POSH in the Joulters
Doctor flies. Leg-long spleef. Plastic-wrapped pants. And untouched Bahamian bonefish.
By Tom Keer

The Joulter Cays and the rich shallows around them offer extraordinary action with bonefish, as well as shots at permit, tarpon and more.   Photo by Andrew McNeece

It was easy to see the Tongue of the Ocean’s black-and-blue water from the air. Its color contrasts sharply with the turquoise brine that coats miles of white sand flats. Jacques Cousteau explored this area back in the ‘70s, but my black-and-white TV set didn’t capture the magic. In those days I was just a knock about kid, and Cousteau’s proof that both sides of Andros were connected by a system of underground rivers was lost on me. Those Aqua Lungs and double-hose regulators were the shit, and they made me want to go to the place Spanish explorers called ‘Espiritu Santo.’ Any place called the Island of the Holy Spirit was for me.

While the author resorted to a kayak to reach the Joulters in years past, nowadays a local guide with a modern flats skiff is a far better option.   Photo by Tosh Brown

I heard that there was a lot of development during the Go-Go ‘80 and that some of it ended abruptly, courtesy of Ronald Reagan’s Zero Tolerance program. When the opportunity for a cheap trip to the bonefish capital of the world appeared like some square grouper in a mangrove tangle, I jumped at the chance. And I knew north Andros beyond the scuba tanks and bikinis, for I saw it every time I mixed a Dark N’ Stormy in the summer. North Andros was Sir Henry Morgan’s territory, and that pirate’s face is on every bottle of Captain Morgan Rum.

The plan was to stay at a friend’s super swanky cottage that was part of an ‘80s party/dive/fish/residential development. He hadn’t been there in a little bit and was happy to see someone get use out of his place. I didn’t have the scratch to go all out, but a DIY camp/kayak trip to the remote, unspoiled Joulters was a plan. A captain could ferry me out and, when I was done exploring the magnificent cays, I could paddle my way back. A week or three would be enough for me.

Undoubtedly, you’ll cover more ground fishing from a boat, but it’s hard to resist wading the gorgeous flats surrounding the Joulters.   Photo by Mike Howe

My Bahamas Air flight bumped down on the Andros Town landing strip, which sat barely above sea level. I grabbed a cab to the resort, but thought there had to be a mistake. The cottages were there, and they sat off packed sand streets. They were privately owned and untouched, but the buildings owned by the developer had been stripped clean. Paint peeling from the humidity was replaced by colorful graffiti, some of which was so good it could have hung in an art museum. But the deep-water dock was a mess. The decking had been stripped backwards by a brilliant scavenger who had removed the farthest planks and worked backwards towards shore, leaving just a few planks close to the beach and pilings sticking out of the water like stilts.

I found the front-door key hanging from a nail under a rafter and went in. It smelled musty, normal for a closed up cottage on an island. My buddy was understated when he said he hadn’t been here in a bit, the quarter inch of dust in the ashtray proved that. A fancy resort? Yeah, so much so that I shoved my gear underneath a bed and hoped no one would find it.

I walked to the beach, where two men overlooked a giant flat and laughed like schoolgirls. The smell of burnt oregano was in the air, and one turned around, smiled and waved me over.

“You the guy who just got in?” he laughed. “Where you from, mon?”

“Boston,” I replied.

“You know Boston George?”

Oh, shit, that explained it. These were Boston George’s haunts.

“I don’t know Boston George,” I said.

“No? You from Boston, he from Boston, you must know him. We ain’t seen him in a while.”

“He’s in prison,” I explained.

“Boston George in prison?”

“That’s what the news says. And George Jung wasn’t from Boston, either. He was from Weymouth,” I added.

“He get in trouble for this?” The man held out a spleef half as long as my tibia. “Take it,” he said. “You come back to buy more, yeah?”

As bonefish move up or down a flat with the tide, anglers who find their travel lanes have no trouble cashing in.

I accepted more to avoid being pinned as a rude American, but I wanted to break up with Mary Jane and fast, figuring the best description of purgatory would be looking at a flat loaded with tailing bones through a chain link fence rimmed with concertina wire.

I tucked her in my pocket and walked down the dusty street, where an old man was tying flies in front of a rough-framed house. On his table were shrimp and crab patterns, the kinds I’d never seen before.

“You the guy going fishing?” he asked.

What was this, Cheers, where everyone knew my name? “Those are nice,” I said. “Are you selling them?”

“Not for sale, mon, for trade,” he said.

“Trade for what?” I asked

He laughed. “You know for what,” he replied. “I can smell it.”

“How about a dozen, six of each?”

“I give you two crabs and two shrimp,” he countered.

I pulled out the blunt and his eyes got so wide he lost all of the skin folds in the corner of his sockets.

"You get it from the guys at the beach?”

I nodded yeah.

“Ok mon, I give you 18.”

“Total?” I asked.

He paused. “I give you 18 shrimp and 18 crab.”

With that rapid movement I could’ve scored at least twice as many. But good things happen when folks are bullish, not piggish. Mine came the next morning when I awoke to a day beyond perfection. The sun burned off the dew, and the temperature had to have been at least 60 degrees warmer than back home. A light, variable wind blew at 5 mph, when it blew at all, and the surface was as smooth as ice just polished by a Zamboni. This was summer weather for me, so I pulled on a cotton T-shirt and gym shorts and humped my kit to the boat ramp.

A pelican perched on a derelict piling and stared at the crunch, crunch, crunch I heard from behind me. It sounded like boots crushing shell, and when I turned I saw a pair of fly rodders. They wore heavy flannel shirts buttoned to the necks and blue jeans tucked into tall, athletic socks. On top of it, their jeans flashed like the rhinestone-encrusted jacket worn by Liberace. These guys had to have been part of some modern version of Flagellants, for they obviously believed in salvation through self-punishment.

“Where are you fellas going?” I asked.

“Fishing,” one said. “For bones.”

“What’s that shiny stuff around your jeans?”

“Plastic wrap.”

Jeans wrapped in Saran Wrap to go bonefishing? Those guys were effed outta their minds! Fortunately for me a skiff loaded with a kayak pulled up to shore.

“Which one of you is going to the Joulters?” the captain asked. I nodded and stored my gear in the cockpit. One of the shiny-blue-jeans guys chuckled, and things went from good to great when the skiff came about. I was on the port side.

POSH, Port Outbound, Starboard Home, was the luxury side of the steamship during the Golden Age of Travel. I didn’t have a mahogany lined stateroom complete with a white marble sink, but I was going to cast to fish that seldom saw a fly. I’d fish all day, return when I was damn good and ready, and sleep in my bug-proof hammock at night.

We ran for under an hour, and I got out near a good-sized cay with palm trees and low vegetation. I dropped my gear for I was dying to make a few casts. If things didn’t work out here, I’d just paddle over to a different cay.

The bottom was soft, kinda spongy, and covered with turtle grass. I figured some bones might be up here around high tide, but now they’d be out in the current, swimming over the oolitic sand, granules made by layer upon layer of calcium coated around a tiny speck of shrimp feces. I was walking on shrimp shit and man was it gorgeous. The flats went on forever, then they simply dropped straight off into a channel.

The instant a bonefish feels the sting of a hook, you can bet it will explode and dash toward the horizon.

I found that edge because it was where the color of the water changed to a turquoise-and-emerald green. On the bottom were many different species of fish swimming, and I felt like I was peering at them through the glass at an aquarium.

When I turned around, I was a long way from the cay and I suddenly thought of a couple of different possibilities. I could catch one hell of a lot of fish on my walk back home, and I could also get whacked by a lemon shark if I didn’t keep up a brisk enough pace while catching bones. Overwhelmed by the beauty of such a spectacular place, I hoped there would never be a lodge, private home or any development here. It was rustic and remote, and totally bad to the bone.

