There are only a few people in this world I genuinely enjoy fishing with in salt water, probably because there are only few people who would want to fish with me. I’m not competitive, I like to laugh when I’m fishing, and I’m an eternal optimist. That doesn’t sound so bad. But when I fish in salt water, detours for food or rest or contemplation on the angling life aren’t in the cards. My idea of a perfect fishing trip is to get up before sunrise, fish until you can’t see anymore, eat a quick dinner, go to bed, and get up and do it again the next morning. Beer and wine are only occasional divergences because they could ruin the early morning bite if you go even slightly over the brink. Food is merely fuel, and the quicker you can get dinner over with, the more time you have to tie flies. Lodging is a bed; a shower is optional.
Most normal humans like to take time out in the middle of the day for a siesta. Civilized people like to relax after fishing, have a few beers and enjoy a nice dinner. I realize that I’m way outside of the bell curve when it comes to fishing in salt water, and in my normal life I love to eat and drink and spend time with people of all types. But if I’m near the ocean, I just can’t stand not being on the water, worrying constantly that I’ll miss a good tide or a blitz on bay anchovies or those 30 minutes a day when the tarpon roll.
Finding a great fishing buddy is like courting a potential spouse, and you may have to sort through quite a cast of characters before you find the right one. I thought Tad would have been a possible mate, as he kept up all day, but after we got back from a trip, I heard that he kept telling people, “He wouldn’t let me eat!” Scratch him off the list.
John is a good friend and one of the most considerate people I’ve ever known. He went with me for a couple of years on an annual trip where I stay at a cheap but run-down motel and eat on the run, but he loves his creature comforts and on the third year asked if we could stay at that fancy lodge down the road and eat dinner at a decent hour in their restaurant. Lodge? Restaurant? We’d have to stop fishing before dark. By the time we got done eating a big dinner and drinking, we wouldn’t feel like tying flies. And God forbid we might even have to change out of our fishing clothes before entering the restaurant. I stayed with him at the fancy lodge for one trip, but by the time it was over I was ready to chew through my restraints.
Now that I think of it, the compatibility issue might be even more critical than with a spouse. In a good marriage, you tend to overlook idiosyncrasies that make you grind your teeth because you know there are so many other things you love about your spouse, and you know the annoyances will pass. But confined in a boat or wading the flats with another person on that one bonefishing trip a year, or on a once-in-a-lifetime trip 4,000 miles away for billfish, you shouldn’t have to tolerate the company of someone whose expectations are different than yours.
Don’t trust your initial impressions of fishing partners, especially if you meet them off the water. I never thought Jeremy would become one of my favorite fishing partners. The first time I met him was at a business meeting, where he was dressed up in a suit, trying to sell an idea to the company I work for, and his high energy really grated on me. A month later, he invited me on a trip to chase small bluefin tuna, as he had some scuttlebutt on a place they could be found close to shore and were feeding on small baitfish — the perfect setup for catching a bluefin on a fly. I jumped at the chance because I’d been trying to catch a bluefin on a fly rod for seven years and had come close but never made it past the initial hookup. I figured I could put up with his abrasive style in exchange for my first bluefin.
When I got to the dock for our trip, my assessment of the slick salesman changed. He was dressed in a pair of old pants and a dirty T-shirt, his boat was filthy, and all he had on board was two packs of Marlboros, a thermos of coffee and a bottle of water. Things were looking up. When we got offshore, I realized that he could see breaking fish about 30 percent farther than I could see them, a combination of great vision and the summers he’d spent on a commercial fishing boat. And I could see that all the energy he formerly put into his sales pitches was now focused on chasing fish. We fished until dark, and neither of us made a peep about getting beer, stopping for food or getting back to the dock before dark.
Since that day, I can’t imagine a year without fishing with Jeremy once or twice. He’s showed me the many inlets and rips off the coast of Rhode Island, and when I think of a trout-fishing trip, he’s always the first (and often last) one I invite. Even though Jeremy doesn’t tie flies and is a decidedly non-technical trout fisherman (whereas I am a very technical trout fisherman and tie flies every night on a trout trip), it’s the pacing and the energy level that make us so compatible.
Aaron is my other favorite fishing buddy. In contrast to Jeremy, I knew I’d like fishing with him right away. We met on a Bahamian island where we were co-hosting a trip — I was an Orvis host and Aaron was there as a scientist representing the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust. We had spoken over the phone and agreed to try to get in a couple days early to “scout” the location for the guests. His quick agreement to getting there early put the first check on the positive side of the scorecard. The second good sign was when we got to the Bahamas and began planning our trip the next morning; the first thing he said was, “Do you know when sunrise is?” When we jumped in the rental car long before dawn, we both checked that the other had coffee and that there were a few water bottles on the back seat, and we were off. No asking about when we’d quit, no worrying about what we’d eat. Only when we got back after dark did we worry about dinner.
