A FATHER, SON, FRIEND AND GUIDE FIND BIG BONES IN THE BAHAMAS
Chasing large bonefish in the Bahamas, a veteran Montana trout guide plays client as he and his young son fish with an island legend.
The first order of good news was that I was back in the Bahamas for a week. The bad news was that I’d only squirreled away a couple of days to fish the flats. In other good news, one of the two best bonefish guides in the islands would be poling my skiff. The second order of bad news, though, was that — I stopped mid-thought, flogged myself mentally, realized one could shit-can an entire life, let alone a day, chained to this mode of discourse, and returned to the good, first order: I was back in the Bahamas.
On the way to his private dock, David Pinder Jr. drove us north through Freeport, past the banks and the churches and the airport, and finally onto the Queen’s Highway alongside schoolkids dressed in dark blue uniforms. They were walking hunched under their backpacks toward fenced-in playgrounds, their peril and destination not lost on my 12-year-old springbreaking son, Luca, who lifted his eyebrows and asked when Bahamian school vacation took place. My old friend and fishing partner Jeff Miller, who had been kind enough to share his booking with me and even kinder to invite Luca along, laughed and said, “When it gets too hot to go outside.”
Having shared hundreds of days on the flats in the ’80s and ’90s at Grand Bahama’s East End, Jeff and David were reuniting for the first time in more than a decade. There was plenty of catching up to do as the van trailering David’s skiff slipped alongside Hawksbill Creek, but the two trod memory’s waters deftly, recalling shared touchstone moments that stood outside time’s currents. They were quickly, it seemed, old friends again. Jeff had also, along with his father, fished extensively with David’s father, David Pinder Sr. — the Bahamas’ original bonefish guide, who worked at the Deep Water Cay club in 1958 for $5 a day at the advent of an industry the Bahamas now values at $150 million annually. Jeff later introduced me to David Sr., who would become the main character in my first book of prose, not to mention a mentor. As David Jr. steered the van toward the launch, I tried detailing this nuanced braid of multigenerational biography to Luca, but his eyes glaze over.
“Are we still going fishing?” he asked, his voice wobbly with worry that was doubtless the product of having more than once watched his father sacrifice vital hours of actual angling to discuss the sport.
“Boy after my own heart,” David said while backing the 16-foot Dolphin down to the water. “I used to have guests meet me at the dock before Matthew. That’s my old house right there.”
Hurricane-throttled, the otherwise quaint three-bedroom stucco ranch looked as if it had imploded: Casuarina limbs protruded from the windows, and a weathered satellite dish had sunk halfway into the caved-in roof. Sentimentalist that I am, I wondered if it might deflate David to have to regard his physically broken home each time he went to work.
Apparently not today, anyway.
“Soon as I get this boat in the water,” he said while looking in the rearview, “park the van in the shade and leave the keys in the ignition. Yesterday morn-
ing was good, and the tide is even better today. So. Let’s. Go. Bonefishing!”
Soon we were running, the water’s washboard morphing into a liquid road of potholes before we planed and moved through the morning as only those aboard a speeding flats skiff can. As we crossed the open water at full throttle, I watched a feral look of amazement stretch across Luca’s face. It was similar to those I’d seen him bestow on amusement parks and all-you-can-eat ice cream buffets. Earlier I had made the mistake of asking David if he would take us to a series of flats that a mutual client he guided two days prior had called “otherworldly,” rife with double-digit bones. As a Montana trout guide of 20 years, I should have known better than to fiddle with a fellow guide’s chi, but I bumble quite easily into the role of client.
Over the engine noise, I asked Jeff if he thought David would take us to Crishy Swash just because I asked him to. “I mean, if he didn’t think the fishing would be good.”
“Do you think David does anything he doesn’t want to do?” Jeff responded. I thought of how David, firstborn and prodigy of the legend, had left his well-established position as the head guide at Deep Water Cay in 1999 to start, along with his talented brother Jeffrey, an outfit in Freeport whose largely unknown and less-forgiving fishery he’d discovered while working on lobster boats during the off-seasons from guiding. “I don’t guess he does,” I said.
“Would you know either way if he took us there or didn’t?”
“I don’t guess I would.”
Behind us to the south, Freeport’s tall shipyards sank into the mangrove-lined horizon, and after a good run, about the time we were largely divested from society, David cut the engine. As we coasted with the wash onto a flat I couldn’t see the end of, Jeff tried applying sunscreen to his temples and accidentally rubbed a dollop into his left eye. He cast a few sailor-worthy curses at the sky and, after explaining to Luca that everything heard on a fishing boat was “off the record,” offered me first shot on the bow.
“We’ve been fishing together almost 20 years,” I said, standing to take the 8-weight from the holder, “and I can’t remember a single day on the water when you didn’t get sunscreen in your eye.”
