We went to Aruba April 13 to 21, 2002. Mainly to sailboard. But I was also interested in fishing. Although Aruba is just off the north coast of Venezuela, and close to well known destinations like Los Roques and Bonaire, I searched the Internet, queried vendors and forums, but it appeared there was absolutely no bonefish "scene" on this island. I only found links to deep sea cruise and booze type charters, where you pay a couple hundred bucks to be a pole holder and watch tourists vomit over the side. But I heard rumors that the dive shop operators see plenty of bonefish. I was also encouraged by a story in "Outside Magazine" last winter about a guy who ignored the flyshops' admonition that to catch a bonefish you have to pay hundreds a day for lodging and guides at the cool destinations. The writer of the Outside article flew to Belize, hitchhiked to the beach and started to catch bonefish.
So I studied the pictures of bonefish flies in the catalogs and asked some advice from the big boners in the office, and tied up a couple dozen charleys, gotchas, clousers, a tan puff and a surf candy. Bought a couple baby poppers, some swimming shrimp and some biters so I could reverse engineer them and make some pirated copies. Switched my steelhead rig over to some tropical 8 wt. weight forward lines.
We stayed just south of Malmok. These shots below are right out in front of the condos, and show the shallow bottom with patches of bryozoans on marl, eel grass, and white sand.
Sunday morning before it got too windy I tried a few casts around these flats, out on the reef in front of us, and around the wreck with some baby poppers and some clousers. All I had was a pair of barracuda turn and look at the popper.
But that afternoon, I was walking back to the condo and a local twenty four year old wheeled his car around and came back to ask how I did. He described himself as a fishing nut. He was real interested in fly fishing gear, and how it worked although he may have never seen it before. "So the line is the weight?", he asked. He wanted to get an outfit as soon as he could afford it. He told me he was a balloon fisherman. Since the tradewinds rage across the island from the NE and blow almost straight off shore all along the SW coast, these locals bait a hook with crab or anchovies, tie it with a slip knot to a balloon, and let the balloon take their bait out many hundred yards along the top of the water, then jerk the knot out, releasing the balloon and dropping their bait. No rod, just a hand line. When you see these guys along the shore, they look like they're having a lonely birthday party because they're encircled with balloons ready to make the next "cast".
The young fisherman told me he catches lots of bonefish, and takes them home for dinner. He told me Arashi Beach was the best spot. Arashi means bonefish in the local dialect. But he finds bonefish where ever there is white sand bottoms, and named Eagle Beach, and Rogers Beach way south. He told me that if I ever hooked a bonefish on my little fly rod, Good Luck!- I wouldn't be able to hold him. He took pity on me and gave me a half dozen bait hooks, telling me detailed instructions what kind of bait to use with each size. He said that if I floated a white shore crab out over the white sand bottom of Arashi Beach, I'd get a bonefish every time.
Back at the condo, my party told me while I was out on the reef, there was a guy with a fly rod fishing just to the north. And he caught a fish! But they couldn't tell me what kind.
Monday morning, John Gavin and I packed up for Arashi Beach. Norma drove us up there in the rental car and dropped us off with our fishing vests, sunscreen and water. It was like a commando insertion. We set an extraction time, synchronized our watches, and hit the beach. John only had motley assortment of trout and steelhead flies and a leader about four feet long. I gave him a leader, but he didn't want a charity charley from me. He picked out a brown and black woolly bugger. The beach was surprisingly deep right off the beach bench. Very clear even though my picture to the right makes it look milky. It was only milky like this in the shore break in this one corner. We were both up to out waists, then out to our armpits. I nearly swam out to a swimming area float anchor, where I could stand waist deep on this block of concrete most of the time except for the occasional swell. We were mainly blind casting into head high water. Then John hooked up a fish! On a damn woolly bugger! But it broke off. So John tied on a black woolly bugger. And hooked up another fish! It went shooting out then in, then around and around him. I waded in and helped him land it. About 18 inches. John thought the other fish had been bigger. He took pity on me and offered me a woolly bugger. All my carefull study of bonefish flies and all my tieing were in vain? I took a brown one. I waded out to my float anchor casting platform and after a spell, I thought I could see a fuzzy cloud on a corner of white sand about 20 yards away. I wasn't sure they were fish, but if they were bonefish, they'd be a group of a dozen or more. I cast into them and one grabbed the woolly bugger, and the school took off in all directions. I was using a clear sinking bonefish line, and being a tropical line it was stiff even in those water temperatures. I was carrying coils of this stiff line in my hand when the fish hit, and the coils were jerked violently out of my fingers and jammed up in the fourth guide of my rod. I figured the fish was lost, and there was nothing to do but point the rod right at the fish and free the jam. I guess the fish forgot he was hooked, because he took off like a shot when I reeled in the line and he felt the pressure. He was about 14 inches. It's amazing how even at this size they can hit harder and go faster than a steelhead! One thing I noticed is after you catch one you think you have wind knots in the leader, but looking closer you find it's just slime balls picked up from the fish somehow.
We didn't get any pictures of these fish because of the depth of the wading threatened our cameras. But I did get a picture of a little palometa, Trachinotus goodei, a relative of the bigger permit, Trachinotus falcatus, that I caught just north of the main beach with a pink and white clouser. Scrappy little fish. We released the bonefish but invited this little guy home for breakfast.
This was the first time I've used any of that "clear" sinking line. I received it by mistake in a Internet order, but decided it looked so cool I'd keep it and give it a try. It was pretty sneaky, and worked well in this deep water, but took some adjusting. You might not need it on fish as naive as these. Sometimes I'd wade into the sunken coils and find myself all tied up with invisible line like a victim of Spiderman, but in deep water. That's when I decided to carry coils, but as we saw above sometimes they wouldn't shoot because of the line's stiffness. Sometimes the line I found I had to carry big loops and carry the one closest to the reel in my mouth. (No, I don't have a reel in my mouth. You know what I mean!) In the shallow flats in Malmok, the floating line worked just fine and shot better from coils on the water.
Tuesday morning John and I tried Eagle Beach but only found spots that get so deep right off the shore that we couldn't fish it. Should have brought some balloons. The tides run only about a foot difference on the island and high was about 10:00 am.
That afternoon, we saw the same guy fly fishing out in front of our condo and got a chance to talk to him. Orvis hat, Orvis shirt, Ross Canyon Reel. Like right out of the pages of the Orvis catalog. (In contrast, I'm the Cabela's Kook.) He definitely had the enthusiasm, but I'm a little suspicious of the depth of experience of a guy with all new gear, but it didn't look like he had the normal tourist rental car. He was from Massachusetts. He told us that the bonefish are plentiful on Aruba, but they are generally ignored by tourists. And he likes it that way. He likes the beach from Malmok to the wreck, but also likes coves north of Arashi, and the beach north of the airport, Surfside Beach, which is overlooked by local fishermen as well. The barrier islands opposite Surfside from Sonesta Island south hold some snook. He said he uses a chartreuse clouser more than anything else because the the fishing often offers a mixed bag of possible species and blind casting. The bonefish will take the clouser, but he might hook up a pompano or something else on it. "With this wind, you can cast like Lefty Kreh!"
The wind is constantly offshore on this SE side of the island. That's what the windsurfers are there for. Even early in the morning, it's almost as strong. It usually backs off in at 4:00 PM. I developed a pattern of holding 15 ft. of the bite off the reel in my mouth, working out about 20 ft., hauling on the last back cast into the wind and shooting about 60 ft. Or until the strip tangled around my forceps.
I tried to sailboard Tuesday but each time I waded out with a board or a sail in front of the condo, I'd see bonefish! So I'd run back for my rod, but then I wouldn't see any. You'll see blue trunkfish in here in this shallow water, but you soon recognize the difference. You'll also see longer and thinner cornetfish. I was beginning to think that the bonefish were coming into the shallow water in the morning partly because they were attracted to the water warmed by the sun. In the water a few inches deep near shore, the temperature felt like it was in the high 80s.
Wednesday morning we tried down by the airport. We let some junkyard dogs have the area south of the airport, and settled for the north side. John had a nice fish on for a while. Some of the nicest looking bottom is inside the airport fence. We ducked inside the fence and fished right under the approach lights for awhile, airport security apparently very lax.
Wednesday afternoon, it all happened just about the way it's supposed to. Right in front of the condo, windsurfers were coming and going, but there were also cruising fish. I was beginning to wonder if they're not attracted to the edible stuff crunched open by all the wading sailboarders. I put a pink and tan charlie right in front of fish I'd spotted but didn't get anything. I watched him turn away. But then I hooked a big fish I never did see. It shot straight out to the bluewater outside the reef while I watched my backing knot zoom though the guides just like I hoped it would and then watched a hundred yard of the backing whir out. The fish torpedoed right past Larry, a retired Boeing Engineer bobbing oblivious on his sailboard in waist deep water. But then crossing the reef, the fish must have nicked some corral and broke off. Still, just about priceless! These fish weren't shy. I suppose I could have been using something bigger than an 8 lb. leader!
Thursday it turned cool and cloudy. I looked everywhere but didn't see any bonefish and didn't catch anything. We ran into the guy from Massachusetts again. (This time he had his gold finish Ross Canyon.) He said he was sure the fish were there, but it was hard to see them. But it stayed like that for the rest of the trip. I think the fish don't come into the shallow water unless it gets warmed up by the sun.
The windward side of the island is steep and rocky. Casting here would be straight into the stiff wind and without big leads and a saltwater spinning reel it would be difficult. We did some probing in the pools around the north tip of the island. I had something on at Arashi Beach that clipped my Borski swimming shrimp off right away, so I think it might have been a barracuda. I also had a nice fish on right behind the wreck by our condo. But it was real slow those last cloudy days.
So it is possible for an unguided rookie like me to go to Aruba and catch a few bonefish. If you can give me any advice on tides or seasons or tactics, let me know at email@example.com