BIG BONES

A FA­THER, SON, FRIEND AND GUIDE FIND BIG BONES IN THE BA­HAMAS

Anglers Journal - - CONTENTS - By CHRIS DOM­BROWSKI

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?”

Bruis­ers

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.

Big Bone

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.

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