“I happen to think of it as my very personal penance to the fish gods,” Jeff said. “Now do you want the bow or not?”
Appearing in pairs or as singles, North End bonefish seem to inhabit their environs in slightly fewer numbers than those on the East End, where I’d fished extensively, but they were unquestionably bigger and grabbier. Put the fly — mine was a large crab imitation that looked like a cotton swab with bright orange legs hanging from it, and Miller’s was a conversely drab mantis shrimp variation — within a 10-foot radius of the fish, strip hard once and get ready to clear the line. After a 3-pound “starter” that Luca reeled in, our prelunch brace of fish went 6, 8, 7 and 6 pounds.
Although it’s brash to cast judgment on a fishery based on a small sample size, it is reasonable for a veteran guide-playing-client such as myself to draw evaluative conclusions about a fellow ghillie within a couple of hours. From well-traveled and reputable sources, I’d heard hyperbolic descriptions of David’s talent for years; I’d read of his run
for political office in Grand Bahama, and of his All-bahamian Bonefish Tournament wins, of his 23-fish day. But the hearsay and ink pale next to the physical. David Pinder Jr. is an apex predator, I concluded, the pinnacle of Bahamian bonefish guides.
Covering the water with a shark’s efficiency, he threaded us through the wind and along prime sightlines with a quiet intensity coupled with urgently clear communication and instruction. The most successful guides exhibit the uncanny ability to translate instantaneously; that is, they can articulate with precision what they see and sense so the client can see, as well. The best guides, such as David, work tirelessly to make certain that nothing gets lost in this translation. Add the palpable passion and joy — “I can never remember laughing more while fishing than I did on David’s boat,” Orvis’ Tom Rosenbauer said — that belies David’s 30-plus years of poling the flats, and you’re looking at a legend.
These qualities notwithstanding, perhaps most impressive to me was David’s strategy with Luca, who was grateful to fight a bonefish Jeff or I had hooked, but none too convinced when we told him he’d “caught his first bone.”
“Come on, Dad. Be serious.”
Luca had logged dozens of days wading and floating Montana’s trout streams with his beloved 3-weight Sage LL, and he had no trouble spotting bonefish — in fact, he often saw them on cue with Jeff and me — but the 8-weight and a 20-mph tailwind made for a scalding saltwater baptism. As he unwrapped a third misfired backcast from the rod tip, he looked ready to sink back into his seat.
“No pressure,” David said from the platform, exuding what amounted in my paternal estimation to be a geologic patience. “We’ve got some good fish trying to get off this flat on the falling tide. I’ll set up with the wind straight over his back, and he can roll a cast right into them.”
David instructed Luca to launch two-handed, 25-foot roll casts each time a fish appeared in range. A quick study, Luca dropped his rod to 1 o’clock, let the line drape behind his right shoulder and, with the stiff wind as a propellant, snapped the line and 10-foot leader to attention at a workable distance. The first fish was a gamer, but upon feeling the take, Luca committed the inevitable freshwater angling faux pas of setting the hook skyward; as usual, the father was culpable for the son’s shortcomings. Because I hadn’t wanted to overwhelm him with instruction, I hadn’t articulated the necessity of pointing the rod at the water until the hook knocked in and the fish’s run began. And as usual, the father had excuses.
Lot of Fight
There were several other shots, and an accommodating “Uncle Miller” who had long given up his turn on the bow, and an even more accommodating guide — at this point David resembled a big-league slugger content to toss batting practice until the struggling batboy in the cage made solid contact. Eventually an exceedingly accommodating bonefish of 6 pounds ate the fly three times before Luca was able to bury the hook. Since he’d been roll casting with the line locked under his casting hand, there was no line to clear — another genius play of David’s — and the reel yelped shrilly with the fish’s first run.
“A little more horsepower than a cutthroat, huh?” Jeff asked Luca as the backing knot clicked through the rod guides.
“This is like catching 15 trout at once,” Luca said, keeping his fingers clear of the spinning handle. “I have mad respect for this fish.”
After landing the bone, marveling at the nictitating membrane around its eye and releasing it, Luca rose into a semieuphoric state of sensory engagement. “What are those small birds there?” he asked no one in particular. “What’s this flat called again?” “Hey, look at that turtle over there.” “Oh, there’s a bonefish coming” — he’d momentarily mistaken a nurse shark’s leisured pace for a bone’s more purposed progression. “Nah, it’s just a shark.” The endurance of his attention impressed and humbled me. Wasn’t this ability to focus beyond the quotidian a unifying quality of all my favorite fishing guides, not to mention humans?
