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Let’s face it – if you fish a lot and you are either married or involved with one person, it gets hard now and then to justify another fishing trip to a remote spot where there is absolutely nothing for spouses or partners to do. Casa Blanca fishing lodge in the Yucatan comes to mind, as do any number of Alaska lodges.
The bored-spouse syndrome, as I call this problem, is an important factor I think in the phenomenal success of a place like Pelican Bay Bone-fishing on Grand Bahama Island. Though some major changes may be underway there, this relatively new place is fully booked at this writing and even wait-listed during parts of the upcoming season. Based in a resort hotel in downtown Freeport, where everything from golf to gambling is nearby, Pelican Bay Bonefishing is a near-perfect spouse-payback place. You (the angler) can do what you want and your spouse can do what she (or he) wants during the day. At night, you can link up for dinner on the town and a stroll down the waterfront.
Enter Walker’s Cay Hotel and Marina in the northern Bahamas. I visited this resort last month with the idea that it might prove to be another spouse-payback spot, albeit one with limited and maybe mediocre bonefishing. Well, scratch that notion. The bonefishing I blundered into was nothing short of phenomenal. If repeatable (and only time will tell if that is so), the fishing is worth exploring on its own, forget spouse-pleasing amenities. More on that in a moment….
Anyone who watches fishing programs on television knows Walker’s Cay because it lends its name to the saltwater fishing series, Walker’s Cay Chronicles. Images of the resort appear prominently at the beginning and end of each segment. Big boats and leaping bluewater fish are the dominant motif, and with good reason because such fishing is what makes the place famous. Walker’s Cay is host to a number of important billfishing tournaments, including one that is said to be the largest private such affair in the world. Not surprisingly with all this traffic, Walker’s Cay says it accounts for more IGFA bluewater records than any other resort in the world.
The 100-acre island resort was developed by Robert Abplanalp, perhaps best known as a friend to former President Richard Nixon, who used to be a frequent visitor. Abplanalp made his money by developing the valve mechanism that is used in all aerosol sprays and his company, Precision Valve, owns Walker’s Cay, real estate and all. Amenities on the island include dockage for 70 boats, two swimming pools (one freshwater and one salt water), two restaurants, two bars, three gift shops and all the paraphernalia to play volleyball, table tennis, horseshoes and more. Swings and such things for kids abound – as do kids themselves. Walker’s also has a diving program that is famous among the underwater set. Its claim to fame is its Shark Rodeo, which sees divers swimming among scores of sharks, concentrated around the boat by use of a "chumsicle" – an oversized chum block frozen in the shape of a giant popsicle.
You get the picture. Walker’s is indeed a place where you can bring your spouse and kids, the only drawback being the somewhat remote location of the beach. It’s about a mile from the resort center and you either have to walk or schedule transportation by golf cart, which takes some of the spontaneity out of the experience. Also, the tennis court, which I personally hoped to enjoy, was all but unplayable. Don’t even bother to bring a racket unless the court surface is completely upgraded.
Turning to the bonefishing, at this writing, Walker’s Cay has two Hewes Bayfishers with adequate power and two Dolphins. Even so, bonefishing makes up a minuscule part of the resort’s business – about 10 percent, according to resort manager Andrew Welch. That translates to about 20 bonefishing days a month, only seven or eight of which are taken up by fly fishermen.
The resort’s lack of experience with fly fishermen is evident in the fact that no fly tackle is available on the island at all. The guide I used, Gerald Rolle, had no flies and really didn’t have any good suggestions about which one of my own I should use. "Some days this one works; some days that one works," is the way he put it. A Pink Charlie turned out to be the winning fly, incidentally.
As for boat handling, Rolle poled the boat well but a bit noisily. He was also slow in getting the boat turned properly when fish were spotted, though he improved dramatically the second day after we discussed the matter. He could see fish well, but made no effort to use the standard clock system of describing where the fish were ("Bonefish at two o’clock – 30 yards," etc.). Instead, he would simply say, "Bonefish – over there!" In order to determine where the fish was, I would have to turn each time and ask him to point. Having bonefished a lot, I can see fish fairly well, so this was not a major problem. It would be a problem, however, for the angler who has difficulty seeing his own fish.
