Explore: Bonefishing at Deep Water Cay
Fishing and paradise intersect at Deep Water Cay resort in the Bahamas.
We shall talk about the beachside massages, we shall talk about the celebrities flying in on private planes, we shall talk about the infinity pool lipping the dreamy aquamarine horizon, and about drift-snorkeling over sea life–teeming "blue holes," yes—but first we must talk about the bonefish.
Bonefish are an exasperatingly hard-to-catch fish, averaging 4 to 10 pounds, that congregate in shallow tropical waters, and they're the reason Deep Water Cay exists. To this skinny 2½-mile island sitting just off the eastern end of Grand Bahama, and to the resort that occupies it, they're what football is to tailgating, or what music is to dancing: the reasons for its existence, the headwaters for all its tributary pleasures.
And I'm surrounded by them.
It's midmorning, the last vestiges of the conch shell–colored dawn having faded from the sky, and I'm standing on the casting platform at the bow of an 18-foot skiff being poled through the shallow-water flats by a native guide named Harry Rolle. For about half an hour Rolle has been gliding the skiff through the water, eyeing the telltale divots in the sandy marl that we're passing over—indicators of feeding bonefish—while otherwise peering hard at the water ahead.
I've been peering hard at that same water, with a nine-weight fly rod held rigid in my hand, but Rolle's eyes are a different kind than mine, an X-ray variety. "Coming in at eleven o'clock," he whispers, meaning just to the left of my position, and at his direction, though without seeing what he sees, I start the prologue to my cast—whipping the rod back and forth to let out a length of line.
That's when I finally spot them: a flicker-fast battalion of shadows headed our way, a school of maybe 20 or 30 bones. These do not seem like mere fish—more like fish behind the wheels of expensive silver sports cars. Excitedly, Rolle tells me to release the cast—to lay the pearlescent fly at the end of my line directly in their path—but as I do, I lose my balance just slightly, and my bare heel knocks the platform with the gentlest of thuds. By the time my fly hits the water, the bonefish have turned, all at once, and vanished—spooked into a blue-green oblivion.
If this sounds more like frustration than pleasure, it's not. Like reading Ulysses, it's equal parts both. Bonefish are prized for their intelligence and their elusiveness, and for the spectacular speed and strength they display when hooked. Catching them demands a technical finesse that makes bonefishing wildly addictive, and for its hardest-core addicts, the 250 square miles of bonefish flats around Deep Water Cay are a kind of fabled realm.
The island itself was an uninhabited taper of sand until 1958, when a pair of marquee anglers—A.J. McLane, the longtime fishing editor of Field & Stream, and his pal Gilbert Drake, Sr.—founded a private fishing club there. Five years ago, an investment group led by Paul R. Vahldiek Jr. purchased the island and established a resort—granting public access to waters and guides that had for decades been the stuff of legend. Paging through the handwritten entries in the guestbook at the Blue Hole bar can be an exercise in celebrity-sighting: One encounters Liam Neeson, Tom Brokaw, Michael Keaton, and, for flyfishing geeks, the writer Tom McGuane and the angling hall of famer Lefty Kreh. The guest arriving as I departed was the novelist Carl Hiaasen.
The word "resort," of course, conjures something different from fishing club, and that's what's drawn my wife, Catherine, along with me. Part of Deep Water Cay's transformation was physical—the high-ceilinged dining hall, once paneled with knotty pine and shellacked with cigar smoke, now bears a linen-white tropical elegance—and part existential. Catherine enjoys fishing, but only up to a point. After I'm finally able to stop spooking and start catching bonefish—each time awed as I release them back into the water, as though I'd nabbed ghosts—Catherine lands a 3-foot-long barracuda. And then she's done, primed for something more luxurious. That luxury starts with a massage at the water's edge, just outside the house where we're staying. (It's one of six houses and seven cottages available on the island.) It continues with a dinner of conch, cooked in an ethereal tempura-like batter and paired with a bottle of Sauvignon blanc, and then seeps into the following morning, when we boat out to a snorkeling spot at the island's southwest fringe.
Snorkeling is soft, but it's not usually luxurious; this is. They call it "drift snorkeling," because the tidal current does the moving for you, rendering your fins almost decorative. You merely float on your belly, in gleeful stasis, while the undersea passes before your mask: rays, sharks, sea turtles, cubera snapper, and rainbow whorls of reef fish. Catherine and I part ways in the afternoon: she to paddleboard the sun-blasted flats and to laze beside the infinity pool, and me to chase after more fish with the resort's marine manager, a deeply entertaining man named Muff Roberts.
Fishermen are romantics at heart. They're always comparing their locales and experiences to some lost idyll, actual or imagined, and here it's no different. "This is how the Florida Keys used to be," one Deep Water Cay angler tells me. But as Roberts and I reel in snapper and grouper for our final dinner at the resort and as I survey the island's turquoise, bonefish-glinted periphery, it's difficult not to feel a kind of presenttense ecstasy: the confluence of the actual and the imagined, the realization of the idyll. We turn the boat toward shore, grinning all the way home.
About 40 percent of visitors to Deep Water Cay arrive via private plane—either their own, or concierge jet service from Fort Lauderdale, Florida—on the island's 4,000-foot airstrip. Visitors on airline flights land at Grand Bahama International Airport in Freeport, and travel an hour by taxi to McLean's Town. The final step is a brief water-taxi ride to the resort.
Double-occupancy cottage rentals start at $2,368 for three nights and two days of flats fishing, with meals and guide fees included. Peak season for bonefishing tends to be February–June and then again in the late fall, but fishing remains solid year-round. (The resort is closed during the month of September.) First-time anglers are deftly accommodated, but to experience the full glories of bonefishing, and to have a crack at the 14-pound trophies residing here, some solid practice is recommended; 888-420-6202 or deepwatercay.com.
Photos, from top: Sunrise casting at Deep Water Cay; A wily bonefish stalking the Bahamian flats; The Lodge at Deep Water Cay; Fresh conch salad, served on a bed of pineapple.