This is happening

Do-it-yourself bonefishing on Long Island in the Bahamas
bonefish flat - long island - bahamas
Photo: Chad Shmukler

No, you can’t actually see the tide drain the blonde sand flat southeast of Clarence Town harbor, but it happens fast. And it happens in toto. As in, when the tide goes out, it goes all the way out, leaving behind something akin to a Walmart parking lot after a thunderstorm.

Seemingly, one minute the warm Caribbean water is there. The next, it’s gone.

There’s a constant trickle, though, that runs down through a little low spot from a modest lagoon tucked up against the mangroves, and the flow persists long enough to endure the low-tide cycle, slowing to a thin little rivulet just as the tide makes the curve and flows back in.

But when the tide’s out, it’s really out.

As Chad, Earl and I stood on dry sand where, less than an hour earlier, we stealthily stalked bonefish near the end of a week on Long Island in the Bahamas, there was a feel of finality. We’d caught a few, missed a few and generally wondered why we hadn’t seen more, caught more.

Chad, a cold Kalik in hand, walked barefoot over the sand to a foot-deep pool of standing sea water that the tide had left behind in a depression on the flat, and looked at Earl and me. Both of us wondered what he was doing.

“This is happening,” he said, as he lowered himself into the water and stretched his legs out.

It took some cajoling for me to comply. Eventually, I caved to peer pressure, snagged a beer from the little cooler we’d purchased earlier that day, and lowered myself into the water next to Earl.

bonefish - long island - bahamas
Releasing a stout Long Island bonefish (photo: Chad Shmukler).

And we waited, convinced we’d be able to enjoy the incoming tide before the sun dipped too far below the bluff above the harbor. That turned out to be a miscalculation, but for the next hour or so, as we polished off whatever the cooler had left to offer, we counseled each other on the myriad reasons the fishing had been slow. Landlocked in a rented car, we agreed that we never hit the tides just right. Plus we were there during a full moon, which obviously meant the fish spent all night feeding on the flats and flipped us the bird when we arrived with the sun in the morning, right? And the wind was never perfect, it was either completely still and stiflingly hot, or it was blowing in off the Atlantic at a solid 20 knots.

We had excuses. Lots of excuses.

Perhaps our brains were tilted on their axes, the old British commonwealth to blame for the subtle tweak. I’m hopelessly American. Driving on the left side of the road is so counterintuitive to me that, over the course of the next five days, both of my companions repeatedly and with steadily decreasing civility reminded me that I was “in the wrong lane.”

“Jesus Christ! You’re off the road! You’re off the road! Why are you accelerating?!” Chad blurted through gritted teeth one morning as the sun blazed through the bug-and-dust-frosted windshield, blinding me to the elbow-bend developing in the road beneath our little SUV’s bald tires. Earl didn’t say much, he just emoted a low, long groan from the back seat, where he’d assumed the duck-and-cover position—the nuclear blast drills we endured in grade school finally paying dividends. The wipers didn’t help. What little spray pumped onto the glass only served to smear grime and insect innards all over the windshield.

long island, bahamas
Photo: Chad Shmukler

“Why are you going so fast?” became the most commonly asked question, followed by the only slightly less popular, “Don’t you see that guy coming at you, head-on, you goddamned idiot?”

I tried to relinquish the keys, but nobody volunteered. We did enjoy a couple of days of sane driving when Nevin “Pinky” Knowles—the proprietor of Long Island Bonefishing Lodge—got behind the wheel and drove us to a handful of the many road-accessible flats that ring Long Island.

We’d arrived six days earlier, two of us Long Island alumni. Our memories of previous visits to the island were colored by days spent walking its interminable flats which, on the best days, delivered triple-digit schools of willing bonefish with satisfying regularity. After 18 months of a contagion-imposed staycation, we were eager to set it all in motion again.

Our home office for the week was the aforementioned Long Island Bonefish Lodge, a modern, flats-front lodge on Long Island’s western coast whose 4 cabanas cater to 6-7 anglers at any given time. The lodge’s speciality—in fact, its only offering—is its “assisted DIY” programs. Anglers, for the most part, are tasked with sighting, stalking, and catching bonefish all on their lonesome, as any DIY anglers would be. What the lodge does a bit differently is provide a bit of assistance, whether by transporting anglers to and from favored flats and imparting a bit of advice, via their traditional skiff-serviced program, or by setting anglers loose on Long Island’s road system with a rental car, a map, and a gameplan, under its new road-serviced program.

