As with a cat, there is more than one way to skin a story. It falls into a reporter's lap, or it may take years to cultivate. In the case of this week's feature on bonefish by Artist Stanley Meltzoff, the story was a result of aerial reconnaissance.
When Art Director Richard Gangel approached Meltzoff to assemble the act, he suggested that the best place to observe the elusive bonefish in their native surroundings might be the shallows around the Turks and Caicos Islands southeast of the Bahamas. Gangel, a World War II fighter pilot and SI's Red Baron-in-residence, had often flown over the area and marveled at its clear water. So had Meltzoff, as it turned out, and now the only question was how to get there. Gangel, who needs the same amount of persuasion to go flying that a man with a hot foot needs to take off his shoe, immediately got out his charts of the area. Before they could say "contact," the two artist-adventurers were headed for Florida.
In Tampa, Gangel rented a twin-engine Beechcraft Baron, flew it to Fort Lauderdale, refueled and headed out over the Atlantic. They were spared some acute embarrassment when they learned in Fort Lauderdale that the proprietor of the airport in Turks Island had gone bankrupt and that his creditors had cut off his fuel supply. Gangel and Meltzoff set down at nearby Providenciales instead, and Meltzoff went bonefish hunting.
Conditions proved, if anything, even better than anticipated. Meltzoff had seen bonefish while diving off the Bahamas and British Honduras some years ago, but bonefish are not exactly a diver's fish. They spook easily, as Novelist Tom McGuane points out in his accompanying essay, and since they spend most of their time in clear, shallow water, it is impossible to hide from them.
In Meltzoff's previous brushes with bonefish he had never been particularly impressed with their underwater appearance. "When you meet them head on," said the artist, "they look clownish, with their popeyes and leathery mouths." This time their sheen—un-dimmed in the crystalline waters of Providenciales—entranced him.
To get a good look at his prey, Meltzoff had to adopt the meekness, if not the coloration, of the bonefish. The clear water enabled him to watch from a distance as the fish swam in and out of their feeding areas. To get a close look, Meltzoff had a fisherman catch one and hold it on the line, then observed it as it swam around them. Later they rigged a chicken wire enclosure into which they released one or two.
"We didn't get to be friends, the bonefish and I," says Meltzoff, "but at least I got a long and privileged view of this flighty species."
Readers who pause between pages 30 and 34 to inspect the Meltzoff portfolio will get almost the same thing.