Better Fishing in the Bahamas

by Frank Murphy

It's the beauty of the flats as trade winds barely ruffle the water, and the sight of sun setting behind tailing bonefish that bring us back. Few spots on earth offer so much beauty and, if you wiggle away from the popular spots, a sense of absolute isolation broken only by bird calls and the slosh of big fish chasing bait in the shallows.

There's so much fishing in the Bahamas that it could, and has, taken a lifetime to explore the waters from Walker's Cay in the north down to Crooked Island in the south. Few places on earth look so good when winter winds howl, and it's an easy trip from the United States and Europe. There's so much to do other than fish, that wise visitors leave time for Plymouth history and Freeport or Nassau duty-free shopping. Just stay out of the straw market when there are three or more ships in with passengers in full shopping fury!

So if you wade the flats for bonefish or permit, jig or bait for reef action or seek to enter the high tech, big ticket world of offshore fishing, you'll find suitable venues, skilled guides and decent resorts.

Walker's Cay

Charter boats offer big fish action off Walker's Cay.

With its own TV show, Walker Key Chronicles, Walker's Cay, the most northerly in the Bahamas, is definitely on the map. It's probably no accident that it's just across the Gulf Stream from Fort Lauderdale either. Most of the action here is offshore with massive numbers of charter boats after all the big game fish mentioned below. However, given the "larger the fish, longer the wait" axiom of fishing, we like to jig and bait fish shallow and deep reefs and wrecks for all sorts of amberjack, groupers in more flavors than one can imagine, barracuda and more. This is the place for reef addicts!

Even better, if you sneak away from the big fish action you'll find a rather tidy assortment of bonefish flats that seem to get little attention, and may hold bigger fish, than those anywhere else in the Bahamas but Andros. Such seems always the case. "Secondary" species and locales may often produce better action than the advertised "loss leaders" that get hammered by those who skip their homework.

Green Turtle Key

We had the worst resort experience in 25 five years of angling and travel writing about ten years back at a resort that, fortunately for the reader, isn't known for its fishing. I'm told they've "cleaned up their act" but we haven't been back to check. One taste of Key Lime Pie apparently made from lime Jell-O, a surly staff and a tennis court with cracks big enough to swallow tennis balls was enough. 

Casual fishing off the front of local homes offers a nice break for laid back days with a little sightseeing and some shopping.

The fishing resorts are fine here, their food, and as usual in the Bahamas the seafood, is superb. Local manners seemed a vast improvement over those in town. So this seems a dandy spot for permit and bonefish beginners with lots of flats to wade and some interesting reef fishing if you check with locals. You can catch and release bags of bonefish -- well maybe not as many as Christmas Island, but it's a shorter flight! You'll also find a killer reef off nearby Treasure Cay and offshore angling that's much like Walker's Cay. You'll find an interesting small town and the local bar offers some lethal local rum drinks too!

Cat Cay and Bimini

Think about Cat Cay and the image appears of massive Bluefin tuna taken during the early summer tournaments that hit famed Tuna Alley. Pirates like Blackboard and Henry Morgan hung out here too. So did Hemingway who took the first rod and reel tuna here back in 1933. S. Kip Farrington covers this in his classic book, Fishing with Hemingway and Glass ell. Farrington's wife, a very skilled angler on her own, got the following wire when she was the first woman to catch a broadbill swordfish, a 584-pounder, off the coast of South America. Earnest said, "Perfection, the real record is to take the first one, because if you catch the biggest fish, someone eventually is going to catch a bigger one."

It's rather interesting that even back in the 1930's Hemingway and Farrington complained about the inroads made by the Japanese long line anglers on Bluefin. Long liners set out miles of buoyed and baited lines and, according to most sport anglers and fishery biologists, "decimate billfish stocks." Given his lust for action, were he around now with the trusty "Tommy Gun" he used to keep sharks off his gamefish, I suspect there'd be blood on the waves or maybe a submarine for the Green Peace folks.

Even given this, Cat Cay and Bimini (the latter gave us the Bimini Twist, a classic "100%" knot beloved by blue water anglers) offer one of the best venues in the world to get hooked on tuna in the modest 250 to 500 pound class. These hardly seem like "tiddlers" unless compared to the ten or eleven foot long monsters once found in good numbers off Newfoundland. Unfortunately, such bluefins are extremely popular, and expensive, in Japan, so there's far too much commercial pressure on the fishery.

