Wetlands spread in all directions as the Florida Strait falls from sight. This waterscape, I am told, is home to pythons, poisonwood, doctor flies, wild pigs and a chickcharney — a spirit animal resembling a 3-foot-tall owl. Barefoot, I wade through mud to my knees, an hour’s fast boat ride from the nearest town. “Where there’s no itchy stuff, the mud feels kind of nice,” says Tom McLaughlin.
When we reach the edge of a saltwater lake where two paddleboards wait, McLaughlin explains how to use the paddle as a pole to push myself around. If I want to sit, there’s a bucket full of water and beer. The tanned and bearded McLaughlin is the captain of the Mothership, a lavishly equipped fly-fishing boat launched last summer and currently moored on the west side of Andros Island in the Bahamas. This is not your average fishing vessel — and definitely not your average fishing experience.
The Mothership is a 74-foot, three-deck Hatteras, a $1.6 million cruiser, anchored over a blue hole, a deep-water cavern in the rock, in a protected channel among the mangroves on the wild and uninhabited coast. The operation belongs to Eleven Experience, a no-expense-spared holiday company created by Chad Pike, a senior managing director at the investment firm Blackstone. Our berth on the Mothership is a class apart: a king-size bed that rolls apart to create two singles, two bathrooms and windows looking out on to the star-studded firmament. Beavertail skiffs take anglers on to the flats, and to those paddleboards.
South Andros has the world’s largest collection of blue holes, and some of the biggest.
With fly-fishing rods laid out in front of us — we’re chasing bonefish, a species for which anglers travel the world — we head into the saltwater marshes, searching out channels with the hand’s depth of water needed to keep the keels free. “No safety briefing?” I say. “Oh, sure,” replies McLaughlin. “If you fall overboard, stand up.”
Fishing is the most important private industry of Andros, the Bahamas’ largest island. The advantage of the Mothership over the lodges on the east is that we can head to the flats when we want, return when we want, unrestricted by anything but our own stamina as we scoot around the baffling geography of the coast.
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McLaughlin, who was raised exploring the swamps of southern Florida, has made a study of the life cycles of the great saltwater game species — tarpon, permit and bonefish — and wants fish landed and released as swiftly as possible so as not to hurt them. Why hunt them in the first place, you might ask, but that instinct, matched to a care for species most people don’t know exist, sees huge amounts of money poured into conservation. It turns out that Pike, Eleven Experience’s owner, is a major funder of the North Atlantic Salmon Fund.
South Andros has the world’s largest collection of blue holes, and some of the biggest. And through these underwater caves and tunnels — which can travel for miles — come the game fish. McLaughlin wants to fish for them there — but how in a place of pythons and owlish specters, I ask. “There is nothing here that could really hurt you,” he says. “The poisonwood is on the high ground, the water is clear, there are no venomous snakes, no gators, very few bugs… Everything in the Everglades is there to keep you out, but that’s not true here.”
He says he tries to look “for the special things, like fishing in the full moon.”
Seeing fish, we push on. The sun is throwing our shadows long as it falls through the horizon in shades of fire, ocher and finally a delicate pink. In the dying light, we wade back through the muck — it does feel nice.
Ruaridh Nicoll was a guest of Eleven Experience and the Island House on Nassau, where he stayed a night en route. Three nights on the Eleven Mothership in Andros start from $4,950 per person, full board, including car and boat transfers from Congo Town airport, fishing guides and equipment. Western Air has daily flights from Nassau to Congo Town.
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