This is not an action-packed fly fishing story. It has no plot progression that leaps into a thrashing battle between man versus beast, nor does it wrap up nicely with a tired smile and wet hands wrapped around The Fish of My Dreams. This is not a story about wrangling The White Whale—so please, don’t call me Ishmael.
I’m not sure why I expected the 1992 Buick from Bargain Auto Rental to have an aux cord. I scan every FM radio station twice through and hear nothing but static, so I wipe the sweat from my palms to look up the Mario Kart soundtrack on my phone and make a game of driving on the “wrong” side of the road. I am on my way to a small settlement on a small island in the Bahamas to meet Justin, one of the scientists for Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, a small non-profit fisheries conservation organization for which I am a writer. As the Bahamas Initiative Manager, Justin oversees all of the research and conservation projects we do across the island chain. That’s a tall order, considering the vastness of the area and the wealth of new information that continues to come out of the Bahamas research findings. But Justin isn’t the type to flaunt a full plate.
“Just drive north until you hit water,” his voice plays over in my head. I check the compass app on my phone for the fifteenth time. I can’t find a comfortable seated position atop the thin leather and stiff springs that comprise this gangster-low driver’s seat. As time on the dashboard clock marches on, my knee refuses to remain still, and I’m finding it more and more difficult to maintain a good speed on this one-lane road. I ease off the gas as I approach a small settlement, but a woman in a long magenta dress gives me the “slow down” signal. You need to chill, I silently admonish myself.
Find calm in the chaos.
I stumble out of the Buick—15 minutes late, naturally—toting my rod tube, dry bag, two apples, and a twelve-pack of Bahamian beer. Justin is holding the ferry dock, standing barefoot in his 13-foot skiff as if it’s an extension of his own body. He looks like he has held this position for longer than he’d like, but a gleaming smile from behind his sunglasses momentarily quells my guilt.
“First thing’s first,” he jokes, reaching for the twelve-pack that hangs from my shaking fingers. I squeeze my fingers tightly. I search his face carefully for any curious expression.
We finish stowing everything and push off the dock. I look forward to the ride; it is the last time I will be responsible solely for keeping my body in the boat and out of the Atlantic. But, as luck would have it, we reach our destination after a few short minutes and one right turn.
The chaos has begun much sooner than I had expected.
I practice speaking kindly to myself: Okay, here we go with the Ready Position—rod in right hand, hook bend between left thumb and forefinger, clear some line from the reel—don’t step on it—make sure your leader is past the guides, try not to get too horribly sunburned. Cue the soundtrack from Top Gun.
A woolen silence under the Bahamian sun. The usual Bow Buzz starts from my shoulder blades and make its way down to the insides of my wrist. I notice the weight of my skull, my brain, as thoughts whir and expand like water molecules in a pressure cooker. Between cloud cover, I squint across the flat for fish and curse the weight of this moment.
One would expect at least a sliver of calm from an angler with 15 years of saltwater time. But you must understand that for the past six months, nearly all my waking hours have been dedicated to the “big three” species of saltwater flats fishing—bonefish, tarpon, and permit. I wake up five mornings out of seven to write, read, post, hear, stress out, and dream about them. I can’t seem to swallow the sneaking anticipation of ending another day empty-handed. If every minuscule aspect of my fly presentation doesn’t fall perfectly in line and in time, I can consider myself a fraud and find another line of work. When written in words, and in retrospect, that train of thought feels overly dramatic and perhaps obsessive—but then again, every great angler worth their legacy seems to hide a touch of insanity just beneath the surface.
I lick the salt from my lips and brace the fly against the rod handle with my right middle and ring finger, and stretch the buff over my chin and nose with the left. Tucking it into my ball cap, I acknowledge the gift of muscle memory. Funny how a simple string of gestures can feel like home.
Calm in this chaos.
“Alex Anne.” I hear Justin say behind me. He hits each syllable like a substitute teacher calling roll. The sound of my name ratchets me back to earth.
“Point your rod. More right. More right. Stop. More left—Stop. Right there. See him?”
I answer by chucking the fly’s hook bend straight out and starting my cast. A breeze ripples the water and the air temperature drops as a cloud approaches overhead. Time is quickly running out, and in this moment, my only goal is to incite chaos.
The fly lands quietly on the water but is blown off course by the breeze, which is slowly gaining speed as I start to lose sunlight. Justin lets out a sigh. My face burns with sun and rage as I hear his glass bottle being lifted off the platform. I refuse to let this opportunity for chaos escape me.
I double haul the line in near desperation. I point my rod tip at the water and strip in the slack. Details of The Dance with this particular fish elude me, as they often do. I call it Angler’s Amnesia. My mind returns when I reel in enough line to look my White Whale in the eye.
This is the moment that matters—there’s no room for chaos when handling a bonefish.
As I watch its translucent tail glide away across the flat, I silently thank the fish and realize that I don’t need to search for other employment after all.
I thank my gracious guide with a high-five and let this feeling wash over me. It’s not achievement, but rather a proprietary sentiment that we as fly anglers chase: intimacy with the creatures that first evoked awe in us at the first twitch of a drugstore-bought combo rod. We’ve been chasing that same intimacy ever since. And we will continue to do so even after putting our faith in the next generation of catch-and-releasers.
If the tug is indeed the drug, then proper release is a way to prolong that high. Any fisherman realizes early on that this sport is not a question of man-versus-beast; it’s tradition built on a tradition of mutual respect. Proper handling techniques epitomize that tradition. We find life in perpetuating life—in all its chaos and all its calm.