ANTIGUA, WEST INDIES — Saturday in late afternoon as I unpacked my suitcase and a duffle full of fishing reels and flies and leaders the tide was full and the cove below was filled completely with aquamarine-colored water.
The incoming tide had immersed coral reefs that nonetheless remained visible through the clear water and blanketed the thin crescent of sand that in low tide is a beach.
It’s a two-hop flight to Antigua; the Twin Cities to Atlanta and Atlanta to Antigua. The first plane leaves just after 5 in the morning and when you step onto the airport tarmac on Antigua heat rises up to meet up you and you look at your watch and the time is about 3 p.m.
A friend whom I actually have never met face-to-face has a home on Antigua and catches some fish here with a fly rod in shallow water and also while trolling farther out for yellow fin tuna and mahi-mahi.
“I’m not using the place now, go down and fish,’’ my friend said. He lives in southern California and in 1987 I sold him a dog and subsequently have sold him four or so more. Our relationship is formed around those dogs and around long-distance reports concerning quail shooting in Baha California, duck hunting in the Central Valley of California, and about dogs running on beaches behaving as dogs do.
“Bring Jan,’’ my friend said.
Jan is my wife.
The flats surrounding Antigua aren’t as extensive as those along the archipelago of islands that drifts southward from Grand Bahama. On shallow sand outliers surrounding the Bahamas the rising tide brings with it bonefish and permit, among other fish, also nurse sharks and occasionally bull sharks. Bonefish and permit arrive with the tides and dine on various crustaceans. You can fish them from a flats skiff, standing on the front deck, fly rod in hand, line coiled around your feet. Or you can wade for them, watching for the dorsal fins of bonefish. When you spot these you make tight-looped casts, keeping your profile low so as not to spook the fish as they rout in the sand looking for dinner.
“Antigua isn’t a fishery like the Bahamas,’’ my friend said. “You have flats around Antigua, but they are not as extensive as in the Bahamas. The offshore marlin fishing is good. Also you can fish the mangroves from a boat and find bonefish and permit.’’
Over quite a few years I have formed a resolute prejudice in favor of saltwater fishing, saltwater fly fishing in particular. Not that it replaces freshwater angling in my mental storehouse of fishing fantasies. Rather, the salt air and the flowering trees and swaying palms and the rising and falling tides along with sea life that is mysterious, as the Bible suggests, beyond all understanding, forms an attraction that infuses, literally, the blood.
I was 21 years old and camped alone on the east coast of Mexico on a sandy peninsula that divided the Caribbean from a mile-long inlet when I first became aware of the pleasures of saltwater.
I was en route to South America without clear destination, a curious fact then and even more so now. The military draft was run by lottery and I had a low number, 13, deferred by college but not for much longer. I envisioned in the not too distant future a job for me in the infantry, humping rice paddies. As a final fling I thought I would see part of the world unknown to me, Latin America, from Mexico south to Panama, across then on a freighter to Ecuador and from there points farther south still.
But first there was my campsite on the peninsula in Mexico, where I ate mostly fruit and pasta and grilled fish that I bought for next to nothing at sundown in a barebones harbor within walking distance.
One day a boy came and set crab pots, a dozen or so, in the cove and returned the next day to dive for the crabs themselves. The boy spoke no English. He saw my interest however in the crab pots and the next day I swam out with him towing an inner tube and within it a tin pot and we dove for the crabs and placed them in the pot, one by one.
Many years later through a St. Paul friend, Norb Berg, I met Dick Hanousek, also of St. Paul, whose life really was assembled around flies and fly fishing, saltwater exclusively in winter months. We became fast friends and together we fished Costa Rica, also Georgetown, in the Bahamas, and various places in the Florida Keys, offshore, particularly, in and around the Marquises Islands.
Now time has passed and my wife and I have two boys of our own and I fish with them mostly. They are 16 and 13. “That’s the bass opener,’’ the oldest boy said when I broke the news about traveling to Antigua with their mother and not them.
So Saturday night as Caribbean breezes enveloped Antigua and swept coolly over our home-away-from-home, my cell phone rang.
It was the oldest boy, Trevor, reporting that he and his brother, Cole, and a buddy, Max, accompanied Max’s dad, Dave, for a day of muskie fishing on the St. Croix.
Saturday was the first day also of muskie fishing there and the report was that no fish were caught.
“You should have been here, Dad,’’ the oldest boy said. “We would have fished for bass. It was the bass opener.’’
But I was on Antigua, and on Sunday night I telephoned a man named Louie.
Louie drives my friend’s boat.
On Monday, he would steer the two of us to flats or mangroves or the deeper water offshore.
Together we would fish.
Editor’s note: Read Dennis Anderson’s second installment from Antigua where he is fishing this week, to be posted Monday night.