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Travel: Fishing Bonaire, Netherland Antilles

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October 29, 2013
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As my first day of fishing Bonaire transitioned into afternoon, I found myself wading the shallow waters of a wonderland that felt unmatched by any other destination. The 180-degree arc in front of me and my guide Thomas set a table spread of visual treats: two wading flocks of mature pink flamingos, a tall beige lighthouse, a row of squat historic slave huts, and most importantly, seven or eight separate schools of bonefish grazing our way.

The brisk breeze pushed mountain-shaped clouds across the setting sun, causing the colors of the flamingos, the buildings and the tailing fish to slowly slip from their "usual" state into a covering of orange and yellow tints afforded by these unfolding moments. Under these shifting sky conditions, we were awaiting that fragile window of time when bonefish made of first, silver, and then, gold would arrive at the optimal casting distance.

BonaireNetherlandAntilles blogAs the fish approached us, I was reassured that the tiny wavelets that carpeted the flats surface would cushion the landing of my presentation. Though my tackle was 6-pound spinning topped off with a 1/0 hook, tiny crab and BB shot, even the most perfect landing would cause a disturbance amongst bones that were tailing in waters no deeper than a foot.

Thomas and I were squatting quietly into the water at least 30 seconds before the edge of the first school reached us. When the time was right, I feathered a cast about 6 feet in front of what I hoped was the tail of the lead fish. I took a deep breath and kept perfectly still. The lead fish stopped cruising three seconds later and tailed up vigorously. Simultaneously, my line tightened toward the feeding fish and I jab-struck the fish with all 9 feet of my ultra light graphite steelhead rod.

The sudden prick and pressure of my strike and running line shocked the bonefish. It exploded across the flat, ripping a momentary tunnel through the water that ended about a 100 feet away as I applied moderate vertical rod pressure from my now-standing position. I gingerly played the fish towards us, but as it spotted my silhouette, it bolted off on another water-ripping run half as long as the first. In another minute, I had my first Bonaire bonefish at our feet. It was a beautiful specimen of about 4 pounds, which is typical for this habitat.

After releasing this noble battler, the remaining light of the approaching sunset allowed me the visibility to enjoy the same kind of action for another half hour. Before it grew too dark, we walked back to Thomas' car, which was parked barely a block away alongside the ocean road. Bonefish (usually in pods and schools) that commonly tail, cruise, and mud often alongside the roadway are a feature that makes flats fishing in Bonaire so unique-there is absolutely no need for a boat in this fishery. I was to learn that this island had many other "Bonaire-only" kinds of shoreline fisheries.

Historically, this was made possible through the construction of ocean-fed salt production ponds (or salinas). These areas are in turn surrounded by vast but less saline "support ponds" and it is here that bonefish can be found in impressive numbers. Unlike the salinas of Long Island and Great Inagua in the Bahamas, the bonefish of Bonaire can literally be fished right near your vehicle.

As we drove north to downtown Kralendijk, I was able to reflect on the exciting happenings that had begun the day before with a smooth flight from Miami to Curacao and then picking up a quick 20-minute connecting flight to Bonaire. Upon my arrival at Flamingo Airport, Rolando Marin of Tourism Bonaire greeted me and verified that all the details of my planned itinerary were intact — I knew I was in good hands! He assisted me in securing my reserved water view room at the Bonaire Seaside Apartments. These lodgings were certainly one of the finest on the island in its ultramodern European decor and appointments.

My arrival day was pleasing. I explored downtown on foot until dark and then enjoyed a gourmet Indonesian dinner at Warong Louise restaurant on their open patio that was adorned with hanging lights and a striking quarter moon overhead in the indigo sky. Afterwards, I had my transportation pick me up and drop me off to my room at the "Seaside" for a good night's rest, since I was to be picked up by Captain Thomas at 6 a.m. the next morning.

Fishing Day 1

I was up long before Thomas arrived so I could prepare two 9-foot long, 6-pound bonefish spinning outfits and two 7-foot long, 12-pound "all-purpose" marine spinning outfits. I knew from our prior email communications that he was responsible for the "business end" of my tackle regarding any baits or lures.

