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Wetlands spread in all directions as the Florida Straits fall from sight. This waterscape, I am told, is home to pythons, poisonwood, doctor flies, wild pigs and a spirit creature — resembling a three-foot-tall owl — called a chickcharney. In bare feet, I am wading through mud to my knees, an hour’s fast boat ride from the nearest town. “Where there’s no itchy stuff, the mud feels kind of nice,” says Tom McLaughlin. I tell him he should start a spa.
We reach the edge of a saltwater lake where two paddleboards are waiting. Tom left them here a few days before, following an earlier exploratory trip. He explains where to stand and how to use the paddle as a pole to push myself around. If I want to sit, there’s a bucket, full of water and beer.
Tom is a tanned and bearded 37-year-old from Florida. He says a stranger once came up to him and spoke in Icelandic, assuming he was one of his countrymen, which may give a sense of him. He is the captain of the “Mothership” — a lavishly equipped fly-fishing boat launched last summer and currently moored on the west side of Andros Island in the Bahamas — and he seems incapable of saying anything dull. Out here, he’s starting his own saga.
With fly-fishing rods laid out in front of us, the lines drawn from the spools for fast casting, we head into the saltwater marshes, searching out channels where we will have the hand’s depth of water we need to keep the keels free. “No safety briefing?” I say. “Oh sure,” replies Tom. “If you fall overboard, stand up.”
We’re chasing bonefish, Albula vulpes, a species for which anglers travel the world. I spot two feeding, backs and eyes out of the water as if in one of those documentaries about life evolving on to land. I cast, but my fly lands too far away, cast and miss again, cast and get caught in the mangroves, free the fly and cast again. Now the little hook is in front of them, and I slowly pull it through the water until one fish darts forward, grabs it, and then, in a fury, whizzes across the flats, sending up streams of water on either side.
I start laughing, a common reaction, apparently. When I finally get the bonefish to hand, it glistens silver behind a long face and melancholy expression (understandable, given the circumstances). I carefully remove the hook and let him loose.
“I hope you won’t be offended if I say that wasn’t the smartest fish on the flats,” says Tom.
The Mothership is a 74ft, three-decked Hatteras, a $1.6m cruiser. She is anchored over a “blue hole”, a deepwater cavern in the rock, in a protected channel among the mangroves on this wild and uninhabited coast. It took all Tom’s skill to get her in here, pushing over the muddy bottomed entrance to the creek on the highest of tides, so she won’t move until the end of May. Then she will spend the hurricane season off the Marquesas near Key West, before returning to Andros in October. She has a Regulator sports boat as a tender, Beavertail skiffs to take anglers on to the flats, and those paddleboards.
I am here with my fishing buddy Robert, and in four days we won’t see another human, bar those on the Mothership. On board, there are three guests (although it can take six) and five staff. The operation belongs to Eleven Experience, a no-expense-spared holiday company created by Chad Pike, a senior managing director of the investment firm Blackstone. It offers a small selection of the sort of holidays he and his wife Blake enjoy, from heliskiing in Iceland to fly-fishing in the the wilds of Colorado.
(An aside: when Robert and I emerge from our adventure, we stop at another Eleven spot, Bahama House in Dunmore Town on Harbour Island. It is a place where the neighbours discuss going to New Zealand in their private jet over a breakfast of lobster omelette, yet the barman is quite happy to blast out Kanye West for me while I try to recover from his cocktails by the pool. Eleven is named after the scene in This Is Spinal Tap where Nigel Tufnel explains that his amplifiers “go up to eleven”.)
Our berth on the Mothership is a class apart. I am used to sharing a room on a fishing trip, but this is one with a king-size bed that rolls apart to create two singles, two bathrooms, and windows looking out on to the star-studded firmament. Like small boys on a sleepover, we talk about our hobby, how we never grow tired of a fish chasing the fly, that it is “all about the take”.
In the main we fish in comfort from the skiff, poled along the shoreline by the Bahamian guide Elvis Strachan. (“Your mother liked the King?” offers Robert. “Uh-huh-huh”.) I stand on the front, looking for dark shapes moving through the clear water. Obviously, Elvis is far better at this than me, so the shout goes up: “Bonefish, 10 o’clock, give me 50 feet.” I flick the line into the air. “Not two o’clock, Ten! There. Leave it. Strip long. Slower. Lift it up and give me 10 feet more to the left. Put it down. Strip. LONG strip. Stop. Strip loooong.” If I’m lucky, it’s then: “Fish on!” But more often than not, it’s: “He gone.”
