Nervous Waters: The Fight to Save Andros Island’s Legendary Bonefish Flats

Nearly 1,000 anglers visit Andros each year exclusively to fish the flats. Andrew McNeece/Gil’s Fly Fishing International

PRESCOTT SMITH’S Stamas 33T was idling at the dock when the cops showed up. Nearby mangroves writhed in an outgoing tide, and an avocado tree heavy with fruit sagged like a worn-out umbrella. Between guests, Smith’s renowned flats fishing operation, Stafford Creek Lodge, was quiet.

Smith, the son of legendary flats fisherman “Crazy” Charlie Smith, has guided royal scions, megachurch pastors, and Fortune 100 CEOs. None of that intimidated him, but he says “a tightness” cinched at his chest when the white cop car pulled onto his property.

“I don’t feel good about this,” the police chief said, “but I have a warrant of committal here for you.”

It was suspicious timing. Had the chief arrived five minutes later, Smith would have been gone already, cruising the crystalline waters from Andros Island to Nassau, on his way to the swearing-in of the Bahamas’ first minister of the environment and natural resources—a cabinet position he had lobbied hard to create.

It was a small but meaningful victory in Smith’s decades-long battle to protect his home waters—and the community that depends on them. His unwavering and sometimes controversial insistence that ordinary Bahamians, not foreign companies or even foreign conservation groups, lead the charge for conservation had earned him adversaries throughout the halls of the Bahamian Parliament and beyond. A new clash over a proposed limestone mine on Andros had pitted Smith against some of the country’s richest and most powerful people. At stake were the largest and most productive bonefish flats in the world.

Smith suspected his arrest was politically motivated. If he had thought to ask to see the warrant, he’d have seen that it had expired six months before that September morning and involved a real estate deal gone south more than a decade before that. Instead, he climbed into the back of the police car and rode up Queen’s Highway, past the rows of towering Caribbean pines that lined the roadside. At the tiny San Andros airport, Smith was escorted onto a five-seater plane, the same kind that had delivered hundreds of anglers to his lodge over the years.

He leaned back in his seat as the plane lifted from the runway and flew over the flats he spent his life fishing and fighting for. Prescott Smith was going to jail.

Why Andros Is Considered the Sleeping Giant of the Bahamas

Four days after Smith was arrested, in September 2021, a judge ordered him released, citing the expired warrant. Smith maintains his belief that the incident was politically motivated and is now suing the government for unlawful arrest and imprisonment. If the action was meant to silence Smith, it backfired. Instead, it caught the attention of the nation’s newspapers and talk shows, which gave Smith a platform to speak out against the proposed mining project and the calamitous effect it could have on the ecosystem. Conservation groups like the Audubon Society and the Environmental Defense Fund have also publicly criticized the project.

Eight months later, I flew to Andros to meet Smith and learn about the threats facing the island and its fishery. Along the way, I also hoped to land a bonefish.

On our first morning together, as I put on sunscreen, Smith’s cellphone rang. Busy unhitching his boat, he handed it to me. On the other end was Vaughn Miller—the new minister for the environment and natural resources. Miller wanted to know if I had been on the flats before, and when I told him I hadn’t, he offered some reassurance.

“You’re in good hands,” he said. “After God’s, I mean, Prescott’s are the second-best hands.”

I had high hopes.

Bounded on its east by the third largest barrier reef in the world and on its west by the Great Bahama Bank—AKA the bonefish capital of the world—Andros Island is 2,300 square miles of staggeringly diverse habitat, where tangled bush, grassy savannah, and evergreen forest are intersected by bights, tidal creeks, and mangrove estuaries. These marine and terrestrial habitats are intricately connected by a unique combination of salt- and freshwater. The latter forms a lens—an aquifer of freshwater floating atop the denser saltwater below—that moves through the island’s limestone foundation, carving underground rivers, caves, and more blue holes—a type of marine sinkhole—than exist in any other place on the globe.

Andros’ extensive mangrove forests provide critical habitat for juvenile bonefish and permit. Andrew McNeece/Gil’s Fly Fishing International

But it’s the island’s sprawling mangrove forests, which thrive in this cocktail of salt- and freshwater, that make Andros a fish factory. The tangled, exposed roots of mangroves provide habitat for spawning and juvenile fish, which in turn restock the flats well beyond the island. For its ecological and recreational significance, Andros is often called the “big yard” of the Bahamas. It’s also considered a sleeping giant because of its untapped development potential. Andros looks nothing like the Bahamas of the popular imagination. There are no commercial resorts or casinos. This lack of development is a blessing and a curse. It may be teeming with natural wonder, but unemployment on the island is high, and access to medical care, limited.

In the latter half of the last century, recreational fishing emerged as a way to grow the island’s economy while safeguarding its ecology. Today more than 500 Androsians—including Smith—make their living in recreation-based careers, and 45 percent of the island’s visitors come exclusively to fish the flats. According to a 2018 Bonefish and Tarpon Trust report, some 8,000 anglers visit Andros each year.

