Bonefishing out of Swain’s Cay Lodge, Andros, Bahamas
From the moment a kindly catfish found its way to the end of my line and sent a tentative tap, tap up through my fishing pole to my six-year-old hands, I have been consumed by fishing. I come by this courtesy of my grandfather, John Livingston “Honus” Craig. John L was an All-Southern Conference halfback on the 1904-1907 Vanderbilt Commodores football teams. I have a photo of him, standing tall (a relative thing, he was 5’9” or so), legs apart, hands on hips, in his padded uniform, no helmet. He became, variously, a football coach, a teacher, and a sportswriter for the Nashville Banner. Most of all, he was a fisherman.
At the end of his life, he was the safety director for the Tennessee State Highway Department. John L paid particular attention to the safety of bridges spanning Tennessee rivers. His inspections required he toss a fly rod and boots into the back of his Ford sedan before leaving home in the morning, allowing him to fish the river a distance up and downstream. No telling what smallmouth bass were up to, perhaps organizing to undermine bridge pilings. He died on the banks of a pond in Maury County in 1942. I never met John L, but when my six-year-old hands tightened around a fishing pole handle, he was there.
At the first tug from the kindly catfish, I jumped up, clutched my pole, and scrambled backwards across the grass away from the Potomac River. I launched the catfish out of the river, landing it flopping on the bank, where I pounced on it. In subsequent years, my technique has improved, and I caught on with the notion of turning the handle of the reel. The excitement of what happened in the seconds after the tentative tap, tap has remained unchanged in my lizard brain. But with age and experience, the anticipation of what is about to happen has become as heart-stopping as the event itself.
It is 1955. I walk up to home plate, catcher for the Indians Little League team, qualified for that position because I was the chubbiest, least mobile kid on the team. I clutch my bat, an Eddie Yost autographed model. Eddie was the third baseman for my beloved Washington Senators (in last place squalor in the American League: 53 games won, 101 lost that year). I grasp the smooth handle, dig in my right toe cleat, square up, give the plate a thump with the bat and am cocked and ready. My freshly washed uniform scratches my perspiration-soaked neck. I stare out at the pitcher, my breath coming faster and faster. He rocks on the rubber and the baseball becomes a white, spinning blur. I step forward and swing – as hard as I can.
On a brilliant fall day in 1961, I crouch at the gleaming white, freshly drawn 30-yard line, hands on hips, cleats digging into the thick turf. Oak and sycamore leaves scud by, dancing in the wind. I scan my teammates ahead and to the side of me. They piston their legs up and down in excitement, white uniforms bright against the lush green, the cardinal logo a splash of red on their helmets. With a “thump” the football comes lazily flipping end-over-end to the anxious embrace of the kick receiver behind me. I blow out, pulse racing. I pick out my man.
Today I look out over knee deep Bahamian shallows, the blue-green water’s surface gleams and ripples gently in a slight wind. The sand bottom is covered in a universe of taupe and beige mounds pushed up by water movement, worms, and crustaceans. Between mounds it is flecked by coral bits, the occasional limestone outcropping, and tufts of pea-green sea grass. I am barefoot on the bow of a flats boat, barefoot so the fly line sizzling off the deck from the first run of a bonefish, one of the fastest fish in the ocean, doesn’t catch on a boot. I am covered hat-to-toe, shielding my Scots-Irish skin from the relentless Bahamian sun. Dark glasses glint under the bill of my fishing cap. My right hand holds a fly rod, my left hand holds a loop of line coming off the rod tip. My thumb and forefinger pinch the hook of a small artificial fly so with one motion, I can release the fly, lift the rod tip and be into my back cast. My ears are tuned to catch the soft Bahamian burr of Captain Marvin Miller, my guide, standing on a high platform at the stern of the boat. He leans on a long push pole. Together, we scan the water at the edge of the mangrove line, eyes sweeping up and down, back, and forth. We look for a silver flash, the flit of a bonefish shadow.
“Two bonefish at 2:00, maybe sixty feet out.” Where, where? Then I spot them moving towards us, a little too far for a cast. I wait, willing my heart to get the hell out of my throat, my hand to stop shaking.
“Cast, cast!” my guide exhorts in a staccato burst. I release the fly.