Blue Marlin were once common in the Bahamas -- in 1925 a rumored 1,000 pound blue was seen by a reliable source, but it took over fifty years before a "grander" -- a 1,060 pound blue -- to hit a legal scale. Long liners have decimated the population of these fine fish and Mako sharks, so sport anglers often tag and release the fish they take.

Other bluewater species like Wahoo, sailfish, dolphin and smaller white marlin offer nifty options and the chance for some light tackle action.

But you need not risk mal de mar to fish out the day. Both fly and line class world record bonefish 13-16 pounds were set nearby. So hire a guide for the day and fish the flats as he poles along. If you want to split your costs, get a group and try the nifty inshore wreck fishing which produces barracuda, jacks and a batch of other species.

Chub Cay

Most who visit here fish for marine monsters in the deeps of the Tongue of the Ocean, and the area's close enough to Nassau to collect day trippers too. The marlin action includes both blues and whites, but the massive drop-off from the reef to stygian depths offers up a host of reef fish too. A surprising number of bonefish lurk on the little-fished flats to the north. This is a nice spot with good access to the bright lights.

Andros

Think bonefish flats! There are so many flats nobody could fish them all -- I tried to do this on one trip and got terminal sunburn even with sun block, and those few flats barred from casual tourists by mangrove swamps may hold world record bonefish. We spent a half-day wiggling back into a flat that sat like a mirror framed with massive mangroves. You couldn't imagine a better looking spot. Unfortunately, we either blew the directions or a local fisherman was putting us on, as we didn't see one bonefish.

Elsewhere fish run three to six pounds with a sprinkling of permit, tarpon -- mostly in the east side passes -- and a collection of groupers and snappers. Add the odd shark and, last visit, "Moby Something" that buzzed off 250 yards of eight pound test, and you've a splendid spot to fish and tan. Shopping runs over to Nassau aren't long either!

Eleuthera, Great Exuma, Long & Crooked Islands

The southern end of the Bahamas, called the "Out Islands", haven't had the pressures so common to the north in the more popular spots. They're nearer Cuba and were once a navigation aid for what one local called "Dope Airlines." These days you'll find wonderful bonefishing everywhere. Bones may run bigger on Long Island flats, but there are more on the flats of Crooked Island. The usual assortment of permit, small tarpon, sharks, barracuda and other species ebbs and flows with the tides, and you can hit passes and reefs if the flats get too windy.

I've been told my taste for sampling reef fish with ultralight tackle and bait kills any hopes of piscatorial status, but it's a treat with any trout or bass weight gear. You can catch 20 fish -- we release everything unless we're with a local who has a use for the fish and can identify the best eating -- and you may have 10 different species.

Getting There, Staying There In Comfort

It's a short flight over from Miami, and most East Coast destinations connect to Nassau. Then you fly on various "peanut airlines" and/or take a boat to your angling resort. Do consider soft-sided luggage -- remember that you'll fish and such in shorts and shirts, and bring plenty of sunblock, a brimmed hat and Polarized® sunglasses.

Those new to the tropics should realize that barefoot doesn't make it for tenderfoot tourists in sea urchin country, so always wear sneakers or sandals. In the last case watch for sunburned feet! Long sleeve shirts, long pants and brimmed hats with Polaroid® sunglasses may not look as nifty as shorter garments, but they protect you against sun and, if you wade, stinging jellyfish.

Do drink a lot of water and stay out of the sun when you can. Too much sun isn't great. Do, if you fish on your own and don't know tropical fish, consider pliers to remove hooks. Some of the reef fish have interesting sharp spines and such in unexpected places, and tailing or picking up some species by the gill covers can be an unforgettable experience.

We try to stay out of Freeport and Nassau downtown except on main streets during daylight hours. The latter's a zoo on days when cruise ships dock, and that's most days. The resort areas over on the island seem safe, and fishing resorts all offer solid security and good ties with local employees and residents. Most resorts feature decent to exceptional food and, as you might expect, the seafood's extremely good. Conch chowder and fritters, grouper and a host of other species run all the way up to our favorite lobster, which is fantastic in season. We try to stay with simple preparations, as delicious local fish don't need much fancy "fixin's."

You can ask about local hot spots for nightlife, crafts and such when you arrive, although after days wading on the flats or hauling on a fish bigger than you are from a fighting chair, most visitors turn in early. One thing's certain, there are few fishing spots in the world that take such good care of their guests as a good resort in the Bahamas. Considering traditional local attitudes, this is one of the wonders of the tropics!