A BONEFISHING CHALLENGE ON ABACO: THE ‘WHICH?’ REPORT


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A BONEFISHING CHALLENGE ON ABACO

In January I posted an article called BONEFISHING ON ABACO: A CHALLENGE IS ACCEPTED. This stemmed from contact online with fisherman and fly tyer Mark Minshull, who kindly tied some flies for me to try on the Marls. In the post I showed pictures of my manky flybox and his immaculate flies. We agreed to see how things turned out while I was on Abaco in March, and  that I would report back…   

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Mark 1 Specimen Bonefish Flies

THE ‘WHICH?’ REPORT ON MARK 1 BONEFISHING FLIES

We set out to test the efficacy of  prototype ‘Mark 1′ bonefishing flies in the waters of the Abaco Marls. Our testers came from the US (TC & AH), Northern Ireland (AB), and England (RH). All are proficient fly fishermen with experience of several prime bonefishing destinations between them, except for the Englishman RH who was included to add balance to the trials by adding the element of incompetence. His fly box remained an object of ridicule throughout the tests, until he resorted to using a more carefully chosen small fly box containing his most successful flies, some ‘Delphi Club Approved’ flies and the test flies. 

QUALITY All our testers agreed that the Mark 1 flies were beautifully designed and tied. As flies, their quality was rated ‘superb’; ‘bloody good’; and ‘very impressive’. As potential winners for the waters of Abaco, however, there was considerable doubt about the suitability of the pattern for colouring, shape and size.

THE TEST AREA We used the huge area of prime bonefishing territory of the mangrove swamps and sand banks on the west side of Abaco known as the Marls. Our testers were familiar with the waters and all had fished them numerous times. The sea depth, depending on tide, is a few feet at most. The consistency of the bottom is of lightweight, pale coloured mud.

Bonefishing, Abaco Marls Abaco  1

It is usually easier to look out for the shadows of the fish on the light bottom than for the fish themselves, which are often difficult to see in the water. Half-close your eyes and look at this image – the fish almost disappears, but the shadow is clearly visible. It is hard to believe the wonderful colouring of the fish until it is out of the water.Bonefish, Abaco Marls Abaco 2

THE TESTS The initial reservations of the testers unfortunately proved justified in the field. The testers all found that the fish tended not to follow the flies at all, and mostly behaved as if they had not seen them, even with the most accurate casts. The few ‘follows’ observed produced refusals of the fly at the end. Disappointingly, no fly was taken by a single fish throughout the trials.

OBSERVATIONS Our testers had some useful comments. Above all, the Mark 1 flies were undoubtedly of excellent quality and design. They simply were not suited to the waters – or the bonefish – of Abaco. TC thought they might work in Belize. It was thought that larger versions might attract permit. Overall, the Mark 1s were so radically different from the tried and tested fly patterns used successfully on Abaco that the 3 competent fishermen soon forsook the experiment and caught fish using more familiar flies. The 4th tester, lacking any finesse, might have fluked a take against the odds , but even he drew a blank.

THE PROFESSIONALS The Guides in each case had been fishing the Marls since they could walk and hold a rod. They each examined the flies, shook their heads and kept their thoughts to themselves. We interpret this as indicating a tendency for the local guides to doubt the effectiveness of the Mark 1 flies.

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RH’s ‘Selected Specimen’ Fly Box

RESULTS ANALYSIS  The flies above show (front row) the 3 versions of the Mark 1 fly; (middle row) the highly effective Delphi Daddy and Delphi Diva patterns, with one random silver concoction of unknown origin; (back row) ; 2 browny / pale patterns plus a shocking pink one that the guides wisely forbade and, below, 3 roughly matching flies that brought great success even for RH this year (including 12 boated and 5 lost in one day), sourced from renowned tackle specialist E. Bay.

CONCLUSION The flies that catch the bones on Abaco tend to be pale and to have ‘streamer’ tails and / or a fair amount of sparkle. A touch of pink seems to be good. Too much pink, not so. Rubbery legs can be very effective (except in the fisherman after lunch). But lovely lifelike dark shrimp imitations are of no interest to the fish of the Marls.

