ANTIGUA, WEST INDIES — English harbor is a natural safe haven from the trade winds that blow here from the northeast. The harbor centuries ago was defended by the English whose primary interest on Antigua was sugar. Black Africans had been sold into the slave market on Antigua by the thousands because sugar harvesting was labor intensive.
Now most residents of Antigua are descendants of those slaves.
"Half full or full?’’
Louie was asking how much gas I wanted in the boat. For nearly an hour we had climbed onto and fallen off of cascading waves, undulating waves, en route to English Harbor from the cove where my friend keeps his boat.
Now we were at English Harbor wanting gas.
I was unsure of our boat’s capacity.
The pump had been running quite a while.
"Half.’’ I said.
The day before Louie had piloted the boat alongside steep cliffs onto which the Atlantic Ocean alternately washed against and, spectacularly, crushed itself. Along the cliffs, narrow roads lead to widely separated homes, many of which are Mediterranean in appearance.
A friend owns one of these and is not using it now and so I am here. My wife is here also. “Go down and go fishing,’’’ he said. “Use the boat.’’
In the morning about 5 when I shower the Caribbean breeze swirls through the house. There is no air conditioning and even now, on summer’s cusp, none is needed. The air is very fresh. As I step from the shower I hear waves spill far below against sand and rock. I take my coffee on a stone patio that is not separated from the house or its gardens. Inside is out, and outside, in.
Louie will arrive at 8.
“Nine hundred,’’ the man says.
He means in Caribbean currency and when considered in U.S. dollars the sum for the gas is about a third of the nine hundred.
I pay the man and Louie and I untie the lines and stow them neatly in a forward hatch. Then we leave English Harbor and as we do I wave to a couple from Minneapolis who have wintered in Antigua on their sailboat. The man is a community college teacher and in the summer when he and his wife return to Minnesota he teaches. “There are even more students during a recession,’’ his wife says.
Louie and I had fly fished the day before, or I had, but logistically the undertaking was complicated. Tides can be different on one side of an island than another. There were those to consider. Also the mangrove bays that I cast to often lay unprotected from the wind.
Joycelyn, the cook, had issued very specific orders to release nothing we caught.
“Bring back anything you catch,’’ she said.
I said we would.
But I knew also I wouldn’t kill a bonefish and certainly not a permit.
I had thrown a 10-weight rod and by early afternoon when the sun grew hot Louie was unsure of our prospects. I employed flies resembling crabs in various colors and sizes and styles, also big streamers and an assortment of stimulators.
Barracuda swim in these waters, also tarpon and I wanted really to hook up with something to take some pressure off Louie, who does not fly fish.
“Fly fishing seems a lot of work,’’ he said.
So on this second day we filled the boat half full of fuel at English Harbor, paid for the fuel, parted the rock cliffs that flank the harbor and angled into the rolling seas.
Louie and I needed to brace our legs as widely as possible while we affixed steel leaders to heavy lines. The lines wound around spools on reels the size nearly of soccer balls. The lures we used were the length of a man’s forearm and as we free-spooled line off the stern, the boat pitched steeply, and yawed.
Very little about this exercise required discussion. We were dependent on our equipment. The boat needed to stay afloat and the motors needed to keep running. Louie regulated our speed by varying the engines’ RPMs, which consistently ran between 3,000 and 4,000.
In another two days, fishing yachts from throughout the Leewards would descend on Antigua for a big billfishing tournament.
So we were in effect testing the waters.
An hour passed and the distance between us and a now-barely visible house atop a steep precipice grew evermore distant. The cliff is wildly striated and seems to reach nearly to the heavans.
At its base, waves crashed in cascades of foam that even now from so far away rose like geysers.
The house belongs to Eric Clapton and my suspicion was on this day he would not be fishing.
ANTIGUA, WEST INDIES — The small harbor near where I am staying keeps a few boats at this time of year and Louie had keys to one of them, a 27-foot Boston Whaler with a pair of saltwater Mercurys swinging from its transom, 225 horsepower each.
I have been fascinated by boats since I was a kid growing up on Lake Michigan, where on summer afternoons beneath blue skies and scudding clouds I’d ride my bike to our small town’s small harbor that regularly in July and August was home to transients from “downstate,’’ or Lower Michigan.
