Skunk week

Humility is the best teacher
bonefish flat
Photo: Chad Shmukler

Unfortunately, humility doesn't come in small doses. You can't take a prescribed amount, or get "just enough" of it.

It comes, instead, in waves. It washes over you, permeates you. It seeks out your weaknesses and puts them on display for the world to see. It giggles and sniggers. It points and whispers.

By definition, it humbles.

Several years back, I found myself standing ankle-deep on a rocky sapphire flat off of Long Island in the Bahamas. It was my first try at chasing bonefish — hell, it was my first try and walking and wading saltwater flats. I was the noob — the lifelong trout guy who’d joined this junket late and who arrived at this amazing stretch of the Caribbean so ill-equipped it was laughable.

I wasn’t ill-equipped from an equipment perspective, but from a skills perspective. My double-haul, such as it was, was honed at the local park, not over the salt. My fish eye was largely blind. My wading skills? I was like a toddler trying to coast around Grandma’s living room without banging my head on the corner of the coffee table or shattering the candy dish. Strip set? What’s a strip set?

I fished with a group of experienced flats anglers for a week solid and I didn't catch a bonefish. Not one. Not a single one. And, damn it, I tried. Hard.

I remember, on the miserable flight home, first via Newark and then Salt Lake City, trying to figure out how a guy who'd been fly fishing for the better part of 20 years at the time could wander mangrove flats in the tropics and not, even by sheer chance, hook a single damned bonefish.

I worked through an odd series of emotions while stationed at the Long Island Bonefishing Lodge with the likes of anglers like Tom Bie, Kirk Deeter and Rod Hamilton (he of DIY bonefishing fame). First came frustration. Then anger. Then disbelief. Then, on the last day of the trip, resolve. Finally, when I stepped off the last flat without a single bonefish captured in megapixels on my camera, I dealt with acceptance. It wasn't meant to be.

Sure, there were factors that played into my poor showing. It was my first time bonefishing, and we had some challenging weather that included wind and rain. And more wind. I had also ventured to a lodge where the whole idea is to basically Do It Yourself. I figured, with the group of guys I was fishing with, I'd get the instruction I needed, that I was in good hands.

And, truthfully, I was. I had lots of great advice. One of the lodge's guides even walked and waded the flats with me one day, and I saw fish. I put flies in front of a few of them. I even watched as fish followed my fly nearly to my feet before I spooked them. The only solace I can take away from this latest adventure is that, even for the experts who were fishing with me, fishing was slow. Conditions were never really perfect and, on the day the fishing turned on, it turned on like a light switch. Sadly, it turned off again just as quickly.

I had a lot of close encounters on the last day on Long Island. Two, in particular, still wake me up at night.

The first was infuriating. I spotted a fish, made a pretty decent cast and I had the fish following the fly about 20 feet out. The line pulled tight, I did my best strip-set and snared a 10-inch barracuda that managed to slip in front of the bonefish and steal the crab fly. I watched as the bonefish zipped away, leaving the flat, never to be seen again. To add insult to injury, the 'cuda drew blood on my thumb just before I released it.

The second near-catch breaks my heart to this day, years and years later. Hamilton, a bona fide bonefish whisperer, took me under his wing the last day, and to his credit, he found the fish. He put me in position for a number of good opportunities, and together we watched as fish after fish followed my fly but refused to eat. And, for clarity, I'm quite certain that much of the problem had to do with my limited saltwater cast, a skill I’ve since greatly improved. After watching my loop fall apart in the wind countless times, I was forced to admit that I was simply outclassed by the weather, and, frankly the saltwater discipline in general.

But as the sun slid into the sea on that last day, Rod spotted a pod of bones moving at us about 40 yards out. I managed to keep my cast together long enough to put the fly in front of the nervous water as the fish approached.

Strip. Strip. Line tight. I set the hook and came tight ... against the bottom. I think Rod was as dismayed as I was.

As I stepped off the flats that last day, the sun sizzling into the sea, I gave one final glare to the skinny water that beat me down over the course of the week. I plopped into the bench seat in the bow of the skiff and brooded all the way back to the lodge. I was embarrassed.

That's when the acceptance set in. As I said, it just wasn't meant to be.

And now, years later after many bonefish have come to hand — including dozens from those very flats that tortured me for a week straight — I still have that pang of regret. that embarrassment. That humiliation brought on by the perfect storm of conditions and inexperience. But today, I know that I possess some of those missing skills innately, and that others can be recaptured after a day or two spent wandering the watery wilderness of the mangrove shallows, taking in the stories from the sea and watching — always watching — for the fish that, one time, robbed me of my mojo.

I know that one day, hopefully soon, I’ll get to feel once more the power and the force of a cruising bonefish after it slurps in a home-tied Gotcha. And I’ll remember that horrible week and be thankful.
Humility is the best teacher. I’ve been humbled. I’ve recovered, but I’ll never forget.