www.biggameclubbimini.com (above); Scott Salyers (below)
If you live and fish in southeast Florida, you've probably crossed the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas. If not, you want to. The gateway to aqua shallows, vibrant reefs and deep-purple ocean waters lies just 50 miles from Florida's busy condo-lined shores.
The closest Bahamian port for many is Bimini - technically North Bimini, a slender, 7-mile-long outcropping of ancient limestone once home to author and sport fisherman Ernest Hemingway. North Bimini and its sister South Bimini host about 1,800 residents and several top resorts, hotels and marinas. One - the legendary Bimini Big Game Club - reopened this summer as a Guy Harvey Outpost Resort & Marina (www.biggameclubbimini.com).
"It's the closest island to the States, and the fishing's as good there, for the most part, as anywhere else in the Bahamas," says Miami Capt. Jimbo Thomas (305374-4133; www.thomasflyerfishing.com), who began visiting Bimini as a boy more than 40 years ago. "I know a lot of people over there, and I know that area a lot better [than other Bahamas locations]."
Deep or Shallow
Thomas says he bottomfishes for grouper and trolls for marlin, tuna, dolphin and wahoo. The west side of the island features a sheer drop from about 80 to 1,000 feet. The east, he says, offers numerous wrecks for mangrove and yellowtail snapper.
Great Isaac, about 20 miles north of Bimini, harbors good reefs. South of the island lie assorted rocky cays, followed by Cat then Orange Cay. Run west from these islands about a mile and find thousands of feet of deepblue water.
Bimini's eastern shore also sports flats for bonefish, permit and tarpon action. But because U.S. anglers generally must cross in seaworthy deep-V vessels, they usually can't ply the skinny shallows in their own boats. Guides, such as Bimini's own legend Ansil Saunders (242-347-2696; 242-359-8696), run inshore charters.
While seas calm substantially in summer, anglers cross to Bimini year-round. In fact, wahoo and grouper fishing excel in winter, Thomas says. But anglers should never take 50 miles of open ocean and the Gulf Stream current for granted.
Know Before You Go
A safe crossing starts with proper preparation, extra supplies and quality safety gear. Anglers with smaller boats, especially single-engine craft, should make the run with one or more buddy boats. "Backups" should be the byword.
That byword applies to tackle as well. You won't find well-stocked shops and bait suppliers on Bimini (though a store opened at the Big Game Club this summer). Bring what you plan to use as well as spares.
Thomas carries ballyhoo for trolling and squid and frozen bonito for deep-dropping. He catches live goggle-eyes in the marina at night on sabiki rigs and can also find pilchards around the docks. He catches grunts, blue runners and pogies to drop on the ledges for grouper. Yellowtail anglers usually bring squid and chum.
From Miami's Government Cut, Thomas says the Bimini channel lies 52 miles east on a heading of 98 to 100 degrees. However, because of the northerly current in the Gulf Stream, he compensates by pointing his 42foot sport-fisherman slightly south on a heading of 105 to 110 degrees.
Thomas says Bimini seems to hold fewer navigational hazards than other Bahamas islands. It's a fairly simple run to the Alice Town harbor channel and the Bahamas Customs dock. (Some resorts offer Customs checkin on-site.) Americans entering the Bahamas must have a U.S. passport, and captains checking in their crews must carry all pertinent vessel documents and pay fees for cruising and fishing Bahamian waters.
The Bahamas, like the United States, protects its fisheries with bag limits. Rules change regularly, so check official sources.
Returning to Florida from the Bahamas became easier for private boaters several years ago when Homeland Security introduced the Local Boater Option, which allows passengers to call in their arrival.
Thomas says his frequent trips to Bimini make it almost like a second home: "I always stay at the Sea Crest Hotel and Marina (www.seacrestbimini.com). I know the people there very well, so we kind of have the run of the place. We keep gas grills and bikes over there."
Customs and Immigration:
www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/travel (United States)
https://svrs.cbp.dhs.gov - click on "LBO Flyer" for a PDF (local boater option)
Bahamas Fishing Regulations: