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"Freewheeling Eleuthera"

(From "Florida Sportsman" magazine in 2001)

By Jeff Weakley, Editor

I eased off the throttle of our fishing craft, a 14-foot, 100-horsepower Toyota Corolla, and stopped in the middle of the road.  we weren't exactly worried about causing a traffic jam.  A land crab or small rodent scuttled across the pavement in the distance.  Tiffany rolled down the window, shouted "Hi!" to a woman at work in her yard, then:

"How do we get to Savannah Sound?"

"Savannah Sound?" the lady asked to make sure she knew what we were after.

"Yeah, we wanna go bonefishing."

"Bonefishing.  Oh yes.  Down that road, by the school."

Ask anyone in the Bahamas about bonefish and you'll get an answer.  The spirited, silvery gamefish range throughout the islands, and friendly locals know right where to go.  Our situation was a bit unusual in that we were tooling around in a rental car.  Inmost of the Bahamas a car is about as practical as an ice fishing shack on Lake Okeechobee. 

But Eleuthera isn't like most Bahama Islands.  It's long and skinny with a paved road down its hard limestone backbone.  You can drive from one end to the other and sample a variety of fishing, enjoying spectacular scenery along the way.   Most of the flats are tiny in comparison to the sprawling shallows of Abaco and Andros, for instance, but they harbor some good fish.

We planned to devote most of our time to the Governor's Harbour area, about midway along the island's 110-mile length.  Up-and-coming local guide Paul Petty would get us started in the right direction.  After that, we would be on our own to explore the island.

After a breakfast of fruits and granola bars at the local grocer, we boarded Petty's skiff.  He shoved off and poled a few yards down the beach into the local harbour, where we tried unsuccessfully to get flies in front of fish that were swerving in and out of anchor lines.

"Sort of a tough setup, huh Paul?"

"Tide's not right," he pointed out.  "It'll be better in an hour or so."

Things indeed began to shape up around the other side of the point.  While chasing a pod of bones down a rocky shoreline, I saw something I had never before seen in the Bahamas:  a tarpon.

The fish cruised along the skiff and stared up at us with eyes that seemed big as the headlights on our Toyota.  It was 60 pounds of raw, chrome-plated power with a rough mouth that could peel the skin from a stingray. 

I took a hasty mental inventory:  7-weight flyrod, 6-pound spinner, zippered hip pack, box of bonefish flies, 1/16- and 1/8-ounce bucktail jigs, couple of knotless tapered fly leaders, spools of 6- and 12-pound flourocarbon tippet material.  Nothing that was remotely suited to hooking a tarpon.

Hoping for at least a few jumps, I did the only thing I could think of - I bit off six feet of tapered fly leader, leaving a 3-foot butt section which I figured rated around 30-pound test.  The futility of the move was comical at best, but Paul wasn't laughing.  Instead, this young man of boundless enthusiasm was smiling because he had just what I needed - a flashy, 4-inch pilchard fly.

<To make what could've been a very long story short, the big fish snubbed me.  Petty indicated that tarpon show up frequently enough to warrant bringing a somewhat heavier outfit and appropriate leaders and flies.

"Handline fishermen out there on the point sometimes hook 'em," he said.  "Really catch you by surprise,"

<With the incoming tide, Paul motored us up to Balara Bay, a little bight just north of Governor's Harbour.  Here, bonefish schools pulsed around a rock reef and funneled into a wide-open sand flat.  This was what we'd come for - ultra clear water, lots of fish, lots of shots.  The key was a fast-sinking fly pattern; I did well with a sparse Crazy Charlie but would've preferred an epoxy number.  A tiny jig on 6-pound test was a no-brainer.  The fish were on the feed, and Paul kept us in 'em long enough to lose count of our catches.  They were small, one to three pounds, but they were plentiful, and Paul said he hadn't seen schools like this since Hurricane Floyd, which had scoured much of the productive bottom.

Balara Bay looked like a decent permit spot, with the crunchy reef and proximity to deep water.  Paul said he'd seen a number of them, and added that fishermen who visit a blue hole - a deep depression in the reef - several miles offshore routinely encounter the species.  "Sometimes we shut off the engine and they're all over the surface out there," he noted.

Amberjack, mackerel, and various types of snapper round out the blue hole fishery, which to me sounds like a gold mine for enterprising fly and light-tackle anglers.  Paul or his father, Gladstone Petty, can arrange for trips to the blue hole and nearby reefs.

At the end of the day, our guide hinted that there were some good flats on Savannah Sound, on the ocean side of Governor's Harbour.  He said he trailers his skiff over there when contrary winds foul the west side.  The next day we decided to drive, navigating by roadside inquiry...