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
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
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,"
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
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.
thoughts on Bermuda here in my blog.