I had never experienced water so clear or sand so white. As a beach-goer from infancy, my memories of the beach up to that point were confined to the Jersey Shore. The beach on Andros Island in the Bahamas was intoxicating. Starting with my first trip in 7th grade, I tried to spend nearly every daylight hour face-down in the water, with mask and snorkel, marveling at the water clarity and unbelievable sea life.
The fish varieties along the shore were one thing, but those fish we caught during our reef-fishing excursions with Grandad were something else entirely. During that first visit to the Bahamas, we took our inaugural reef-fishing excursion our first full day on the island. We awoke early and donned long-sleeve shirts and pants and wide-brimmed straw hats, to protect our fair skin from the strong Bahamian sun. We fueled up on breakfast and headed out. Each carrying a fishing rod, Grandad, my younger brother Jon and I headed down to the beach, to meet up with our guide.
We walked along a sandy road that led to a collection of what appeared to be abandoned and falling-apart wooden structures. As we got closer, we saw a number of Bahamians sitting and standing about. This was clearly an occupied settlement. An older Bahamian man greeted us, attired in blue jeans and a button-down shirt, no shoes covering his massive feet, and an old ball cap covering his head. Grandad introduced us to Merton Evans, our fishing guide. We were clearly in Evansville, and the many people milling around were mostly relatives of Merton’s. He smiled and spoke to Jonathan and me, though neither of us could understand a word he was saying. It was English, though spoken with such a heavy Bahamian accent that all we could do was nod and smile and quietly saw “yes” or “okay.” We followed Grandad and Merton through the palm trees along another sandy path. After cresting a slight rise, we burst out into the brightness, presented with that amazing clear blue water and a beach so white it hurt your eyes.
Our fishing vessel was a small open wooden boat with an outboard motor, sitting in the sand just above the water’s edge. Merton loaded it with a wooden bucket with a glass bottom, and a net full of conch shells. Grandad had us add our rods to the few Merton had stowed aboard. With the help of a few stray Evans who were hanging around the beach, we all climbed in and perched ourselves on the worn wooden plank seats, then were launched out into the warm tropical waters. Merton crouched in back and fired up the old Evinrude outboard. (As a 12-year old who had never seen an outboard motor, I marveled at how the motor on Merton Evan’s boat was named in his honor.)
We motored out to the reef that sat about a mile off the shore. The whole way we glided over crystal clear water, where we could easily see the sandy bottom interrupted occasionally with grassy areas and coral heads. The water got slightly darker, indicating more depth, though we could still clearly see the bottom as we slowed down over the reef. As the motor idled, Merton grabbed the glass-bottom bucket and leaned over, getting an even clearer picture of what lay below. Satisfied that this was a good spot, he said something to Grandad that seemed to have something to do with heaving the anchor overboard. Grandad grabbed an old hunk of metal tied to a rope and chucked it over the side. He handed Merton the anchor line, and Merton let it play out until he was satisfied that the boat was positioned where he wanted it.
Securing the line to an old rusty cleat on the boat’s rail, Merton reached for the net of conch. Grandad asked us to hand him three rods, as Merton pulled a conch out of the bag. He reached around the bottom of the boat and came up with an old hammer-like tool with a sharp pick end. He proceeded to hit the conch near its crown, making a hole to release the inner creature’s grip. He extracted the slimy conch out of its shell and placed it on the boat rail. He then produced a very lethal looking knife and sharpened its blade on a stone before slicing some of the conch into bait-sized pieces.
One by one we handed Merton our rods, and he skewered a hunk of conch onto the hook, checking each rig for line soundness and proper weights attached. As he baited our hooks, he quickly flipped the bait and weight over his shoulder, letting the clear nylon line play out before closing the reel’s bale and handing the rods to me and Jon. Grandad, having clearly done this extensively in the past, was allowed to cast his own rod. We sat there patiently with our baits somewhere down below, waiting to see what happened next. Up to this point, our fishing experience had been pulling bluegills out of my uncle’s pond using bamboo poles, plastic bobbers and earthworms. What we were about to experience was something all together different.
