The Bahamas' Amazing Maze

Fish hundreds of acres of shallows, channels and mangrove islands that make up the remarkable Marls

THE BAHAMAS' AMAZING MAZE

I glanced out the window of the little Embraer jet about an hour after it had taken off from Miami International, now on its approach to the Marsh Harbour airport on Great Abaco Island. My timing proved fortuitous, as I enjoyed an unexpected preview of the next few days’ fishing. As seconds and miles ticked by, I kept seeing more of the same — and what I saw offered visual confirmation of why I’d come here: a maze of clear sand and mud shallows, channels and mangrove islands stretching as far as the eye could see from high above. Hearing about the Bahamas’ famed Marls had sounded good; now, seeing them looked even better.David Rees / david.rees@gmail.com

ARRIVAL AT ABACO LODGE

Surprisingly, a taxi ride of less than 15 minutes from the airport put me and five fellow anglers at Abaco Lodge, which is uniquely positioned right on the doorstep of the Marls. Had we, upon arrival, grabbed our rods and jumped into one of the lodge's six Hell's Bay Waterman skiffs, we would have been fishing the Marls less than two hours after leaving Miami.Doug Olander

SET-UP TIME

However, we had some extra prep to do. Along with fishing these waters from skiffs, as everyone does, we also intended to explore the action from kayaks. Accordingly, David Hadden, brand director with Johnson Outdoors Watercraft, had shipped down several kayaks — Old Town Predators and Ocean Kayak Prowlers. Once we had sorted through some essential gear in our rooms, we met up outside the lodge, where six kayaks awaited a bit of setup for our fishing. While we adjusted seats, mounted rod holders, put push poles together, and so on, we learned a bit about the Marls.Doug Olander

VIEW FROM ABOVE

“The Marls is an incredible labyrinth with endless keys, all very shallow,” says Oliver White, our host at Abaco Lodge, which he opened in 2009. Very few fishermen have come even close to a real exploration of these waters, White added. Clearly, accessing the Marls with an Abaco Lodge guide is the surest way for fishermen to enjoy any sort of exploration. But — especially without lower units to worry about — kayaks could be a nice option as well.courtesy Google Maps

CATCHING A LIFT

We could have launched the kayaks from the resort straightaway, paddled out a stone's throw, and started fishing. And we would have caught fish. But we were happy to let guides in skiffs ferry us and the kayaks to the west, out to more distant areas that they felt would offer us good bonefish action. Of course, "distant" is relative, since the Marls comprises about 200 square miles of untouched flats, with another 200 square miles of still more shallows beyond, says White. So with three skiffs each carrying two anglers and towing two kayaks, we headed out. On that first outing, I was paired with Bill Carson with Johnson Outdoors (field manager for Humminbird), and in short order we were in our Predators, rods in their holders and push poles in our hands.Doug Olander

PROWLING THE SHALLOWS

It’s pretty evident that Old Town designed its Predator to be a fishing machine. For one thing, it offers a wide platform stable enough for David Hadden to easily pole through the mangrove shallows.Jason Arnold / jasonarnoldphoto.com

STAKED OUT AND HOOKED UP

While I poled, looking for fish, I noticed that Bill Carson had staked out about 50 yards away. A few minutes later, I noticed that his pole was bent as he worked on his first bonefish of the trip.Doug Olander

NO NEED TO WADE

Carson eases in his first bone of the trip. Fortunately, he’s not a Texan who is genetically programmed to wade-fish; poling out and staying in the kayak works, since in many areas the bottom is soft, sucking mud.Doug Olander

BEYOND BONEFISH

There’s always a good chance to sight-cast to sharks on these flats. We generally took the opportunity: Sight-casting to anything is fun, and in very shallow water, blacktips and bonnetheads on light line can be a blast. Here, I’m about to release a lemon. We did fail to hook any permit, but they’re here. Though clients of the lodge probably land only 25 or so permit in a year, “they have countless shots.” More might be landed, White adds, but “no one’s ever ready!” “Tarpon are pretty much always around, though not always real active,” White adds. Tarpon often hang out in “blue holes,” the uncommon, very deep, isolated holes in the flats, characterized by azure waters.Jason Arnold / jasonarnoldphoto.com

SKIFF OR 'YAK: YOU CHOOSE

We all caught fish from the kayaks on the flats, and agreed that the ’yak option was a very cool one for fishing these pristine waters on our own. And it’s an option that, since our visit there, remains available to anglers at Abaco Lodge. But one has to really want to do the independent kayak thing — odds are an angler will have many more shots at bones while standing on the bow of a skiff with a guide poling and pointing out targets. On the other hand, as White noted, only kayaks can get into those areas too shallow even for the skiffs and where the bottom is too soft to wade. Most of us concluded that kayaks offer a fulfilling flats-fishing challenge for at least a day or two as part of a visit to Abaco Lodge.Doug Olander

OVERLAND TO SNAKE CAY CREEK

One can also fish deeper inlets and channels, particularly to the east, on the Atlantic side. Here, the bones are fewer but bigger, and while there’s some variety on the Marls, there’s much more on the east side. Accordingly, we added some slightly heavier gear to our arsenals and, with the kayaks loaded onto a trailer, hopped in one of two trucks for a 30-minute ride to Snake Cay Creek on the eastern side of Abaco. There, we launched our kayaks into the clear waters of a mangrove-lined bay, protected from a stiff eastern breeze. As kayak anglers are wont to do, we pretty much all paddled our own ways. My way took me back into a small, quiet cove, where in the clear water I spotted the brilliant pink of a mutton snapper of moderate size. Unfortunately, when I saw the fish, it was very near the kayak. By the time I reached for a spinner with a bucktail and plastic bait, the wary snapper was looking at me in its rearview.Doug Olander