We’d arrived to embark upon the latter of the pair. Each morning, we’d depart the lodge after breakfast, traverse the two-lane road that runs the length of the 80 mile Bahamian out-island, shooting off on tiny dirt or broken-pavement tributaries to the flat we’d chosen for the day. Each night, we’d return to the lodge, and devour whatever delicious meal Darlene, Pinky’s sister, had prepared for the evening. After stuffing ourselves, we’d pore over the satellite map of the island that hung in the lodge bar and consult with Pinky about the next day’s strategy.

Throughout the week, we’d gotten into our fair share. We saw fish. We cast to fish. And we all caught fish. It felt good. Really good. We’d even run into a few of those gargantuan schools of bonefish stuck in our mind’s eye from previous Long Island adventures, even if they proved to be tight-lipped. Yet we never had one of those signature Bahamian “lights out” days we were all hoping for. On the whole, it was a week of peaks and valleys. And the deepest valley had just occurred as we soaked our butts in the standing water of the flat near Clarence Town. We’d spent several hours walking and stalking maybe the most idyllic bonefish flat I’ve ever tromped, and we’d come up empty.

max's conch bar and grill - long island
Max, the proprietor of Max's Conch Bar & Grill, regales bar goers with a story while preparing fresh conch salad (photo: Chad Shmukler).

But we took pleasure in the many other things Long Island has to offer. We dove into the conch salad and conch burgers at Max’s Conch Bar and Grill. We took a quick side trip to Dean’s Blue Hole, the deepest in the Western Hemisphere and second deepest on the planet. We reveled in the sight of a dozen or more juvenile sea turtles circling the deep water in a mangrove-sheltered cove. We cast to jacks and barracudas. We spent a day at Gordon’s Settlement, a little village situated on what might be the prettiest stretch of Caribbean beach I’ve ever seen. It was there where we were greeted by a small school of cooperative 2- to 3-pound bonefish, and we caught a few, too. That afternoon, I watched as two giant eagle rays glided right up to the subtle surf line and inspected me as I walked barefoot along the beach. We drank dark rum on ice on the lodge’s spacious patio, and even snuck off to Max’s once for “second dinner” and a little conversation with other bar-goers.

We met and chatted with locals at bodegas, the liquor store, and the gas station. Each morning, as we drove to the day’s flat, we waved at uniformed school children waiting at the bus stops that peppered our route. We eavesdropped as another local proprietor explained to Pinky the intricacies of getting a permit for a power line extension to his beach-side business. As we waited for our COVID-19 tests at a modest health clinic—a requirement for re-entry into the United States—we got a glimpse into day-to-day island life. We weren’t “stuck at the lodge” like most anglers are when they travel to the Bahamas. We got to connect. And we got to see just how important the dollars we spent were to the people of Long Island. We were part of the island, even if just for a week.

Long Island Bonefishing Lodge
The cabins at Long Island Bonefishing Lodge (photo: Earl Harper).

Plus, toward the end of the week, I finally got a feel for the driving.

“You know you’re not on the road, right?” Chad asked nonchalantly as the car’s passenger side mingled with the forest that lines the thin spit of asphalt we rode most of the way to the Clarence Town flat that last day. A split-second later, as if nodding in agreement, the car’s hood-mounted blind-spot mirror caught an outstretched branch and flipped off into the foliage.

Earl had taken to lying down in the back seat, where he’d creatively devised a way to use both seat belts at once.

rental car bahamas
The "little Honda that could" sits at the terminus of the "road" to the Clarence Town Harbor flat (photo: Chad Shmukler).

As we drove back to the airport that last morning to catch the shake-and-bake shuttle to Nassau, I regrettably left the keys to the hearty little SUV above the sun visor. We bonded over the course of the week, the little rental and me. It’s a go-getter, and I assume the next motorist lucky enough to climb behind the wheel will likely have the same sense of appreciation for the “little Honda that could.”

After we climbed into the tight little aircraft at the Dead Man’s Cay airport and took off over the Caribbean en route to Nassau, the entirety of the week on Long Island set in.

Sometimes, good company matters more than good fishing — for frequent travelers, this shouldn’t come as a surprise.

The good news? The fishing was better than the driving.

Or so I’m told.

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