He dug into the Yeti cooler and cracked a cold and celebratory Coca-cola. In a typical year, owing to his parents’ near-prohibition of refined sugar, he might drink only a handful of such sodas, so I estimated that a steep blood sugar crash would occur within the half-hour. Fortunately, the next fish was amped to eat before the tide went neap. It charged across the marl bottom for Jeff ’s fly on impact. As the substantially shouldered fish scribed an arc across the surface with the fly line, I noted how these North End flats seemed slightly less fecund, less bustling than those I’d fished extensively on the East End; there was plenty of life, but the windier, exposed flats made the North End a slightly more rugged location to make one’s stand and made for heartier homesteaders, whether piscine or human.
“Where are all of the small fish?” Jeff asked David while cranking against the bruiser. “We’re just not seeing them.”
“I’ve wondered the same thing myself plenty of times, Miller,” David said, “and I really don’t have an explanation.”
For better or worse, I tend to trust guides who don’t pretend to have all the answers. Perhaps it’s the rhetorician in me, but I think a little vulnerability establishes some ethos, makes the super-human — who can mentally access an extensive catalog of tide charts and the moving water’s effect on his fickle quarry while deftly poling a 15-foot fiberglass skiff loaded with 700-plus pounds of people and gear through ankle-deep water — a little more human.
Three wraps of backing remained on my reel when David said, “You should probably jump out and chase him.” Despite a cast that had fallen 10 feet shorter than its target, a large bonefish had charged my fly, come tight and was now running south at a distance after having run long to the north. Other than a single leafless mangrove, the flat was devoid of obstruction, and David had posted the skiff up so as to shield the fish from the mangrove’s roots. A few minutes before I’d presented the fly, though, the lid of the storage box had slammed onto my bare left foot. My three middle toes gushed blood from the cuticles.
“I’m nervous to get all that saltwater in these open cuts,” I said, gingerly slipping a sandal onto my left foot while keeping a good bend in the rod.
“Probably teeming with bacteria,” Jeff said with a laugh. “But it’s either that or lose him.”
“Come on, Dad. You can rub a little Neosporin on it later,” Luca chirped, employing a phrase I’d wielded more than a time or two on him.
The water made the new wounds fairly sizzle, but soon I was ashore and picking my way along the worn coral, gaining line with each step. The fish seemed to sense the skiff; as I distanced myself from the craft, it began to cede ground. Superstitiously, I didn’t want to glimpse the fish while fighting it, but it got down light, wallowed a time or two and looked deep as a mailbox. Backing the pressure off, I tried to recall how fresh my tippet knot was.
By the time I beached the 11-pounder, David had worked the skiff down the beach so we could take a picture or two. Besting my personal record by a good pound, the platinum-backed fish had earned quick release, not a multiple iphone photo shoot. A couple of clicks, and off he went. I had expected a little more hooting and hollering from my companions and guide, but it was clear David saw such double-digit specimens with good frequency, if not daily.
“That’s a good bonefish, man. Very nice fish,” he allowed, stashing the pole in the chocks, a clear indication that the last cast of the day had been made. “The last time I seen that much of the spool was several years ago. I was fishing with a photographer friend of mine on a big tide when two permit started coming down the edge. I had on a crab fly because, as you’ve seen, the bonefish like them just fine. I put that thing out in front,
and as it was dropping to the bottom, one of the fish sank with it.
“He took it and ran, and I started chasing him down the beach like some kind of fool. About the time I caught up to him, though, he headed for a blue hole and wrapped the line around a coral head. I figured he was gone but waded out to my neck and kind of guided the rod tip down into the water to untangle the line from the coral head. I got it loose, but by then he was all the way into the backing and headed for the channel, two wraps on the spool, maybe.”
David sat at the steering console and reached over Luca’s shoulder to grab my rod.
“I had to put the cork in my mouth, like this” — he bit on the Sage’s worn rod handle to show Luca — “and swim out with the current, gaining line as I went. I basically washed up at the point, and by then, the permit was whooped. I tailed him, 31 pounds on my little portable scale. But just as I got out of the water, a 10-foot shark came sliding by. If I’d been in that blue hole still, you know he would have found me.”
Leaning back against the casting brace in the warm southerly, I let David’s story settle into the turtle grass of the mind, and trusted it to the word. Perhaps by the additive presence of his countless small feats, the legendary guide has a way of making even the most miraculous tale seem indisputable. He reminds us of just how much is possible, out there beyond our mortal ken.
Stalking tailing bonefish in the skinny waters of the Bahamas.
“A little more horsepower than a cutthroat, huh,” Jeff asked my son, Luca, as his first bonefish sprinted off. “This is like catching 15 trout at once,” Luca answered.
Sharp-eyed and wary creature of the flats (left). David Pinder Jr. is one of the elite Bahamian bonefish guides.
Three wraps of backing remained on my reel when the guide suggested it was time to jump out of the skiff and chase the fish on foot.