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April 20, 2005

Bountiful Bahamas

Chris Woodward heads for the deep-blue Tongue of the Ocean.

Despite our amazing dolphin flush, we actually started this four-day, springtime Andros experience looking for yellowfin tuna. Reports from Harbour Island, across the bank, sounded promising, and Chen knew Seger could find the all-important live bait needed to tempt the migrating fish. But true to tuna style, the plump footballs had chosen not to appear yet in the deep-blue Tongue of the Ocean. While yellowfin do begin showing up in March along the eastern edge of the islands, they sometimes don't reach Andros until later in spring.

We resorted to plan B - the smorgasbord approach.

Perhaps nowhere else in proximity to the United States can you find such a wide range of offshore species within such a short distance as off Andros. Drop sliding-sinker rigs for grouper and snapper in less than 100 feet of water; move 100 yards and troll for tuna, billfish, dolphin and wahoo; move a few yards farther, drop a deep rig on an electric reel to 1,200 feet and bring up a queen or silk snapper - all without seeing more than one or two other boats in a day's time. Of course, heading inshore, bonefish top the charts, but we had come looking for deeper species.
 
Deep Six
As our first fishing day dawned quietly, we sipped coffee and nibbled warm croissants, looking out at a calm sea to the east over Andros' barrier reef. The reef drops into a precipitous canyon measuring more than a mile deep in some places. Viewed in a satellite image, this cul-de-sac canyon - nicknamed the "Tongue of the Ocean" - forms a dark swath through broad expanses of shallow sand and limestone. Currents enter the canyon and swirl at all depths, circulating the length of the island and mixing at different temperatures, eventually leaving as tides ebb and flow.

The Tongue's underwater topography is so unique, the U.S. Navy established its Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center on Andros. AUTEC conducts acoustic and other tests here because the region is void of the usual commercial shipping traffic. Several AUTEC buoys placed on pinnacles that rise from the depths - one off the northeast quadrant of the island and another several miles south - attract fish and offer recreational anglers a perfect starting point for trolling or surface chumming and chunking.

That first morning, we motored in Hoover's 35-foot Contender, No Whining, through 2- to 4-foot seas to the closest buoy, 5 miles away. Seger, a captain at Kamalame Cay Resort, had netted a well full of live pilchards, schools of which gang up in the estuary between the cay and the mainland. Large quantities of live bait can be hard to come by around Bahamian islands if you don't know where to look or don't make friends with the commercial bait sellers. Live bait becomes a key element when luring tuna.

While tuna were our first objective, a few drifts past the AUTEC buoy - chumming all the while with livies - produced no visible signs of yellowfin. Birds were absent. The sea surface was choppy but void of activity.

Chen rigged three flat lines with 6-foot leaders of 60-pound fluorocarbon armed with circle hooks. He tied a triple-hook pink jig onto a light rod and sweetened it with ballyhoo so he could work a bait at depth and jig around the buoy.
 
Mahi Mania
While the surface remained quiet save the building chop, below the waves, scores of dolphin found nothing better to do than barrage our baits. Within a few minutes, we had half a dozen dolphin in the 5- to 10-pound range to the boat. Frustrated, we decided to motor south several miles to the second AUTEC buoy. Two boats milled around the floating structure. A few birds circled, but a check with the binoculars told us they were not tuna birds.

We pulled out some light spin and trolling tackle and set a spread of lures and ballyhoo, with a Halco Trembler on a wire-line rod. We rigged the light rods with jigs and placed them on standby. Moments after deployment, we were swarmed by more dolphin. But these were no pesky peanuts. These dolphin bent the rods, leaped like lunatics and fought like savage predators. We kept our eyes peeled for tuna, but decided to permanently switch tactics and expectations.

When the wire line took a hit, we expected a wahoo. But while the fish held deep, it did not blaze away at top speed. Seger cranked on the line, rod still seriously bowing to the water. As it neared the boat, the 30-plus-pound bull dolphin surfaced, and we marveled at its aerial display.

We were equally impressed by Seger's actions. As the gaffed fish came into the boat, the wiry captain leaped on it to keep it from destroying tackle or ankles. He pinned most of its body to the deck while its head and tail fin drummed in protest. He removed the gaff and plug and horsed the dolphin into the belowdecks fish box.

After subduing the bull, we set out lines and trolled past the buoy. Chase saw a tripletail - one that resembled a thick, black trash bag - on the surface. He cast to it and hooked up. Supper reluctantly came into the boat.

Another flurry of moments passed, and a 20-pound cow dolphin slammed a bait. If we had planned such a dolphin outing, we would have zeroed out. But when you don't let 'em know you're coming, dolphin can easily be fooled.

We opted to switch to 50-pound outfits and high-speed-troll our way north along the wall that dropped from 300 to 6,000 feet. Such dramatic ledges surely generate upwellings, which draw bait and often billfish. However, our baits remained unmolested as Chen began his dolphin-filleting demonstration.
 
Bottom Dwelling
The seas seemed relaxed on day two as we idled past a reef, where breakers wash a rocky islet. The land juts only 10 feet above the surf line, but it holds the remnants of a lighthouse, a solid structure that resembles a blunt smokestack or a submarine's conning tower. We motored past a faded green channel marker, a blessed warning for incoming boaters. If you manage to see the signs and miss the reef, shallow shoals also hinder your path to inshore waters - a typical predicament in Bahamian waters.

