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April 1998 – Bonefishing in Bermuda

Three grey shadows moved almost imperceptibly across the sand, their shape distorted by the waves, but James Pearman had seen them. "Ten o'clock," he shouted, and I cast the fly towards them.

They turned and swam away. There was one more chance. The fish took the fly, spat it out and that was that. I wondered if David Bowie was laughing behind his curtains.

This was Bermuda and we were floating past Bowie's island hideaway. I supposed this was the sort of thing the paparazzi did all the time. Pearman's boat could have been built for invading privacy, with its platform at the rear, but his gaze was fixed on the water as he punted it slowly along the bay.
I felt a certain deja` vu. Two years ago, after failing to catch a salmon in Norway, I discovered that Eric Clapton had landed one the same week on the same river.

This time the quarry was bonefish but the pop star hoodoo was working its spell. So we tried a "merkin" fly. The merkin is designed to imitate a small crab. It takes its name for wigs that were worn by certain Victorian ladies, only not on their heads.

When the merkin didn't work, we tried a "Mother of Epoxy" but the fish had gone. There were cow fish, parrot fish, mullet and mud bellies but no more bones. It is not unusual to spend $225 for an afternoon's bonefishing in Bermuda and end up empty-handed.

"One of those things," said Pearman, who, when he is not bonefishing professionally, goes bonefishing anyway. His brother is a lawyer, part of the Bermuda business set who like to dress their upper halves in shirt, tie and blazer and the lower in pastel shorts and long dark socks.

"I prefer to fish," said Pearman.

At one point as we punted along another stretch of beach, I could sea what looked like large, round, white eggs on the sea bottom, 3ft or 4ft beneath the boat. There were dozens of them - golf balls.

Someone with more money than sense must have created his own driving range above the cliffs. It was comforting to discover this symbiosis between one expensive, pointless exercise and another.

Golfers might possibly understand. Fishermen would certainly understand. It's not every day that you get the chance to pursue what must be, pound for pound, one of the world's most powerful fish. Hook an 8lb bonefish and you immediately say goodbye to 200 yards of line, as the reel screams in protest. So they say.

Even so, it was worth getting away from Bermuda if only by a few yards. You can take so much of tour guides who insist on linking every square inch of soil with a film or TV programme.

Is there anywhere left in the world that has not been a backdrop to a film or a soap opera? Not according to our guide, Custerfield Crockwell, or "Crock" to his friends, who appeared to number most of the Bermudian population.

"This is where they filmed one of the love scenes in the TV soap Young and the Restless. Hi, Joey," he said, pointing to a stretch of sand, sea and rocks and waving to a passing car in one movement.

Next bay along: "This is where Bob Hope made his Christmas special for the troops in 1989. Morning, Harold."

He forgot to mention Shakespeare, whose play The Tempest was partly inspired by an account of the storm that drove the island's first colonists on to its reef.

Instead, he took us to the aquarium where Bobbie, a woman who knew about fish, showed us a large conger eel. "She's called Eleanor. We used to have two of them, but one was taken off to star in The Deep," she said.

Bermuda deserves better than this. Isolated in the Atlantic, it remains one of the few outposts of the old British empire. Officially a dependent territory, it has learned to look after itself. The US military base created under the war-time, lend-lease arrangement was abandoned when people in high places began to question its strategic worth - beyond that of a pleasant golfing hole for US admirals.

The golf is still good but the admirals have to fly there these days. Because the US has many golf courses of its own, Americans have been visiting Bermuda in decreasing numbers. Another reason they stay away is there are no hire cars. In Bermuda, you walk or take a bus or taxi or rent a scooter.
Bermudians do not like cars. They only admitted them after the Second World War and many believe it was the biggest mistake they made. "Hire cars are not an option we'll be considering," said David Dodwell, minister of tourism, who has launched a strategy to attract more visitors from Europe. "Go and fish where the fish are, is our view," he said.

So you spend hundreds of dollars getting there, fork out $400 a night at Cambridge Beaches, the swankiest hotel on the island, light your Davidoff, then climb on a moped, head for the beach and throw some more dollars into the sea or go bone fishing, which amounts to the same thing.

The beaches are spectacular and the sea is as clear as it gets. Diving is popular because the reefs are littered with wrecks, including the Sea Venture, which provided the island with its first unwilling colonists in 1609.

The ship had been heading for the new colony in Virginia, which was struggling to survive, when it foundered during a storm off Bermuda. By the time the ship's crew had built two new boats and completed their trip, they began to wonder why they had bothered and many returned to colonise Bermuda.

The original colony was a business venture but, although it had tobacco plantations, the island never made a fortune from exports. Its most popular produce was onions.

The history of Bermuda, with its stories of treachery, witch hangings and appalling behaviour towards slaves seems fairly typical of British colonial development the world over.

In St George's, the original capital, which retains much of its colonial character, the stocks and a ducking stool have been rebuilt as tourist attractions. They also serve as reminders that this is not the most liberal of societies. Bermuda has laws to stop you shedding your shirt, laws against women being topless on the beaches, laws against parking just about anywhere and draconian laws against litter.

Laws so stifling, in fact, that I opted to spend much of my stay in this offshore haven, offshore, fishing. Not everyone's cup of tea, but neither is Bermuda.

Richard Donkin flew to Bermuda with British Airways and stayed at the Newstead Hotel. Fly fishing for bonefish can be arranged by James Pearman's company Jump Dem Bones, tel: +441 292 2190.

More thoughts on Bermuda here in my blog.

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