Realms of perception

Oh, you can believe it
bonefish release
Photo: Chad Shmukler

Like most of us, I'd always thought that wine writing was 99% bullshit. You know, crapola like "a supple but substantial vintage, insouciant but not brazenly so, its soft undertones of plum and black cherry in lilting contrapuntal harmony to hints of oak, vanilla, and cardamon …"

Then I met my first serious oenophile, a man who'd visited all the great chateaux and whose cellar—the value of which was well into six figures—reflected his Gallic bias. I was his dinner guest on a couple of occasions, and after sharing a few dusty bottles that were damn near as old as I was but which had aged considerably better (and were undoubtedly worth more), I became convinced that he really could taste those things.

I mean, why not? After all, there are people who routinely perform feats in various fields of play—music, athletics, language, the bedroom—that, even in our wildest Walter Mitty fantasies, we can't imagine duplicating. They are simply beyond our capabilities, and no amount of training, visualization, and/or Zen meditation—The arrow and I are one—can change that.

It's the same, I've decided, with bonefish guides. Say all you want about the benefit of experience and the advantage of standing atop an elevated poling platform; the bottom line is that they simply operate in a different realm of perception than you and I do.

"OK," said Mark Bastian, my guide on Andros' fabled Middle Bight. "I want you to look carefully now. There's a fish at one o'clock, about sixty feet."

I looked carefully, and when that didn't work I squinted, and when that didn't work I peered. But no matter what I did, I couldn't arrange that pulsing mirrored swirl into anything resembling a bonefish. It was like trying to reassemble the yolk in a scrambled egg.

"Fifty feet!" Mark hissed. "Make your cast!"

Mark isn't a big talker, but in the time I'd spent in his skiff he'd related several tales of bonefishing woe—generally some variation on theme of clients (unnamed, of course) who'd screwed up golden opportunities. These tales invariably ended with Mark saying "I thought my head was going to explode." Not wanting to join Mark's list of case studies, I bore down and shot the Gotcha towards what I hoped was the right spot.

"Good," Mark coached. "Let it sink … now strip. Strip long …"

I never had the chance. Halfway into the first strip, the fly stopped dead—and a microsecond later the line that had been coiled placidly at my feet seemed to have fallen under the command of a snakecharmer on acid. It was in the air, writhing, whipping, contorting, looping back on itself, doing all the impossible things a flyline does when a bonefish is attached to the end of it. There may not be a more electrifying moment in all of angling than the breakneck surge of a bone leaving the starting blocks on its initial run.

And if there is, I'm not sure I want to find out about it unless I'm within staggering distance of a defibrillator.

Throw in the terror created by all that loose line you need to clear—feeding it cleanly through the guides is a task roughly equivalent to putting toothpaste back into the tube—and you begin to understand why bonefishing enjoys an avid following among rock climbers, back-country snowboarders, and other devotees of "extreme" sports. For the typical endorphin-craving adrenalin junkie, it's just what the doctor ordered.

For my somewhat less adventurous money, though, the best part is when you've survived this danger zone and gotten the bonefish safely on the reel, a sensation that reminds me of a jet that's attained cruising altitude. You feel the pilot throttle back, the engines' roar subsides to a steady hum, and the flight attendant announces that the captain has turned off the seat belt sign and you are free to move about the cabin. Now you can relax and enjoy the ride—sort of.

Which is to say, there's still some work to be done. The line sizzling through the water as if it were a red-hot wire, the bonefish—the one with my fly in its mouth—rocketed across the flat on an easterly course, in the general direction of the mouth of the bight. Feeling its power—and watching the backing melt alarmingly from the spool—it occurred to me that perhaps the bone was making for the barrier reef, visible offshore as a line of white combers, or even the miles-deep, indigo-blue trench, known as the Tongue of the Ocean, that yawns beyond the reef's lip.

But at last the drag took its toll, and the bone's momentum slowed and stalled. Several lesser bursts ensued, along with a couple of bouts of mad cranking to maintain tension when the fish changed direction, causing the line, like a figure from a geometry textbook, to describe a perfect parabola over the flat's sun-hammered dazzle. And then, finally, I was flushed with the elation, that almost heroic sense of achievement, that comes when the prize is brought to hand.

There is nothing else in nature like the bonefish. It seems a vessel of pure energy, a bolt of lightning sheathed in holographic armor.

"Six pounds," Mark pronounced. "Maybe six-and-a-half."

A good fish to be sure, although far from exceptional by the standards of Andros Island. All things considered, though, I was pretty happy.

Did I mention it was my first cast of the day?

Later that afternoon, sipping an ice-cold Kalik outside my villa, I reflected contentedly and even a little disbelievingly on recent events. I'd spotted, cast to, and hooked the best fish of the day, a solid seven-pounder, without Mark's help. How was such a thing possible?

I was turning this imponderable over in my mind when a member of the housekeeping staff strolled by. She was one of those great-breasted Bahamian women who exudes motherly warmth, the kind who has a smile for everybody and in whose presence you can imagine no illness that could not be cured, no demon that could not be exorcised, if she would only clasp you to her bosom and hold you tight.

We exchanged greetings, and she asked "Did you have a good day fishing?"

"I had a wonderful day," I said. "Maybe the best ever. I'm not sure I believe it happened."

"Oh, you can believe it," she laughed. "The bonefishes, they don't lie to you, mon."