Flying To Fish
Bimini, BahamasBy Michael Vatalaro
Published: December 2013
Had I seen our pilot's passport photo before our flight, I may never have gotten aboard the little five-seater floatplane. Adam, who'd pilot our flight to the island of North Bimini in the Bahamas, lacked none of the customary self-assurance associated with pilots. He carried himself like any other young guy with an incredibly cool job. But in his passport photo, he looked 14. Even the customs officers gave him a hard time about it. I'm glad I went, though. Flying to the island from Fort Lauderdale or Miami takes less than 30 minutes and makes it abundantly clear how close this corner of the Bahamas is to South Florida. But the best part was landing in the recently dredged channel off North Bimini and taxiing directly to the beach across from a Bahamian Customs Office annex. Step off the plane, into the sand, and cross the street to clear in. Couldn't be easier.
My wife Stephanie and I had flown in for a weekend of fishing and exploring ahead of the Miami boat show. On the plane we met Michael Weber, general manager of the Bimini Big Game Club, a legendary fishing lodge. On the beach we met Robert Levine, owner of Browns Marina, another fixture in Bimini, its docks immortalized in Hemingway's Islands In The Stream. The next day we would be trolling for wahoo on Levine's 50-foot Riviera sportfish, and deep dropping with electric reels in the afternoon. Day two, the plan was to chase bonefish on the flats with a guide. In the meantime, we relaxed dockside at Browns before heading from Alice Town north toward Resorts World Bimini where we'd be staying.
There are few cars on Bimini; most people, locals and tourists alike, travel by golf cart. The roads are narrow, the distances short (the whole developed portion of the island spans maybe three miles) and gas expensive. Traveling from Bimini Bay to Alice Town at the far end of the island takes 15 minutes. But those minutes bridge the old Bimini, where buildings constructed in the 1930s saw their heyday in the '60s and '70s, and the modern Bimini Bay complex. The complex includes two marinas, several restaurants, the newly opened casino, plus a pool, tackle shop, grocery store, and, of course, unit after unit of condos and single-family homes, many available through the rental agency.
"It's really a tale of two cities, with the five-star resort on the north end of the island and the old fishing village in Alice Town at the south," says Levine. The resort is just another focal point of change on an island that's seen its share of ups and downs through the years. "When we were growing up in the '60s, my father would take us over by boat. This is before LORAN and GPS. You had to dead reckon over there," says Levine. "We were there during the drug years, during the human-smuggling years. The island bounces up and down through prosperity. When they announced the plans for what became Bimini Bay, my father had romantic notions about the Browns Hotel. He bought the place, but passed away in September 2010, and left it to my brother Alan and me to run the place." Their father, I. Stanley Levine, is remembered as a champion of the arts in Miami, and a co-chair of the Lincoln Road Task Force that revitalized the pedestrian mall at the heart of South Beach. But besides the arts, his other enduring passions were fishing and diving, loves he passed along to his sons.
Bimini is made up of two inhabited islands, North and South, that stick up from the western edge of the Great Bahama Bank. This huge area of shallow water drops off to thousands of feet just offshore, making it a prime location for big-water gamefish. On a sunny Saturday, we motored the short distance out the channel and dropped lines at the color change. Trolling along the drop-off, we hoped to entice a wahoo or similar predator lying in wait for baitfish swept over the shelf by the outgoing tide. After boating a 'cuda, and a nice wahoo, we decided to deep drop for a while.
I never knew what to make of electric reels. I assumed, as I think many do, that they sort of take away from the angling experience. What I didn't realize was how much skill it takes to use one to keep a weighted line on the bottom, nearly a thousand feet down. And how this sort of fishing wouldn't be possible without them. Using a six- to 12-pound cylinder of lead connected to 100-pound braid, we could drop 800 feet of line over the side and still feel every bump and twitch as the lead bounced and thumped the mud bottom below. With one hand on the line to feel for strikes, and the other on the controls of the Lindgren-Pitman reels, you had to concentrate to raise or lower the weight so it kept bouncing on the bottom. I didn't master the technique fast enough to add any fish to the box, but the other reel yielded a yellow-eyed snapper (silk snapper) for dinner.