SHARKS IN THE CHANNEL

That afternoon, the skiffs ferried us and the kayaks to a small but fairly deep channel where, White told us, sharks would be coming in on the tide — predominantly lemons, but also blacktips and often bulls (like this hefty model hooked by one of the kayak anglers). We got down to soaking baits and waited, though not for long. Sure enough, large, dark shapes starting cruising past a point where the channel began. Shortly thereafter, a shout grabbed my attention, and I looked over to see Krystl Tonkin, Columbia Sportswear's marketing specialist, holding on to her large spinner as the rod bucked. A big blacktip burst into the air about 30 feet away in a dramatic jump that also gave it its freedom.Jason Arnold / jasonarnoldphoto.com

SEA TOW

Not long after, Colorado native Matt Gray, then with Eagle Claw, stuck a good lemon shark and proceeded to go for a ride. Fortunately the shark stayed local (and photographer Jason Arnold managed to get some good over/under shots).Jason Arnold / jasonarnoldphoto.com

MORE OF THE MARLS

The next day we adopted a more traditional approach to our fishing, doing so from the guided skiffs. We got to see more of the Marls — but even though Abaco Lodge boats will at times fish up to 20 miles from the dock, that distance still doesn’t put them outside of this expansive area. Guides who know the waters are certainly requisite. Tides are hard to predict accurately in these shallows, and wind can have a great impact on water movement and levels day to day and even hour to hour, White says.Doug Olander

BONEFISH ON CRANKBAITS

Though the bonefish weren't enormous, we had plenty of shots. Tonkin nailed some with her fly rod and others on spin. Gray (shown here) and I found that Marls bonefish apparently are keen to dine on small fish, since we cast little Yo-Zuri Pins Minnows (especially in chartreuse-and-silver) past a number of them and watched them dart in to grab the little crankbaits as we twitched them toward the boat.Doug Olander

BONES 'N CUDAS

While bonefish generally run 2 to 4 pounds (like this one caught on by Tonkin), there are some pretty hefty specimens in the Marls. “We get lots of bones 6 to 8 pounds,” White says, but he’s released them in the 11- to 12-pound range. “I’ve fished places like the Seychelles,” White says, “but the single biggest bonefish I’ve ever seen was here in the Marls.” White says at first he mistook it for a barracuda. Speaking of which, we caught quite a few barracuda during the trip, though none very large. I was hoping to encounter some logs laid up in a foot of water. Anyone who’s never fished big barracuda this way — sight-casting surface or tube lures or flies to them — would have a tough time imagining how exciting it can be.Doug Olander

RAIN OR SHINE, ACRES TO EXPLORE

Beyond the Marls and the Atlantic flats across the island, Abaco Lodge anglers have more options, including a 45-minute drive all the way north, from which point it’s possible to fish the upper cays close to Walker’s — Fish, Paw Paw, Carters and others. But with its hundreds of acres of hardly fished, hardly explored shallows, the Marls is the main draw for flats enthusiasts, and should remain so for a long time to come.Jason Arnold / jasonarnoldphoto.com

A VISIT TO ABACO LODGE

Abaco Lodge proved a welcome place to come home to at the end of each fishing day, with a casual main building and a covered, fan-cooled veranda, a large fire pit roaring after dark, an open bar for local spirits, and outstanding meals. It's the only game in town of the sort for fishing the Marls. The lodge had at one time been a hotel, then apartments, and then a shambles after a hurricane. Lodge owner Oliver White says he knew the fishing here to be spectacular; he ended up leaving a hedge-fund career and, with some backing, buying the property. After a year of work by a 40-man crew, the shambles had become a first-class resort with 10 big, gorgeous, air-conditioned guest rooms.Doug Olander

QUICK HOP FROM THE U.S. TO A DIFFERENT PLACE

Despite the deep slump in the economy when White rebuilt the lodge, business boomed and word of the Abaco Lodge spread — among its early clients were Michael Keaton and Tom Brokaw — and it's well established among fly-fishers today. However, guides gladly cater to anglers fishing light-tackle spin and conventional gear as well. Though many anglers bring tackle (and the lodge will offer specific recommendations for bonefish as well as other species), the lodge offers a complement of all sorts of high-quality rod and reels. Getting here is as easy as catching an American flight from Miami, or a United flight from Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach or Orlando — or via any number of smaller airlines, including charters. The lodge is open year-round. You can get more information by clicking here or calling 800-530-6928.courtesy Bill Carson, Humminbird

BONES GROW SLOWLY

As you can't judge a book by its cover, you can't figure an estuary's productivity by the appearance of its waters. "The Marls' productivity is actually super low," says Dr. Craig A. Layman, a biologist at North Carolina State University, who's studied these waters for years. Bonefish here do grow big, but they get there slowly. As an example, according to the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, a 23-inch bonefish (measured at the fork) in most Caribbean waters (including the Marls) could be as much as 16 years old. The same size bonefish in the Florida Keys would be about 6 years old. Layman is currently studying an extensive mangrove die-off in several Bahamas areas, including the Marls, to determine causality.Jason Arnold / jasonarnoldphoto.com