The Bonefish Boys

R. Valentine Atkinson
by Monte Burke - Caribbean - Dec 09/Jan 2010

An all-star cast gathers in the Bahamas for the sake of Bonefish—and having a very good time

Generally speaking, fishing shows occupy the lower rungs of televised sports programming, somewhere between monster truck pulls and cheerleading contests. Thankfully ESPN2, in partnership with the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, has deviated from the typical pat script with Pirates of the Flats, a six-episode series that starts in January. It helps, of course, that it managed to cobble together an all-star cast—NBC newsman Tom Brokaw, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, novelist Thomas McGuane, actor Michael Keaton, and fly-fishing legend Lefty Kreh—to fish for bonefish at Nervous Waters’ Abaco Lodge.

The man behind the project was Patagonia’s fishing marketing director, Bill Klyn. “The Bonefish and Tarpon Trust wanted to do something special for its tenth anniversary, and I knew that ESPN was looking to add a saltwater fishing show that had a strong conservation message,” he says. Klyn somehow managed to sign on the stars (“like herding cats with their travel and work schedules,” he says), all of whom he knew were passionate bonefishermen and environmentalists. ¶ The marine environment, critical to both fish and man, takes center stage here. Each of these highly successful men makes his own case for why conservation of these spots is important. Joining them for the show were two prominent marine biologists from the Cape Eleuthera Institute, a Bahamian research outfit. ¶ But the thrill of the show comes from watching these men discuss nature, their lives, and the role that fishing plays in both. The sense of camaraderie is by no means forced. Brokaw, Chouinard, and McGuane have been at this for a long while, starting a tongue-in-cheek club called the “do-boys” back in the 1980s. They’ve climbed mountains and flown all over the world in search of scaly creatures. Keaton, a neighbor of McGuane’s and Brokaw’s in Montana, is the latest member of the club. Kreh was the new addition on this trip and quickly became the glue that holds the group together. ¶ To be sure, there are plenty of fish caught under the baby-blue Bahamian skies. There’s even a hero shot or two. But what makes this show compelling is that it is less concerned about the “how” in fishing than the “why”—a much more interesting question that provokes remarkable answers. ¶ We caught up with the bunch in late August not too long after they returned from the Bahamas.

The Back Story

KEATON  One time Yvon and I were flying to British Columbia to fish for steelhead. He was talking about mountain climbing, something I’ve done just a bit of. We were flying over this extraordinary mountain range. He was talking about different kinds of ascents and said, “For example, when I climbed that one there” and pointed out the window to this peak. I said, “You mean a mountain like that one, right?” And he said, “No, that exact one.”

CHOUINARD  I’ve fished with all these guys before. It was especially good to be with Lefty. He’s been an inspiration to all of us. He had a cataract and a bum leg, but, by God, he was out there fishing his tail off and cracking a joke every minute.

I came up with the name do-boys when I saw a Japanese guy wearing a T-shirt with the words on it. I laughed like hell when I saw it. I’m pretty sure it was an awkward translation of the word activist.

KREH  I knew Yvon but had never met McGuane. He was a hoot. I’m not sure his paint dries. And I’d never met Keaton. That guy was like a bumblebee in a jar. He never stopped moving. Brokaw is really bright. He takes casting
instruction well.

McGUANE  We’re all very comfortable together. We all have our feet in different worlds. We like to fish as much as anyone in the world, but we don’t think it’s a cure for cancer. I was a fishing bum at one time in my life, but now I find those guys who think fishing is the only thing in the world a bit tiresome.
Brokaw, Chouinard, and I went to Tierra del Fuego years ago. On the first night, we rushed out to the river, desperate to fish. The wind was howling, and it was freezing. But we really wanted to catch a sea trout after the long trip. Brokaw fell in the river right away. Instead of doing the decent thing and bringing him back to the lodge, Yvon and I just sort of rolled him up on the bank and kept fishing. By the time the staff discovered him, they concluded that he was sinking into hypothermia. Yvon and I were hooked up with fish at the time. We eventually went back to the lodge and threw him in the tub and went to dinner. I don’t know if he’s ever forgiven us.

BROKAW  I’ve forgiven them. It comes with the territory. What was neat about this trip is that they put together a posse of friends. There was an unspoken feeling that we were all pretty lucky to be there together.

Yvon is such an authentic human being. He lives his personal philosophy, lives in a very spare way—sometimes a bit too spare for some of us.

There is no better companion than McGuane. After he had finished telling yet another great story, I told him if he wasn’t such a great friend, we’d have to rent him. Keaton comes to play. He’s a helluva lot of fun.

But the payoff was Lefty. It was like going to the batting cage with Ted Williams. I fished in the boat with him a few times. He gave me some tips, just little things I should be doing with my wrist as I threw the line. It added ten feet to my cast.