Shall I compare thee to a Kawasaki? To a just-launched RPG? To a juiced-up 100-meter sprinter popping from Olympic starting blocks? Afforded my full quiver — snarky similes, literate metaphors and intricate conceits — I would nonetheless fall short of characterizing my beloved bonefish’s unsurpassed short-range surge and velocity.
Does the poet’s insufficient diction shame him? Hardly. He is consoled, rather, by the company he keeps. Even Carl Linneaus failed. (Though of course, ensconced at his desk, the great taxonomist had not made actual contact with a living bonefish before taxonomizing.) Albula vulpes. White Fox? Sure, the vulpine nose, the cunning, but a fox trots. How about White Fox-With-Its-Tail-On-Fire-And-A-Pack-Of-Hounds-In-Pursuit?
Of course many speedier fish reside in the salt — the sailfish cuts the blue water at a warping 70 mph, but a 6-pound bonefish fleeing a tiger shark, or stung by the laser-honed point of a No. 6 Meko Special, displays an unmatched initial burst. It is this said surge that the angler covets, said surge that cauterizes itself in mind and body, amplifying experience.
And the less fettered the connection, the greater the wattage. True, the angler holding a 13-weight at the stern of an 85-foot ocean-going vessel trolling billfish teasers for marlin and powered by 2,500 horses can experience raw piscine power. But, relatively speaking, when the lone, barefoot-wading, 8-weight-wielding bonefish-stalker feels the hook knock-in and her quarry accelerate, in two seconds, to its top speed of 25 mph — in water 760 times denser than air — a power straight from Poseidon is channeled.
This first run possesses the energy of a covey flush. I think of the Hungarian partridge, the bonefish of the steppe. True, when a group of gray birds spills out from under the staunch setter’s mask, I want to fell and hold and eat one, and sometimes I do, but later, when I close my eyes at night, it’s the flush that I relive for the sheer energy it contains. In this same way, I covet the bonefish’s initial run far more than I do landing the fish. Such is the spell it casts over the angler.
From an economic perspective, few fish have held such sway, let alone rescued national economies, the way the bonefish did in the Bahamas, giving the islands a hope based in eco-tourism rather than cartel money. The country’s dimes wear the fish’s effigy, after all. In the late 1950s, when David Pinder started guiding for a wealthy Floridian named Gil Drake, the former made $5 a day in an industry that currently brings in (pre-Covid) nearly $200 million a year to a country of fewer than a million people. Arguably, only gold has appreciated at a greater rate during the last 75 years.
Of the bonefish’s many superpowers, though perhaps most potent, is its ability to lure, or yank, the angler out of himself. As the unsurpassed comic and lyric genius Thomas McGuane has one of his characters comically say to another as they observe a saltwater flat: “This will do more to save you than either religion, futurism or the pecky cypress walls of your West Marin hideaway.” If, as is often the case, you’ve dug your own crooked channel into the mind’s dark matter and found, despite your ranting and graduate degrees, that you couldn’t think your way out of yourself, the quickest transport back to the here and now is often a fish.
I still recall, hundreds later, the first Bahamian bone I hooked while wading solo. For a fair spell, I had been in a bad way but now, by purest chance, was ankle-deep in the planet’s clearest water, on a shallow flat crimped with sunlight and veined with swaying turtle grass. After half an hour of looking where I’d been told to look, I was ready to reel up and blame the tide or the moon, but then it appeared, of course it did, a large bonefish, two rod-lengths away, coming straight for my sandals. With no time to cast, I crouched and rolled out the available 4 feet of line and 10 feet of leader. The fish didn’t even give me a second to strip line, and when it turned down on the fly, we were eye to eye.
Standing, I strip-set and watched the fish blow up the glassy flat — and all previously held definitions of speed, power, grace and, let’s face it, reality along with it.