In couch potato mode, trail mix bowl in my lap, I watched the Rays’ keystone combo, shortstop Willy Adames and second baseman Brandon Lowe, turn a double play. Willy dove for a grounder to his right, caught the ball in the webbing of his glove, braked, planted his right foot and slung the ball to Brandon who caught it in mid-stride, pivoted and fired to Ji-Man Choi. Other than maybe an alley-oop pass from the high post to a flying center who slam dunks, a double play is the epitome of team effort. I racked my brain for team play artistry from my own life. As my brain has as much random clutter as a neighborhood yard sale, this task took a while. An image came to me.
Meet Captain Marvin Miller of Mangrove Key, Andros, the Bahamas (firstname.lastname@example.org). He is of modest height, a lithe but strong guy, affable, with a ready smile. On the job, he dresses in the latest fishing-tech gear with a Buff up over his nose, fishing pliers and a two-way radio clipped to his belt. He is forty-four years old, was delivered by a Mangrove Cay midwife in a building near the downtown waterfront. He reminds us Shine’s Conch Shack is located there now, owned by his fellow guide pal Shine, aka Arnold Green, an excellent place for conch fritters and a cool Kalik. At age eighteen, he got a call from Moxey’s Bonefish Lodge that a guide had celebrated too much the night before and was a no show. Marvin hustled over and had his first paying gig.
This is where Marvin plies his trade as bonefish guide. Andros is the largest island in the Bahamas, running north-south one hundred miles and forty miles east-west. It is pinched at the waist like an old-fashioned Coke bottle, by three bights, estuaries that divide the island into North Andros, Mangrove Cay and South Andros. Eight thousand people live on Andros, clustered along a coral ridge with a single road threading down the east side of the island, interrupted by the bights and tidal creeks. From this ridge the island falls away to the west, eliding from scrub pine flats to, eventually, mangrove swamps on the west. Nothing on the island aspires to be the tallest kid on the block. Hurricanes have that effect
Outside of government employment and a US naval installation, cash flow on Andros comes courtesy of the wad of greenbacks fly fishermen bring in their duffel bags as they arrive to stay at one of the many lodges on the east side, from Nicholls Town to Mars Bay. The object of their interest is the grey ghost of the flats – the bonefish. Has it occurred to you, as you examine the menu at Bonefish Grill, sipping one of their excellent Manhattans, that you do not see a bonefish on the menu? There are several reasons: the bonefish is very bony, like the logo implies; commercial netting of bonefish is not allowed; and if it were caught by a fly fisherman in the Bahamas and he transported it to your plate, it would cost about $150 per, filleting extra. In sum, the fish is not great eating and you must lay out many Ben Franklins to catch them if you are not a Bahamian.
The bonefish is silver, shaped like a broad-shouldered torpedo terminating in a strong V-shaped tail, capable of generating 40 mph, placing it among the top ten fastest fish in the ocean. Its snout has a pinkish color derived from digging nose-down on the sandy bottom, noshing on shrimp and other crustaceans. Big bones tend to cruise singly or in small pods, little guys prefer the comfort of a school. Lemon sharks and barracuda hang out on the periphery of a school, a fish version of an apartment building with serial killers lurking outside the front door. The bones move across the Andros flats with the tides. Wherever they are, Captain Marvin finds them.
Marvin operates from a poling platform mounted on a boat designed for skinny water – a flats boat. For the cognoscenti, his flats boat is a seventeen-foot Hell’s Bay Professional with a 70 hp motor. Balancing six feet above water level, wielding a sixteen-foot push pole, he surveys his kingdom. To find bones, he poles quietly along the flats shoreline of stunted mangroves. He must spot them far ahead and instruct his fisherman as to where they are and what they are doing. Cloud cover is Marvin’s enemy, reducing contrast. Eighty feet away, a cruising bone is but a grey shadow on a light tan-colored bottom. His second enemy is wind. The profile of himself on the platform, the boat hull and his paying cargo makes for significant sail area. Poling to control the boat in hefty wind becomes a sweat job. Add to Marvin’s woes wind-driven waves concealing the oncoming bones.
But Marvin’s biggest problem is the fly fisherman poised on the bow, fly rod in one hand, loops of fly line at his feet and fly held pinched between the fingers of his other hand, ready to make a cast when he hears the magic words: “Bonefish at eleven o’clock, off the shore twenty feet, sixty feet away.” Adrenaline rushes through the fisherman; his eyes swing back and forth. Where is it? Where is it? This is a man or woman whose most significant visual task this past year has been to follow the flight of a Titleist golf ball as it slices off the first tee.
On to the actual cast. Marvin has positioned the boat as it moves along the shoreline so that a right-handed fly fisherman has the wind coming over his left shoulder. The fisherman must finally see the bonefish, avoid stepping on the line under his feet, avoid hooking the fly on his pants, avoid hooking Marvin on the back cast, and get out a forty foot cast that lands six feet in front of the cruising bone, all the while heart beating like the hammers of hell.
On a beautiful Bahamas day, fishing out of Swain’s Cay Lodge a number of years ago, I stood on the deck of Marvin’s boat, my “Gotcha” fly pinched between my fingers, and blinked through my Polaroids. Marvin spoke softly from the poling platform, “Ten o’clock. Fish coming out.” We had hunted bones coming out of the mangroves as the water dropped, skinnier and skinnier with the falling tide. I saw the fish, loitering about the roots, getting ready to move. Heart pumped, adrenaline flowed, hands tingled. I breathed deeply. Slowly, they glided out, a few small ones at first. Urgent voice from above: “Give me a cast, fifty feet, drop it on the sand.” I did not step on the line. I did not hook my pants or Marvin. The Gotcha landed on a patch of sand in front of the oncoming fish. “Don’t move the fly!” What? There are fish there, one pull of the line to move the fly and I’ve got one. “Wait, wait … big one coming. OK … now strip!” The first run of the bone was half a football field long. I held the rod as high as I could to lift the line above conchs, coral, weed and whatever else was on the bottom. The reel screamed. I screamed.
Study the photo above and then take a gander at the preceding photo of Marvin in poling position. He looks like he stepped from the pages of the Orvis catalog. The guy with the fish attached, not so much. It looks like he accoutered himself at the Goodwill store and thought he’d take a whack at fly fishing. Team Bonefish did land the bone. Of course, the fisherman’s role was that of a boy with a stick who jumps out in front of the Independence Day parade and thinks he’s leading it. The bone is pictured below with the guy who really caught it.