And meanwhile, Robert is at my shoulder, whispering, “My turn!” And so I’ll hand over and settle back, flicking open a Kalik lager and looking over the mangroves, the ironrock, the fishing ospreys, the endless sea under puffs of cloud, thinking about how sweet life is. Within a few minutes Robert has hooked a fish and I’ll be back on the bow.
Elvis never knew his father, and his mother died when he was 13. He learnt his trade from his father-in-law. He says it’s a good job, “just to be on the water”. Fishing is the most important private industry of Andros, the nation’s largest island. The advantage of the Mothership over the lodges on the east is that we can head on to the flats when we want, return when we want, unrestricted by anything but our own stamina as we scoot around the baffling geography of the coast.
One morning Elvis runs us far into a saltwater lake. On the horizon is the shell of a twin-engined Piper aeroplane that looks as if it was parked there the day before (although it wasn’t, it was part of a drugs trade that was at its height here in the 1980s). We walk over and the full horror of the landing becomes apparent: gouged-out earth, the scars of the aircraft slewing sidewards, crumpled propellers speaking of a moment of sustained terror. These wrecks dot Andros’ coast. There was so much money involved, planes were disposable; the pilots would crash-land and then the Colombian cocaine would be transferred to a fast boat to Florida.
After poking around, we re-enter the lake and slowly walk through the shallows. I am now out on my own as Elvis guides Robert away to my left. My eyes are growing attuned, I see fish and cast into their path. When I get it right, the bonefish turn and hunt the fly down. Then there is the crazy fight, and the fish is released. “It’s an unlucky bonefish that even sees a fly here,” Robert says later. “There are so few anglers and so many fish.”
We’re not used to fishing in such munificent waters. We decide we could spend days, even weeks, doing just this without getting bored.
After night has fallen, and in the immense comfort of the Mothership’s flying bridge, Tom tells me I should offer our chef, Penny Dabestani, a glass of wine and tell her I’ve heard she writes filthy songs. Penny is a country rock singer who has cooked on the yachts of sheikhs, celebrities and ambassadors, and is currently preparing a rich, delicious meal of freshly caught snapper. I offer up the wine as instructed, and what emerges is so startling I can’t repeat it. Robert is crying with laughter: “That is the best song ever,” he says at last.
Tom was raised exploring the swamps of southern Florida, a Gladesman to his soul. “My stepbrother and I had a Boston Whaler,” he tells me one morning as we drink coffee on deck. “We weren’t scared of much.”
He has made a study of the life-cycles of the great saltwater game species — tarpon, permit and bonefish — and wants fish landed and released as swiftly as possible so as not to hurt them. Why hunt them in the first place, you might ask, but that instinct, matched to a care for species most people don’t know exist, sees huge amounts of money poured into conservation. It turns out that Pike, the owner, is a major funder of North Atlantic Salmon Fund, a group Robert and I care deeply about.
Tom has another role with Eleven, which he describes as “figuring out cool new shit to do”. That is why I find myself wading through mud. “The holy grail of bonefishing to me would be in this amazingly skinny water on a full moon when the crabs and shrimp they prey on would be very active,” he says. “I think you would see bonefish with their heads out of water like a tarpon feeding in the moonlight.” As we paddle on, he talks of finding ways into the landlocked lakes, those fed by blue holes.
South Andros has the world’s largest collection of these underwater caves and tunnels, and some of the biggest. They can travel for miles. From a satellite, it is possible to see deep blue circles in the most remote lakes. Through these tunnels come the game fish, and Tom wants to fish for them there.
I ask him how he hopes to do this in a place of pythons and owlish spectres, and he laughs. “There is nothing here that could really hurt you,” he says. “The poisonwood is on the high ground, the water is clear, there are no venomous snakes, no gators, very few bugs, you don’t have barnacles, so you can walk right through the mangrove roots and not get cut up. Everything in the Everglades is there to keep you out, but that’s not true here.
“I try to look for the special things, like fishing in the full moon. The Everglades is not that far removed from downtown Miami, but this is different, and it’s so big.”
He sees fish, so we push on. The sun is throwing our shadows long as it falls through the horizon in fire, ochre and finally a delicate pink. In the dying light, we wade back through the muck — it does feel nice — and Elvis picks us up in his skiff.
Ruaridh Nicoll was a guest of Eleven Experience (elevenexperience.com) and the Island House on Nassau (the-island-house.com), where he stayed a night en route. Three nights on the Eleven Mothership in Andros start from $4,950 per person, full-board, including car and boat transfers from Congo Town airport, fishing guides and equipment. Three nights at Bahama House on Harbour Island costs from $1,800 per person. Doubles at the Island House on Nassau cost from $650. Western Air (westernairbahamas.com) has daily flights from Nassau to Congo Town