‘WHICH?’ RATINGS FOR THE MARK 1 FLY 

  • Design and construction *****
  • Ease of use *****
  • Effectiveness for Abaco waters *

All photos RH. Thanks to Mark for creating the challenge and for being a great sport

A Box of Bonefish Flies (Abaco)

The largely ridiculous fly box of RH (most good ones removed)

 

BONEFISHING ON ABACO: A CHALLENGE IS ACCEPTED


Abaco Bonefish a

BONEFISHING ON ABACO: A CHALLENGE IS ACCEPTED

Here is my fly box. It is a qualified success, as is my fishing. The fly box is rather better organised than I am, though. Some of the flies in it are routinely ignored by others to whom I helpfully offer the box.  I’ve found the best plan is to stick with the silvery shrimpy patterns, especially the ones with pink heads. Then nobody gets upset. And from time to time I get lucky (see header image).

BF flies3a

Recently, a proper fisherman started to follow my blog, and I his. I immediately recognised one of the fishing lakes on his site, one where I have fished in the past. One thing led to another and I seem to have agreed to trial some of Mark’s expertly tied flies on the Abaco flats in March…

Mark’s Bonefish Patternsimage24

I am very keen on the principles of ‘Catch and Release’. So keen that I have developed my own specialist methods (designed for fishing with barbless hooks) using what might be termed ‘Early C&R’. These may include some or all of the following on any given day: 

  1.  ‘THE PHANTOM CATCH’ As the fish follows the fly, and the instant before it commits to a lunge for it, abruptly whisk the fly away from under its nose with a sharp reflex ‘trout-strike’. This will ensure that both the fish and your fly remain untroubled by actual contact. This is the most advanced form of Early C&R.
  2. ‘THE BIG MISSED TAKE’ As the fish takes your fly firmly in its mouth, become preoccupied by the fact that your left foot is planted firmly on a horrid tangle of line around your feet. You will feel the solid take, but instantly realise that your retrieve is hopelessly compromised. With some relief, you feel the line go slack as the fish shakes itself free…
  3. ‘THE REEL THING’ Hook the fish. Feel the weight on the end of the line. It’s heavy. Nice one! Turn in muted triumph to your boat partner to shout excitedly “Got One”. As you do so, allow the line somehow to snag round the rod handle and the reel simultaneously. Before you have even begun to figure how to sort this out, the fish will have released itself and be heading for the horizon.
  4. ‘THE STICKY SITUATION’ Hook the fish. Reel in confidently, keeping the line taut and the fish under your masterful control. Allow it to run if it wishes. Proceed with the same efficiency until you notice a single mangrove stem sticking out of the water 30 feet away. Using your skill, ensure that the fish suddenly has the chance to move to the other side of the stick, winding the leader or line (either will do) round it. Prepare for the ‘twang’ when the inevitable break occurs.  Your fish is away.
  5. ‘THE MANGROVE SWAMP’ Hook a fish. Play it competently until the moment your boat partner or guide gives you some word of encouragement or (worse) praise. Immediately, permit the fish to make a fast break for the nearest clump of mangroves even if it is over 100 feet away. The consequent entanglement round the myriad stems will be sure to lose you the fish and your fly. NOTE: all third party encouragement will diminish after this form of EC&R. Praise will not be repeated.

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Mark has just made a challenge public on his website in a post called  All aboard for Abaco! “This little packet of flies is destined for the Bahamas… What stories will they conjure up in time? Rolling Harbour, Abaco… All will be revealed in time! Thanks in advance to RH – I will keep everyone posted in due course! Looking forward to some beautiful pictures of Bonefish…” The flies in question are shown below. It is expected that they will prove to be effective. The expectation is Mark’s. My own feeling is more one of hope. I hope he knows what he is doing. I hope I know what I am doing.*

Rolling Harbour, Abaco... All will be revealed in time!

