SaltyShores Close-Up: Green Turtle Cay, Abaco, Bahamas
Jan S. Maizler
Seasoned bonefish anglers know all too well that certain flats seem to hold large bonefish while other nearby shallows simply do not. This is also true within a local string of island habitats, such as Islamorada’s likelihood of big gray ghosts compared to Marathon’s smaller fish, not far to the south. The same phenomenon is also found in the Bahamas, an island nation that features not only huge numbers of bonefish but certain locales that produce some trophy specimens.
I’ve traveled and flats fished most of the Bahamas and have found Green Turtle Cay to have very large numbers of bonefish that range from four to twelve pounds…and even higher. Happily for anglers, Green Turtle produces the kind of large-sized bones more associated with Florida-but without the Sunshine State’s angling pressure. For those unfamiliar with this gem of a Bahamian island, Green Turtle lies well offshore of northeastern Great Abaco Island. Green Turtle is only reachable by boat, since this island has neither any causeway (like Miami’s Key Biscayne) nor a landing strip for planes. The good news is that there is regular ferry service from the “mainland”, not far from the Treasure Cay airport.
One factor that predicts many big bonefish is the proximity to very deep and “large” water. Towards this end, a sizeable contingent of Abaconian flats fishing guides readily acknowledge the shallow water-small bone and deep water-big bone theory. This is perfectly exemplified by the ultra shallow Marls on the island’s west side, which serves as a vast nursery area to hordes of small bones. However, the barrier islands on Abaco’s ocean side offer the deep beach drop-offs into the Atlantic where the bones get huge. Captain Danny Sawyer of Marsh Harbor actually refers to these large gray ghosts as “ocean bonefish.”
Taking Aim at Green Turtle-
In planning for the trip, I was sure to book my fishing days on a quarter moon, a time when the tides would not be extreme as well as avoiding the potential nighttime feeding “problem” during the full moon. I chose the month of April to fish Green Turtle, since mid-spring generally provided features of warming shallows in the Bahamas amidst a weather scenario of diminished cold fronts. Though the spring could be windy, it has always been my experience that breezy, gusty days would offer less spooky giants than would the flat days of summer. In fact, it would turn out that the winds blew out at 15-20 M.P.H. generally out of the northeast during my five days of fishing.
I chose Captain Rick Sawyer for the big bone expedition. “Ricky” is a legend on Green Turtle and a native guide residing right on the cay. I fished with him before and quickly found that I liked the man-and his vessel. In contrast to the “super- shoal” skiffs needed for the skinny water Marls, fishing the ocean side flats and Atlantic expanses required a sturdier, larger flats boat- and Rick’s 17-foot Maverick fitted the bill perfectly.
The rule for Bahamian flats fishing is that anglers bring their own tackle. My choice for these brutes was nothing short of ruthless- 9-foot long Daiwa steelhead spinning rods matched with large line capacity Cabela’s Salt Striker spinning reels. My standard practice when traveling for a species like bonefish- especially the wise old giants- is to be sure to bring the offerings that would ensure releases and pictures, not “shots.” This meant backing up my 1/8 ounce BackBone lures with some fresh-frozen shrimp from Miami. My fly tackle would be reserved for another trip to the Marls, a place where parachuting a fly gently amongst small tailing bones was an appropriately pleasing necessity. But this was a story trip for the Old School, Big Guns, No Crap approach since some of these fish routinely run 150 yards and longer- even with 8-pound line!
I also reserved a room at the New Plymouth Inn since I wanted to be in the middle of the island’s historic “downtown” district. The Inn is named after Green Turtle’s main city, and this whole area is more like a British Loyalist village than an island settlement. Interestingly, the Inn lies only a block from the ferry and charter boat pickup dock and is also is within walking distance of one of Green Turtle’s biggest flats.
