Skip to main content

The big one that didn't get away

A trophy bonefish that guide Ansil Saunders helped a client land in 1971 remains a world record

The Bimini Big Game Club planned to celebrate a bit of local fishing lore late last month with a ticker-tape parade for bonefish guide and boatbuilder Ansil Saunders, who 40 years ago scared up a 16-pound, 3-ounce bonefish for Jerry Lavenstein to hook and land, setting a world record that stands today.

Ansil Saunders

Saunders, who at 77 still guides anglers and still handcrafts bonefish skiffs from a shed 300 yards from the Bimini Big Game Club, laughs about it now, but on that day in 1971, when he saw the telltale puff of mud on the flats and three monster bonefish, he was under the gun to deliver a trophy for Lavenstein to catch.

The Virginia Beach sportsman - a regular client of Saunders' - had just invested in a fishing-reel company and wanted to promote it by catching a world-record fish with one of its new reels. "I told him, 'Jerry, it doesn't work that way,' " Saunders says. Lavenstein insisted: He wanted a record.

Known on Bimini as "Bonefish Ansil" or simply "The Legend," Saunders is the island's "dean of bonefishing guides," says Mark Ellert, president of Guy Harvey Outposts, owner of the Bimini Big Game Club, from where the Bahamian often guides.

Saunders says hunting the prized gamefish and finding a decent number of them for his clients to hook and fight, day in and day out, is a skill honed by years of experience, but stumbling onto a world-record fish is mostly a matter of luck. On this outing, Saunders was blessed with a cap full of luck.

The first day out, Lavenstein landed six bonefish, the biggest 5 pounds - nowhere near the record-setting 15-pounder that golfing legend Sam Snead caught off Bimini in 1953. The next morning at 11, Lavenstein again set off with Saunders from the Big Game Club docks to hunt for a record. Saunders gunned the 16-foot skiff's engine, and six minutes later he spotted a small mud flat 200 feet away. He shut down the engine, baited two rods with live shrimp and poled the boat toward the flat.

As they approached, Saunders says he saw a puff of mud - and three big bonefish - on the flat about 80 feet ahead. The fish were rooting around with their snouts for food - worms, mollusks, shrimp and crabs, crushing the morsels with the bony plates in their mouths and ingesting them.

Lavenstein knew what to do. He cast his shrimp a boat length ahead of the silvery fish to avoid scaring them. "It was the best cast of his life," Saunders says. The smallest of the three - a female fat with eggs - pounced on the shrimp first. Saunders says their powerful quarry fought Lavenstein for an hour, running for the mangroves twice, each time stripping the 8-pound-test line - more than 200 yards of it - nearly down to the knot on the spool before Lavenstein finally boated it.

Bimini boatbuilder and fishing guide Ansil Saunders spotten the 16-pound, 3-ounce bonefish that Jerry Lavenstein boated 40 years ago. 'It was the best cast of his life,' Saunders says.

After verifying the catch as a world record, Lavenstein hired a calypso band, organized a parade and served free drinks for everyone on the island, an event that was to be celebrated - without the gratis drinks - Feb. 25.

In 1971, world-record citations recognized only the angler, not the guide, a practice that has since changed so that both are now cited. At the celebration, Saunders was to receive a certificate from the International Game Fish Association retroactively recognizing his role in that world-record catch.

Famous clients

Saunders can't think of any work half as much fun as going bonefishing. Guiding anglers across the flats off Bimini is a "good living," he says, but more than that it is just plain fun. Saunders has met a lot of famous and interesting people during the 50 years he has been guiding, sometimes to hunt fish, other times simply to seek a peaceful sanctuary in the mangroves.

Among his clients: civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., National Football League commissioner Pete Rozelle, quarterbacks Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas, former Atlanta Falcons owner Rankin Smith, U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell and President Richard Nixon.

An avid fan of American football, Saunders says he lobbied Rozelle to create a title game between the champions of the NFL and American Football League - advice he believes was well taken when Rozelle shepherded the merger agreement between the two leagues in 1966. The first Super Bowl was played in 1967.

Yet his fondest memories are of King, who visited Bimini in 1964 to write his Pulitzer Peace Prize acceptance speech, and then four years later to write his speech in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, where he was shot and killed three days after returning from Bimini.

On both visits Saunders took King up into the mangroves on Bonefish Creek, where Saunders says King found peace and time to reflect, telling Saunders that the beauty and serenity of the place confirmed his belief in a God who created it all. Saunders wrote a psalm - a poem - that he recited to King during that second visit. It starts:

Saunders, here with master flyfisherman Vaughn Cochran, is a fifth-generation boatbuilder who builds the 16-foot Bonefisher skiff.

"Just look around you and see God in everything, his name written on every tiny raindrop."

Now Saunders takes visitors out to this place that he calls "holy ground" so they, too, can take in the tranquility and hear Saunders' reflection about the work of his maker's hands. "Who else but God, in his infinite wisdom, could create all this?" he asks.

Poet, spiritual mentor and bonefish guide, Saunders also has been a civil rights advocate, sitting in at lunch hour for 42 consecutive days at the Big Game Club during the 1960s when its restaurant served whites only.

Saunders says the club finally served him after he raised the specter of greater militancy, a la Malcolm X. "Then they had no problem serving us," he says.

Saunders' civil rights victory won him a special place in the hearts of his countrymen, so much so that when the Bahamas got its independence from Britain in 1973, he was sent to London with Prime Minister Lyden Pindling to meet with future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth II.

Bimini Bonefisher

A fifth-generation Bimini boatbuilder, Saunders is descended from Scottish fishermen and boatbuilders who came to the island in the mid-19th century on a three-masted schooner and married local women. Saunders' father and uncle built boats. "My uncle used to build these skiffs for a fellow who owned land on the north end of Bimini," he says.

Saunders built a version of that skiff - his first bonefisher - when he was 15. Today, he builds a finely crafted 16-footer - the Bimini Bonefisher - that is as much a work of art as a fishboat. The hull sides are quarter-inch acume marine plywood from France - "the best plywood you can buy," he says - and the bottom is 3/8-inch marine plywood, reinforced with epoxy, coated with fiberglass and varnished to a sheen.

The ribs are white oak, the seats and sole Honduras mahogany, the forward deck 3/8-inch marine plywood. The inside of the transom is made of a beautiful red-striped native hardwood called horseflesh. The console is horseflesh and Honduran mahogany. The bow stem and stern post are fashioned from the root of the horseflesh tree. Fastening is with bronze screws.

"She's very strong," he says, but also masterfully crafted. "People call them museum pieces. They say they're too pretty to go in the water."

But the Bonefisher is designed for hunting and catching bonefish. Powered by a 60-hp 4-stroke outboard, it tops out at 30 mph, runs in very skinny water - as little as 6 inches - and is strong enough to bang around in shoal water. The cost is $40,000.

Saunders finishes, at most, two a year. He has built 28 of them, turning out six early in his career, then halting building while he pursued his guide business. He resumed skiff-building 20 years ago.

"Bonefishing is my main living," he says. "I build boats on the side."

Bonefishing is still more fun.

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue.