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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
For all its vaunted immediacy, television news has a way of transmuting even the most horrific of natural disasters into banality. Earthquake crumples Pakistan, cyclone swamps Australia, tornado thumps Oklahoma—ho-hum. We view the wreckage, listen to the shocked voices of the survivors, shake our heads sadly at the body count and pop another beer can. Unless we are there at the time or have been there, or, worst of all, have friends living—possibly dying—there, the tragedy impinges on our glutted sensibilities with the impact of a soggy paper towel hurled haphazardly from the next commercial. When Hurricane Fifi hit the Caribbean coast of Honduras last fail, killing thousands, the film clips were wishy-washy. Flattened houses, beached fishing boats, a few corpses bobbing in the cluttered tide. Yet for those of us who had visited there just five months earlier, the disaster was more than immediate.
We visualized the ruination of Roat�n, loveliest of" Honduras' Bay Islands. Coxen's Hole, the island's tiny, cozy capital, draped in seaweed. Oak Ridge Cay, where we had stayed, scoured to its bare coral bones by the furious sea, its cool, thatched houses reduced to soggy driftwood. Our stalwart fishing buddies—Bill Kepler, toothless Larry Jackson, silent Earl Cooper—dangling limp and round-eyed in the tangle of a swamped skiff while frigate birds circled overhead. And the bonefish flats—those delicate, pellucid playgrounds of some of the world's finest game fish—buried beneath a gummy cloak of marl. And the reefs where we snorkeled, their bright staghorns cracked and bleaching, lobotomized, with brain corals stacked like bowling balls among the palm trees....
We need not have worried. For Roat�n (nee Ratt�n or Ruat�n) was once a pirate stronghold, and its people still know the sea—in all its furies as well as its splendors. No less a buccaneer than Harry Morgan himself used Roat�n as a base for sorties against the Spanish plate fleets in the 1600s. On the southeast side of the narrow island, the ruins of his three forts, whose guns controlled the dogleg entrance to Port Royal, stand as tough and craggy as the murderous old rascal himself. Modern treasure hunters with mine detectors and pickaxes uncover valuable artifacts of the pirate era; rum bottles, pannikins, sword and cutlass bells, old muzzle-loaders are there for the scraping, at the cost of a little sweat. More valuable than the pirate dregs, though, is the unspoiled nature of the place. It remains pretty much as the Royal Navy's cartographer, Lieutenant Henry Barnsley, found it in 1742, after the pirates had been burned out, and the island, which lies 35 miles off the coast of Honduras, became a British colony.
"This is a plentiful I Island," wrote Barnsley, "Abounding with Wild Hoggs, Deer, Indian Conies, Wild Fowl, and Quantitys of Tyrtle, and fine Fish &ct.... The South Side is very Convenient for Shiping, having many fine Harbours. The North Side is bounded by a Reef of Rocks that Extend from one End of the Island to the Other.... It is likewise very Healthy the Inhabitants hereabout generally living to a Great Age."
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Larry Bee Jackson of Roat�n. Though Larry has yet to Achieve a particularly Great Age—he is only 25—he is nonetheless very Healthy. Short, wide and plump, Larry is the champion beer drinker and barracuda eater of Oak Ridge Cay, a tiny coral islet off Roat�n's southeast shore. Since this is the side of the island "Convenient for Shipping," Larry is also an accomplished boatman. At least he is an accomplished fiddler with, and curser at, recalcitrant outboard motors. His curses usually work, uttered as they are through a clenched jaw, the upper front teeth of which are missing. As for the fiddling, Larry is all thumbs. Literally. He has two thumbs on his right hand, a smaller one growing out of the base of the main one. At first the sight of these freak digits puts the newcomber off. You shake hands with Larry Bee and you do a double take. Yuk! Why doesn't he have the "baby" thumb removed? Then you realize: Why should he? What other person on Oak Ridge Cay has that many thumbs? It is a sign of distinction, one to be proud of, and Larry is nothing if not proud.
Until recently, Larry's employer was Captain William J. Kepler, owner of Reef House, one of only half a dozen resorts on the island. Most of the resorts are located at the west end of Roat�n in a kind of American-tourist enclave replete with the casinos, swimming pools, air conditioning, cabanas and rum-drink-camaraderie endemic to the Caribbean. Reef House, by contrast, is unobtrusive and simple—three tidy clapboard cottages open to the trade winds, a natural swimming hole back of the coral reef and, thanks to Kepler's two cooks, Juanita and Olive, the best cuisine south of Joe's Stone Crab in Miami.' 'This is a subsistence operation," says Captain Bill by way of explaining his $25-a-day rate. "I'm not here to make a fortune. I don't want the kind of guest whose main concern is how fast he can get from the airport to the poolside for his first mai-tai. Mainly I cater to the serious fisherman—the man who has refined his desires to light tackle, to permit and bonefish."
At the age of 59, Bill Kepler is tall, trim and leathery, with a jaw like a hungry barracuda and the mildly dictatorial air of a sea captain. Indeed, during most of his adult life he served as skipper of ocean-racing yachts, winning distinction in distance events on both coasts. During the late 1950s, he commanded a fleet of three 75-foot sport-fishing boats out of Cuba's Isle of Pines, an operation of such size and complexity that it amounted to the angling equivalent of commanding a minesweeping squadron. "We fished marlin and sail and wahoo and tuna on the outside," he says, "and were equally well equipped to fish the reefs and the flats. The way costs are going now, I doubt you'll ever see anything like it again."
What killed the Isle of Pines operation, of course, was the advent of Fidel Castro, who confiscated Kepler's fleet. "The U.S. Government wouldn't do a thing for us," he recalls bitterly. "Finally I told them I was taking at least one of the boats out of there, and to hell with the Cuban gunboats. I single-handed her back to Miami safely, but that was the end of big-time fishing for me. You can have excellence on any scale, if the money is right, but for now the best fishing has to be focused down tight to a single type. For me it's flats fishing, and Roat�n is a fine place for that pursuit."
As Kepler is the first to admit, the flats of Roat�n are postage stamps compared to the vast sheets of shallow water available to the bone or permit enthusiast in the Florida Keys or the Bahamas. But angling pressure is light by comparison, and the fish are quite regular in their habits, appearing on the flats nearly every day to feed on the rising and falling tides. Nonetheless, they are as wary as the rest of their kind in shallow water, spooking away from a bad cast with the shimmering speed that leaves an angler shaking in his sneakers. But frustration is half the fun of flats fishing, a masochistic game at best, adding as it does to the ultimate thrill of hooking, fighting, subduing and finally releasing the fish.
The bones are up on Helene flat. A long late sun hammers the thin water of a falling tide into a lumpy sheet of copper. As we ground the skiffs on the edge of the flat, Kepler points out the feeding schools. Their forked tails flick up briefly, ephemerally, as they feed—acres of peace signs, it seems, flashing at us from the sun. We ease over the side into the warm water and, spreading out, begin our stalk. Under his conical straw hat, Kepler's face is covered by a pink-and-green muslin mask—protection against sunburn. That, coupled with the goggling stare of his Polaroids and his stealthy, half-crouching gait as he moves toward the feeding fish, makes him look like some kind of marine mugger. But these are no easy victims. As the schools circulate on their evening rounds, we cast everything at them that we have: bucktail jigs in pink, white, yellow and blue; bushy-bodied flies of as many colors; even soft-bodied hermit crabs, called "soldiers" locally, cracked from their shells and impaled on small hooks. Again and again the bones flee at the fall of the lure or bait, flashing away in rippling panic only to turn far down the flat and come back toward us, feeding again but doubly wary.