experimenting with different flies; lots of rejections. We'd had
the most success with Clouser patterns, and we were running out
of those. And the bonefish were bigger than I'd expected, which
meant they were smarter. Plus there was the ever-present threat
of barracuda. In the span of five minutes, my wife, Sally, and I
had both lost hooked bonefish to one monster, who chased them
down and snatched them crossways, like a man eating an ear of
corn.

While a bonefish can swim about 24 miles per hour, a barracuda
travels 27 mph, Frank said. He assured me, however, that they
never attack humans, at least not on purpose. He'd known a
couple of conch fishermen who had been sliced up pretty badly by
barracuda while cleaning shells in the sea. And there was a
thumbless guide who'd had the misfortune of trying to release a
bonefish by hand while a barracuda was cruising the area.
Barracuda teeth are not to be believed. We got a close view of
them courtesy of Antonio, the boatman. One day he rigged up a
hand line with a needlefish impaled on a heavy hook. When he
spotted a barracuda, he flung the needlefish, lariat-style, in
its vicinity, and the barracuda attacked. Moments later the
barracuda was flipping around on shore, and Antonio was braining
it with a piece of driftwood. He had to hit it 15 times. The
barracuda was some 4 1/2 feet long, 30 to 35 pounds, with large,
pointed teeth like stilettos. Inside, the roof of its mouth was
studded with spikes angling backward, the better to grip its
prey. There was something evil about its eyes. Its entire aspect
was hideous.

"We better not let Niki see this," I said. We'd be fishing with
her the next morning.

But this, as it turned out, was the very spot Frank had been
saving for Niki. La Pelona (the Balding Island) is a small,
mostly treeless cay that was nearly an hour away by boat. We met
at our hotel at 8 a.m. sharp. Niki was wearing a floppy hat and
a long-sleeved turquoise shirt.

"Orvis?" I asked.

"Gucci," she said.

I asked if the barking dogs were keeping her awake at night.

"No. We have roosters."

The swimsuit crew was staying at a new hotel on the town square.
It abutted a house that raised fighting cocks, a legal pursuit
in Los Roques. The cockfighting season had recently ended, but
that did not prevent the roosters next-door to the hotel from
crowing at all hours of the night. These were no farmyard,
crack-of-dawn roosters. They were night owls. It was so annoying
that Elaine Farley, the swimsuit issue editor, had gone outside
in her pajamas at 2 a.m., determined which house owned the
crowing cocks and knocked on the door. When an elderly woman
answered, Elaine asked if she spoke English. She did not. So
Elaine put her index finger to her lips and said,
"Cock-a-doodle-doo...shhh! Cock-a-doodle-doo...shhh!" Then she
went back to bed.

The astonished woman thought she'd had a vision. In the morning
Elaine sent an assistant over to see if the cocks couldn't be
purchased and slaughtered on the spot. The woman politely
refused to sell her roosters but talked about the dream she'd
had the night before, in which a beautiful American woman
appeared at her door in pajamas and began crowing like a cock.
It was a very good omen, she thought, for her prized fighters.

On the way to La Pelona, Niki told me about her athletic
background. These days she gets most of her exercise chasing her
twin two-year-olds, Jake and Hunter, around the house. But she
assured me she was coordinated. At Cooper City High in Pembroke
Pines, Fla., she had competed in a local softball league, while
swimming and playing water polo for fun. Her fishing experience
was limited, but she picked things up quickly. And she was
lucky. She was confident that catching a bonefish would not be a
problem.

It is an amazing thing, confidence. Far more valuable than
skill. When we arrived, Niki selected an eight-weight rod that
was to her liking and received about five minutes of casting
instruction from me. I would share these priceless tips with
you, except that, for the most part, they were ignored. Niki
employed her own unique casting style--there was sort of a hitch
in the middle--and with the wind behind us, it worked. The fly,
a bonefish special, flew out fine.

Frank took over. He led us far out into the blue water until we
were wading up to our chests. "Don't worry, I'll drown first,"
Frank said. The 6-foot Niki had a couple of inches on both of
us. "Cast there," said Frank.

We'd been sight-fishing all week, casting only to fish that we'd
spotted. This seemed more like cast-and-pray fishing. But Frank
must have seen something to have led us out here. Niki took the
rod back, the line kind of curled up behind her in a giant C,
then as she came forward--fwwooossh--the wind straightened it
out as sweet as you please, and the fly landed 30 feet away.
Perfect. "Now strip," Frank said.

Niki looked at him warily.

"The line," I said. We hadn't covered that part. I showed her
how to bring in the line with her left hand. As promised, she
picked it up quickly, an impressive feat considering the length
of her nails. The truth was she had a wonderfully relaxed style
of stripping that must have perfectly mimicked a swimming shrimp
because on her second cast a huge bonefish--one of the largest
we'd seen all week, perhaps 13 pounds--rose up from the deep and
followed her fly. Looking from the fish to Niki's manicure to
the handle of the reel, which he could envision spinning like a
propeller the moment that big bonefish started its run, Frank
undoubtedly thought, There go the nails. But Niki was distracted
by something and stopped stripping in the fly. The bonefish,
seeing its quarry go dead in the water, veered away and departed.

"Strip, strip, strip," Frank told her. "Don't stop."

