He goes by many names – Houdini fins, uptown sucker, John Mariggle – but to me the bonefish (albula vulpes, if you’re some kind of college professor) is the grey ghost of the flats. My favourite sporting quarry, I have chased him from Cuba to Christmas Island; but this year I found the finest place of all.
Rising up out of the crayola-blue Caribbean some ninety miles north of mainland Venezuela, the archipelago of Los Roques is a national park comprising three hundred islands in half a million acres. If you fly into Caracas and take a private charter you can reach it the same day you leave Heathrow, and from the moment you touch down and porters trundle your bags down the unpaved street of this agreeably bohemian village it feels as though you’re already on the edge of the map.
Although I arrived clanking with tackle, this is no hard core angling mecca, but a modest holiday resort that just happens to be surrounded by fish. Our party of seven – six couples plus me (anyone know the Spanish for gooseberry?) – was travelling with Justin Maxwell Stuart, a distinguished ex-Scots Guards Officer whose company WhereWiseMenFish has identified this as a destination that equally appeals to the non-fishing partner; and as we slurped cocktails on the beach that first evening, with children playing in the waves, locals repairing nets, and fanatics having a last cast, one of the wives remarked, ‘This place makes fishing look funky.’ You got it, hon.
But now it’s the morning, exquisite omelettes and coffee consumed, six rods ready in the boat, and time to leave the ladies to a day of sunbathing, snorkels and paperbacks on one of the myriad cays. Some days you begin by casting right here off the beach, where shoals of glass minnows mill in their millions, dive-bombed by the ubiquitous pelicans and stalked by bonefish as long as your leg – but today Rafael takes us straight out to one of the ‘pancake’ flats for which this area is famous. Knee deep in these plateaux of shallow water rimmed by the azure deeps, you roam the sand and turtle grass with your guide acting as bird dog, in search of Mr. Bone.
The ghost fish is tough to spot. With his mirrored flanks and stealthy manner, you are often chasing shadows. Delicate fly-casting is the order of the day – an artificial pattern mimicking the crab and shrimp he hoovers off the ocean floor as he zigzags across the flat at high speed. Bonedogs hereabouts have learned to be picky. ‘These fish be smart,’ explains Rafael, as yet another spurns my offering, but we get lots of shots and occasionally one makes a mistake, tips up his tail, inhales my Gotcha, and I set the steel. The fish heads downtown in a halogen blaze, my Riptide reel growling like a dentist’s drill as the line sends up a rooster tail of spray. Oh, yeah!
Some of the larger fish cruise singly along the beaches, showing up better against the pale ceramic sand. I had one morning of this, when I bungled every chance we had, losing eight on the trot through overenthusiastic striking. As I botched the final cast before lunch, Jesus the guide said levelly, ‘Dave, that was very bad.’ (Of course, Justin sauntered over and landed one instantly.) So it goes.
There are mangrove lagoons, too, where you can wade for snook and baby tarpon, and coral reefs where the boat drifts as you scout for permit – a quicksilver member of the jack tribe, and most elusive of all fly-rod trophies. One day, we saw more than a dozen within an hour, but all of them snubbed us. We consoled ourselves by hurling plug baits into a honey hole and muscling out horse-eye jacks – ramraiders the size of a Belfast sink. The sport here is varied, and seriously good.
Being close to the Equator, the climate is summery year-round, and fishing continues right through into November. The tides are higher then, and that’s the time for catching the larger tarpon that migrate inshore. There are also some gigantic residents: I saw a couple off the beach that would have gone fifty kilos apiece – a serious unit by any piscatorial standards. This place is full of surprises.
A day on the flats is intense, and curiously tiring; by four, we were back at the dock for a siesta or a Polar beer on the verandah of our delightful posada. Half hidden by palms, the Acuarela is run by Sicilian artist Angelo Belvedere, and there’s no doubt it’s one of the nicest of the fifty-odd on the island. There are no grand luxe accommodations at Los Roques – no pools, spas or boutiques – but the rooms here are comfortable, air conditioned, and scrupulously clean. There are showers, but no hot water. You potter around in Haviana’s and shorts, and everyone is friendly. Just three kilometres long, with two streets and an eccentric church, the waterfront is a ramble of pick ‘n mix vernacular. There are no cars, no boom-boxes or loud water-sports. Gran Roque is stylish without being chic. You can see why well-heeled caraquenos slip over from the capital for a long weekend here. It is uncrowded and cool, and tests positive for charisma.
‘El Canto de la Ballena’ and ‘Bora del Mar’ were two favourite bars for a refreshing coco loco at sunset, but the highlight of our après-peche was Angelo’s cooking – eggplant caponata, ceviche of wahoo, fresh pasta with lobster, exquisite flans. Along with bucketsful of Chilean blanco, the Mediterranean cuisine was a constant treat: another well kept roqueno secret. No wonder the guests from other posadas yearn to dine here.
On our last day, everything seemed to go just right. The sunlight obliged like poured syrup, the fish were hungry, and I stopped casting like a gibbon. From a perfect tide I managed not to lose sixteen beautiful bonefish before reluctantly reeling up and heading for the bar; there, Tods off in the suave sand, chilled caipirinha in hand, watching the flamingo sky at sunset, we reckoned this might be Paradise. Damn straight it is.
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