Then I saw the first tips of silver tails sticking out an inch above the surface. There were three of ‘em. No, five. No, seven. No, there were even more, and they were slowly heading my directions. A lot of water moved from the front of their V-shaped wake, so I gathered the leaders were probably fish with some shoulders. The trailers looked a bit smaller, but what did I care? I was in the Joulters with bones in my crosshairs.

In the Joulters or anywhere, clearing the line to fight a fish from the reel is priority one when you hook a nice bone.

I lead the pack with my cast, let the fly sink and waited for the fish to close the gap. Once they did, I gave my shrimp imitation a short, quick strip. That’s when the tail tips disappeared and a push of water charged in the direction of my fly. A moment later I got tight. The hooked fish thrashed and blew the rest of the school. Bonefish went to the left, some to the right, a few came towards me, and others went away. I hoped mine would go deep into the backing, but the drag stopped it at about 75 yards. It was one of the smaller but faster stragglers.

I was sweating pretty good now, and the salty taste of sweat mixed with DEET hit my lip. There was a bite, one big enough to leave a red welt, courtesy of a doctor fly, which resembled the ravenous greenheads found in my striped bass marsh back home. I swatted it, sprayed on some more bug dope, and cranked in my fish. It’s tough to keep from sweating on a hot day, and the more I sweated, the more bug juice washed away and the more doctors came calling for their ounce of flesh. This day turned into a rinse-and-repeat kind of day. If given the chance, I would have swapped half of my water rations for a flannel shirt and jeans wrapped in plastic, and it wasn’t even noon yet.

One morning I woke up and decided I’d caught enough fish. The doctor flies had come to an agreement and left me alone long enough to stay on a few different cays and walk one heck of a lot of flats. I pointed my kayak south towards North Andros and arrived back in time for Rake and Scrape, the traditional music of the Bahamas, alongside Junkanoo.

Music played in the streets. There were a few guitars and drums, spoons, mouth harps, and even a hand saw. I smelled spicy food coming from a few booths, and it seemed like there were two options: conch, conch, more conch, and chicken. I had my fill of conch, so I ordered the chicken.

There was a man drinking rum from an enameled coffee cup. “Save me the bones, mon?”

“Whatcha need ‘em for?” I assumed he was making a gris-gris charm.

“Got to feed my dogs,” he said.

“You feed your dogs chicken bones?” I asked.

“Every night.”

“They ever get sick?”

“No mon. None yet.”

Watching a nice bone swim away to fight another day is part of the magic of fishing a special place like Andros Island.

The sun went down and I saw all the stars. Messrs. Blue Jeans were drinking Kaliks, happy that they were out of their wet pants. The taxi driver waved to my buddies from the beach, who were grinning from ear to ear. And they all stared at me when the fly tier walked up.

“Those flies work,” he asked.

“Like a charm,” I said.

“Lemme know if you wanna swap for more.”

The wheels in my head were turning as I walked away. And though I hadn’t left Andros Island yet, I was already looking for a way to get back.

Flying over the north end of Andros lets one really understand the vastness and still unspoiled state of the Joulter Cays.

On August 31, 2015, the Bahamas National Trust and the Bahamian government created the Joulter Cays National Park, which sits two miles north of north Andros and comprises 113, 920 acres of prime marine habitat, including a portion of the Andros Barrier Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. The park also includes extensive banks of oolitic sand, seagrass meadows, mangroves and tidal creeks, all of which serve as nurseries and feeding grounds for sharks, conch, sea cucumbers, spiny lobsters, sea turtles and a wide range of fish, all part of the marine ecosystems that support local communities and draw anglers and divers from around the world.

Tom Keer

Tom Keer is a writer, fly rodder and hunter who lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.