Pilotage

Gone fishin'

September 1, 2007

Aviation writer Mark R. Twombly lives in and writes from Southwest Florida.

Somewhere, anywhere, in the Bahamas is a favorite annual destination, and our comfy, cavernous, two-motor Aztec is a nearly perfect way to get there. A friend, Jack Thomas, also makes an annual pilgrimage to the Bahamas in his twin. Jack has a 44-foot Cavileer twin Caterpillar-powered sportfishing boat named Brown-Eyed Girl. We've been talking for several years about my flying down to join him on the boat for a few days. This year I took him up on the invitation.

He would be spending about three weeks fishing off Crooked Island and the Acklins in the southernmost Bahamas. It's a three-day run for him from Southwest Florida to Crooked Island. It would take me about 3 hours 30 minutes flying time.

The plan was for me to bring Jack's son (also named Jack, but known as Jay) and a fishing buddy, Steve Woodard, to Pittstown Point, on the north end of Crooked Island. Pittstown Point is a name familiar to many pilots. Hal Shevers of Sporty's Pilot Shop was a partner in the resort for some years, and a photo of Shevers's red Aztec at the beachside airstrip has graced the cover of his ubiquitous pilot shop catalog. The small resort is now owned by Carter and Heidi Andrews and a partner. It's a postcard-perfect remote island destination for those of us fortunate enough to be able to fly ourselves to such places.

Jay, Steve, and I departed from my hangar early on a Thursday morning. I cancelled my international flight plan east of Andros so I could descend and fly down the fabulous Exuma chain of islands at low altitude to give Jay and Steve a view they'd never forget. After a stop at Exuma International to clear Bahamian customs and take on a bit of fuel, it was back over open water until we spotted Brown-Eyed Girl slowly trolling in deep water near the Bird Rock lighthouse just north of Crooked Island. I circled the boat twice, then set up for a landing to the southeast on Pittstown's 2,000-foot strip. I remembered Carter's advice to heed a low, gear-busting berm on the approach end and plunked down a safe distance beyond the threshold. Not long after, Jack and his hired mate for the trip, Will Ratliff, were welcoming us aboard.

The objective of Jack's Bahamas sojourn is the blue marlin. Sleek and powerful, the elusive billfish plies deep water close to the submerged walls that lie just offshore of many Bahamian islands. We ate a quick lunch, and then the search for fish began in earnest.

The twin Cats rumbled along at about 850 rpm, each sipping about three gallons per hour and pushing the boat at about eight knots. Five heavy lines trailing from five sturdy rods pulled big lures through the boiling wake. The blunt snouts and feathery tails of the artificial bait popped along on the surface, their bright colors and frantic action designed to attract the hungry attention of a monster marlin cruising in the abyss.

We trolled until darkness with no luck. No one groused. We were on a beautiful boat in beautiful waters in the beautiful southern Bahamas, with three full days of marlin fishing ahead of us.

That first night we anchored just off the west side of the island. Will provided the evening's entertainment by chumming for shark off the transom. Four big lemons soon appeared and finned lazily next to the boat for about 20 minutes before consuming the bait with a few toothy bites.

Marlin anglers like to recite the same hyperbole to describe their sport that pilots use to describe the act of flying — hours and hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer panic. It's a much more appropriate description of marlin fishing than flying. After rigging lures, rods, and outriggers and spooling out lines behind the boat, there's nothing much left to do except focus on the water. Occasionally we'd change seats. Conversations would sprout, bloom, and wither. Lunch, taken in the air-conditioned cabin, was a welcome respite. We'd take turns napping. Jack manned the helm, turning it over to Jay only when he wanted a snooze.

After long hours of trolling on day two, Jay suddenly yelled "FISHFISHFISH!" The marlin jumped, Jay grabbed the rod and locked the butt end into his harness, and the fight was on. Some time later the fish was played out and beside the boat. I got the requisite photos while Will carefully reached out with a gloved hand and worked the hook free. The marlin disappeared with a swish of its tail. A grinning Jay collected his high-fives.

The next day Will had just handed out sandwiches when a big marlin struck the short rod with 50-pound-test line. I grabbed it, shoved the end into the harness, and pulled hard. The fish emerged from the water and danced left to right across the wake. For the next 25 sweaty, muscle-aching minutes I worked the fish in until Will could grab the wire leader and release it. A 200-pounder, Jay said. Later that evening I was duly honored by getting tossed off the boat into the water.

Early Monday morning we loaded the Aztec and took off to the southwest. I made a low thank-you pass over Brown-Eyed Girl, then took up a heading to the northwest and configured for climb. Ahead lay several hours of pleasant boredom but, unlike the memorable events of the previous few days, no panicked interruptions.

E-mail the author at marktwombly@earthlink.net.

Topics Bahamas, Travel