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Travel Journal: Bahamas, Abaco Lodge

Travel Journal:  Bahamas, Abaco Lodge
I was prompted about 16 months ago by a few of my favorite travelers to set up a trip closer to home, something without a 3+ country layover that didn't take a calendar to chart how long it would take to get to. I hadn't been to the Bahamas in over a decade so figured this was as low hanging of fruit as I would hope to find. Seattle to Atlanta to Marsh Harbor to lodge in about 18 hours...done! For those who follow me regularly, the posh, exclusive and overly comfortable trips are not the ones I usually choose to travel to for a number of reasons. For one, they are rarely doing anything new or cutting edge where exploration is a part of the experience. Secondly, some of these trips tend to have a fishing routine that feels a bit too controlled or forced to fit how they want/need to operate the lodge and lastly they can and usually are pretty expensive. There you have yet another installation of my optic on fly fishing travel, but sometimes I am surprised to find some eagerness and visionary angling when I least expect it and Abaco was just such a trip! If you have never been to a Nervous Waters property, you need to go. There are few details left unattended with regards to your stay at any of the lodges they own or manage around the world and one of which is generally the caliber of manager they have on hand at each lodge. Our hosts for this trip were Christiaan Pretorious and Lindi Blaauw. Both are from South Africa and both have spent considerable time chasing fish if not guiding for them all over the world. This experience comes in handy for not only managing the guide team but also during story telling around the dinner table or WELL stocked, self serve bar. My new growing appreciation is for the incredible level of professionalism "Southies" as I am going to refer to them bring to the guide world. Have been spending some time with some over the past few years and I mean they are legit. Christiaan's demeanor and ability to judge character among people topped by the South African slant on the "English" is just awesome. Lively conversation about Russia, vodka, naked guides, bears, guns all neatly enveloped into fly fishing make for great stories. And in case you didn't know, this sport is all about stories and a few are even about fish. So to some degree Abaco Lodge falls into more than one of the aforementioned categories however where the surprise landed squarely in my lap was when we killed the engine and coasted up onto a flat and a giant stingray had 3 sizeable permit shadowing it as it cruised the sandy bottom. I understand when guides freak out about permit, they are notoriously elusive and to say there are finicky is being generous on their behalf. So I have traveled to this part of the Caribbean with mostly bonefish equipment because while permit are mentioned, few rave about them as a resident fish. They tend to be treated more like a celebrity, so was a bit awe struck when the first ray we encounter is hosting an entourage of permit well over 20 pounds each. Ok then, game on, here is my VIP pass, I'll be your huckleberry, let's do this or whatever you want to say, let's play ball. I have thick skin, been denied a few times before so these won't hurt my feelings too bad. Our guide Travis Sands, as the boat is gliding to within 15 feet of this ray quietly sneaks Bob's permit rod out of the rod holder, strips some line off and hands to him. Boat has stalled in 18 inches of water, fish have moved off about 30-40 feet and Bob makes a very conservative first cast about 15 feet or so to their starboard side, allows for the crab to sink, strips once to clean any slack and then makes one single long strip...please skip next paragraph if you have aversion to 4 letter words, just quoting what was said! One permit leaves the ray and streaks at Bob's fly so fast it leaves a V-wake in 2-3 feet of water. So fast it scares Bob and he is stepping backward on the deck, almost stepping off into bottom of the boat and so fast all I can say is "HOLY CRAP, it ate your fly!" which sounded more like Holshaterfly because I didn't have the time to spit it out, I nearly jumped from the boat. Bob in a knee jerk reaction half strip sets and half lifts his rod, "FK!" Travis is hyperventilating on the back deck but manages to sputter out, "Quick, get ready to cast again!" To my utter astonishment, the permit had simply scratched its head wondering where Bob's crab had disappeared to so quickly and went back to the ray. Travis makes a couple pushes, the ray turns in our favor and Bob once again presents the same fly with the nearly same result but with more composure and strip sets and we are off to the races! Travis is pacing as much as you can on a poling deck, professionally suggesting tactics for playing the fish and about 8-9 minutes later, we are two thirds of our way to a Grand Slam. Now the thing about a Grand Slam is as far as those at the lodge and many of the locals are aware, there has not been one caught on Abaco proper in a very long time, in fact the term "never" had crept out of some old timer locals mouths. So it is 11am on the Wednesday of a week long trip and Travis has the Maverick full throttle to the tarpon grounds. We have 5 hours to make this happen within which we have 1 1/2 hours of boat time included to be back at the lodge by 4pm. Now let's chat about this a bit. Tarpon are DEFINITELY not spoken of often in these parts. I didn't really even bring anything specificly for tarpon, the guides don't usually even have tarpon flies with them. As we sprint across the Marls towards the Abaco equivalent of Tarponville I am digging through the myriad of flies in search of something and voila, an zip lock with a few