None of this would have happened without Smith’s father, the legendary “Crazy” Charlie Smith, who’s considered the father of Bahamas bonefishing. There were bonefish lodges in the country before he opened Charlie’s Haven in 1966, but Charlie was the first Bahamian to own one. His eponymous fly pattern, the Crazy Charlie, became a staple for anglers throughout the Caribbean. But Charlie’s legacy went beyond fishing. He trained hundreds of young Bahamians to be fly-fishing guides and showed the local community that protecting their home waters wasn’t just the right thing to do, it was good business.

But near the end of Charlie’s life, Bahamian fly-fishing guides and lodges in Andros were struggling. The Great Recession led to a decline in leisure travel. DIY anglers, foreign-owned outfits, and “mothership” operations—foreign-owned yachts that act as floating lodges—were sucking up territory and clientele. The added pressure was hard on the fisheries.

In 2012, Smith founded the Bahamas Fly Fishing Industry Association (BFFIA), a group of about 170 members, which began lobbying for tighter regulations and increased protections of the flats. One draft of the group’s proposed legislation included strict limits on DIY fishing and the caveat that lodge owners and guides must be Bahamian or permanent residents of the country.

This grassroots effort flew in the face of the traditional Bahamian model of tourism, which largely relied on foreign investments and marketing the island as a fantasyland free of problems. The international fly-fishing community pushed back, too. During the run-up to the 2017 vote, large brands came out against BFFIA’s objectives, while travel companies Yellow Dog and Frontiers dropped Stafford Creek Lodge from their client list. Neither of BFFIA’s stipulations made it into the final version of the legislation that eventually passed in 2017, but the group was able to establish catch-and-release rules, a permitting system, and a conservation fund.

This fight was child’s play compared to what came next. Pressure to mine Andros was rapidly growing. In 2020, the government of the Bahamas received a handful of proposals for intensive development in North Andros. The one that gained the most traction was a proposal from the Nassau-based Bahamas Material Company that detailed its plan to mine 6,000 acres of Andros for limestone aggregate, removing 500 million tons of limestone over the next 65 years.

In short, the company wants to dig holes and drop dynamite into Andros’ fish factory.

Fishing the Flats

It took about 30 minutes to get from the boat ramp to the first place we’d scout for bonefish. As we cruised across the flats, I kept my eyes down, counting the creatures we sped past—the loggerheads paddling along, the nurse sharks prowling just beneath the surface, and the rays still in meditation. By the time I looked back up, the humidity had all but erased the horizon, which was now just a surreal continuation of water and sky. Near the end of our ride out, Smith steered the boat into a tidal bight where reddish egrets stalked the shore.

Every five minutes or so, as Smith poled us around a creek fringed with red mangrove, his voice would soften, like he was about to deliver a juicy secret. “Ashley,” he’d say, his Bahamian accent liquifying the hard vowels in my name, “give me a cast at 11 o’clock.” When I’d invariably cast to 9:30 or noon, he’d calmly redirect me. “Give me another cast, 10 feet to the right.”

Smith pilots his Stamas 33T boat through his home waters. Andrew McNeece/Gil’s Fly Fishing International

Sometimes I caught a glimpse of the shimmering “grey ghost” I was casting to, but mostly I relied on Smith’s serene guidance. He is 55 years old, and it’s his fourth decade atop a poling platform—a family inheritance he spent much of his youth avoiding. Smith was the third child of Charlie and Rowena, a native Androsian and his father’s second wife. Rowena passed away when Smith was 9, and he spent his teenage years living with an aunt and going to school in Nassau.

After graduating from high school, Smith moved back to Andros and worked at his father’s lodge doing odd jobs and getting to know the clientele. But he didn’t want to be a fishing guide. He wanted to fly planes.

When he noticed Charlie buying new boats for the guides, he grew resentful. “In my mind, I was thinking, That’s my college tuition right there,” he says. “I was upset with him.” Smith decided to enlist in the Royal Bahamian Defense Force—the country’s military—and save up his own money for pilot school. But out there on a patrol boat, circling the 700 islands that make up the Bahamas, Smith got a completely different education than the one he was hoping for.

He saw mangroves being torn up for development. Bulldozers in the middle of the ocean loading ships full of sand. Meanwhile, he pulled dead and dying Haitian refugees from makeshift dinghies. And he began to see his father’s work for what it really was: an effort to empower his fellow Bahamians and protect their shared resources. After six years serving his country, Smith returned home in 1998 and opened Stafford Creek Lodge with his then-wife—and has been guiding clients and fighting to protect his home waters ever since. Today, the stakes are higher than ever.

Why Is Limestone Mining So Destructive?

Though limestone mining has yet to reach Andros, it’s not new to the Bahamas. To see what a mine looks like in action, I flew to Grand Bahama, an island about 150 miles north of Andros.

I met Kendell Williamson in the parking lot that doubles as baggage claim for the domestic terminal of Grand Bahama International Airport in Freeport. An old colleague of Smith’s and a former fly-fishing guide, Williamson owns a maritime services company that pilots vessels into Freeport’s deep-water harbor. He was going to give me a glimpse of what limestone mining on Andros might look like.