Where The Fish Are
But the big attractions for most anglers are twofold — the flats with abundant bonefish and permit, and the pelagics just offshore. Bluefin tuna migrate past Bimini each May, and blue marlin follow. Many of the big-game tactics used to land such enormous fish on hook and line originated with Bimini's bluefin tuna fleet in the '50s and '60s. In its heyday, on a southeast wind, a 70-mile-long strip of water between Cat Cay and Bimini known as Tuna Alley would come alive with bluefin schools, with monster 500-plus-pound fish rising to the surface to surf down the face of waves along the rip. The fish could appear anywhere along the 70-mile stretch. Captains would sight-fish for these roving predators, stationing a mate high up a mast as a lookout, and endeavor to maneuver the boat in order to troll a single bait in front of the pack without spooking them.
One of the focal points of these efforts was the docks of the Bimini Big Game Club, founded in the 1930s as a dinner club and relocated to its present waterfront location in 1947. The modern club still retains much of the charm of its past, but has been updated and expanded to feature activities that appeal to the whole family, not just fishermen. A recent addition is the Bimini Bull Run, a chance to dive with bull sharks right off the docks of the club (see,"2013 Boaters Holiday Gift Guide"). But if adventure and adrenaline aren't your idea of a vacation, you can paddle out across the main channel onto the flats for a morning yoga session on a quiet platform, or kick back in the pool and wait for the fishermen in your group to bring back fresh fish for dinner.
We brought our catch back to the docks at Browns for a meal in their newly renovated outdoor lounge, starting with wahoo sashimi that seemed to melt on your tongue. After cooking out on the grills, we planned to head back to Bimini Bay to take in a beachfront fashion show, complete with runway, part of the celebration of the inaugural run of the new fast ferry from Miami. The ferry and the dredging of the channel that enabled it to begin making runs across the Gulf Stream are both part of efforts by the Genting Group to bring casino entertainment to Miami. After originally planning and being denied permission to build a casino at the former Miami Herald property adjacent to the ICW in downtown Miami, the company took a different approach.
"They said, 'If we can't bring a casino to Miami, we'll bring Miami to the casino,'" says Levine. Shortly after beginning ferry operations in February, the Genting Group announced they would take over management of the Bimini Bay Resort, rename it Resorts World Bimini, and expand the ferry operation from a few hundred passengers to a full-blown cruise ship, capable of moving 1,600 passengers to the island in just two hours' time. The ship began daily service in late July. Bimini, once accessible mainly by private boat or plane, suddenly is a cruise-ship destination. "You can't have an island 46 miles away from 8 million people and not have it be discovered," says Levine.
But in February, that was all part of someone else's future plans. Our plans on day two were to tangle with some bonefish, and I enlisted the help of Eagle Eyes Fred, a local guide. Fishermen rave about the bonefishing in Bimini. The sheer number of fish will shock a fisherman used to hunting the elusive "grey ghost" on the flats of the Florida Keys, though the Florida fish tend to be larger. But on the warm, gin-clear flats between the North and South islands, bonefish bunch up so thick that their shadows look like a handful of oversize rice cast up on the sand.
In my defense, it was really windy. Gusts to 35 and so on. And precision casting of a lightly baited line to a spooky fish is best done without having to consider if the wind will rip your measured cast 45 degrees off course. But you have to fish in the conditions you've got, and I didn't have time before our 2 p.m. flight to be picky. In the end, Fred's amazing eyes and my frustrated casting combined into three hookups, all lost to mangrove snags. But not before the last fish put on a blazing display of speed, flashing from 10 to 2 in an instant, which made Stephanie turn around in her seat and say, "Did you see that?!" I did, and much like our time in Bimini, it was over too soon.
Michael Vatalaro, BoatUS Magazine's executive editor, fishes from a 24-foot Pursuit center console.
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Know Before You Go:
Here are the resources you'll need to fly over to Bimini and go fishing, either on your own boat, or via seaplane.
Seasonal and transient slips available to 150 feet
Bimini Big Game Club
Fishing or dive charters, lodging, restaurant, watersports. Rooms from $159-$300 per night
Eagle Eyes Fred
Resorts World Bimini
Ferry service, lodging, marina, restaurants, casino gaming $250-$1,200 per night. Ferry $69 and up round trip
Tropic Ocean Airways
Seaplane flights to Bimini, Florida Keys, and more Start around $200 one-way