We enjoyed a number of hosted fishing trips together until both of our employers decided we were more valuable sitting in an office writing memos than gallivanting around the bonefish flats of the Caribbean, and the freebie trips came to a screeching halt. So we decided to plan our own Bahamas trip that did not involve writing or filming or playing host, even though we did tag fish for the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust and both took a lot of photos we’ll be able to use elsewhere. But mostly we fished. Dawn to dusk.
That’s the advantage of being on an island: Because of the differing tide schedules on either side of the island, you can always avoid the slow periods of high tide by driving to the other side. On our last trip, though, we had the trifecta of bad conditions. (Actually, we called it something different by replacing a vowel.) We had spring tides, which we should have avoided but couldn’t due to work and family obligations.
On spring tides, bonefish seem to rush in at the beginning of the incoming and quickly nose into the mangroves as the water rises and the current gets stronger. And on the outgoing, the fish wait until the last half hour before they pour out of the mangroves into deeper water. We also had winds of at least 15 knots every day, winds strong enough to make spotting fish almost impossible and probably keeping fish out of shallow water, anyway. And one day out of seven we had enough sun to fish by sight instead of looking for tailing or waking fish. Trifecta indeed.
Despite that, we fished every day, dawn to dusk, some days walking at least eight miles on the flats looking for fish. My wading boots dug a dime-sized hole into each of my heels, deep enough that I swear I could see the tendon. We laughed about our feet, we laughed about the lousy conditions, and we made jokes about the big rat that seemed to live on top of our refrigerator.
We bought food the first day we were on the island, planning on having that last a day or two. Every night we’d get back to our room after dark, see what we had left for dinner and ponder what we’d eat the next night. But a friend gave us some wahoo steaks, and Aaron caught a gray snapper one night, and although on the last night we were down to bread, jelly and sardines for dinner, we never made the two-hour round trip to the nearest grocery store because we’d have to do it during the day, and that two hours might be the only time the sun came out and the wind dropped.
Most people, even most bonefishers, would cringe at the thought of a fishing vacation like that, one where PB&J was one of the basic food groups and the most exciting drink we had was at the end of the day, coming back to drink cold water out of the refrigerator instead of warm water from a bottle you’ve been carrying around all day. But our expectations matched perfectly, and even when we’d separate out of earshot, going in opposite directions on a flat, somehow we always managed to meet up in the same place when the tide got too high to wade. When you find a fishing buddy who seems to read your every thought, you’ve got a keeper.
Pacing and temperament are so important when people fish together. Aaron and I are both restless, always on the move, always looking around the corner for that perfect flat full of bonefish rooting crabs out of the limestone shoreline.
One morning, we were standing at the mouth of a channel that was blocked off at the extreme low tide, but had been full of bonefish the day before halfway into the tide, so we knew they’d be running up as soon as they could get over the bar at its mouth. We stood there for a couple minutes before I said, “You know, a smart fisherman would stand right here and wait for those fish to come running up the channel.”
“You’re right, but I’m not gonna do it,” Aaron said as he began stalking off the left side of the channel mouth.
“Neither am I,” I answered as I headed off in the opposite direction.
Mutual generosity almost comes innately when two fishing buddies are so harmonious. If we were different people, at 4 p.m. I might say, “Hey, let’s go grab a Kalik and find some dinner.” Or Aaron might see me lagging behind and suggest we drive back to the room to relax for a few hours. But that’s not how our generosity comes through.
On our last morning on the island, we grabbed a few hours in the morning to fish one last time on what proved to be a disappointing trip, at least in numbers of fish. Aaron caught two bonefish right at dawn, but I stayed fishless. On our very last flat, we were in double overtime and getting to the point where we’d have to rush to the airport if we kept fishing. We waded up a narrow channel, and instead of Aaron casting to tailers on his side and me casting to fish on mine, he lagged behind with his rod strung and spotted fish for me. Two 8-pound bonefish came toward us, closer to him than to me. But he never made a cast and instead let me cast to them once they got in range. Down to the wire, and I landed my biggest bonefish of the trip, and my only one that day, thanks to the generosity of my fishing buddy.
This story originally appeared in Salt, Coastal and Flats Fishing, with photography by Andy Anderson and essays by Tom Rosenbauer. It is reprinted here with permission of Rizzoli International Publications Inc.