It happened so fast there was no time to weigh the consequences; no time to wonder if my wife, standing on the shore, would see me sweep 21-year-old supermodel Niki Taylor out of the warm Caribbean and into my arms. It was one of those moments when a man does what he has to do. And as it turned out, my instincts were correct, for Niki didn't resist. Far from it. As I lifted her, she put her arms swiftly, wordlessly around my neck and clung to me as if to discourage any notion I might have about setting her back down. The look in her eyes told me all I needed to know. She would have remained there, happily suspended, the rest of the day and on into the velvet night if necessary: however long it took for that goddam barracuda to swim back into the deep, calling off its sudden and terrifying assault.
That I should remember Los Roques, that barren, rocky archipelago 80 miles off the Venezuelan coast, not for the bonefishing paradise that it is, with miles of sandy-bottomed, wadeable flats; not for the shocking turquoise of its waters lapping silkily against the white beaches of its islets and cays; not for the island children playing baseball, with driftwood bats, in the square; nor even for its luscious, steamy evenings, cooled by iced rum and overhead fans...but, rather, for a primal intruder devoid of romance or loveliness; for a slab-sided streak of silver, mouth agape; for five feet of savagery and slashing teeth leaping around our naked legs...well, it reflects on the black humor of Neptune. It simply isn't right.
But such is the nature of life. Terror makes a more lasting impression than beauty. Particularly unexpected terror: the monster barging into paradise. Who or what unleashed that monster, and what message the gods of the sea were trying to impart, I'll leave for others to decide. But this much I know. The next time someone asks me to take a supermodel fishing—Claudia, Elle, Naomi and Chandra take note—I'm going to have the good sense to decline.
I had no such prejudices when this trip was being planned. It may even have been my idea: Let's take Niki Taylor fishing to prove that a novice, with the help of expert guiding, can catch a bonefish on a fly. That seemed like a reasonably stiff challenge, even given Los Roques' reputation as a bonefishing El Dorado. True, Niki had once modeled while holding a fly rod. And her zodiac sign was Pisces. But she'd never actually fly-fished. Throwing a fly line is a tricky proposition for a raw beginner under any conditions. Doing so while wading on a windblown flat, with two cameramen at your elbow and a sound boom waving over your head, with only one morning free on your schedule and with an entire rack of swimsuits waiting to be photographed back at the lodge—that's another matter entirely. Especially when you're throwing that fly line toward bonefish.
They're not the easiest creatures to spot. That's the first hurdle. Streamlined and silver-sided, bonefish have such an uncanny ability to blend into the greens and grays of the turtle grass that fishermen call them the ghosts of the flats. They are skittish from a lifetime of being hunted by barracuda, spooking wildly at the slightest splash or shadow thrown by a wayward cast. And they can be finicky eaters, preferring shrimp when you're offering crab, minnows when you're offering shrimp.
Bonefish are not large; at Los Roques they range from two to 13 pounds, averaging about five. But they are strong and fast. No fish that size will rip line off a reel faster than a bonefish, and zigzagging runs of 100 yards or more are not uncommon. During these mad dashes, fly lines have a knack for wrapping themselves around anything handy—guides, ankles, reels, rod butts, mangroves or stands of coral. Then ping! goes the leader. The whole experience is like hooking a frightened cat.
So Niki would have her work cut out for her. We had done her no favors by booking our trip to Los Roques in late October. The peak bonefishing season runs from March through September, and June and July are the most productive months, according to our guide, Frank Ibarra. The wind is calmer then, and the water is low. The problem from October through December, he explained, is that while the wind is tolerably light, the water in Los Roques rises as much as two feet, allowing large barracuda to cruise the flats. "Usually the water here is only knee-deep," Frank said. "Bonefish get very, very spooky when it's this deep. Or maybe they don't come onto the flats at all."
Fortunately, we'd given ourselves four days to scout the area before Niki would join us, and there were dozens of places to try. Los Roques is made up of 44 small coral islands and more than 325 islets and rocks, plus the big island, El Gran Roque, which towers, like the Rock of Gibraltar, above the rest of the archipelago. Eight hundred people live on El Gran Roque year-round; so do about 500 dogs—40 of whom seemed to live in our hotel, the Vistalmar. They slept on the roof, conversing (ceaselessly, relentlessly) with their canine pals around the island.
Hey! Listen up, curs! It's Lop-ear. Let's bark.