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Feature: Cat Island, The Bahamas

Cat Island, The Bahamas

Obeah, Bights, and Bonefish

There’s no doubt that the digital revolution has generated a kind of universal spyscape—an exposed brazenness, the conscious shrugging off of privacy—which can be attributed to the near total embrace of visual technology. After all, nowadays cameras are everywhere, even embedded in our cell phones, and nobody can escape the probing lens. People worldwide have become largely desensitized to cameras thrust in their face. Of course, there are exceptions. And Cat Island in The Bahamas is one of them.

There are more than a few places on Cat where if you get too pushy with that Nikon you could end up getting one last blurred close-up of, you guessed it, a knuckle sandwich. But for the most part on the island, rather than hostility and anger, all the irrepressible shutterbug is apt to experience is widespread shyness—squirming discomfort, if not suspicious sidelong glances. In my view, this is a good thing. Where else can you go on the planet and still find people who resent the intrusion of cameras?

Such cultural reserve provides mute testimony to just how far off the beaten path Cat Island lies. The tourist trade, for example, remains steadfastly anemic, at least by travel agency and chamber of commerce standards. The relative isolation of the island is neither a matter of distance nor of location per se. Situated in the center of the island-chain archipelago comprising The Bahamas, Cat is located less than 200 miles from Nassau and 300 miles from Ft. Lauderdale. Rather than distance, it’s the inherent treachery of the place that accounts for the isolation. Not to suggest ill will among the natives; quite the contrary. Though leery of cameras, they are by and large reservedly friendly. The treachery here is of a purely topographic and geologic nature. The ruggedness of the terrain discourages easy entry. Dense jungle and craggy, unyielding limestone inhibits construction, not only of airport runways, but of roads and houses and businesses and schools and everything in between. Furthermore, the labyrinth of reefs surrounding Cat Island form an intimidating barrier to any large vessels. So basically, the only way in is by small plane or boat. No large commercial jets land here. No cruise ships dock here.

What does all this mean as regards the bonefish scenario on Cat? Allow me to sum it up in five words: Yes, yes, thank you, Jesus.

Cats and Bones

In essence, there are two ways to fish Cat Island: one way is by boot; the other way is by boat. A reasonably experienced, self motivated, saltwater toughened angler can catch a commuter flight to Cat, rent a car and wander forth exploring the myriad creeks, lagoons, bights and ocean-facing flats. That’s not to suggest that the boot-leather approach is easy. It’s not. Figuring it out for oneself is, in fact, a challenging and time-consuming proposition.

On an island measuring 48 miles long by one mile wide at its narrowest point to four miles wide at its broadest, and with a road running its entire length, the problem isn’t finding bonefish habitat, it’s finding too much bonefish habitat. Determining which particular flats may prove worthwhile—sufficient numbers of bonefish showing up on a consistent basis—requires sitting through [actually, wading out and standing through] at least the top end of the tide cycle, from an hour or more before high tide to well over an hour into the falling tide. Ever-nervous creatures that they are, bonefish ride in on the tide, using the rising water to usher them into the shallow, food rich extremities of marl flats and mud-slop lagoons. Bonefish almost never linger: they come in; they feed; they boogie.

While you’re invested in conducting surveillance on one flat or lagoon, every other potential bonefish flat remains unexamined. Not to mention that you can usually expect only one daylight-occurring tidal change per day. Studying up on specific bonefish sites, therefore, amounts to a painstaking, incremental process. On the other hand, of the many and sundry bonefish destinations in the Caribbean, Cat offers one of the most road/foot accessible and varied bone fisheries—coral and eel-grass flats, hard sand flats, mangrove mud flats, and ocean-surf flats—you could ever hope to find on a single island.

Of course, there’s always the guide route. If ever there was one particular fly fishing endeavor that could be said to be joined at the hip with guiding, it’d have to be bonefish angling. Why? Because guiding and boating are inexorably linked. It can hardly be disputed that properly outfitted boats provide the most efficient means to reach the most productive flats, and the waters of Cat Island are no exception. Now that’s where a cat of a different stripe comes into the picture. A catamaran called Destiny II, to be more precise.

No 3-D Glasses Required

The concept is elegantly simple: use a shallow-draft catamaran to ferry anglers into reef- and rock-studded coves, inlets, lees and other hinky marine zones too difficult and/or risky for others to attempt navigating. If this sounds like madness, well, you’re not too far wrong. Coming from anyone other than Dave Calvert such a concept would be downright certifiable.

A little background: Calvert started out beach-bumming along the southern Florida coast, paying for fish tacos and a thatched roof by selling his hand-tooled leather items on the street, at Farmers’ Markets and so forth. Then one day he answered an ad, appearing in- person at a shop equipped with machines for sail making. The shop owner, having just acquired the business, knew next to nothing about constructing sails. So when he asked Dave if he knew how to make a sail, Dave responded, “No, but I know how to sew.” The rest is history. Calvert learned not only how to make sails, but to design and custom-craft some of the most technology advanced sails on the market. Eventually, he bought out the business and today Calvert Sailmakers produces sails that are sold worldwide.

