Conservation effort helps keep bonefish bountiful in Bahamas

Deep Water Cay fishing guide Harry Rolle holds up a tagged bonefish caught by Sue Cocking on fly rod near McLean's Town, Grand Bahama Island.
Deep Water Cay fishing guide Harry Rolle holds up a tagged bonefish caught by Sue Cocking on fly rod near McLean's Town, Grand Bahama Island.
Susan Cocking / Miami Herald Staff

Not many flats fishing destinations can claim their fisheries are better than 30 years ago, and Deep Water Cay — a small, private island resort just off the east end of Grand Bahama Island — doesn’t brag that way. But maybe it should.

Case in point: More than 30 years ago, fishing with shrimp for bait, I caught and released nine bonefish in three full days on the flats surrounding Deep Water Cay. Last week, I caught and released seven bonefish in only a half-day using a fly rod. One of them bore a Bonefish & Tarpon Trust streamer tag.

And don’t even get me started about the permit fishing at Burroughs Cay — a 45-minute boat ride from the island. I had opportunities to cast to five schools of huge, tailing permit on the incoming tide — probably 50 fish — in a couple of hours. That tally doesn’t include numerous singles spotted by guide Harry Rolle that streaked off before I could throw the fly to them. How huge were the fish? Let’s just say their backs — not just their dorsal fins — were breaking the surface in 3 feet of water. I didn’t catch any permit, but that was mostly because of bad casts and finicky fish that chased the fly but failed to eat it.

“Rocks and current — that’s what permit like,” Rolle said.

But the waters around Deep Water Cay have so much more going for them than that: light fishing pressure; 250 square miles of sand, grass and rocky flats, creeks and lakes; natural channels that run north-south between mangrove islands providing a lee shoreline in the wind and a substantial tide differential within a short distance; and stewards working to protect the fishery.

Since Deep Water Cay’s opening back in 1958, catch-and-release has been strongly encouraged. Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, a Vero Beach-based conservation organization dedicated to protecting and enhancing flats species, has worked with the resort’s owners, guides and anglers to tag some 1,600 bonefish over the past few years.

BTT director of operations Aaron Adams said the tagging program is aimed at understanding bonefish movement patterns and habitat use so that the fishery can be better conserved. So far, he said, the recapture data shows the silver streakers tend to hang within a mile of where they were originally caught, but that they may travel long distances— up to 70 miles — to reach spawning locations. These findings mirror tagging studies performed in South Florida by University of Miami researchers.

“We are using the tagging data to help Bahamas National Trust in their efforts to institute new national parks that would protect habitats,” Adams wrote in an email.

The tagged bone I recaptured Oct. 11 supported BTT’s findings. The fish ate a hot pink, flashy bearded shrimp-like fly with no name in an area known as Rocky Creek just off the small settlement of McLean’s Town. It looked to be about 21 inches long, and its tag — BAP 1123 — was coated with a bit of algae. Adams said the fish originally was tagged by two BTT biologists on June 11 in the same area and measured 20.5 inches.

None of the other six bones I released that day bore tags. Probably the largest was a 4-pounder found mudding in a creek just north of Deep Water Cay. All but the tagged fish ate a tan mantis shrimp fly pattern that Rolle says is effective on both bonefish and permit.

Sight-fishing on the flats isn’t the only angling going on there. While I was releasing bonefish (and failing to hook permit), several other fishermen were successful deep-dropping for queen snapper south of the island and Fort Lauderdale novice angler Paul Rubio fought a huge Cubera snapper for 45 minutes on light tackle before it broke the line. With Friday’s full moon, wahoo fishing in nearby Northwest Providence Channel using fast-trolled lures ought to be productive.

With the plenitude of fishy choices — deep, shallow, and in-between — it felt kind of like Wonderland. And not just once upon a time.

For more information about Deep Water Cay, visit

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