Silver King flies. Tie on some hefty leader material and about the time I finish, we are slowing into the zone. I have been present for several Grand Slams and even a couple Super Slams and know how hard those were to "accomplish", in fact the better term might be "manufacture" because they generally require and overhaul of the days fishing plans. As Travis hops up on the poling deck I hear "And there they are!" come drifting through the humid airwaves. Sure the hell enough, a small pod of them are rolling about 50 yards upwind of us. Travis polls hard to get us up there, Bob gets on deck and Travis gently turns the boat. The fish are moving away from us and are still up wind so Bob pushes a cast to the left and a tad behind them. Myself I have just popped my 10th Pink Raddler of the early day because I know there is no way in hell this is going to happen so I am relaxing the best I can, glass half empty state of mind in an attempt to reverse will this Grand Slam. Tarpon have steered left a bit, Bob's second cast is about the same as the first but fish are in a more favorable position, 2nd strip one peels off the group to follow and follow fast. Not 2 seconds later and Bob is tight to what might be a first for Abaco. Travis anchor the boat with the push pole, hops off the platform and again paces albeit with a little more real estate than last time. As the fish tires, Travis hops in and waits for Bob to surf this tarpon to him. It comes in fast, turns, rolls and wraps its tail around the leader and sprints out another 20 yards and I crap my pants. None of us have taken a breath in something about five minutes either... Bob leans in, Travis dives and comes up with a tarpon tail in his hands...Grand Slam complete at 12:33 in the afternoon, in exactly 7 casts! I try to explain to Bob how incredibly difficult this is to accomplish but in the moment, it seemed about as easy as popping the top on our next beer...pretty damn easy! Moments later one of the other guides comes around the corner asking what is up, "We could hear you way over there man!" We simply explained Bob had landed his first tarpon, no mention of the GS or the permit. In the process of playing the tarpon we had cooked up a little skit to take place back at the lodge. Christian was going to wonder why in the hell we were back to the lodge so early. Bob and Travis were going to get in a fight at the lodge bar just to see how Christiaan would handle it. Buffs up over all our faces to conceal our ear adjoining grins, Bob yells at Travis and throws a handful of chips at him, Travis displays the bird and with a brief pause they then hug and spill the beans. A fairly festive dinner atmosphere that evening. Fast forward two days, Bob and I are on the boat together again, still talking about his GS, we are giving each other crap about our casting, blowing bonefish and letting them run us into the mangroves when yet another ray and permit team show up. First cast, permit on and we are hitting the replay button. Going through my mind is the idea of not just another GS in the same week but I landed my bonefish and permit on the same fly so I am thinking, "What if I got the tarpon on the same fly, a same fly GS??!!" Bob says, "Get the slam first and then go back and see if you can get a second tarpon on the same fly." Makes sense but the reality in my head is, yet again, how few of these happen for anglers, but it was so easy 2 days ago. As I let that thought go the very next one is how easy this is appearing because look, there are 3 tarpon swimming along the mangroves! Well as it turns out, 5 eats later my GS wasn't meant to be and I am completely fine with it. I generally don't fish much on my hosted trips anyway and the fact that I had been blessed with a permit in the Bahamas and that Bob had let me hold the deck for the rest of the day was awesome enough. Back to the lodge for some McCoy enhanced Bahama Mama's. Ok, now with the excitement out of the way there are some other fantastic attributes to Abaco Lodge and fly fishing the Bahamas I have not necessarily felt when angling in other parts of the Caribbean. While some are due in part to location, others are controls and this place has made the decision to capitalize on them. Not all are as important to some anglers while incredibly so to other so I want to touch on each. First was the food. Nothing short of spectacular cuisine was served on this trip down to the lunches made for the boat each day. Awaking to a pot of freshly brewed coffee, Lindy would come around and ask each of us for our breakfast order. Tim and Eric would go with oatmeal, fresh fruit and juice, the route I should have gone but I couldn't turn down a custom breakfast burrito of EXTRA bacon, eggs, "poe", "toe" and "avo" with sauteed shrooms. How on earth was I to choose oatmeal over this? I simply don't possess the will power to do so. Lunch was a full menu of items to choose from basically allowing us to select our given protein, carb and beverage in presentation and in quantity. Should I have wanted 5 grilled chicken sandwiches on ciabbata with 24 different beverages and fruit salad, it would have been there I am sure of it. Each day a "special" was offered for lunch which one day was a fresh conch salad wrap. Yeah, I'll take two of those please! Arriving back at the lodge about 4pm each day, the ever so lovely Velma greets us with a cold wash cloth for our faces and her enchanting smile and contagious laugh. Appetite present or not, after dropping off rods and heading to the room to change we were regaled with everything from Conch Seviche to deep fried conch, BBQ Pork nibbles to I can't remember what else. All I remember is every time something left the kitchen, I wanted to eat all of it but had to restrain as I knew dinner was going to be off the chart. Sid, you