*The plan is to ask my boat-partner and guide – anyone with access to a rod, really – to “have a go with one of these little guys”. They are far less likely to be as skilled as I am at Early C&R, and are therefore far more likely to boat a fish. Job done…

Photos: RH, 1st two; the rest by Mark

NEST PROTECTION: WILSON’S PLOVERS ON ABACO (2)


Wilson's Plover, Abaco 12

NEST PROTECTION: WILSON’S PLOVERS ON ABACO (2)

This is the second of three vaguely planned posts about these delightful shore birds. They aren’t rare but they are approachable and fun to watch. During the nesting and hatching season, there may even be some gorgeous chicks on a beach near you (a phrase I never thought I’d find myself using). PART ONE identified the typical male and female adults found on the Delphi beach almost any day. 

Nettie's Point, Abaco - Trucks & Skiffs

This post is about nest protection. Not the ingenious methods of  the birds themselves, that will come next time. This is a story of protection by humans. The photograph above shows Nettie’s Point, one of the launching points for bonefishing skiffs being taken out to the Marls, a vast area of sea, low sand banks and mangroves where the fish are found. You hope. The skiffs gain access to open sea via an artificial channel carved out of rock. The early morning trip along it is one of the most exciting part of a fisherman’s day, as he or she sets out with a clean score sheet, a rod and a box of flies. And a cooler box with some food and maybe a Kalik beer or three.

Nettie's Point, Abaco - the cut to the sea

This June, a pair of plovers decided to locate their nesting ‘scrape’ right in the middle of the cleared area where the trucks normally turn. This was by no means a wise home-planning decision, and they might well have found themselves being promptly relocated. Or (worst case scenario) ending up under a large Toyota. But not a bit of it. Instead, these small birds were looked after by the guides like this: Nettie's Point, Abaco - Plover's nest protection

A makeshift castle was built all round the nest to protect it from any inadvertent truck-related tragedies. Meanwhile the male plover stood guard outside the castle, amiably watching the human activities. Nettie's Point, Abaco - Male Wilson's Plover guards nest

I kept my distance but in fact he was quite unperturbed, perhaps sensing that we were not a threat. He still kept a beady eye on the proceedings, though.Nettie's Point, Abaco - male Wilson's Plover guards a nest

Meanwhile, what of the wooden enclosure itself? At first glance, there didn’t look much to report. However, if you look in the centre of the picture, you’ll see the female peeping out from the nest.Nettie's Point, Abaco - Nest protection 2

I very slowly moved nearer, prepared to stop if the male became agitated, or if the female shifted her position. Both seemed quite relaxed, so I took a couple of shots and walked away to leave the birds in peace. Then I went fishing.Nettie's Point, Abaco - Female Wilson's Plover on NestNettie's Point, Abaco - Mrs Wilson's Plover on the nest

As a postscript, Nettie’s Point is the location of a remarkable geographical phenomenon, possibly the result of the cutting of the channel. Along one part of the cut, for about 30 feet, the water level sinks alarming in the middle, while remaining normal at each side. Then it levels out again. This remarkable mid-stream aquatic depression is quite disconcerting to motor through on a skiff, though eventually one gets used to it. Nettie's Point, Abaco - channel water phenomenon(Note: not every fact in this post is 100% true. If you have some salt handy, take a pinch)

IT’S ALL WHITE – IT’S A REDDISH EGRET ON ABACO


Reddish Egret (White Morph) Abaco 5

IT’S ALL WHITE – IT’S A REDDISH EGRET ON ABACO

Contrary to appearances from the header image and the one below, Reddish Egrets (Egretta rufescens) do not yet use cellphones to communicate. Nevertheless, the trick of having a good ear-scratch while standing in water on one leg is a good posey accomplishment.Reddish Egret (White Morph) Abaco 4

All these photos were taken while we were bonefishing from a skiff far out on the Marls in the mangroves. Ishi poled us closer so that boat-partner Tom – a real photographer – could get some shots. Meanwhile, I did my best with my little camera that I take out on the boat – the one that won’t matter too much when it slips from my hand or pocket into the drink. These things happen: I lost a good pair of Costas that a gust of wind unkindly whisked away when I took them off to change a fly.Reddish Egret (White Morph) Abaco 3Reddish Egret (White Morph) Abaco 2

This egret comes in two very different ‘colourways’. The classic version has a slatey-blue body and a reddish head and plumes. The white morph is pure white. The only similarities between the two are the two-tone bills with the black tip; and the blue-grey legs and feet.

