Dateline: September 12, 2013 – Bimini, Bahamas
My last trip to the Bahamas was the most important vacation I ever took. It was July of 2011, and I had just spent three weeks trying to come to grips with my mother passing away. I needed to be anywhere but Michigan, and I needed to be on the water. My family had been shattered, but 2011 was also the summer I seemed to be accepted as the tallest but least attractive Arostegui. (Click HERE for details.)
The fishing on that trip was a bit difficult – a lot of things that we expected to catch were off the bite. Still, I got some important species, including two beautiful golden tilefish, but to tell the truth, and I don’t say this very often, but it wouldn’t have mattered if we didn’t catch anything. It was great to be out on the water. I also knew we would go back.
It took a couple of years, but the schedules aligned in September of 2013, and armed with three pair of travel underwear and 30 pounds of jigs, I set out to revisit Bimini, as a guest of the Arostegui family. We spent a couple of days in Miami getting ready, getting bait and groceries, poking around for oddball local species, and packing and repacking my boxes of jigs.
We got a very early start on the ninth. It was a couple of hours of smooth sailing over to Bimini – a low, reefy island that sits just above the clear Caribbean waters. We checked in with the hotel and customs, then raced out to the first reef and tied on some big jigs.
Ahhh, jigs. There is nothing I love more than dropping a big lure down someplace where something is actually likely to eat it. I had quite a backlog of big leadheads, grubs, scampi tails, and similar things that have been accumulating around my garage since the Lions were respectable. And I brought them ALL.
I hooked up immediately, and I thought to myself – now this is going to be a trip to remember. I guessed the fish as a big grouper – a powerful fight but not fast, slugging it out deep but not racing off to the horizon. I pulled on it hard for about ten minutes, and as it gradually surfaced, my jaw dropped. It was a shark, hooked fair and square in the mouth on a jig. A Caribbean reef shark, one of those species that I had inexplicably missed in 2011. I felt better already.
The Caribbean reef shark. I was completely OK with letting Martini do the wrestling with it.
Note the jig just at the end of the gaff handle. Go figure.
Then it got weird. I have to do weird things to find new species, and deep dropping is one of those things. Deep dropping is miserable work. It starts with the unbridled optimism of loading gobs of bait onto circle hooks, attaching these rigs to two or more pounds of lead, and letting fly. It takes about six minutes for one of these rigs to hit 1000 feet, and about three minutes in, you begin to realize it’s going to take a lot longer than that to reel it up. Most drops do not result in a hookup, which seems grossly unfair considering the amount of work involved.
Our first few drops followed the statistical pattern mentioned above, and my arm was ready to fall off. But the fourth drop – down some 1200 feet, which is a lot of feet, resulted in bites. Martini hooked up first and, because he is young and athletic, got his fish off the bottom and toward the surface much more quickly than I did. This meant that the shark saw his first and ate it, and mine came to the top unscathed, which is terribly unfair but worked out fine as far as I’m concerned.
The fish turned out to be an Atlantic Scombrops, a great species and an even better dinner. Martini got one shortly afterward. Doug Olander, editor over at Sport Fishing Magazine, holds the world record for this species and was aghast that we would try to break it.
To close out the day, we anchored up and started fishing the shallow reefs, and although I had caught many of the critters before, let’s face it, this was fun. In the middle of all this, I caught a black durgon – a type of triggerfish that frequents the area, and unwittingly entered into a bizarre five-way tie for the all-tackle record on this species. Someone needs to get a bigger one to free up space in the book.
Two of the five record holders on the black durgon.
The next day, we got on the water early and hit some shallow reefs. The jigs continued producing. I got some gorgeous groupers, including the big strawberry below. Note the size of the jig it ate.
Strawberry grouper. Another very good dinner.
We moved off the deeper reefs mid-morning and anchored up on some shallow rockpiles. As we chummed behind the boat, I noticed some baitfish with bright red tails streaking in and out of the trail. Breaking out one of the 316 sabiki rigs I carry for just such an occasion, I soon hooked a redtail scad, and added species 1233.
It’s a small fish, but it’s bigger than many other small fish I’ve caught, AND Jaime Hamamoto hasn’t caught one so there.
A lot of the fun, as always, was back at the dock. The harbor in Bimini is jammed with fish, anything from tropical mini-critters to respectable sharks and cobia. Of course, this means that I was completely rude to my hosts and raced off the boat and rushed through dinner so I could be on the water as much as I could. If any of you are surprised by me choosing fishing over general good manners, you must be new readers. Welcome!
I focused on the smaller stuff, and a few shrimp later, I landed a beautiful surgeonfish. These little fellows are called surgeonfish because they have a scalpel-like blade on their tail, a fact I found out the hard way a few years ago in Hawaii.
The ocean surgeonfish. Supposed to be vegetarian, but this one liked shrimp.
I also got a smallmouth grunt, yet another species. This trip, with five species already, was quickly becoming epic. I hope the Arosteguis can forgive me for rushing out on dinner and probably not even chewing my lobster that thoroughly.
