They Went a Long Way to Fish. Then They Went a Little Too Far.

Andy Hughes, of Annapolis, strikes a pose with a barracuda who can't help mouthing off.
Andy Hughes, of Annapolis, strikes a pose with a barracuda who can't help mouthing off. (By Angus Phillips For The Washington Post)
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By Angus Phillips
Sunday, June 8, 2008

I only have two rules for fishing and boating. No. 1 is never leave fish to look for fish, No. 2 is never buy anything used on the Eastern Shore because it's undoubtedly already toast.

But rules are made to be broken. Last year I bought a used outboard from a nice young man on Kent Island to replace the ancient one that finally gave up the ghost on my 44-year-old Boston Whaler. The 60-horse Mercury took awhile to get going, but it's running like a freight train now (knock wood) and I saved $5,000 against the cost of a new one.

Emboldened by that, I took aim at rule No. 1 last week in Belize, where we were poking around the rocks and reefs for six days on a sailing catamaran. Part of the plan was to catch a bonefish, bones being abundant in the shallow flats around the reef that shields the length of Belize from the stormy Caribbean Sea -- the largest coral reef in North America.

To that end, we hired a guide for two days to take us out to Glover's Reef, one of three coral atolls lying outside the main protective reef and a notable place for bonefishing. To get to Glover's, you navigate a narrow, unmarked channel at Tobacco Cay. The people who rented us the catamaran didn't want us trying that on our own.

Jimmie Westby hitched a ride on a native fisherman's skiff to meet us at Tobacco Cay. He clearly knew his stuff. "We're gonna catch some bones tomorrow, man, don't worry," he said as he piloted our 40-foot floating gin palace, Lisa Michelle, through the bright water of the cut, then dodged coral outcrops and sandy shallows on the 10-mile run to Glover's.

We dropped anchor in 10 feet of water off the Southwest Cays at Glover's, where coconut palms swayed in the afternoon breeze and, judging by the sound of it, rum flowed freely at the tiki bar on the end of the dock. Westby, a lifelong Belizean, hopped in the inflatable dinghy and beckoned me and Andy Hughes aboard. "Let's go find those bones."

We grabbed flyrods and jumped in. It was mid-tide and rising, the worst conditions for bonefishing, which is best at low tide when fish move to shallows to feed on bait draining out of backwaters with the current. Westby fired up the little four-horse outboard and putt-putted into the skinny water, scanning the bottom for gray shadows.

Bonefish are tough to catch because of their legendary spookiness. Living as they do in gin-clear, shallow water, their flight reflexes are finely tuned. They'll scatter at the first hint of danger. They're also famously fast and strong. A four-pound bonefish fights like a 10-pound bluefish or striper.

Westby ran the motor until the water gave out, then sent us over the side to wade the flats. Hughes went one way and I the other. He hit the school first, approaching stealthily and managing a few casts before they spooked, but the fish weren't feeding and he never got a strike.

"Don't worry, we'll come back in the morning on low tide and get them," Westby said.

First we trolled the deep water at the crack of dawn and caught some barracudas and a king mackerel for dinner, but Westby had us back on the anchor early, in plenty of time to tackle the bones at low tide. They were right where Hughes left them the evening before, and now they were on the feed. From 100 yards away, you could see tailfins breaking the surface as the bonefish tipped up to bury their snouts in the soft sand, grubbing out food.

Sunshine glinted off their silvery tails. "Looks like a bunch of razor blades," said Hughes, who chases bonefish in the Bahamas every winter. My heart was pounding. I've only fished for bones a few times and only ever caught one on a fly.

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