Mangrove Cay, Bahamas, October 31-November 6--The 2012 annual Project Healing Waters Andros Island bonefish trip was a great success. Four disabled vets from around the country joined trip leader, Randy Dix (Montana PHWFF) and two Helena hosts, Frank Cooper and Greg Jackson. Justin Waayenberg (Montana), Wally Biernat and David Brittain (Colorado) and Cliff Lutz (Maryland).
We gathered at the Nassau airport on All Hallow’s Eve and arrived on Mangrove Cay via a 15 minute flight that touched down to a beautiful Caribbean evening light. Then, minus Wally’s luggage, we all piled into a van and headed down the road a short ways to Swain Cay Lodge. This is a small and special spot with a serious bonefishing flat out front that is owned and operated by Cheryl Bastain. Indeed, one evening a young man who is the brother of one our guides showed up with a photo of a 13 pound fish caught in sight of the lodge. Largest bonefish I have ever seen brought to hand in Andros.
The weather gods shined mightily upon us the entire time the vets were on the island. Flat calm, good sun and, therefore, high visibility for the fishing. This lasted the entire five days we were all together.
We were guided by four experienced Mangrovians - Alvin Greene, Randy Thompson, Patterson Bowleg and Ephraim King. They all have amazing abilities to pole a flats boat, position the fisherman, give casting instruction while doing three other things and, at the same time, exercise admirable humor when being hooked in the chest or when large, hungry bones are cruising by without any threat from the guy in the front of the skiff.
All of these guides appreciated the mission of this trip and, as a consequence, went beyond the extra mile each day. When the weather permitted, they made hour long runs to the west side of Andros at 3/4 throttle to get us into pristine conditions and big, single bonefish. These guides truly represented the heart, soul and hospitality of Mangrove Cay.
We were also blessed by cooperative fish. So much so that multiple bones were hooked and landed each day by all of the vets.
There are always unforgettable moments on a fishing trip. For me, these highlights resonate in my memory.
On day one Wally Biernat, a relative novice with a fly rod but a quick learner, managed to bring ten bones to the boat. His initial apprehension about the alleged difficulty of this sport melted away and he told me at the end of that day that if he never caught another, his trip was complete. Sorry to say we could not accommodate his modesty since he caught ‘em all week. Towards the time to leave, Wally announced to us that he was staying and had found a rental. Cliff Lutz asked jokingly if he might rent one of Wally’s new units, to which Wally replied, No, but you can camp out back.
On day three Justin accomplished something I have never seen in 25 years of bonefishing. He managed to beach a good fish on a mud mound. It floundered a bit and then accepted its fate with resignation. Alvin Greene courageously jumped off the boat, waded through wet concrete and liberated the fish. Of course, it was still buttoned to Justin’s leader so it very quickly wound itself around a nearby mangrove and left Justin’s company permanently. As if that feat was not enough, Justin and I fished another day with Patterson. Towards late afternoon, we were on a shallow flat that poured slowly out of a back bay surrounded by Linder Cay. Big tailing and cruising fish. One ate Justin’s Gotcha several times. With some frustration, he turned to Patterson and asked what was happening. With a straight face reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart, Patterson replied that the ultimate object of this sport was to hook and play the fish, not give it gastric indigestion. Justin dissolved in laughter and replied, with equal aplomb, that he had just made an executive decision not to talk to either of us the rest of that day!
I had the pleasure of fishing with Dave Brittain the last day. We got into a very shallow bay with extensive “fingers” jutting into the mangroves near a place called Chalk Sound. White sand flats, high sun, no wind. Suffice it to say that Dave went to work on the bones that were coming at us from every direction for a couple of hours. No use counting when you are deep into double digits landed but the best part was both of us remarking almost simultaneously that we were in a remote marine environment that must be like paradise. At that point we laid down our fly rods and used our senses to capture something deeper than fish.
We spent a memorable evening being hosted by Shine Greene and his wife, Maria, at their Conch Shack. They served us up platters of fish, conch and lobster that we readily devoured. We all bathed in the afterglow of good days on the flats together and reluctantly left for the lodge.
Mangrove Cay welcomed our vets so much that not a day went by without local folks stopping us to chat, share opinions about the impending elections, offer advice about where the bonefish are usually found in largest numbers and a host of other things that proved useful.
The healing, restorative power of fly fishing was never more self-evident to me than these 5 days watching the unmitigated glee Wally, Justin, David and Cliff displayed each morning anticipating another day together and another evening to share stories. Four pretty shy, quiet men morphed into old friends.
Randy K. Dix
November 21, 2012
Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, Inc. is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and disabled veterans through fly fishing and associated activities including education and outings.
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