Although his sail making shop still operates out of St Petersburg, Florida, a few years ago Calvert and his wife, Trish, moved to Cat Island. After having sailed damned near everywhere in the Caribbean, they decided to build a house on Cat. Not because it was easy—far from it—but because it was hard. Acquiring land and then taking on all the hassles, both bureaucratic and practical, of building here can prove so frustrating and daunting that few outsiders even try. Translation: unspoiled surroundings.

Of course, there’s more, way more, to the story. But for the purposes of this article, suffice it to say that Dave Calvert had an idea—an idea that jelled into reality after crossing trails with Rich McIntyre, an absolutely, no-holds-barred fanatical bonefish angler from Sun Valley, Idaho. Their collaboration has resulted in a style of trip that is about as unique and totally “out there” as anything ever dreamed up by anyone in the sportfishing industry. Indeed, if there is another bonefish trip like this one, I’ve never heard of it.

Uncharted Waters

As we set sail for San Salvador [reputedly the first place Christopher Columbus landed when “discovering the new world” in 1492] Calvert confided, “Every trip is an adventure.” What he meant was that neither he nor McIntyre knew what to expect. As far as anchorages go, not to mention bonefish flats, San Salvador has managed to remain almost entirely off the radar. True, there was a small marina on the west side of the island and, god forbid, a European-operated Club Med. It was also known that a few blue-water charters, primarily targeting billfish, worked out of San Salvador. The possibility of fertile bonefish grounds, however, remained in the dark. One particularly enticing feature was an extensive bay and inner cay, crosshatched with coral heads and uncharted reefs, located at the south end of the island. Everything about the place screamed two things: 1] no people, 2] many bonefish.

Having run out of daylight while sailing up-wind during the crossing to San Salvador, we chose the calm offered by Bonefish Bay [good portent?] to drop anchor and spend the night. What we hadn’t counted on was the Club Med tastefully hidden among the palms, bougainvillea and casuarinas trees on the adjacent beach. I elected to sleep on-deck under a canopy of stars and sweet breezes; consequently, I caught the full brunt of the incredibly loud Euro techno-pop, which erupted from the Club’s speakers at 1:00 am. If you’ve never heard techno-pop, about the only way to describe it is to imagine an insistent, electronically generated pulsing at unearthly volume, thudding like a cosmic embolism, emitting a shuddering baseline so intense it interferes with respiration. There are strange, nocturnal creatures who dance to it; while the rest of us writhe in agony.

The next morning we sailed into the uncharted waters of Snow Bay. Few skippers are bold enough or confident enough, or perhaps crazy enough, to take breathtakingly expensive vessels into narrow, vaguely distinguishable passageways among reefs and coral heads. Precisely. That’s why we were there. As a veteran islander and sailor, Calvert has the chops to do just that. So it was that Destiny II zigzagged into the treacherous confines of the bay, where we anchored and then took the inflatable dinghy up into the neck of Pigeon Cay. Bonefish nirvana at last? Not exactly. No sooner had we spread out and started wading than we heard an ominous, rapidly approaching din, the buzzing-drone of invading watercraft—an entire herd of jet skis from [yeah, guess what?] Club Med, from clear at the other end of the island.

Shawn Coulter, one of the anglers in our party, spread his arms and hung his head in a gesture of abject persecution. Meanwhile, Rich McIntyre got on the handheld VHF and all but shrieked, “Get us the _ _ _ _ out of here.”

All explorations are by their very nature susceptible to setbacks and blunders. The beauty of our foray to San Salvador was that we got our requisite blunder out of the way right at the outset. As regards the remainder of our days at sea—blithely skipping from unnamed micro-island to unmarked cay—to say that it was a remarkable trip would be to dally with understatement.

Bonefish Bona Fides

There’s few things more boring than some knave prattling on and on about his angling conquests. Consequently, I’ll refrain from a blow-by-blow account of the places we went and the fish we caught. What I will do, though, is offer some general observations.

Due to the fact that catamarans are stable, smooth running vessels, minimizing pitch and yaw, even in stiff wind and choppy seas, you can fly fish with reasonable grace and comfort while underway. And there’s a very good chance that you’ll hook dinner—a grouper, or jack, or snapper, or rainbow runner, or who-knows-what—on the way to the next bonefish flat.

One thing that’s almost a slam-dunk guarantee when trolling big flashy flies in the Bahamas: you’re going to hook some frighteningly large barracuda. Whatever you do, don’t eat one. Yes, barracuda taste good. Really good, in fact. But you run the risk of ciguatera poisoning. By comparison, engaging in a game of Russian roulette is a safer bet. Ciguatera poisoning comes from consuming a fish that has been contaminated with the toxin produced by an organism that grows on reef algae. Because the toxin is bioaccumulative, it ends up concentrating in the fat of the higher marine predators, especially barracuda, which make their living by stalking the reefs. Though rarely fatal, there’s no effective treatment and the symptoms—creepy neurological malfunctions—may persist for months, even years. It won’t make you dead, but you might wish you were.