"Oh," Niki said with a smile. "All right." She cast again.

Strip, strip, strip. Suddenly there was a bend in the rod. "I've
got something," she said coolly. She did, too, but it wasn't
taking out line the way a bonefish would have. Niki brought in a
small yellowtail snapper. She held it up, we posed for pictures,
then we let it go. At least we weren't going to be skunked.

Niki cast again. Strip, strip, strip. This time, the bend in the
rod was followed by an insistent zzzz-zzzz-zzzz as a bonefish
began running out to sea. Frank and I hooted. Her fourth cast. I
couldn't believe it. The rest of the swimsuit crew, watching
from the shore, cheered. Niki calmly held the rod tip high, let
the bonefish finish its first run, then reeled. She digested our
frenzied instructions, weathered a couple more short runs and
calmly brought the 2 1/2-pound bonefish to hand. Never a doubt.

"That was fun," she said after letting the fish go. "Let's catch
some more."

I told her not to get her hopes up, that the school of
bonefish--if it were a school--had surely been spooked. Niki
smiled at me benignly and kept casting. A few minutes later she
caught a second bonefish.

More hooting, more pictures, more backslapping. Niki took it all
in stride. Her technique was getting better, so why shouldn't
she keep catching bonefish? She moved closer to shore and caught
two more. The photographers had taken all the pictures they
needed, and they began putting down their cameras and picking up
their fishing rods. They spread out along the shore and
commenced catching bonefish as if they were bluegill. "I can't
wait to teach my kids to fish," Niki said.

"Frank?" I asked. "How the hell did you do this?" It was by far
the most action we'd seen all week. Everyone was having a ball.

Johnson McKelvy, the producer of SI's TV show on the swimsuit
issue, was fishing beside us. Somehow, in the midst of all those
feeding bonefish, he hooked a pompano about the size of a
pancake. He was skittering it in along the surface, laughing.
"Look at this!" McKelvy said. "Can you believe it?" The fish was
flipping on top of the water in an effort to escape, about 10
feet in front of him.

I saw a streak in the water, and before I could even think, a
barracuda--bigger than the one Antonio had killed--leaped out of
the water for the pompano. Its mouth was wide open, its teeth
exposed. The pompano jumped too, toward McKelvy, who stumbled
backward, flicking his rod tip in horror as he fell. The pompano
flew in the air, away from him, with the barracuda still in
pursuit. Unfortunately the pompano landed a few feet from Frank.
The barracuda leaped again, and I saw Frank spin sideways like a
bullfighter. The barracuda flew past his chest. If he hadn't
moved, it would have hit him square. I watched, frozen, as the
barracuda landed between Frank and me, then leaped a third time,
veering sharply in my direction. I remember that its mouth,
still agape, looked completely unhinged. It landed no more than
three feet from my leg and disappeared beneath the surface. The
water was cloudy with sand. I braced myself, expecting a
collision. None came, and I turned to see Niki backing toward
the shore, alarm all over her face. I took two steps and lifted
her into my arms.

She was surprisingly light. We scanned the water. "Want to
switch?" I asked, reconsidering my predicament. No one could
find the barracuda. The pompano was still flipping on McKelvy's
line.

I started walking toward the shore, hoping someone would pick up
a camera and take a picture. No one did. "I think it's gone
now," Niki said, and I put her down. Then, to my astonishment,
she waded right back to where she'd been standing and resumed
casting. "I just want to catch one more," she said.

That is the kiss of death. How many times had I heard just one
more instantly kill the fishing for the day. Everyone else had
had enough after the fright with the barracuda and was waiting
safely on the shore, reliving the incident. Not Niki. In three
more casts the rod tip bent and we could hear the zzzz-zzzz-zzzz
of the reel. When she brought the bonefish in, Frank took about
one third of a second to unhook it. In less than two hours of
fishing, novice Niki Taylor had hooked six bonefish, each two to
three pounds, and landed five. We popped a beer on the shore and
toasted her success.

"That's why they call them supermodels," McKelvy said.

Winking behind her sunglasses, Niki smiled and said, "I am
woman. Hear me roar."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEVEN HOFFMAN [Niki Taylor on boat] TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEVEN HOFFMAN THE AUTHOR SHARED HIS PRICELESS FISHING TIPS WITH NIKI, WHO HAPPILY IGNORED THEM [E.M. Swift and Niki Taylor; E.M. Swift and Niki Taylor] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEVEN HOFFMAN [See caption above--E.M. Swift's hands holding box of fishing lures] THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEVEN HOFFMAN A NATURAL ATHLETE WITH NO SHORTAGE OF CONFIDENCE, NIKI DEVELOPED HER OWN ODD BUT EFFECTIVE CASTING STYLE [Niki Taylor and E.M. Swift waist deep in water; E.M. Swift and Niki Taylor on beach; Niki Taylor] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEVEN HOFFMAN FRANK (LEFT) HAD ONE SPECIAL SPOT IN MIND FOR NIKI, WHO IN A FEW HOURS TURNED IT INTO A BONEFISHING PARADISE [Frank Ibarra, Niki Taylor and E.M. Swift] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEVEN HOFFMAN NOTHING BEATS A BREW AFTER FACING DOWN A BARRACUDA [Niki Taylor]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)