True Reddish Egret, as you might expect it to lookReddish_Egret Wiki

The white morphReddish Egret (White Morph) Abaco 9

I’m not certain of the proportions of each type on Abaco, but I have certainly seen twice as many white ones as true reddish ones. There seem to be quite a few around – there are plenty of fish for them and dozens of square miles of human-free space in which to stalk them. However as with many (most?) of the bird species, there is a declining population for all the usual man-related reasons, and these fine birds have now had to be put on the IUCN ‘near-threatened’ list.220px-Status_iucn3.1_NT.svg

The bird kept an eye on us as we drifted closer, but was unperturbed. It continued to poke around in the mud, and occasionally it moved delicately but quite quickly to a different patch.Reddish Egret (White Morph) Abaco 8 Reddish Egret (White Morph) Abaco 7 Reddish Egret (White Morph) Abaco 6

We watched the bird for about 10 minutes. Then we returned to what we were really there for – Tom to catch bones with practised skill, and me to wave the rod incompetently around until some passing fish took pity on me and grabbed my fly, knowing it would soon be released once all the fuss was over…Reddish Egret (White Morph) Abaco 1

WILLET OR WON’T IT… GET CLOSE TO YOU?


WILLET OR WON’T IT… GET CLOSE TO YOU?

Willets (Tringa semipalmata) are large sandpipers, familiar as shore birds, foragers on sand bars and mudflats, or out in the mangrove swamps. Some might describe them as quite solid and plain to look at. Until they take flight, when their gorgeous wing patterns are revealed.

willet ©Greg Page @ Cornell Lab

Willets are ground-nesting birds, often breeding in colonies. They use their stout bills to forage on mudflats or in shallow water for insects, crustaceans, marine worms and occasionally plant-life. They tend to keep their distance, and in the past I have only managed this sort of unimpressive snapshot, not least because I normally only take a small basic camera out on the water in case it – or I – should fall in.Willet, Abaco Marls 1

However, we recently fished from the prow of a skiff parked on a sandy spit on the Abaco Marls, as bonefish came past on the tide. It was a productive hour for my boat-partner, though frankly less so for his boat-partner… As we fished, and to our surprise, a willet landed of the point of the spit to feed, and gradually worked its way towards us seemingly unconcerned by the skiff, by us or by the fish action. It started off about 30 feet away, and at close quarters it was far less drab and notably more elegant than expected.Willet, Abaco Marls 4

It foraged slowly towards us, keeping a beady inky-black eye on usWillet, Abaco Marls 2

At one time it came within a very few feet of us, then decided it had come close enough. We watched it stepping delicately away on its semi-palmated feet. The shot isn’t clear enough to show the slight webbing between the toes. However, you can clearly see the barred tail.Willet, Abaco Marls 5

In the c19 and early c20 there was a sharp population decline of these fine birds due to hunting. I’m not sure if it was for feathers, food or fun. All three, probably. Their population has recovered and their IUCN status is currently ‘Least Concern’, but like so many similar species they remain at risk, especially through continued habitat loss.

The Willet call and song are very distinctive, and are reproduced here via the great bird-noise resource Xeno-Canto

CALL

SONG

Willet, Abaco Marls 6All images RH except header (Wikimedia) & in-flight image (Greg Page @ Cornell Lab for Ornithology)

(PS if you think the traditional RH puntastic title is laboured, be grateful I didn’t proceed with the initial idea of working ‘Bruce Willets’ into this post. It didn’t work, on any level…)

BABY BONEFISH, CASUARINA, ABACO HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT…


Casuarina Bay (to south)

BABY BONEFISH, CASUARINA, ABACO: HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT…

