Several years ago, during a family vacation sailing the crystalline waters of the British Virgin Islands, we spotted dozens of tailing permit just 30 feet off the beach of Virgin Gorda. We watched as the fish cruised along, leisurely slurping up crustacean bits, oblivious to our presence and easily within casting distance of even the most novice of anglers. Finally, that elusive daydream most flats fishermen share had materialized.
We looked at each other in disbelief and cursed our empty hands, swearing to never again visit this strand of tropical islands without packing our fly rods.
Though we hadn't realized it while preparing for our family vacation, the British Virgin Islands - one of the world's most popular destinations for cruising sailors - is also host to many flats teeming with bonefish, tarpon and permit. Upon our return home from that trip, we immediately began making preparations for the next one. We spent many hours at bookstores, at fly shops and on the Internet, fruitlessly searching for information about fly fishing in these islands. The only information we uncovered was a column in FFSW and several reports from readers of The Angling Report, a newsletter for traveling fly fishermen. So for this trip, in addition to our fly rods, we packed our laptop computer, hoping to provide others with useful information about fly fishing in the BVI.
Most fishing in the Virgin Islands comes in the form of blue-water trolling for marlin and sailfish and inshore fishing for kingfish, grouper and snapper. You won't find many fishermen on the flats here and not many guides either; we found only three. Local fishermen and residents alike cast suspicious eyes toward flats fishermen who engage in the low-odds game of pursuing hard-to-catch, nearly invisible, inedible fish. Still, those equipped with a 9-weight rod and a handful of Clousers, Gotchas and Charlies will enjoy days of angling excitement searching for dorsal fins and muddied waters along the shores of paradise.
Fish at Your Own Risk
The nearly 50 small islands of the British Virgin Islands are situated near the northern end of the Caribbean chain of islands stretching from South America to Florida. Tortola, the main island, is about 90 miles east of Puerto Rico and less than an hour's flight from San Juan. Columbus discovered these islands in 1493 on his second voyage to the New World. His ship, anchored off St. Croix (now part of the U.S. Virgin Islands), was blown off anchor and drifted to the island of Virgin Gorda in the BVI. He named the islands in honor of Saint Ursula and the 11,000 virgins who sacrificed their lives rather than suffer at the hands of the Huns in fourth-century Cologne.
Since the days of Columbus, these islands have continuously hosted visiting sailors, from rumrunners, slave merchants and pirates to modern-day charter cruisers. While sailing is the recreation of choice in the BVI, many come for scuba, snorkeling, blue-water fishing, windsurfing or luxuriating at one of several resorts. An enlightened minority comes here with fly fishing in mind.
The island of Anegada has fewer residents (only 175 people live on the island) and visitors than the other BVI islands, yet it is ground zero for flats fishing. While other BVI islands are volcanic mountain forms that rise from the sea, Anegada (a Spanish word meaning "submerged land") is a flat, low-lying stretch of sand about 11 miles long and two miles at its widest. Its highest point is just 28 feet above sea level. There are more acres of flats than land and many more bonefish than residents. With only two guides working the 11-mile flat that stretches along the mangrove-rimmed south side of the island, on any given day you will only see - at most - one other flats boat. Garfield Faulkner and his brother Kevin, whose family was among the island's first settlers, operate Garfield's Guides, the island's only fly-fishing outfitter for the past 14 years.
Like Christmas Island, Anegada is an atoll. It is surrounded by Horseshoe Reef, a shallow coral and limestone formation that is home to nearly 300 shipwrecks, some dating back to the 17th century. Because of this treacherous reef, most of the BVI yacht charter companies prohibit or discourage their customers from sailing here. We had to sign a waiver with our charter company accepting all liability for any damage that might occur to the boat while visiting the island. Consequently, Anegada is not overrun with vacationers and has retained its native warmth and charm.
The fishing community on this isolated island is reminiscent of Hemingway's Bimini in the 1930s. There are two small, very clean hotels, a couple of restaurants, two bakeries, a pottery studio and a tiny grocery store. Visiting fishermen need to bring very little. Just pack your favorite fishing gear (optional, since guides will provide you with rods, reels and flies), a couple pairs of shorts, T-shirts, cigars and a bottle of rum (also optional, since the bartenders at the Anegada Reef Hotel and Neptune's Treasure make a killer rum punch).
