The sea was milky smooth, as on the first day of creation. The virginal beaches gleamed in the early sun and the cays were a string of pearls. Only the voice of Rudolph Knowles, quivering with outrage, broke the silence: "No onion! No bit of lettuce! How dey expect a man to work all day widout no bit of onion to bring de gas up?" He sent the inadequate bologna sandwich skimming far out across the bonefish flats.
This was why Brian Harris and I found ourselves tearing along the dusty roads of Andros Island on rented bicycles later that day. Clearly, without no onion, without no bit of lettuce, Rudy Knowles could not give his best. And having plotted and connived our way into hiring the best bonefish guide on the island, we wanted to keep him happy and contented. So in the store at Nicolls Town, fortunately still open, Harris picked over the lettuce with the devotion of a Parisian housewife.
"Did he mention ketchup?" I asked anxiously.
"Get ketchup anyway," Harris told me. "And some of that cucumber pickle." His fishing bag filled steadily with canned meats, fruit, fine quality onions. "I'll take a pound and a half of that baked ham," he instructed the girl.
We planned to turn in early, leaving the construction of Rudy's sandwiches until the last moment: even foil-wrapped in the refrigerator they could dry out a little. So while the others made the warm night raucous, swilling their planter's punch and stomping their feet to the steel band playing Who Put de Pepper in de Vaseline?, we asked for a 5 a.m. call and slipped away to our villa. Nothing was going to be left to chance. We might be traveling in the company of vulgarians but we didn't have to fish like them. Two of us at least would strive to uphold the honor of our country in this remote island—and on the evidence of the first 24 hours England's honor needed some shoring up.
Possibly there is something wrong with the very concept of a fishing package tour. Maybe fishing is something to be done in private or only among friends. But more than 20 of us had caroused our way across the Atlantic from London to Nassau and we were a far from homogenous group: there was a handful of anglers who had actually paid, there were men from a tackle company that had sponsored a fishing contest throughout the British Isles and there were the prizewinners. It was easy to tell those in the latter two groups. They wore brilliant red golf caps, decorated with the company's name, which had been ceremonially handed out at Heathrow Airport. Some wore the caps with pride, some uneasily, but they wore them all the time. They wore them to be photographed getting on the plane and getting off. They probably slept in them.
Some of the Red Caps had landed fish that would be honored anywhere in the world, like the 19-pound, four-ounce brown trout Tom Chartres caught in Lower Lough Erne in Northern Ireland. Other prize-winners were more difficult to assess, like the new British record cuckoo ray of five pounds, three ounces. The cuckoo ray, while interesting and even rather pretty, is not one of the world's great sport fish and, in fact, Britain is somewhat short of species in that category. We have fine Atlantic salmon and trout but other than that in freshwater we are limited mainly to carp-family species. And in saltwater, though there are some sporting lightweights, there have been virtually no world-class big fish since the bluefin tuna deserted the North Sea. So it is in the light of this underprivileged angling background that you should view the reaction of Peter Peck, a red-cap wearer, when he arrived at the Andros Beach Hotel and was told that a big hammerhead shark, 600 or 700 pounds, had just cleared the beach of swimmers.
Peck, a short, plump man with a striking resemblance to Burl Ives, snatched up a rod and reel and hastened to the jetty. Shortly, the shark swam into view, traveled past Peck and then commenced to patrol up and down the shoreline. What Peck had grabbed was a 15-pound class outfit. He tied on some wire and an 8/0 hook, the biggest he had, and threaded on a bunch of small needlefish left lying on the jetty by some children. He pulled off about 50 yards of line and coiled it on the sand. Then he cut himself a forked stick, laid the bait over it and the next time the shark swam by he catapulted the dozen needlefish attached to his wispy line into its path. He gave the needlefish a couple of twitches, the shark sucked them in and Peck realized what he'd done. "I gave it a good jerk," Peck said proudly in the bar later, "and off it went. But I didn't seem to make any impression on it."
This did not prevent hopeful Red Caps from besieging the jetty night after night from then on, giving it a very fishy reek that caused comment from other guests. But at least Peck was aiming high. For others in the party, the angling culture gap was even harder to bridge—for Roy Marlow, for example, a "matchman" in English fishing jargon. In the Midlands and north of England, the quality of sport is low. The sluggish rivers yield quantities of small coarse fish but not much else. So more than a century ago, to make it interesting, anglers started to bet on their catches. Now, the skills are so sophisticated that match fishing is almost a separate sport—tiny, size 20 hooks and one-pound-test lines predominate. Bookies set up their stands at important meets. At a single event, somebody as good as Marlow can make up to $1,500. But fishing like this does leave you a little set in your angling ways.
Nobody in the Bahamas had seen anyone fish like Marlow. From a boat anchored over the shallow reef he crumbled chocolate chip cookies, the nearest he could get to the finely ground cereal used as chum in English match fishing. Then Marlow went into action. He used a fine, 14-foot wand of a rod, and his bait—the tiniest sliver of fish flesh—was suspended under a thin porcupine quill float, a single split-shot as a sinker. That night Marlow brought to the hotel two of the smallest jacks ever seen on Andros Island. "Permit," he said proudly. "Isn't that what they call them? I looked them up in a book."