Almost every other species you’re likely to encounter is A-Okay, both as sport and as cioppino. However, anyone planning on fishing from the fantail should reconsider his gear…and go heavier. An appropriate Q and A would go something like this: Q] How about a sturdy 12 weight? A] Marginal, if not sort of namby-pamby. Q] Okay, what if I ratchet up to a 14 weight? A] Better, though still wimpy. Q] Alright, gawddamit, how about a special order 17 weight? A] Now you’re talkin’.

As long as we’re getting all educational here, it makes sense to mention a few insights regarding bonefish. Because of the truly secluded areas we were able to access, we got the almost voyeuristic pleasure of surveying bonefish behavior in habitat normally undisturbed by man. For one thing, it became rather evident that there’s a very strong correlation between populations of bonefish and the prevalence of sea turtles, rays, sharks, particularly lemon sharks [the thugs of the flats], and even birds. It was also apparent that predation determines schedule. Typically bonefish refuse to loiter or feed leisurely on an outgoing tide. Their hurried pace no doubt attests to the fear of getting stranded in isolated tide pools where they could easily fall victim to lurking predators. It also seemed that the bigger the bonefish, the later they arrived on an incoming tide, presumably the better to scope out and avoid danger.

On a more disturbing note, we observed that on many flats as many as 50% of the bonefish we landed and released [thus, by definition, exhausted] were subsequently chased down and devoured by sharks. Needless to say, such knowledge is hard to reconcile with a sport that prides itself on an ethic of species preservation. And it brings up the question of whether there might be a more viable procedure for releasing bonefish. Would there be higher survival rates if landed fish were detained—held close, shielded in the angler’s shadow—and revived for considerably longer periods of time before being released? Or would more handling—more meddling, so to speak—simply add to the trauma?

One way to address the problem would be to content ourselves with hooking fewer fish. Assuming, of course, that the sportfishing community could somehow come to terms with idea of shutting down the spigots on the flow of testosterone. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Black Cat Magic

Oddly enough, nobody knows how Cat Island got its name. Some of the people I asked gave me a dismissive, don’t-bother-me look, especially at the airport, but most of the islanders merely responded with a grinning shrug. With time on our hands after returning from our venture at sea, McIntyre secured a rental car so that we could cruise the island. We went looking for cats. Just kidding. Actually we went searching for more bones—scouring the tidal creeks and small lagoons for glimpses of bonefish pods moving like quicksilver among the mangroves.

Given that McIntyre had spent countless hours during previous visits to Cat scouting the southern leg of the island, the angling situation was more or less wired. In other words, we found fish. And during the between times, when we weren’t slogging through the mangroves, it wasn’t that difficult to talk McIntyre into slowing down so that we could stop and smell the hibiscus.

Driving around Cat it’s hard not to be struck by the raw spectacle of abandoned houses. The reason has nothing to do with economic upheaval. Nor with sub-prime lending boondoggles followed by mass foreclosures. No, the explanation is way more parochial and primal than that. One of the long-observed customs among the natives holds that when the eldest person in a household dies, everyone simply ups and abandons the house. Each member of the family takes with them one stone or brick and they walk away from that dwelling forever. As a consequence, the eerie husks of houses are scattered throughout the island, the jungle doing its best to engulf and ingest them, projecting dense spires of foliage through defunct rooftops. In essence, transforming forsaken abodes into outsize Chia Pets.

Of course, the mention of this type of ancestral practice brings up the subject of folk religion and tribal mores. The travel brochure produced by the Ministry of Tourism refers to Cat Island as “mystical”. What the brochure doesn’t come right out and say is that a mixture of sorcery and religion known as Obeah exerts an influence on a significant segment of the population. Like Voodoo and Santeria, Obeah can either be a form of “dark” magic or “good” magic. But whether viewed as benign or malign, Obeah is a murky blend of African and European myths, and on Cat Island it’s also tangled up with the Spiritual Baptist church. Though in practice Obeah may be less than blatant, the Afro-Caribbean shamanism on Cat Island seems to account for discernible cultural differences with other Bahamian islands.

Whatever else might be said about Obeah on Cat, I’ve heard tell that it’s an effective tool for discipline. Apparently, when a parent or elder wants to threaten a willful child into submission, they’re not at all adverse to bringing up the specter of a zombie, otherwise known among the locals as “da man dat comes a runnin”. Invoking the undead as a method of behavior modification? Hey, whatever works. [Now that I think back on it, I suspect that my teacher in seventh grade was a zombie.]

Speaking of religion and black magic and any other mental gyration that purports to get results…might there be a special incantation or strange ritual that would help summon up throngs of big bonefish, calling them forth from the dark Atlantic depths? A spectacle no less beguiling than seraphim heralded from the celestial void. Guess that I’ll just have to take another trip to Cat Island to find out.