Bonefish are difficult to see in the water at the best of times. Shining silver out of water, but pale grey shadows underwater. Fishing under cloud cover and / or (especially ‘and’) when there’s a ripple on the water can be atritional. Sight-casting becomes impossible, and the best recourse is to locate the cloudy patches of water that show where the fish are feeding on the bottom. Chucking the fly into – or beyond – one of these and stripping back may be the only way to get a fish in such adverse conditions. What’s needed is clear sky, sunlight, good polaroids, patience, and keen eyes to scan the water for dark shadows moving across the sand… Or, in my case, simply waiting for the guide to hiss “Hey! Rolling Harbour. Three fish, 40 feet, 10 o’clock moving right, see them? Go now!”. By then, there’s a 50 / 50 chance I may have located them and got my act together enough to (try to) cast at them…

This picture of an adult fish, just caught on the Marls and released at once, shows how a bonefish can easily blend in with its underwater surroundings… but it can’t hide the dark shadow it casts.Adult Bonefish, The Marls, Abaco Bahamas

Two days later we went to Casuarina with friends who wanted a day’s wading on the extensive flats there. This photo shows a juvenile fish close to the beach there, on a glorious sunny day with a light breeze (the header picture [double-click] was taken the same day - low water over pale sand as far as the eye can see). I’d never have noticed this little fish, had I not seen the dark shadow it cast on the sand, magnified by the distorting effect of the ripples.

Without the distortion from surface ripples, the bonefish shape can be clearly seen. It’s hard to imagine that by the time this little fish has reached a weight of 2 lbs, he will be capable of stripping your line down to the backing in seconds… or could he?

No, not, in fact. This fish, with its deeply forked ‘bonefish’ tail, is in fact a YELLOWFIN MOJARRA also known as shad. As Zach Zuckerman of the CAPE ELEUTHERA INSTITUTE writes in kindly emphasising that the fish above is not a bonefish, “the yellowfin mojarra… is related to the mottled mojarra mentioned in Chris Haak’s text (see below). Yellowfin mojarra and bones share the same habitats, and mojarra also feed off of benthic invertebrates”. Which brings me to some interesting recent findings by the CAPE ELEUTHERA INSTITUTE in conjunction with thBONEFISH & TARPON TRUST. We saw a single small fish. It looked like a bonefish (though I guess the yellow fin markings suggested otherwise). It was in fact a similar-looking species. Where are all the young bones? The babies? How do they protect themselves from the many predators of juvenile fish?

EVER WONDER WHY YOU DON’T SEE SCHOOLS OF TINY BONEFISH ON THE FLATS?

Article ref: blog.ceibahamas.org

“Since May 2011, Christopher Haak, a PhD student (and avid fisherman) at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, along with other scientists, has been trying to solve the mystery of where juvenile bonefish live, from settlement through the time they join adult populations on the flats.  Exhaustive efforts to locate juveniles along the densely-developed coastlines of Florida were met with little success, leading researchers to the comparatively pristine shorelines of The Bahamas to continue their search.

For the past one-and-a-half years, they have scoured the coastlines of South Eleuthera, conducting 1000+ seine hauls, encompassing a broad range of coastal habitats. This project is funded by Bonefish & Tarpon Trust and based out of CEI.   These efforts (with the help of South-Eleutherans; thanks Denny and Kelsey Rankin!) have succeeded in locating over 800 juvenile bonefish as small as one inch in length, and have revealed some intriguing trends.  For example, contrary to what might be expected, juvenile bonefish do not appear to frequent the mangrove creek systems or expansive tidal flats commonly used by adults, preferring instead to remain along shallow, sheltered shorelines near deeper basins or channels.”

Can you find the juvenile bonefish among the mojarra in the picture below?

“Perhaps the most remarkable finding to date is that nearly every bonefish collected was in the company of much greater numbers of like-sized mojarras (a common schooling baitfish known to Bahamians as shad).  These juvenile bonefish exhibited markings and coloration not apparent in adult bonefish, but very similar to the mojarras with which they were caught.  By blending in with considerably greater numbers of the model species, the mimics may be reducing their predation risk, and increasing their chances of survival.  In the case of bonefish, this hypothesis would also explain why juveniles are so rarely observed; they are well hidden within schools of mojarras!  From a conservation perspective, this suggests that bonefish populations may be dependent upon healthy mojarra populations, important information for resource managers.

