I have always found fishing to be a humbling business. Once in Key West, while delicately whipping back a spinning rod to cast, I hooked my favorite uncle in the nostril, and a doctor was required to remove the grapple. More recently, fishing with handlines off Spanish Wells on the northern tip of Eleuthera, I systematically raked the bottom clean of kelp, then fouled the outboard engine bringing in a yellowtail and finally snared my wife in the breech of her Bermuda shorts. These are only two of many embarrassing fishing experiences.
But the enthusiasm I take to sea transcends the treachery of the water's inhabitants. (I share no one's passion for the fish, except for the gratification of eating them, which they would otherwise do themselves because they are natural cannibals.) I do not look to the sea for strength or solace. I enjoy it, that is all, and will jump at the chance to be around it and in it. If it is the Bahamas, that nearby Elysium of clear water and pink powdered-sugar beaches, I will jump all the quicker.
An unexpected chance came one evening last summer in Miami in the person of Mr. Billy Joe Curtis of Hangnail, Okla. Bill Curtis is a professional photographer, who six years ago yielded to the glamour of becoming a south Florida bonefish guide. Curtis said he had a great idea for an expedition into the Bahamas. He outlined a week in waters around Andros and the Berry Islands, where record-size blue marlin practically leap into the boat from the Northwest Providence Channel; he told of flats so thick with bonefish that they shimmered silver in the sun; of skies aflutter with teal and jacksnipe. He pictured lazy skin-diving and snorkeling excursions among the coral reefs, the tenement houses of the Great Bahama Bank. He said, to complete this, The Compleat Bahamas Safari, there could be trips ashore to hunt boar and poke around native villages.
Poking around native villages in the Bahamas is not, as recent slick-paper advertisements imply, poking around the lobby of the Holiday Inn at Freeport. Grand Bahama is geographically bound to the Bahamas but is really only a British concession to modern hedonism. It has gambling and high prices and unavoidable luxury, and someday it will sink into the Atlantic from the weight of American dollars.
The real Out Islands of the Bahamas were settled not by speculators but by loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, and if they had it to do over again they would. Good times—good fishing and good prices for the fish—have brought electricity and automobiles and outboard engines and even television (picked up from Miami by extra-elongated antennas) grinding down on these otherwise unspoiled enclaves. To prove, alas, that even these lovely people are not insensitive to such stimuli, you can, on a clear night in a place like Spanish Wells, hear pouring out from the wireless sets what my wife calls American white-knuckle music, or low-fi. This is music that, by the sound of it, requires the musicians to keep an extremely tight grip on their instruments.
To a man naturally intrigued by the Bahamas, however, the island of Andros is another cup of titillation. It is called Unknown Island by the authors of a definitive book on Nassau and the Bahama Out Islands, Sun'n Sixpence, and though that may be stretching a romanticism, it at least gives an inkling of the place. Andros is easily the largest of the Bahama chain—it is 100 miles long, 40 miles wide at the widest point. Many of its creeks, lakes and headlands are uncharted and, according to the book, its coastline was plotted inaccurately as late as 1963. The skimpy population—7,500 plus—is spread out in villages and settlements, mostly on the east coast. The west coast, which confronts the many square miles of shallow water (3 to 12 feet deep) known as The Mud, and the mysterious interior are left pretty much to the imagination. A band of Cuban exiles, having made their way across the interior from the west coast to Fresh Creek in 1962, told of seeing "the fires of unknown settlements" and of "innumerable deer and rookeries of flamingos" no one knew existed.
Many of Andros' settlements are entirely populated by Negroes, descendants of slaves freed by the British and left to devise a curious coalescence of faiths: evangelical Baptist, for example, with African Obeah. Curtis said that at Lowe Sound, one of these settlements at the north end, we could get native guides to take us to the backwaters, where there are thousands of ducks, and to the hills, where the wild boar play. Presumably these boar are the offspring of pigs set loose centuries ago by the conquistadores which have thrived in the bush and grown into huge herds of fiercely tusked animals with the long legs and quick movements of dogs. If they did not get you first, Curtis said, you could shoot as many as you pleased and roast them right there on the beach. There was a limit on duck, he said—50 to the man.
Curtis said he could not promise anything, but we might even see a chickcharney. The chickcharney (a more respectful double capitalization is often used: Chick Charney) is a leprechaun said to be indigenous to Andros. Not all Androsians believe in chickcharneys, and there are variations in eyewitness accounts of what they look like but, generally speaking, they are tree spirits, somewhat like frigate birds, feathered and fearsomely red-eyed. They hang from cottonwood branches by their three toes, or three fingers, and it is not always easy to tell when they are right side up. The chickcharneys were blamed for the failure of Neville Chamberlain's sisal plantation at Mastic Point in 1897, and it was hardly a surprise to those who knew of it to learn of Chamberlain's eventual disaster at Munich.
In time I was to meet a modern disciple of the chickcharney, our intrepid Negro guide from Lowe Sound, the redoubtable Ronald (Rudy) Knowles. Rudy's father, Granville Knowles, is a onetime preacher who does not believe in chickcharneys, but Rudy does not think his father knows all there is to know. From personal observations made at a respectful distance, Rudy Knowles adds these dimensions to the sylph: "It have a black ring around its neck, and it look like a dove. It makes nests you can see in the trees. I don't say nothing against them."
It took us some months to gather a compatible group and to map out an itinerary flexible enough for the caprices of January weather. The Bahamas' temperature range (63� to 88�) and prevailing winds (east and southeast trade winds) make for year-round mildness, but from November through April the islands are subject to what Bahamians call northers, chilling winds of 20 to 35 knots out of the north. A determination to get everything in might not be enough, for we had only a week, and two days of that were to be spent going and coming.