are an incredible chef and we were fortunate to have your meals each day. Thank you! Off the chart it was. Dinners are where all focus is as far as food goes. Fishing is done for the day, local libations have softened the edges of a tough day or embellish a great one. Sun is going down to a gorgeous sunset, some wonderful red wine warbles it way into our glasses and then it lands; a delectable sight of fresh caught lobster tail spit atop homemade potatoes and adorned with small greens. Had this been a family style dinner, I would have devoured 5 or 6 of these as they were prepared to perfection and had I asked, there would likely have been more but everything was perfect. Chatter had all but stopped as everyone savored the meal in front of us. Another glass of wine to top it off and then dessert. Ranging from homemade ice cream to flan and my personal favorite the Key Lime pie served in just the right proportions to close the curtains on everyone. Bed time, a brief pause to digest food and thought of fishing past and future as well as my burrito coming in a mere 7 hours, I can hardly wait. Speaking of bedtime, in all of my travels, it is quite rare to have a queen sized poster bed, with pillow more comfortable than my own at home, sheeted with fine cotton, A/C all within a private room with own bathroom and shower. Nothing shared here and no up charge for single occupancy rooms. In all honesty, I didn't want to get up in the morning. Even alone, I would have gladly taken a nice cup of coffee, read a book and just watched the pink sky evolve but alas, fishing awaits. Photos to be taken, burritos to eat and Grand Slams to attain, because they are so easy here!! Abaco Lodge was also fully set with a small fly shop and rental fleet of rods and reels for each species we would target. This is music to my ears even as a shop owner. This is a potential long winded topic so I will keep it short and sweet. New Sage X and Salt rods with Sage reels were strung up and ready for anything we would target, no extra charge! As a shop owner, I see this is as an asset to my business where most wouldn't. I always bring extra rods/reels/lines for my clients in case the inevitable occurs in form of lost luggage, ceiling fans, dumbell eyed flies or even a fish. This allows clients to come on this trip even if new to the sport and not being pressed into purchasing 2-3 rods and reels just to join this adventure. I can't always bring enough so basically the lodge has my back as host and I really appreciate this as a partner in business. After a trip like this, those who were new will eventually buy their complimentary rods and reels. Doesn't have to happen all at once. As far as the fishing grounds go, I don't believe I fished the same flat twice the entire week with only one exception and that was when trying to get our second tarpon and even then, it was very brief. Go beyond this and as we meandered our way to the flats we did fish, there were tons we never stopped at and my question is always the same of local guides, "Why don't we fish there?" Answer in this area was, "We certainly could, want to?" I love this because it means there isn't constant pressure on flats and the result are fish eager to chow on flies so all you have to do is deliver them. The one things I always love doing is walking in pursuit of my fish, especially on the flats. There is the opportunity to do this here but I personally didn't do any, we were on the skiff the entire time. So if you do head here, as for wade if that is what you desire doing. Finally, I have fished with hundreds of guides all over the world and as I have found elsewhere in the Bahamas and exemplified here are very happy, good natured, experienced guides eager to find you fish. Freddy, Travis, Paul, Trevor and Mike all had personalities of their own, some quiet and some boisterous but all a pleasure to spend a day on the water with. In closing this journal entry, knowing what I have coming in the next 18 months as far as travel goes, this was such a fabulous trip in so many ways. Obviously what I covered explains the nuts and bolts of the experience but the nuance and flow to the trip was as good as it could have been. Everyone was compatible in the group, some were new which is always a little nerve wracking but each had common threads to chat about during the days on the boat and evenings at happy hour. New saltwater fly anglers caught fish every day which meant confidence was boosted which is a hope of mine for every angler and you could see it as the week progressed. So many of the "little things" I tend to look back on on trips that if they had been there would have really made for a wonderful experience and nearly all those "little things" were taken care of here without having to say a word. Rarely do I immediately yearn to around and return someplace but this is an exception for me, I just can't get out of my head those grabby permit. Feel like I need to make sure I wasn't dreaming this whole thing and always an indication of a location that truly cares is when you know you will stay in touch with staff as friends afterwards and are sad to leave them. Thank you for reading, please be in touch if I can answer any questions and thanks again to Abaco Lodge and their staff. Would we return to Abaco Lodge --- ABSOLUTELY! A few more images to round out the report... A nice bonefish from one of the many sandy flats. Brilliant coloration of a tarpon face. The fleet under a clear night sky, always fun to shoot. Serious weather to contend with for a day or so on this trip. Freddie, not much more need be said! Tan, the only color I believe you really need! Why they call it tailing...a lone cruiser near the beach. Boom! 2 all last season and we landed two this week.
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