The next day, I added a species, but it wasn’t the one I thought I did. If this confuses you, that makes two of us.
From time to time, I mess up an identification. Eight years ago, in Belize, I caught a nice-sized jack. I identified it as a bar jack because it had a &^%$ bar on the back like the book says. I have been trying to catch the similar yellow jack ever since but had not connected.
As we anchored up off a beautiful reef and dropoff, a school of big fish slashed through bait right behind the boat. Marty said “Yellow jacks! Get a plug in the water!!” I fumbled around and tied something on, then cast. After a few misses, I latched onto something big and solid, and the fight was on. After a few blazing runs, I brought a beautiful jack on board and said “Darn – another bar jack.” Martini said “No – that’s a yellow jack.”
Foolishly, I said “Bar jack, it has a bar on the back.” And Martini said “They both have a bar, but the bar jack’s bar comes all the way onto the lower lobe of the caudal fin and it doesn’t have YELLOW marks like the yellow jack you are holding.” Oops. In retrospect, it was inadvisable to pick this fight with a marine biology student who has been fishing in this area for 20 years, but just as in hockey, I plowed ahead heedless of common sense.
Marty separates us and holds up my yellow jack.
In a conciliatory tone, Martini told me there were some bar jacks on the reef and told me to get casting. You know what happened next, and nobody likes a smartass.
My bar jack. Yes he was laughing at me. I would have laughed at me. I had probably thrown back three dozen small ones over the years thinking I had already caught the species.
Just to be snotty, I am going to publish a childhood picture of Martini.
Maybe this will teach Martini to correct me. You might point out that he was completely right, but don’t change the subject.
The fishing was wide open, with big jacks chasing jigs and poppers everywhere behind the boat. It was a full-on feeding frenzy, and the Bahamas had shown what a special place they could be. We stuck at it for a couple of hours, and the fishing was once-in-a-lifetime. Martini went down in his snorkel gear and speared a monster hogfish.
Yes, this is a real fish. Dr. Seuss did not invent it.
On the way back to the harbor, Marty parked us on one more reef, and the fishing, which had already been spectacular, got even better. Indeed, for roughly a golden hour, it was just stupid good – every jig seemed to get slammed, every bait seemed to get eaten. It was like the fishing shows you see on TV, only we didn’t need to film for three days to get the action.
Black grouper. I don’t even remember if I caught this or Martini did. It doesn’t really matter – we all got big fish.
Mutton snapper. Not as beastly as the one in Brazil that I had hoped was a stingray, but nice. (Click HERE for the ugly details. Parental advisory for nudity and Ricky Martin music.)
That evening, I didn’t fish. I did something even more important. I wasn’t rude for once. The Arosteguis are a marvelously close family. Martini’s relationship with his father I truly admire – I was never close to my Dad, and while I have managed to reach adulthood and be a productive member of society, this is still something that leaves a void. There is something just plain nice about seeing people who care about each other this much, and sometimes it is the smallest things – like cooking dinner together – that are the most important.
Martini had captured a couple of lobsters, and as soon as we docked, Marty set to creating a stir-fry of epic proportions. I knew it was not the night to fish, and for once, I sat around the boat and was sociable. The dinner was simply outstanding, and I took seriously my role of ensuring that there are no leftovers. We spoke well into the evening, and as it got late, I was included in an important ritual. Roberta produced a bottle of coconut rum and a bag of Oreos. Although both are excellent on their own, in combination, they are transcendent, doubly so after a few shots of the rum. We talked well into the evening, and I didn’t want it to end. These are truly special people and a special family to make me stop fishing for a few hours.
Marty and his world-famous lobster stir-fry.
Our last day, we started by working our way around some shallows near the harbor. Roberta nailed a nice bonefish on a sand flat, just to show us she could catch something beside world record black durgon. (I jest of course. Roberta has more world records than I do.)
Just your basic bonefish before breakfast.
Heading west toward Miami, we stopped on a few reefs, shallow and deep. Martini pulled a bizarre soldierfish from about 1200 feet down, and we got a few other nice snappers. And then, just as in 2011, the last spot produced a miracle. About 150 feet down, one of my last leadheads got smashed. My guess was another nice strawberry grouper, and as I peered into the depths looking for the first hint of color, I saw red and thought I was right. But then it got redder. And redder. And redder. It was a yellowfin grouper, one of the most colorful fish in the ocean, and a species I had once bitterly lost at boatside. The trip had a perfect ending, and we motored back to Miami without the grins ever leaving our faces.
This is not Photoshopped. I think they glow in the dark.
The next day, as I left Miami, I couldn’t help but feel a bit out of sorts. This is a group where I feel completely welcome, and while I am not quite at their level of fishing skill, they still put up with me and make me feel part of the family whenever we are together. I could not wait for the next visit.
Heading to the airport, my focus changed. I wasn’t heading home – not just yet. I was heading east, a thousand miles out into the Caribbean, for a shot at getting one of the most elusive big game species on the planet. A species that had flat-out humiliated me in April. But with luck, in a day or two, I would have a date with destiny – and an Atlantic Blue Marlin.