by Charlie Levine
Zipping along a mangrove-lined creek not much wider than his 16-foot homemade skiff, Jewel, Capt. Ansil Saunders cut the engine as we approached a pond-like opening in the lush greenery. The boat coasts to a stop, and the only thing I could hear is the wake of the small vessel sloshing against the roots of the trees. I glance back at Saunders, who stood on the bench in the aft portion of his small vessel, his arms reaching toward the heavens.
“This is it,” he says. “This is Holy Grounds.”
With more than 50 years spent guiding bonefish trips in his home waters off the Bahamian island grouping of Bimini, the 76-year-old Saunders has taken countless clients to this very spot. But one trip immediately comes to his mind every time he navigates these waters. In the late 1960s, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the first African-American elected to Congress from New York, had asked Saunders to take a special guest out fishing civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King.
Powell owned a home in Bimini and lived out his final years on the island. During that time he and Saunders became friends and often fished together. Dr. King’s visit with Powell was his second trip to Bimini; he originally came to the island in 1964 to write his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. Four years later, he came back to write a speech that he would deliver to a group of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.
Saunders took Dr. King through this same bonefish creek and when he slowed the boat, King felt a connection.
“When I stopped the boat, there were some birds overhead, the tide trickled by, snappers were running under the mangrove roots and a stingray was burying and reburying itself,” Saunders told me. “Dr. King looked up and said, ‘There’s so much life here, so much life all around us. How can people see all this life and yet not believe in the existence of God?”
The outgoing tide quickly began to pull the water out from under our boat and Saunders decided to move on to an area known as East Wells, so called because of the fresh water found here just below sea level. We walked the beach, keeping an eye out for any signs of bonefish. Saunders spotted two crabs mating, and though he said he didn’t want to ruin their date, he snatched up the smaller crab and placed it in the breast pocket of his cleanly pressed shirt. “It’s good permit bait,” he said, referring to the coveted game fish that plies these waters. “If we can find one.”
Bimini, located just 50 miles east of Miami, has been a fishing haven for decades. Ernest Hemingway tangled with blue marlin and giant tuna in the electric-blue waters just off Bimini in the 1930s, but he’s just one of many. For Saunders, it was the much smaller but equally elusive bonefish that infected him with the fishing bug. He learned the art of finding these expertly camouflaged speedsters from Sam Ellis, known by most simply as “Bonefish Sam.” Ellis was the best-known bonefish guide on the island in the 1950s and ’60s, as well as serving his community as a preacher, and even did a bit of boxing on the side. Saunders spent as much time with Bonefish Sam as possible, learning to navigate the skinny, inches-deep water that bonefish call home. Eventually Saunders’ client list grew and so did his reputation as one of the best bonefish guides in the Caribbean.
We walked the beach for a couple of hours, then jumped back in Jewel, and made our way towards South Bimini. Along the way we spotted a large eagle ray flapping its wings through the shallow, gin-clear water.
“He had a permit with him,” Saunders said, as he turned the boat circling back in a wide arc so as not to spook the fish.
Saunders removed the small crab from his pocket and placed it on my hook. I only had one chance at a perfect cast before the permit took off, so I knew that I’d better make it a good one. I sent the crab about three feet behind the ray and the permit turned back and crushed the bait, taking off on a blistering run. Twenty minutes and countless pumps of the rod later, Saunders used his wide net to scoop up my catch, an 18-pound beauty.
We kept working our way south toward Field Point and Saunders spotted a bonefish hunting for shrimp along a stretch of cracked bottom. I toss a hooked shrimp near the cautious fish and get lucky; he snatches my offering and jets off in a bolt of silver lightning. To provoke a bonefish to bite, you must first find him, then you must outwit him. They scare easily, and after finally catching one, I can see how these little buggers grab ahold of you and leave you wanting more.
“Bonefish are too special to kill,” Saunders says. “Take a picture and let them go on their way.”
These days Saunders is as well known for his handcrafted boats as he his for his angling prowess. He learned the art of building boats from his father and grandfather and over the years he has perfected a design that ideally suits his environment. Constructed of hard woods such as white oak, African mahogany and the locally grown horseflesh, Saunders builds lightweight, shallow-running, vessels that look gorgeous and stand up to the rigors of everyday fishing. The expert craftsmanship found on his boats rivals any furniture you might find in a millionaire’s home.
It takes Saunders some two months to construct a boat from start to finish. He spends a good portion of his time focusing on the bow stem, for this is where the boat absorbs the most pressure as it slices through the waves. To get the curve of the bow just right he must first find the perfect tree: a native horseflesh tree. He digs down to expose the tree’s roots, which curve naturally and allows him to create the piece of the bow where the boat comes together to form a point. Rather than gluing several pieces of wood together to manufacture this shape, Saunders works with the natural curving root to create a flawless bow stem. The finished boat is encased with fiberglass and painted for a shiny finish. Well-to-do Americans have been known to pay $40,000 for one of Ansil’s skiffs.
“Ansil,” Dr. King had asked that day on the water so many years ago, “what do you do when you have people in the boat and they see all this and yet not believe in God?’”
Saunders told the civil rights leader that he had written a psalm explaining his thoughts on creation and the ability to see God in all pieces of nature. King wanted to hear it.
“I said, ‘Dr. King people want to hear you speak you’re the spokesman’,” Saunders recalled. “He said, ‘I’m tired of listening to myself. I want to hear somebody else sometimes.’”
The elder bonefish guide paused for a moment, took a breath and launched into the same psalm he delivered for Dr. King four decades earlier. For some 20 minutes, he spoke of rivers, mountains, brothers and sisters, relaying his message that God is everywhere. I found myself sitting there in his skiff his church hanging on every word.
“When I finished my psalm, Dr. King said, ‘Ansil you made me feel so close to heaven I feel as though I can almost reach out and touch the face of God.’ Just three days later he was touching the face of God.”
King traveled back to Memphis and delivered his speech to the striking sanitation workers. In his speech, one of his most famous, he spoke of going to the mountaintop and looking over. “I’ve seen the promised land,” King said. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
He was assassinated the day after uttering these words.
“In that final speech, he included his eulogy,” Saunders told me. “He was only 39 years old but he knew he was going to die. That speech was written in Bimini. Part of it right up in this creek.” And although Saunders didn’t say it, he gave me the impression that Dr. King’s time with the charismatic bonefish guide had helped him to see beauty in the world and accept his fate.
Saunders still fishes the flats about 100 days a year. When he’s not out guiding a client, you’ll find him at his modest boat shed, located at the end of a dirt road and right on the bay. Stop in and he’ll happily show you his latest craft and photos of his famous friends and clients. Listen carefully as he explains the art of working with the grain of the wood. Rub your hand over the meticulous African mahogany, admire the amber glow of the horseflesh wood and prepare yourself for a history lesson about his island home and human nature in general. Or better yet, get out on the water with Saunders and let him show you his church firsthand.