Most of these visiting yachts were constructed of wood and their varnished mahogany transoms carried names like “Dreamer’’ and “Lost at Sea.’’ Our harbor wasn’t big enough for the largest Chris Crafts, which at that time on the Great Lakes bore originations such as Grosse Pointe or Harbor Springs, places where General Motors executives anchored the big boys. These were yachts generally 45 feet and longer, oftentimes 60 feet and longer, each with a crew, and if captains of these boats wanted respite in our waters they sought them closer to the mouth of the bay, at Escanaba.
The traveling yachts that visited our smaller harbor more often claimed home ports such as Traverse City or Benton Harbor and sometimes Cleveland and Toledo and Buffalo. I admired all of these craft and their owners and the total lack of surprise with which they seemed to live lives impossibly distant from mine. Sometimes while sitting on the cement walkway at our harbor, my bike lying tortuously on the grass nearby, discarded on the fly, a line would be thrown to me by a smartly dressed wife standing on the bow of one of these visiting yachts. In response and as if by professional training I cleated it neatly.
Then the husband of the smartly dressed wife augered the port and starboard engines oppositely and the stern eased gently against its mooring. Huge bumpers swinging from the craft’s railings cushioned the tie-up and the weight of the yacht compressed the bumpers and subsequently allowed them to quickly expand as the comfortable boat pulled a final time against its lines Then the husband and the neatly dressed wife relaxed and I returned to swinging my legs from the cement pilings. Soon drinks were poured on the aft deck and the couple laid back as if what had just occurred and everything leading up to it was all very much expected.
Louie turned over the big Mercurys and angled us out of the cove in which the harbor anchored its docks and the other boats. Antigua is home to laughing gulls and gray kingbirds and frigate birds and West Indian whistling ducks. But it was a brown pelican that I saw arrow its wings against itself and dive into the roiled water that lay ahead.
The wind had blown all night and was unrelenting. Ahead of us lay a sea of rollers and whitecaps.
“Can we find some quiet water with mangroves to cast to?’’ I asked.
“No problem,’’ came Louie’s reply.
You want really to be flexible when traveling and fishing. The angler who fishes his home waters day after day is a different cat altogether than the traveling angler.
Of this last group perhaps no one is better at adapting on the fly than Larry Dahlberg, host of TV’s “Hunt for Big Fish,’’ and a Minnesota resident, at Marine on St. Croix.
Dahlberg doesn’t entirely lack infrastructure when he visits a weird destination in the Amazon or the Nile or the Congo in search of creatures with really big fins. But oftentimes he has little more to go on than an airport and the name of a guy with a boat, into which he loads his rods and reels and thinks about finding fish as one might consider solving a puzzle.
Cutting to the chase: Anyone can catch fish if they are dropped off in the right spot at the right time with the right guide, the equivalent of being born on third and thinking a well-hit ball to the right-field corner is the reason.
Rising and falling through lumbering seas, Louie and I soon found water that was somewhat quieter and bracketed by mangroves, left and right.
Still, the wind blew.
But this was Antigua in late May, and not every day in Antigua in late May is perfect for fly fishing.
If the wind blows again on Tuesday, I thought, I will pack in the fly rod and Louie and I will troll for mahi-mahi or snapper, something for the grill.
But for now I will cast and work the mangroves, wind or no wind.
Stepping onto the boat’s deck I pealed off 40 feet of line and with a 10-weight rod sent a crab-like imitation airborne, looking for fish.
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.
Lost in all the hoopla at midnight Monday when the Legislature closed up shop with no budget deal made with Gov. Tim Pawlenty was the significance of passage a short time earlier of the Legacy Amendment legislation.
A few questions about the bill were raised on the House and Senate floors, but generally things went smoothly and the bills, which have been debated no for months, passed easily.
As a result, 200,000 acres of Minnesota will be restored, protected and enhanced that otherwise would have been neglected, as they have been traditionally.
The Lessard Outdoor Heritage Council survived the session intact, no small feat, because some legislators intended to undercut the council, and/or discourage its members. In fact, the eight citizens on the council might be more resolute in their mission now than ever.
Here's what's next:
The council will begin to formulate a plan so it can more proactively determine what types of projects Minnesota needs, so its lands and waters can be better protected. In recent months, due to time constraints, the council had to sift through about $250 million in proposals, and take the best - which it did.
Now the council will devise a plan about what needs to be done and where, and solicit, to the degree possible and necessary, projects to fill those voids.
Naysayers whined a lot in recent months, saying the Legislature was fated to wasting the money, or grabbing it for their own purposes. Some legislators indeed thought and acted along those lines. But protectors of the money in the conservation community are many, and they prevailed.