This research is also producing valuable information about the diverse juvenile fish communities that inhabit Eleuthera’s shores.  Myriad seine hauls of the island’s beaches, bays, sounds, and creeks have catalogued juvenile fishes from a wide array of species, including other flats inhabitants like permit, reef fish such as parrotfish, jacks, and wrasses, and some very unusual demersal critters such as shortnose batfish.  The high densities and diversity of juvenile fishes revealed by this study serves to highlight the importance of these nearshore habitats to healthy adult fish populations of all kinds, underscoring the need to preserve and care for our coastlines.”

ADDENDUM With thanks to Aaron Adams of the BONEFISH & TARPON TROUT for use permission, here is a great size indicator for baby bonefish, taken by him some years back in connection with a juvenile bonefish project.juvbonefish

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NETTICA (‘NETTIE’) SYMONETTE’S ABACO BONEFISHING LEGACY


NETTICA (‘NETTIE’) SYMONETTE’S ABACO BONEFISHING LEGACY

As a companion-piece to the previous post about Abaco bonefishing, I’ve made a short movie of the final stage of the skiff trip after a day out on the Marls back to Nettie’s Point and the skiff launching / landing ground there. It’s always a interesting ride, and I took the footage just for the fun of it. At very high tide, the channel can (must?) be taken at speed, and end with an 007 flourish. When the tide is low, however, it can be slow progress with the propeller precariously close to the rock for much of the channel’s length… Small crabs scuttle for cover in limestone holes as you pass, and you can see clearly what a huge amount of rock had to be cleared out.

Approaching the mouth of the channel at high tide, with rock spoil on both sides

Then I got to thinking about the originator of this canal cut through rock from the firm ground of the pine forest through to the open sea. ‘Nettie’s’ is named after Nettica Symonette, Eleutheran-born owner of ‘Different of Abaco’, the now defunct bonefishing lodge on the road off the main highway to Casuarina. She was clearly a striking figure – tall, strong-minded, and a passionate promoter of out-island tourism. She must have had plenty of insight into the importance of the natural resources that might make Abaco attractive to visitors, for she was not just a bonefishing pioneer, but also a wildlife enthusiast.

Flamingos and chicks on Inagua, 2012 (photo credit: Melissa Maura)

Nettie attempted to reintroduce flamingos to Abaco as breeding birds (there had been none breeding on Abaco for some 50 years). That involved the relocation of a number of juvenile birds from the National Park on Inagua (see FLAMINGO POST). They were flown to Abaco and resettled in the Casuarina area with their wings clipped. This was 15 – 20 years ago, and I don’t know if there was any successful breeding. I believe further birds were brought over, but for some reason the hoped-for breeding colony did not become established. It’s possible that there were problems with predation, as with the Abaco parrots.

Unhitching a skiff into the boat basin at high tide

Nettie’s lasting legacy is the construction of the canal cut through to the mangrove swamps and the ocean, and the ‘boat basin’ that allows safe launch and return for skiffs. This made possible what must have been very difficult given the geology of the terrain – easy boat access to the prolific fishing grounds over the vast area of mangroves and the labyrinthine water channels that is the Marls. It’s worth the comment that the whole project is entirely natural – it involves no man-made materials of any description. Contrast this with what might have been: concrete, iron, steel, wood – maybe a bit of plastic trim to round it off…

The first skiff sets off for the day…

I don’t know (perhaps someone can help via the comment box or email me) when and how this was done or how long it took, But when you watch the video as it follows the channel’s full length, you will see the rock spoil and appreciate the feat – and the vision – involved. And in places you can also see the shelving rock below the waterline that makes steering a steady central course advisable…

Aha! More arcane music from the Rolling Harbour archive, I hear you say. The music is Preston Reed’s ‘Along the Perimeter’ from ‘Handwritten Notes’ – an astonishing guitarist with a two-handed playing technique that also involves hitting and slapping various areas of the guitar (saves the cost of a drummer). He uses experimental open tunings that are found in no ‘How to play guitar nicely’ manuals. And if you like this, try Erik Mongrain who is simply astounding. Almost a trick guitarist. But I digress…