Another problem at Walker’s is the distance you have to travel to get to good flats. The good flats (around Strangers Cay, the Carter Cays and Great Sale Cay) are all upwards of 20 miles away and getting to them requires crossing some open water. The problem that poses was pointed up by the difficulty we had getting to Strangers Cay and the Carter Cays the first day. It was rough (too rough for some people, I’m sure) and the trip took an hour. Great Sale Cay, the best flat of all, was simply unreachable that day, though it was the second day.
There are some nearby flats (around the Double Breaster Cays and the Grand Cays, as well as one right around Walker’s Cay), but they are limited in size and they tend to get pounded, so the fish are not always eager eaters, I was told. The bottom line is, Walker’s does not have enough flats to develop an intense bonefishing program. Fortunately, the folks there aren’t interested in creating one, though they would like to expand the meager one they have in place.
So, all of that said, what made the fishing I enjoyed "phenomenal?" Quite simply, the size of the fish I saw and caught. The first day, battling significant wind, I managed to boat only two bonefish, but both of those weighed over eight pounds. The second day I boated nine and get a load of the size of those fish! Forgetting two smallish ones, the catch included one six-pounder, four eight-plus pounders, two nine-pounders and a behemoth that weighed an estimated 10 1/2 pounds. Both days I saw numerous fish that would crack double digits. One was so huge that Rolle and I both thought it was a barracuda when it turned on my fly. Unfortunately, I ripped the fly away, sending the biggest bonefish I have ever seen racing away.
By all accounts, bonefish this big are almost always around. I have that from Rolle, and from John Abplanalp, son of Robert Abplanalp. John is a fly fishing fanatic and he says 10-pounders and even larger fish are indeed common, though not always as cooperative as when I fished. The secret to my fishing was unusually serene weather in the wake of a cold front. The ocean was like a lake and the fish were hungry.
If you want to give Walker’s a try (and be sure you read the above characterization carefully because this place is not right for everyone), be prepared for some unusual pricing. The lodge sells an accommodation (room plus breakfast and dinner) and airfare package from Fort Lauderdale and then offers the bonefishing separately. The basic accommodation/airfare package costs $399 and includes three days and two nights. Extra days cost $99 each. As for the bonefishing, it costs $300 a day ($150 each for two people sharing a boat) and doesn’t include a box lunch ($10) or drinks (gallon of bottled water – $2; cokes – $1; and beer – $2.25).
You can take those figures and create most any package you want, but the one that makes the most sense is a seven-day, six-night package starting on a Sunday and ending on a Saturday. That provides five full days of flats fishing – which is plenty given the number and size of the flats available. The total cost (double occupancy in room and boat) is only $1,608, airfare included. And get this – the lodge has a long-standing policy of not charging you for the fishing if the wind blows too hard for you to go out. That’s true even if you reserved fishing for that day and paid for it ahead of time. The cost of that day’s fishing is simply credited to your account. The policy takes the sting out of the fact that the flats here are far away and unreachable at times.
Do I recommend Walker’s Cay to bonefishermen? Yes, to anglers in need of a spouse-payback place and to experienced big-fish enthusiasts who can spot their own fish fairly well and tie their own leaders, and who simply get off on big-shouldered bones. Great Sale Cay, if you can reach it, is a remarkable spot. I have never seen so many sea turtles anywhere in the world. There were barracuda and sharks everywhere, including a number of large specimens of both species. Rolle and I saw two tarpon as well, one about 30 pounds and one about 70 pounds. Later in the day he took me to a place he calls his "tarpon honey hole" but no fish showed up. He did not try to represent the place as being a reliable tarpon spot and I agree, but the possible presence of the fish did add a bit of excitement.
One pleasure that’s ancillary to a trip to Walker’s but nonetheless worth mentioning is the flight over on PanAm’s so-called Air Bridge. The craft (a Grumman Turbo Mallard) takes off on wheels from Ft. Lauderdale International Airport and lands right in the water off Walker’s Cay with a spectacular belly flop. On the way back to Ft. Lauderdale it takes off from the water, again with a huge amount of spray and splash. Aviation buffs will love the whole experience.
One thing I would watch, in my planning of a trip here, is the resort’s bluewater tournament schedule. During major tournaments, the number of people on the island, including those on boats docked in the marina, swells to 300 or more, clogging the restaurants and bars and creating a lot of hoopla. That can be fun, if you like that sort of thing, but it can also be the opposite if what you came for is some quality time with your spouse in between bonefish bouts.
You can reach Walker’s Cay by phone, fax or visit their website.