Thomas was right on time in his pickup and we said hello. After we carefully placed my outfits in the bed of his vehicle, we hopped in and starting driving south. He then explained that today's angling menu would involve bonefish, a possible permit, and some blackfin tuna. When I heard that last item, I mentioned that I was under the impression that today was to be an "on foot" fishing day. He smiled and turning to me, said, "it will be."

We began our morning by breakfasting on some meat and potato fritters and hot coffee at one of the island's local "snacks." After we resumed our truck journey south, Thomas said that our first stop would be in the salt ponds for bonefish. Since the tide would be high in the morning, we'd either find tailing fish right along the roadside or big mudding schools a bit further into the ponds. The morning sky was cloudless and provided easy visibility on the flats. While there were just a few tailing fish on the shore, the bonefish muds were numerous; but they would require a fifty-yard slog through waste deep water. Since I preferred fishing to sighted fish and I knew the tide would be falling, I asked Thomas to postpone the flats fishing for late afternoon.

It was now mid-morning. Thomas asked if I ever caught blackfin tuna from shore. By his expression, it was no surprise to him when my answer was in the negative. He said, "let's get you one, then." We drove back north into town and he drove his pickup right onto the city pier. Although there were a few hand line fishermen fishing for scad and small mackeral in the sapphire-colored waters below, there were no sport fishermen.

Thomas explained that within 150 feet from shoreline the water was well over 200 feet deep. He explained that the rapid drop-off of this island was what made shore casting for blackfins possible. He tied on a small but heavy spoon with eyes straight to my 12-pound line and told me to cast it out as far as I could and then let the lure drop for a count of 30.

All it took was 3 casts before I had a hard pull on my drop. I closed the bail and struck hard. My rod heeled over and the tip bounced a few times before the drag started screaming. Thomas said, "It's a blackfin...see the way the tail bounced your rod tip on the strike?" The first run suddenly stopped as my rod shot up, indicating either a cutoff or a pulled hook. By the way my line reeled in, it was surely a cutoff.

As we tied on the second and last spoon, I asked Thomas if we should use a leader or double line. He felt that tunas prefer the simplest and most natural presentations, so that's how we played it. On my fourth cast, I had another hard strike, but this time on the retrieve. As soon as I felt my fish was well hooked, I backed off on the drag and played it lightly since I was leaderless. In about fifteen minutes of a seesaw battle, we finally saw the right "colors" coming up. All it took was a few more turns of the fast-retrieve reel and a blackfin of about 8 pounds was struggling in tight circles 20 feet below us. As there was no pier gaff around, Thomas tried to hand line it up to us, but a sickening cracking sound accompanied the break off and the chunky little battler happily swam away.

I was made into a blackfin believer. Since the last spoon was gone and my wish for sight casting was still strong, we headed back south into the salt ponds and the low tide action that began this story. That night, we celebrated a good day of fishing at Zee Zicht Restaurant as we dined on a supper of fried fish, funchi and ice-cold Amstel beer

Fishing Day 2

Thomas picked me up at the same time as the day before and took me over to his boat to discuss the day's fishing. As we walked out over the pier to his 30-foot Hatteras, we saw a permit of about thirty pounds slowly swim into the refuge of the deep. I also noticed large schools of parrotfish tailing along the seawall in the early morning calm. When Thomas proposed that we could take out his vessel and troll on downriggers for even bigger tuna and probably some wahoo, I told him I'd rather use casting tackle for another species. He responded that we could spend another day on foot and cast for snook and barracuda at Lac Bay, which was another 20 minutes down the road from the lighthouse flats we'd fished the prior afternoon.

Since I'm a firm believer that novelty and challenge bring back the spice in a long angling career, I inquired about all those multicolored tails that were working a huge expanse of the downtown shoreline. I could see Thomas' puzzled expression as he ventured the observation that nobody really tried for them in Bonaire. I responded that the latest worldwide news on this species was that a few anglers in the Seychelles led by the operator group, FlyCastAway, had succeeded in taking huge parrotfish on fly. My next question was whether there were bigger parrotfish in less pressured areas on the island. Thomas smiled and informed me we'd find all the large tailing parrotfish I would want to cast at merely on the ocean side of the road just across from the bonefish flats.

