I was lucky enough to be one of the first fly fishers in Los Roques, Venezuela. There were no guides ; only local fishermen who would take us out to fish for raton (bonefish). I was with a video production company shooting a video of this up and coming bonefish destination. It was actually unbelievable fly fishing for bones. Once we got it across to the fishermen/guides what we were after (very little Spanish and zero English). I started working for a company organizing group trips there a year later as a group leader.
One of my group trips was very memorable. Our trips, early on, started with a night in Caracas and a private flight to Los Roques (about 80 miles off the Venezuelan shore). We arrived OK and got checked into one of the weirdest “lodges” I’ve been in. First of all, they had one overhead bare bulb in the center of each room. Not so bad, but they then installed the ceiling fan below it, giving a strobe-light effect in the room. Definitely hard to read a book. Or tie a fly or just about anything requiring some in-focus eyesight. And just to let you know, we had a French “chef”…….who didn’t know how to make French toast among other meals. We could take this. The food was edible (barely).
OK, now that you know what the rooms are like and our situation was, this is how our week progressed.
Upon arrival, you know as well as I do that the first thing to get done after securing a cold beer is to put your gear together. Some of you know what is coming next. One of the group, in his excitement to put his rod together, put the rod tip in the immediate path of the blades of the whirling, ceiling fans. The rod was instantly 6” shorter. He had a spare rod so not all was lost, except this was before unconditional guaranties for fly rods. Not to outdone by his roommate’s accident, the other inhabitant of the room was putting on his tropical shirt which required lifting his arms up over his head into the exact same orbit of the fan blades, slicing a very deep wound into his thumb palm. Pretty nasty and bloody. Now lucky for him, his roommate (who just surgically removed a half-a-foot of his rod) was a doctor. He managed to rustle up a needle (hook) and line for stitches (monofilament) and the gaping wound was closed up. It worked until he got back to the states when he exchanged it for the real thing. We weren’t fishing that day but we all prepared for the next day. The before-mentioned roommates left their wading boots outside the door of the room (which was a lone-standing building), with access to the public beach. The one with the broken rod awoke the next morning to find that his wading boots were stolen. This is not an especially good way to start a trip. But he stayed in good humor. He used another pair a wading boots to walk his way across the flats. I like to fish with all of the fishers in any group I am leading. I had been hearing about the fantastic fishing on the outer pancake flats. I, quite frankly thought it was bull-shit, but I decided that we ought to try it for my day with the afore-mentioned roommates. They were great fun and had a super sense of humor (which was a good thing).
Our “guide/boat-handler” (they really didn’t have guides then, but boatmen who knew where the bones were) , had no idea of how to guide fishers into fish. They would drop you off on a flat and pick you up later on the other side of the flat. So you had to be pretty self-sufficient. Plus, on this day our “guide” was hung-over: Actually falling asleep while running the boat. When we arrived at a pancake flat, he would sleepily run (crash) the boat into it almost throwing us out of the boat. However, the first flat was unbelievable with numbers of bonefish. We would look out from the boat approaching the flat and would see a sea-weed green covering the immediate area in front of us. Then (as we banged into the outer edge of the flat, the green bottom scattered. It was bonefish; hundreds of them. These pancake flats are a treat to fish. They are hard sand (easy to wade) with patches of sea weed and open areas. When they are fished in the morning, the wind and the sun are at your back: Perfect conditions. I love fishing them. We did a few; catching a number of bones. We had lunch and except for our guide, everything was perfect.
After lunch, we wanted to go to the outer islands where I had been hearing about the unbelievable numbers of fish, so that is where we went. After plowing into the downwind side (instead of the upwind side) of the flat, the guy mishandling the boat dropped the three of us off and then ran the boat to a far side of the flat. We separated (the three of us fishing) and I went close to our boat and then started wading upwind across the flat. The stories of bones were true. I have never seen before or since seen so many bonefish concentrated in one area. The wind was howling right into our faces. It was so strong that I couldn’t yell to the others. I could see that they were excitedly casting to huge schools of bones and connecting.
