If you teach a man to bonefish ...

LA Times | Travel

Thomas McGuane, the estimable writer and angler, has hooked a few bonefish. And vice versa. He once wrote that \"when the serious angler insinuates himself into the luminous, subaqueous universe of the bonefish ... he has, in effect, visited another world, one whose precise cycles and conditions ...

By Tom Hundley // 05.04.09

Thomas McGuane, the estimable writer and angler, has hooked a few bonefish. And vice versa. He once wrote that "when the serious angler insinuates himself into the luminous, subaqueous universe of the bonefish ... he has, in effect, visited another world, one whose precise cycles and conditions appear so serene that the addled 20th Century angler begins to be consoled for all he has done to afford the trip in the first place. In his imagination he is emphatic about emptiness, space and silence. He is searching less for recreation than for a kind of stillness."

Packing my gear for a recent trip to the Florida Keys, I harbored no illusions about actually catching a bonefish. After all, McGuane wrote that it took him a month to catch his first. I had three days. • I would be perfectly content with merely visiting the "luminous, subaqueous universe" of the bonefish. I would be happy just to see a bonefish. • It took my friend Todd Strasser about 30 seconds to agree to join me in this enterprise. Todd, who lives in New York, is a prolific writer of young adult fiction, with more than 130 books published. He has also caught bonefish, but not as frequently or as easily as he generates manuscripts.

Todd did his part to tamp down my expectations of catching the fish. To have any chance at all, he said, we would need to track down Vic Gaspeny, a canny guide who once held the world record for bonefish caught on a fly rod--a 14-pound, 6-ounce specimen taken on the flats off Panhandle Key. The record stood for a decade, but Gaspeny, who approaches a body of water the way "CSI's" Gil Grissom might approach a crime scene, has soured on fly-fishing. These days, he is celebrated in the world of saltwater sport fishing for having devised a way to catch broadbill swordfish during daylight hours (something anglers for decades thought was impossible).

When some fool (me) approaches Gaspeny about bonefishing with a fly rod, his advice is blunt: "Go to the hardware store, buy yourself a ball-peen hammer and try to knock that stupid idea out of your head." But Gaspeny, in a generous moment, agreed to take us on.

Gaspeny runs his guide business from Bud n' Mary's Marina in Islamorada, a two-hour drive from Miami. Bud n' Mary Stapleton, who started the boat rental business in 1944, are long gone (their ashes are scattered in the boat basin), but the dock that carries their name remains a kind of Lourdes for fishermen. It was here that Jimmie Albright and Cecil Keith pioneered fishing for tarpon on a fly rod. They also elevated into a full-time profession the casual art of helping well-heeled sports catch big fish. When the great Ted Williams, who could fish as well as he could hit a baseball, became an enthusiastic client of Albright's, it put Bud n' Mary's on the map.

In 1960, the Stapletons sold the marina to a New York jeweler named Jack Kertz, who was serious about fishing and kept the original name. In 1978, Kertz sold to Richard Stanczyk, a loquacious charter boat captain who runs it today.

Stanczyk is a sentimental sort who has made some necessary upgrades to the marina while trying hard to keep things the way they're supposed to be. His dock retains the funky tang of old Islamorada, the self-proclaimed "Sportfishing Capital of the World." His office is cluttered with fishing trophies and pictures of trophy fish. His boat barn, naturally, is inhabited by a few old "barn dogs"--lost souls known only by a nickname, usually locked in mortal battle with the bottle and who find redemption by making themselves handy

around a boatyard. These days, a man named Sparrow reigns as head barn dog at Bud Mary's.

Stanczyk and Gaspeny are the Odd Couple of fishing. Gaspeny, who is 60, grew up fishing the tidewaters of Virginia. He fished the Keys for the first time in 1970, and knew this was the place. He came back for good in 1973, got a job on a charter boat, and two years later began guiding. He quickly established himself as the resident genius.

"I'm an instinctive fisherman. Vic's a scientific fisherman," Stanczyk explains. "Vic writes everything down. He writes down every fish, every tide, every scrap of information you can think of. And he's very secretive about it."

Some fishing guides are like carnival barkers trying to lure customers inside the tent. Gaspeny is the antithesis--economical with words, letting his accomplishments speak for themselves. "I don't think there is a man alive who has caught more tarpon," Stanczyk says.