The farther we ran from land, the more we noticed the thick layer of smoke hanging over Andros. Out of the wind, the scent of burning wood grew strong. Seger said the islanders torch the underbrush to flush out land crabs that crawl to the surface and walk toward the water to spawn. Land crabs fetch high prices in restaurants, so this season - and the fires - mean financial windfall.

This day, we decided to run north toward the tip of Andros, closer to Chub Cay. We stopped along the way as scattered flocks of birds drew our attention. A particularly vivid rip holding birds and flying fish seemed very promising. As we drifted the rip, Seger tossed pilchards high into the air - the better for big fish to hear their splat on the water. Seger also prefers to poke one eye out of the chum baits so they swim in a circle.

Approaching the northern tip of Andros, we began to feel the stiff west wind previously blocked by the land and trees. The bottom dropped from 77 to 400 feet along a wall. Seger set up the drift and lowered a sliding-sinker rig only to have the bait immediately inhaled and the line cut after a sudden sizzling run. Another bait suckered a Nassau grouper. We were in the neighborhood.

A few more promising hookups soon became cutoffs. And with the strong wind pushing us past the productive zone too quickly, we changed options. Chen motored a few hundred feet off the reef while Seger pulled out two heavy rods bearing electric reels - a Kristal and an Elec-Tra-Mate.

Chen's Kristal was loaded with hundreds of yards of backing and heavy Spiderwire. He rigged a 100-pound leader with four J-hooks using three-way swivels, weighting the whole apparatus with 3 pounds of lead. He lowered the leader, baited with pilchard chunks, to the bottom and waited. Tiny telltale bites telegraphed all the way up the heavy line. Chen hit the retrieve button and listened to the reel's whine. Two silk snappers eventually emerged from the blue depths, but not the bright-red-and-silver queen snapper he coveted.

Silk snappers live in slightly shallower depths than queen snappers, often heading inshore to reefs at night to feed. They can grow to 32 inches and 18 pounds. Queens grow longer - to 39 inches - but remain slimmer. Eleven pounds 11 ounces is the current all-tackle record.

We moved deeper and dropped again. Chen's rod in the port gunwale dipped savagely, and he quickly engaged the reel. This was a bigger fish, for sure, but was it a heftier snapper or something else? As a strangely pale shark surfaced, we were all puzzled. Perhaps a sixgill shark? We snapped a few quick photos for later identification and released the animal to settle back into the depths.

Anytime you drop for deepwater species, you hope for minimal current. Sending baits to 1,200 feet or more means letting out a lot of line, and even if you add a good deal of weight, there's just so much you can do to battle water pressure at depth. During our second day of deep-dropping, we drifted closer to port, allowing the island to block most of the southwest wind. But we still had to keep the boat in reverse to stay over the lines.

Chen and Seger baited up with ballyhoo chunks, and the competition was on. Seger scored first with another silk snapper, also called yellow-eye snapper. Chen countered with a trump card - the queen snapper. The queen's bright-pink tail practically glowed; its silvery-blue sides seemed almost translucent in sunlight.
 
Last-Minute Blast
With enough deepwater snapper fillets for supper, Chen decided to drag baits past the deep AUTEC buoy one more time. But this trip, he would rig lures and plugs, targeting a speedy wahoo. Surely some of those toothy critters would be lurking near and under the dolphin schools.

Chen deployed a little of everything: a marlin lure on the surface, a plug on the wire line, a cedar plug for tuna and a small softhead. At a moderate trolling speed, he zigzagged around the buoy. The paths on the plotter looked like the boat was tying a knot. On the second pass, a 20-pound wahoo snagged the black-and-purple Mold Craft.

Seger wrestled the fish away from the buoy, and Chen motored the boat in the opposite direction. The speedster peeled off line, but the wire trace kept its sharp teeth from dispatching the terminal tackle.

Chen gaffed the fish, and Seger repeated his earlier demonstration of selfless sacrifice. He cowboyed the wahoo until the hooks came free, then shoved it into the fish box. Although it wasn't a tuna, the wahoo was a welcome sight.
"We're having sushi and land crab tonight," Chen chimed as Seger lowered the lid: A real Andros smorgasbord.
 
SIDEBAR
Andros Island

While Andros may be better known for bonefishing on the flats, offshore fishing in the Tongue of the Ocean attracts anglers navigating the Bahamas by boat or traveling by plane. Blue-water boats can fish the Tongue by running from the eastern coast of Andros, from Chub Cay or Nassau.

The largest of the Bahamian islands, Andros features four airports, three of which provide customs services. The closest airport to the central coast on the east side of the island, where we fished, was Andros Town. While a number of small airlines such as Western Air (www.westernairbahamas.com) serve the island, many Americans come in by way of chartered planes that routinely fly from south Florida (www.aircharterbahamas.com, www.caribconnections.com). For boats crossing the Gulf Stream, ports of entry on Andros include Congo Town, Fresh Creek, Mangrove Cay and Morgan's Bluff.

Most settlements dot the eastern shore; resorts include Kamalame Cay, an upscale property with private cabanas, where we stayed (242-368-6281, www.kamalame.com), and Small Hope Bay Lodge (242-368-2013, www.smallhope.com). For a complete list of accommodations or to find fishing charters for the Tongue of the Ocean, visit www.bahamas.com, www.bahamasnet.com or www.bahamas-travel.info.