Bonefishing is a Thing of the Spirit

On The Fly Saltwater

By O.Vic Miller

Photos by Jimmy Jacobs

August 2020

(This excerpt from a longer story serves as a cautionary tale of a freshwater angler finding himself ill prepared for the fish he meets on a gratis hunt for Mexican bonefish.)

For protection against stingrays, Augustino tells me to wear my chews and drag my feet, but my heavy docksiders are wearing me down and causing angina from the new stint in my broken heart. I pause long enough to fire a squirt of nitroglycerin under my tongue and get barefoot, figuring a stingray barb less lethal than a coronary. unless I stumble head first from exhaustion and take a hit to the temple. I can see the rays easily in the translucent water of the mangrove flats, so numerous that the shallow slice of submarine seascape seems a Dalian surreal. They lie half buried in silty sand winging away like gray moths the size of dinner plates or burrowing half buried into silty sand. Augustino’s stocky form is cross-country skiing through custard. He wags a brown finger as I knot the laces of my soggy shoes and hang them on my neck. I’m soaked to the crotch in tepid water, from crotch to cowlick in sweat.  

 “You aren’t wearing any,” I observe.

 “I hab do thees before,” he snorts, somewhat arrogantly for a guide it seems to me. This is my first time out for macabi, bonefish. Augustino resumes his stalking, high-step gait. An expert bonefish guide, he’s under no particular obligation to fawn since nobody’s paying him. Other fishermen come from all over the world and fork out a couple of grand and show some enthusiasm shuffling around in the tepid mangrove flats to catch and release a fish you can’t eat anyway.

*    *         *          *          *

 “Eet too hot,” Augustino says of the water. “Vamanos a los manglares. Over there I show to you some caiman.”                                             

Caiman is a polite word for crocodiles in these parts. I’ve encountered them before and can personally testify they amount to more than a souped up alligator with an attitude. The first one I messed with down in Panama broke my thumb after I’d emptied a .44 mag into him. I didn’t want to mess with a croc with a 6-weight freshwater Orvis.

*          *          *          *          *

Unshod, I follow my guide’s smoky wake so close I bump him every time he pauses to scan the glare for tailing bonefish.  Soon we are back in the boat. 

Busque las plumas, he advises.

“Feathers? Bonefish have feathers?”

There’s the plumed serpent of Maya and Aztec legend. Maybe there’s a plumed fish in the mythology too, but I’d seen photos of bonefish in fancy magazines like Gray’s Sporting Journal. Some dude in a ventilated pastel shirt and khaki shorts leaning over one in water clear as vodka, grinning like he’d just sired the damn thing. Bonefish, look a lot like bugle-mouth bass to me, the colloquial nomenclature for redhorse suckers.

“The tail, they raise the tail so you will know they are hungry!” He glances into the perfect Yucatan sky, appealing to a virgin – Maria, or Guadalupe or Llorona. Mexicans have more virgins that we do. There’s an icon of Guadalupe on the front of his ball cap.

 The fish are standing on their heads, maybe a couple dozen of them in deeper, cooler water, waist deep on me, more critical for Augustino, a reason to add to tepid water, stingrays and crocodiles for fishing from skiff. I wasn’t casting worth beans with the hot wind to my back with the six. I own a saltwater eight, but my guide rejected it on account of a fly line crazed like Chinese porcelain and stiff as a roll of bailing wire.

 “Tiralo, tiralo!” he whispers pointing the clump of tailing bonefish. I squint into the tropical glare, but the humidity from the wet shoes around my neck had fogged my glasses. The only thing moving looks like eelgrass waving in the current.

“Do what?”

“Throw heet!” he hisses with a corroded hush. Like my dearly departed friend Russ Grace was fond of saying, “a whisper is better than a shout.”

Under no cliental obligation to wait for me, he makes a couple of false casts 90 degrees from his target, then fires his sand flea with perfect accuracy into the outer circumference of tailing macabi. Augustino’s form isn’t textbook. He looks like a bullfrog killing a coachwhip with a tobacco pole. But, man, is he accurate. His fly lights perfectly at the circumference of eel grass. He strips it in without a bump, rasping enthusiastic curses in Spanish and Maya under his breath.

Tiralo, tiralo!” he repeats. I’m gawking from the bow, my fly line looped around my ankles, but somehow, I manage to get a loop airborne. The wind catches it and the fly – something that looks like something I’d tie on for shellcrackers – makes a couple of bolo flips, splatting in wide and short of the tailing school. Augustino appeals again to an airborne Virgin, maybe all of them, as I strip in line to try again. I feel a bump, maybe I’ve dragged the fly across a blade of grass on the sandy bottom, but no, Augustino is watching my line.