This is the honest-to-God truth. There were so many fish in front of me feeding upwind that, no-shit, they would part and let me wade through them to an upwind position and then they would come back together and continue feeding. I would turn around and start casing. I caught fish after fish doing this. I was just in awe of the fishing I’d just had. When I reached the other side of the flat, I turned around and started fishing my way back downwind. Again, with great fishing. As I got closer to our boat, realized I couldn’t see its handler. I found out later that he was sleeping in the bottom of the boat. Then, with a sudden and abrupt jump up, the handler looked panicked (he was just awakened by water pooling in the bottom – his sleeping quarters). As he was hustling around the inside of the boat, I hooked a bone. While playing it I watched our boat which was now wind-blowing away from the flat. I got the bone to hand just as I watched the bow of the boat point straight up directly to the sky and slowly sink. As it disappeared (I mean out of sight), I saw the guy in the boat start swimming to the mangrove island downwind from us. This left me and my two partners stranded on a flat where there was no dry land.
I started walking in calf-deep water to them. We all came together at one point. The one who was not a doctor was an engineer. When I could talk with them, I asked the engineer how good he was. He said “what?”. Can you put together a boat for us with the driftwood we could see? He still looked at me quizzically and I asked both of them if they could see our boat and boat handler. They said no, of course. So I told them of the sinking boat and the guy in it swimming to the island downwind of us. We all knew that the worst case scenario was that we would sit on the only drift wood log we could see, maybe a foot out of the water. We would be found tomorrow, but none of us wanted to have that experience. The experience I had always fantasized about being on a tropical island didn’t include stranded with two overweight men. I always had different ideas about this. But this is reality. I put my white shirt on the tip of my rod and started to wave it at passing boats (a long way off). We needed to hitch a ride back to the island if we were going to have a dinner and dry place to sleep. Unbelievably, one of the boats (a small cargo boat maybe 50’ long) turned toward us and pushed its bow (about 12 feet above the water) into our flat. Luckily, there is deep water surrounding almost all of the pancake flats. They lowered a rope and I (much younger then) hand-over-handed my way up and over the side. The other two fishers were much heavier and one was much heavier than the other. This took some effort from me and the crew of two on the cargo boat. But we did, finally, get everyone on-board. Then we started off toward Los Roques. We cross directly over our boat, showing brilliant white lying on the bottom in crystal clear waters. We keep going closer to the downwind island and we see the boat handler waving. We pick him up and continue toward home. Then we find out that the boat that just rescued us was actually looking for helpers to keep it afloat. It was taking on water. That is why they happened to come by our “Gilligan’s Island”. They needed help to keep the manual hand pump going to keep the water from sinking the boat. The sound of it and it’s circumstances kind of reminded me of the “African Queen” movie. We didn’t end up with leaches all over our body. But, I couldn’t help thinking of it. We ended up being saved from our sunk boat with a sinking boat. Pretty ironic.
That boat sound like “chuga-chuga, chuga-chuga, chuga-chuga; barely making headway. We did finally make to shore after taking 3 hours for a 30 minute trip. We told the owner of the “lodge” and I told him I wanted to go back with him to recover the boat. I had a boat bag, somewhat water-proof in the boat with $1000 cash, my Nikon camera, my passport and my return flight tickets in the boat. But as I was changing clothes, he took off without me. I was super-pissed. I fumed and stomped around until I saw him coming back with the sunk boat in tow. When they got the boat on shore I went to it and looked around and saw my bag. It had kept all of my stuff dry. I asked the owner about it and he said after they got the boat up to the surface and were on the way back, they saw this yellow bag in the mangroves. It had popped to the surface and drifted to the mangroves. They retrieved it and brought it back.
That evening over drinks (many of them), we laughed about our day. As it happened, it was a boat that was built with room in it for foam floatation. There was room between the bulkhead and the skin for the foam. But, they forgot to plug the hole for the injection of the foam. And they forgot to inject it with foam. The water flowed in while our “guide” was sleeping it off. We had a great day of fishing with an adventurous return from the flats. We toasted our good luck and knew we had an outstanding fishing story. What a great life we fly fishers have.