Bahama Rock is a 400-acre quarry adjacent to Freeport’s massive harbor. Owned by the American company Martin Marietta, this mine is on the southern end of Hawksbill Creek, the only naturally north-south flowing waterway on Grand Bahama. As a thunderstorm moved over the city, Williamson and I boarded one of his pilot boats to take an up-close look at Bahama Rock. We were accompanied by native Grand Bahamian and former commercial fisherman Daniel Murray, who told me the quarry used to be covered in mangroves, which were often covered by so many egrets it looked like a blizzard had passed through. Today, we see only a couple of cormorants flying overhead.

The operation at Bahama Rock uses a technique—the same one that would be used in Andros—called drilling and blasting, which consists of boring 60-foot-deep holes, filling them with explosives, detonating those explosives, and using dredgers to scoop the pulverized rock onto shore. Williamson and Murray say that each of these blasts creates a fish kill, and have both witnessed bonefish and tarpon floating to the surface during these events. In neighborhoods close to the mine, residents have reported being blown off their couches during the blasting and have complained of cracked walls, ceilings, and foundations.

And the destruction is not isolated. Mining at Bahama Rock has fundamentally altered the water table on Grand Bahama, threatening the local fishery. “Over that hill, that was called Fishing Hole Road,” Murray says, pointing to an improvised causeway at the end of the quarry. “Now you have to drive 20 miles to get to a spot worth throwing a line in.”

Limestone mining could have a significant impact on Andros—and beyond. Ashley Stimpson

Michigan State geologist Sophia Huss says the same could happen around Andros if mining is allowed. Huss is working with a group of scientists to put together a policy brief for lawmakers considering the project. Drilling and blasting require explosions so intense they register on the Richter scale, creating plumes of dust and silt that can cloud and pollute water. Most concerning, limestone mining “changes the way water moves through a very sensitive ecosystem,” she says. Andros’ limestone foundation looks a lot like Swiss cheese—punched through with caves, sinkholes, and underground rivers. When that permeable limestone is modified, saltwater can get into the freshwater that both animals and plants rely on—or into mangrove systems full of fish eggs and juvenile fish that are highly vulnerable to changes in salinity.

“This is an ecosystem that evolved over millions of years to produce fish in briny water,” echoes Sepp Haukebo, senior manager of global fisheries initiatives at the Environmental Defense Fund. Additionally, unlike adult fish, the juvenile fish that find harbor in the island’s mangroves—bonefish, tarpon, and permit—can’t just move elsewhere if that habitat is compromised. Altered salinity and ruined habitat could lead to a crash in game fish populations.

Cameron Symonette, president of the Bahamas Material Company, says the project team is “deeply committed” to the research it’s undertaking to understand the proposed mine’s environmental impact. BMC is currently analyzing 53 monitoring wells in North Andros and conducting electromagnetic surveys to map out the island’s delicate limestone foundation. In the 16 years he and his partner, American industrialist Ted Baker, have been developing the project, they’ve moved the proposed mining site twice, “because the science dictated that,” Symonette says. “We’ve moved to areas where we feel the hurdles could be overcome.”

But Haukebo insists that given the fragile nature of the geography, no isolated area is certain to be safe. “The rock is so porous—what happens on one side of the island affects the other side.”

In August of 2022, the Bahamian government denied BMC’s first proposal, according to a letter leaked to the Bahamian press. But the country’s largest paper reports that the company is retooling its proposal based on the government’s objections—which have not been made public. There is no timeline for when the proposal will be resubmitted nor when the government would definitively greenlight or reject the project. This lack of clarity is one of the distinct challenges of doing conservation work in the island nation.

Still, Smith feels optimistic that local awareness about the dangers of mining is on the rise. “I’m no longer a lone voice in the wilderness,” he says. “The numbers are building.” He is adamant he will fight the mining proposal—and any others that may likely crop up as pressure to develop continues to mount—until the bitter end.

What Comes Next for Andros?

Like any good flats guide, the first thing Smith taught me about bonefishing was how to scout for “nervous water.” As bonefish glide through the shallow water of the flats, their movement creates ripples, dimples, and subtle splashes. Difficult to spot and easy to confuse with wind or wake, nervous water is typically the only indication an angler gets that the elusive fish are nearby.

No one can know for sure that mining on Andros would have the same devastating impact that it’s had on Grand Bahama, nor whether the government will soon approve BMC’s project. What is certain, however, is that the water in the Bahamas is nervous.

For my part, I didn’t manage to catch a bonefish, though I did watch two reveal themselves to consider my flies—and reject them coolly. But I suspect anyone who’s spent time on the flats would agree that catching a fish there is just icing on the cake. The next day, I watched an angler stand on the same casting platform for eight scorching hours without so much as a glance from the permit he was after—smiling his head off the whole time.

What I will remember most about Andros are the things that came readily: the ethereal blue of the water, the quiet clap of flamingo wings overhead, and the murmur of the tide rushing through the mangroves teeming with juvenile permit and bonefish. For now.

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