So we grabbed three 12-pound spinners and loaded them into the back of his pickup truck. We then rummaged through all of his tackle and took any lure that looked algae or crabs as well as some hooks and live crabs left over from the day before.

When we arrived, he pulled his truck up to a rocky embankment on the ocean side of the road and parked. When we climbed out to the tip of a rocky overhang, the relatively calm surf blessed us with sightings of multiple groups of really huge parrotfish tailing along the shoreline: most of the fish were a striking sapphire blue or a green-as-grass hue and all the fish appeared to be well over twenty pounds.

Poor Thomas! I think I drove him to distraction that day as I coerced him into trying every lure in his possession. Despite all this variety, the parrots simply swam around my presentations, which I fished quite still, letting the wave surge move the rubber dressings or legs. I pushed him further to help me try the different crabs that abounded in the area, but still no takes. Here I stood — a crazy Yank light-tackler — burnt by the hot Bonaire sun and burnished by the breeze, completely unable to stop fishing to these huge colorful tailers playing in the sizzling and surging surf beneath me. I think the final straw was when I had Thomas bait me up with a sushi styled combo of my specifications consisting of snail meat and algae wrapped around my 1/0 hook.

Thomas wandered off to explore the rocks to the south — probably to get a break from me. I spotted a fresh school of large tailing parrotfish 100 feet to the north. I eased up towards them and flicked my seafood offering into the midst of about 20 huge fish. Thomas was now but a tiny silhouette on the rocky horizon and I was completely alone in this novel and exciting moment. My line tightened in a way that had nothing to do with the surge of the surf. I slowly lifted my rod tip and felt moving weight. I struck hard and a blue parrotfish well over 30 pounds exploded out of the rocky shallows and made my drag scream as it headed out to sea. The next 15 seconds were a mix of satisfied triumph and sudden disappointment as the huge battler cut me off as it blasted into a coral forest.

This last experience made my stay in bountiful Bonaire even more wonderful. I kept this secret moment to myself as the day matured into an evening of preparation of return to Miami. The image of the blue parrot in my mind made the return to urban south Florida a whole lot easier.

Important Facts About Bonaire

  • Population: 14,000 residents
  • Capital: Kralendijk
  • Language: Dutch and Papiamento, but English and Spanish are widely spoken.
  • Size: 27 miles long and 3 to 5 miles wide
  • Currency: Antillean guilders and American dollars. One U.S. dollar equals 1.77 NAf
  • Geography: Located 50 miles north of Venezuela, Bonaire is part of the Netherlands Antilles. It is also the "B" of the ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao). The terrain is desert and features flat land with an occasional mountain.
  • Airport: Flamingo Airport is served by KLM and other major airlines. American anglers will find that the easiest route is to fly from Miami to Hato Airport in Curacao with a carrier such as American Airlines and then take the 20-minute flight to Bonaire by using an inter-island carrier such as Divi Divi Air.
  • Documents: Going to and from the U.S. to Bonaire requires a valid U.S. passport.
  • Weather: There is an average daily temperature of 81 degrees with dry climate and brisk winds.
  • Electricity: 127 Volts AC (50 cycles)
  • Activities: Bonaire is generally considered to be the top fishing and diving destination in the entire western hemisphere. Fishing pressure-be it sport or commercial — is basically non-existent and you'll be wading the flats, casting the surf, and fishing the blue water  without any competition. Downtown Kralendijk has duty-free shopping, multiple dive and snorkel operators, excellent hotels, and superb international restaurants-making this island an ideal destination for the family fisherman.
Tagged under Read 6488 times Last modified on April 24, 2015
Jan Maizler
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Jan Maizler is a veteran writer, author, editor and blogger with over 40 years in the outdoor writing field. He has written eight books and more than 600 articles for all the leading saltwater angling magazines, as well as many prominent websites. He has traveled all over the world and is past International Game Fish Association world record holder for permit on 4-pound line and bonefish on 2-pound line.

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