Pica,” he whispers. “It pecks.” Yards from the school a truant playing hooky has picked up my fly.

 “I’ve got one,” I announce prosaically, looking over at my guide. Augustine has told me to keep my rod pointing down, aimed in the direction of the retrieve and setting the hook with a firm snatch on the line. Accustomed to crappies, I raise the rod gently set the hook and pull him in like I would a crappie or a wet sock. When the macabi feels something funny in its mouth, it takes off like a velocity bullet, the slack line in my hand lashing wildly, burning my fingers, snapping against the cork handle and whipping out drag. EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE goes the little Battenkill, REEEEEEEEEEEEEE. I try to slow the reel with my hand, but the blurred handle is spinning like a high-speed cement saw.  It strikes my index finger with a force which I fear has amputated it spattering blood made thin by anticoagulants. 

 “Dejalo! Dejalo!” screams Augustino. “Geave heem eet!”  The run goes almost instantly into the backing. I’m holding the six in one hand, the mauled finger of the other clamped between wet knees – ow, ouch, oowee!

The run stops somewhere out yonder on the horizon. I examine the blackened nail of my index finger and poke the stricken digit, salty with seawater and blood, into my mouth. It throbs like it’s been hit with a power stroke from a claw hammer. I pull it out, fan the air with it and put it back in.

A barracuda must’ve hit the bonefish after I hooked it, I tell Augustino, “that barracuda must’ve been eight feet long.”

“Reel heem!” orders my guide.

“Oh, he’s gone,” I assure him. “He cut the line and kept on going. That fish is in Belize by now.”

“Reel heem!” repeats Augustino in a voice that makes you go ahead on and do what he says. Augustino has stopped whispering. I start winding with my thumb and little finger. 

Sure enough, it feels like something is still on the end of my line out yonder. The ‘cuda must’ve snipped off the bonefish at the gills and left the head on the hook. The line goes slack again. Though I’m still on the backing, the floating fly line canes around and heads my way as if some jagged ort of the barracuda’s leftover lunch means to attack the skiff. I reel as fast as I can with two fingers, like a dowager holding a teacup. Then turn the whole outfit upside down, swap hands and reel backwards, getting in most of the backing before the fish Augustino insists is a macabi makes his second run, this one more violent than the first.

Unlike a second wind, it seems like the first run simply woke the fish up and energized him to full potential. I press down on the bottom of the reel to brake it, singeing skin off the palm of my uninjured hand. Augustino stands drop-jawed in the back of the skiff, chin touching the crucifix around his neck. He’s leaning toward me with rounded shoulders, holding his 9-weight like a suitcase, while I’m screaming like a Georgia Bulldog football fan. The third run melts the drag clean out of the smoking Battenkill, silencing the inverted reel and spinning hoops of line into a bird nest the size of a basketball.

I’ve never played a fish on the reel before, and I’m not convinced a fish not much longer than my foot can do all this hell raising. Even a lunker bigmouth bass sow seldom runs to the backing. They sound or head for a deadfall, but they don’t run, not like this synapse attached to the end of my six.

By the time the macabi has tired itself to manageable. The sun has set over the bahia and the sky is darkened by a purple black land cloud larded with lightning and fringed in red hovering over the jungle. The silver-plated macabi, trailing a faint wake of phosphorescence, no longer bears even the faintest resemblance to a redhorse sucker. I lead it to the gunnels for Augustine to unhook gently, revive and release.

My newly stinted heart thumps painless inside the cage of my ribs, the spray canister of rosy nitroglycerine having rolled off unnoticed into some cranny of bilge water under the poling platform. The heat of my excitement has warmed my guide’s coldness, and he can tell I’m upset.

The macabi has swallowed the fly, and I’m ashamed for harming a creature whose manifest wildness and will has expelled depression with unexpected excitement. Sport that destroys needlessly is despicable.

Keeping the bonefish in the water, Augustino leans over the gunwales, probing the fish’s throat with his forefinger to dislodge the fly. A brief puff of crimson from the gills, fades into disturbed silt and faint green light. The sadness dispelled by excitement becomes catharsis of sacrifice.

He bends his strong Maya face reverently over the macabi close enough to kiss it goodbye, biting off the line at fish’s mouth. Then the takes its tail, working the fish gently in the water until the bleeding is reduced to a few wispy threads and the macabi begins to recover.

No lo pasa nada,” my new friend assures me. “Esta bien. It will be all right.”.

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