While one may spend endless days wade fishing the flats of Anegada without the benefit (or cost) of a guide, a guided trip with either Garfield or Kevin Faulkner will increase the number of bonefish sightings exponentially. The water here is gin clear but the bottom is multi-colored, making bonefish harder to see than in other areas. While in Anegada, we met Alan Nelson of Boulder, Colorado, who has fished the flats of Anegada for four consecutive years. On each visit, he combines guided trips with wading on his own. According to Nelson, he lands large bonefish every time he fishes with Garfield, yet he has never caught one while fishing alone in Anegada.
See for Ourselves
At 8 a.m., we took our dinghy to the pier at the Anegada Reef Hotel (highly recommended for non-sailing fishermen) to enjoy a cup of coffee under a swaying palm tree before Kevin and Garfield arrived. Before our cups were half-empty, we were knee-deep in water next to the hotel pier, casting to tailing bonefish. Garfield and Kevin arrived, chuckling at our apparent impatience and exuberance. They told us that lobster trimmings tossed in the water the night before spoiled these fish and we were unlikely to get a strike. We took their advice and followed them to their 18-foot flats boats.
After 10 minutes of planing across the white, sandy flats, Kevin turned off his engine and began to pole. The engine wasn't needed again for five hours. During that time, we cast to more than 50 bonefish cruising in pods of one to three fish. In the interest of space, we won't talk about how many we landed. Let's just say that Kevin did his job better than we did.
The skies were mostly sunny but patched with cumulus clouds. Nearly every time a cloud passed, allowing the sun to illuminate the bottom, we'd hear Kevin say "boooones" in the hushed, reverent tone of a fortune teller conjuring up the dead. Kevin is a bright young man in his early 20s who spent several years studying business at the University of New Mexico. While articulate, he is a man of very few words. Nearly every one of his sentences started with "boooones." Most ended that way as well. We appreciated his intense focus and verbal efficiency.
After lunch, Kevin took us to the eastern end of the flat, poling us west until 5 p.m., again without ever starting the engine. In this part of the flat, Kevin told us to expect to see smaller bonefish traveling in larger schools. This we did. Spotting nervous water 200 feet ahead, Kevin suggested we wade upwind of the school so we could cast from a greater distance. On our first cast, we hooked a bonefish without spooking the rest of the school. We cast again and landed another. These fish were much smaller than the 6- to 8-pound fish we saw (but did not catch) in the morning. Nevertheless, the 3-pounders fought with spirit and determination.
According to Kevin, Anegada's waters also hold permit averaging 18 pounds and tarpon that average 35 to 40 pounds, though we never saw this for ourselves. The fish here do not migrate, he says, which makes the fishing great all year. Kevin's most productive trips are during outgoing tides when bonefish feed aggressively. A half-day trip costs $200, so opt for the full day at $300. After a day of fishing, stick around for the beach barbecue at the Anegada Reef Hotel. Place your order for lobster in the morning so the divers will know how many lobsters to harvest for dinner. There is nothing like dinner fresh from the sea to your plate.
Other BVI Options
In comparison to the expansive flats of Anegada, most other BVI flats are small, some no larger than a basketball court, and the largest about the size of a football stadium. Moreover, many of their bottoms are coral and grass rather than sand. Yet they, too, hold bonefish, permit and tarpon. The resident expert on fishing these flats is Ian Batchelor, a British-Canadian fly fisherman now living in the BVI.
Over a cup of coffee, Batchelor told us of his plans for his new business venture, Caribbean Fly-Fishing Outfitters. This company will arrange guided fly-fishing trips in the BVI (except Anegada), as well as hotel accommodations for his clients. Using the company's 28-foot Bertram as a mother ship, Batchelor will ferry fishermen to various islands where affiliate guides will host clients on flats boats. By early 2000, he expected to have at least three affiliate guides in place. Through Caribbean Fly-Fishing Outfitters, the cost of hotel accommodations and a half-day guided fly-fishing trip will be approximately $450 per person.
Batchelor advises, however, that fishing many BVI destinations does not fit the traditional bonefish modus operandi. "We are not usually looking for cruising bonefish or tarpon," Batchelor says. "We usually spot them tailing or mudding, so spotting fish is not as tough here as in some other areas." While many flats must be accessed by boat, most fishing is done while wading.
The BVI provide anglers with terrific opportunities for excellent fly fishing and a great deal more. If you want to fly fish as well as enjoy all the other pleasures of the Caribbean, such as sailing, scuba and snorkeling, go to Tortola and fish with Caribbean Fly-Fishing Outfitters. If you're leaving the family at home with fly fishing as the primary objective, go straight to Anegada and fish its massive flats on your own or with Garfield's Guides. Either way, a BVI fly-fishing trip will be an adventure in paradise where the fish are plentiful and fishermen are scarce.