Like many fishermen, Stanczyk has a tendency to exaggerate, but this statement is probably correct. If you ask Gaspeny, he'll tell you he stopped counting tarpon after 5,000. And that was a decade ago. When fly-fishing legends such as Nick

Lyons and Lefty Kreh get the urge to try for a bonefish in southern waters, they call Gaspeny.

My own fly-fishing skills are modest. I have been at it for 25 years, but my yield has been humble, and to say I still have a great deal to learn would be an understatement. Most of my fishing has been confined to the trout streams of Michigan and Pennsylvania, and a few in Europe, where I lived for many years.

"Everything you know about freshwater fly-fishing--try to forget it," Gaspeny tells me. We are in his skiff, a flat-bottomed boat with a powerful outboard engine, passing under one of the causeways that carries U.S. 1 to the tip of Key West, and about to enter the Bay of Florida and the ethereal universe of the bonefish.

It is late in the afternoon of a warm, windless day. A storm blew through a few hours earlier, and sea and sky have now melted into one. There is no horizon--only vast, silky, empty space. The middle distance is marked by scattered keys that are little more than dense, dark green mangrove hummocks. Some of them have names: Barnes Key, Buchanan Key, Peterson Key; others are anonymous.

The water's surface is a glassy bottle green with long striations of turquoise. In the shallowest stretches, where the water is less than a foot deep, it has a brownish hue, but is still "clear enough to read the date off a dime," as Gaspeny puts it.

In the space between sea and sky, Todd sees an island where there wasn't one a moment ago. It seems to be moving. Floating? It turns out to be a thick flock of cormorants skimming inches above the water's surface. Elsewhere on this watery stage there are gulls and pelicans and egrets and solitary osprey.

But we are here to fish.

To get a feel for how to fly fish this new environment, Gaspeny suggested we start with some easier quarry: spotted sea trout, also called speckled trout. I have never considered any trout in the wild to be "easy." But soon enough, under Gaspeny's tutelage, we were catching fish. Good-size trout, also ladyfish, crevalle jack and a bonnet shark for good measure.

Silently assessing my casting skills, Gaspeny calculated my odds of catching a bonefish. "Not good," he would later tell me.

But with spirits lifted by our success with the trout, we moved to the flats off Peterson's Bay, a place where Gaspeny thinks we might at least glimpse a bonefish--no small feat.

Zane Grey, who earned a fortune writing westerns and spent a good deal of it chasing swordfish in the Gulf Stream, described bonefishing as "the fullest, the most difficult, the strangest and most thrilling, the lonesomest and most all-satisfying of all kinds of angling."

The bonefish is held in such high esteem by fishermen because it is, pound for pound, the fastest and fiercest of all creatures in the sea. Once hooked, its initial run is a thing of wonder, stripping off a hundred yards of line in a flash. It is also preternaturally spookable.

"A bonefish lives in a constant state of alarm. A bird flies over, they're gone," says Gaspeny. "And when it's slick calm like this and you knock a tackle box over in the boat, you'll see them scatter from a hundred yards away. I give people the quiet lecture after I knock a tackle box over."

The most aesthetically pleasing way of catching a bonefish occurs when you spot one tailing in very shallow water--that is, nosing along the bottom in the act of feeding, its tail just barely breaking the water's surface. Then it becomes a problem of applied mathematics: You must calculate the combination of current, tide, wind and drift that will allow you to silently pole the skiff into a position where you can present a fly to the fish in a manner that will convince him it is a genuine snack and not some cheap trick.

If no tailing fish is visible, then an experienced angler like Gaspeny will read the water for other markers.

"A good sign of bonefish activity is slightly smoky water," he says. This is an indication that the bottom has been churned up by a hungry fish.

"Over there," he says. Using the push pole to anchor the skiff, and the slight breeze to maximize my cast, he points to where. Miraculously, my cast improves. I am hitting the spot. On about the fifth or sixth presentation, a fish bites. Ecstatically, I jerk the rod upward and yank the fly out of his month. The fish is gone.

Gaspeny has told me repeatedly not to jerk upward when I feel a strike. This is the very opposite of what you do on a trout stream and the reflex is difficult to suppress.

We fish on, but the fish seem to be onto us. A tangerine sun is inching closer to the horizon. We are getting close to calling it a day.