After seeing that we all had baits overboard, Merton pulled out a spool of nylon filament line and attached a hook and small lead weight to it. He baited the hook and tossed it overboard. Our wondering why he didn’t use a rod was quickly answered when almost immediately he yanked on his line and pulled it up. On the end of his line was one of the most colorful fish I had ever seen – a red spiny creature that Merton proclaimed to be a squirrelfish. He removed the hook from the fish’s mouth, lifted up a board on the bottom of the boat, and dropped the fish into a water filled area. Merton re-baited his hook and again tossed it over his shoulder, placing the line under his toe and he tended to other fishing guide duties. (He would repeat his fish-catching with his handline throughout the morning, proving that sometimes the simplest ways work best.)
After a few minutes Merton grabbed the bucket again and looked below. He looked at me and said something that I again couldn’t understand. Grandad translated, indicating that I should reel in my line. As I did, I saw a shiny empty hook emerge from the water. My bait had been picked clean below. Not realizing that the various little tugs I had been feeling were actually fish chewing on the conch, I decided I’d be more alert the next time. After getting a new hunk of conch on my hook, Merton cast my line out and handed the rod back to me. He then had Jon do the same, with the same bait-free hook result upon reeling in.
Suddenly I felt a big tug on my line, jolting me back to reality after watching Merton rebait Jon’s hook. Not knowing what to do, I immediately tried to reel. Merton signaled instead for me to stop reeling and pull up on the rod. I realized that first setting the hook is an important step towards landing the fish. Fortunately the greedy guy down below already did that for me when he hit my bait. I was then instructed in the proper way to boat a fish, first by gently but firmly pulling back on the rod, always keeping the tip up and out of the water, then reeling in the slack line as you lowered the rod. This up-down motion and reeling eventually brought my fish to the boat. Merton grabbed an old net he had at his feet and scooped the fish out of the water. In the net was a decent sized Porgy, one of the more prolific reef occupants (and mighty good eating, we would later find out.) My first saltwater fish!
After that, we continued to steadily catch fish, occasionally having to raise the “anchor” and relocate to another part of the reef after different predator fish began to notice our activities. We learned that if there is a barracuda or shark nearby, he will immediately hit any fish that we hook. We brought up a few head-only porgies and other reef fish that day. But we also filled the fish hold in the boat with more porgies, along with a few yellowtail snappers, some small strawberry grouper, and the beautiful and odd-looking Triggerfish. We learned that this fiah gets its name from a retractable fin on top of its body, which it deploys after backing into a hole in the coral, locking itself within the protection of the reef and out of harm’s way. At least once that day we had to give up on the fish and concede to him and his evolutionary prowess, cutting the line and remembering to be quicker in pulling him up and away from the coral the next time.
As the sun got higher, we called it a day and motored back to the beach, where we were met by our family along with more random Evans, all interested in seeing what bounty we pulled from the sea. We helped unload the boat as Merton gathered up our haul of colorful reef fish and placed them in his glass bottom bucket. He carried them to an old weathered piece of plywood propped up under some palm trees, which turned out to be his fish-cleaning station. We all gathered around as he laid out our trophies from the morning, some gasping and flopping, others still and stiffening. We each grabbed our best specimen of the day and posed for numerous photos with Grandad and Merton. Whenever I see those pictures now, I am struck by the enormous smiles Jon and I have on our faces, testament to one of the best days either of us have ever had.
I also recall with less fondness but no less clarity the horrific sunburn I got on my hands that day – the only part of my pale body that was left exposed to the tropical sun. Whatever meager amount of sunscreen I may have applied that morning had long stopped working by the time we were well into our excursion. I remember being in such discomfort that evening as we dined at the one and only restaurant in Nicholls Town, Eva Henfield’s. I kept ice on my beet-red hands all through dinner, though I also remember how delicious Eva’s chicken, rice and peas was, topped off with a beautiful pineapple upside down cake in honor of my sister Anne’s birthday. The highlight of the night though was Eva singing to my sister in her gorgeous Bahamian voice. Her beautiful rendition of “Happy Boi-day” echoes in my mind to this day. And the memories of fishing on the reef with Merton as our guide still make me smile like I did in those old photos.