After I arrived on-island, Rick came over to the Inn to say hello as well as to take my bait for daily storage and use from his house and skiff. We decided that 7 a.m. would be our regular meeting time at the dock. Rick said that since this time of year could have daily wind direction and velocity changes, our first order of business would be to determine which big bonefish flats would fit the conditions. I was especially excited when he also mentioned that the “Downtown” flat near the Inn recently had some big schools of “surface-swimming” bonefish on it. Florida flats anglers are far less familiar with any surface signs of bonefish besides tailing and waking. In the Bahamas, it’s another story. Whether the locals call it “heading”, “dancing”, or “bibbling”, it’s not uncommon for bonefish to swim along the surface while breaking the water. While some theorize that the fish are spawning, others feel the fish are simply traveling. In either case, it’s simply academic when your knees are knocking like castanets when you make a presentation to over a hundred large bonefish breaking the water.
Ready, Steady, Go! –
Day number #1 featured brisk north-northeasterly winds, which put the “Downtown” flat right in the lee of the cay and our first stop of the day. It took Rick and I all of five minutes to reach the edge of the flat. Parenthetically, short runs are typical of this bonefish paradise- the longest runs to the mainland flats are thirty minutes at most.
Within minutes of poling westward, a déjà vu moment opened as Rick said, “ eleven o’ clock…one hundred yards…bonefish on top.” Even in the low light and vigorous breeze, it was easy to see the surface commotion of surging shapes and swimming tails overlaying a green aggregate mass. Rick let the incoming tide and quartering breeze move us along while he kept the skiff’s track spot-on with gentle pushpoling.
Rumble time came very soon as I cast my jig close to the edge of the pulsating school. Within seconds of my retrieve, my line tightened and I jab struck the fish two or three times. The drag on my reel let out a long though precise watchmaker’s howl as my fish dumped well over a hundred yards of line on its’ first run. Rick chuckled as we both knew this was a large fish. After three more runs, ten minutes, and a billion heartbeats, I had a beautiful bonefish of at least eight pounds alongside the boat. After hefting the fish for photos, Rick felt the fish was closer to nine pounds. In the next hour we were able to take three more fish from that big school by judiciously poling around after the fish. We both felt that the leeside breeze helped riffle the surface and made the fish less spooky.
As the flood tide reached its’ zenith, Rick suggested we try a big flat that was formed in a protected cove a few miles to the north of us. Rick fired up his Yamaha Four-Stroke and off we went. As we headed north, his skiff cut through the wind-churned waves like they were Jell-O. Big waters and big fish need big boats!
Rick made a sharp right turn, eased off on the throttle, and came off plane. After cutting his engine, he poled around a point into a C-shaped flat that was rimmed with a huge sandy beach dotted with some large ‘luxe homes. After poling about two hundred yards, Rick spotted a large ocean tally tailing over white sand off the point of our bow. I think he was surprised when I cast at the fish at all…but I certainly did! In Florida, that kind of fish is a rarity on the flats.
My cast landed about five feet in front of the fish. As the shrimp settled into the water column, the fish swam over and tipped on my presentation. As my line tightened, I pointed my rod at the fish to give it a bit more line. When the line got taut with the weight of the fish, I struck it with my characteristic two or three times. The ensuing fight was worthy of any bonefisherman’s attentions and was satisfying. When I got the fish alongside, we both hefted the fish with a unanimous pronouncement of twelve pounds. After we released that platter-shaped battler, we spent the next few hours releasing another three bonefish ranging from seven to ten pounds.
The pattern over the next four days would have us switching flats based on wind direction and tidal stage. We fished a huge cove on the mainland, multiple cays north of Green Turtle, and many flats on the cay proper. Yet all our s big bonefish spots had one thing in common- close access to large expanses of very deep oceanic water.
One of the highlights of the trip was during the last moments of my charter when I cast to a pair of huge fish easily looking fifteen pounds close to the Green Turtle shoreline. Though I made a good cast, one of those wise old piggies gently picked up my small shrimp and blew it out during a cruel and short window of just a few seconds. I thought the fish smiled at us as it eased off the flat amongst a light forest of mangrove roots. Yet the consolation that we’d managed to release twenty-five fish with a top size of twelve pounds eased the frustration of those last moments.
How to Get Here-
Numerous direct flights are available from Miami and Fort Lauderdale on Gulfstream/Continental and other airlines to Treasure Cay and Marsh Harbor (about 20 miles south). The ferry to Green Turtle Cay runs every hour from the Treasure Cay dock, mere minutes from the airport.
Abaco Flyfish Connection- Captain Rick Sawyer
Web Site- www.abacoflyfish.com