I cast and begin my retrieve. Suddenly, there is that unmistakable thump on the line. Like a fool, I twitch upward again, but somehow the hook stays put. And then one of those split seconds that last an eternity--do I truly have him? Is it a bonefish?

The questions are answered in a blur as the excess line that was coiled haphazardly on the bottom of the boat disappears as if by magic and more line begins ripping off the reel with a most satisfying "zzzzzzish." A supreme moment. But again, one of my hard-to-kick trout fishing habits kicks in. I try to add a little drag to the line by playing it between my fingers. The resulting friction feels like touching a red-hot pot. I don't look to see if it has drawn blood, but I assume it has.

The fish peels off about 140 yards of line in a matter of seconds. I am astounded. Gaspeny scrambles to unhook the skiff from the push pole and start the engine. We begin following the fish. I recover some line, but there are still two more runs to come.

The fish takes us on a frantic zigzagging tour of the flats. I recall coming around into the sunset twice, but I am not sure if he has turned us twice in the same direction or once in each direction.

At length, he is exhausted and we bring him into the boat. Even Gaspeny is astonished by his size--11 pounds and 4 ounces. We reverently place him back in the water. He revives and he swims away.

This was a fish far beyond anything my meager skills would warrant. As we head back to Bud n' Mary's, I am blissed to the gills, filled with a sense of wonderment and elation. Wonderment that at one end of this delicate contraption of a fly rod was a magnificent bonefish--and at the other end a marginally competent angler. And elation that I hadn't screwed up. The feeling tasted like Champagne.

Next afternoon we fish the same area. I am overanxious, and my cast begins breaking down. I am flailing. Still, I get a promising thump, but reflexively jerk the rod upward. Fish gone. Gaspeny reaches into his pocket and solemnly hands me a copy of a letter written on a manual typewriter. "Dear Vic," it begins. The last line is highlighted: "Next time I shall not strike upward!" It is signed by Nick Lyons.

"Keep it," he says.

My arm grows tired from fruitless casting, and we decide to move on. As a consolation prize, Gaspeny offers to guide us to some tarpon rolling in the deeper channels. Todd quickly hooks a 90-pounder on light spinning gear. I get a 50-pounder on the same. My first tarpon. A truly impressive fish that performs some acrobatic leaps before we cut him loose.

The next afternoon, like monks on a pilgrimage, we are back on the bonefish flats. A persistent breeze makes casting difficult, but my form has recovered somewhat. The bonefish, however, are nowhere.

With darkness settling over the watery universe, we again take consolation in tarpon. I have a 70-pounder on the line. He breaches the surface like a Polaris missile four times before finally surrendering. These leaps are a breathtaking sight, an altogether wondrous fish. But it does not come close to my bonefish. •

Getting there:

Closest airport is Miami International. The 82-mile drive to Islamorada takes about two hours if you don't get caught in traffic.

Staying there:

Bud n' Mary's is recommended only if you are totally into the fishing. Accommodations at the marina are limited, but they've been substantially improved over the last few years. Nine units are available, ranging from standard motel rooms for $120 a night to a comfortable furnished beach house for $400-a-night. A houseboat is also available. 1-800-742-7945. budnmarys.com.

We stayed about 500 yards up the road at the Breezy Palms Resort, a circa 1960 concrete motel painted in pleasing tones of coral and aqua. The sign says, "Walk-ins Welcome." It was clean, efficient and well-maintained (although the mattresses and pillows need to be replaced). Wi-Fi and morning coffee are free. Room rates range $99 to $269. 305-664-2361, breezypalms.com.

Dining there:

Best bet is Lazy Days, a short stroll from Bud n' Mary's. If you bring them a fish you've caught, they'll cook it for you. 305-664-5256. Uncle's Restaurant, 80939 Overseas Hwy., is not bad although we heard one patron complain loudly that it wasn't as good as it used to be. 305-664-4402. The Islamorada Fish Company, 81532 Overseas Hwy., is also decent. 305-664-9271.

FISHING GUIDES: Vic Gaspeny is without peer. His phone number is 305-852-4278. If he is unavailable, or if he advises you to go buy a ball-peen hammer, there are about 20 other very capable guides working out of Bud n' Mary's. Prices are uniform, depending on the service you require. Best to check budnmarys.com for more information.