Zipping along a mangrove-lined creek not much wider than our skiff, Jewel, we approached a pondlike opening in the lush greenery and Capt. Ansil Saunders cut the engine. The boat coasted to a stop, and the only thing I could hear was the wake of the small vessel sloshing against the roots of the trees. I glanced back at Saunders, who stood on the bench in the aft portion of his 16-foot skiff, his arms reaching toward the heavens.
"This is it," he said. "This is Holy Grounds."
With more than 50 years spent guiding bonefishing 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 comes to his mind every time he navigates these waters. In 1968, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the first African-American Congressman from New York, asked Saunders to take a special guest out fishing – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 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 to Bimini; the first happened four years earlier, when he came to the island to write his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. This time, he had returned to write a speech he planned to 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 that day, the civil-rights leader said he felt a connection to nature, and to God. "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 highly prized game fish that plies these waters. "If we can find one."
Only 50 miles east of Miami, the islands of Bimini have been a fishing haven for decades; Ernest Hemingway famously tangled with blue marlin and giant tuna in Bimini's electric-blue waters in the 1930s. For Saunders, it was the smaller but equally elusive bonefish that infected him with the angling bug, and over the years, he built a reputation as one of the best bonefish guides in the Caribbean. We walked the beach for a couple of hours, then jumped back into the Jewel and made our way toward 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.
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 3 feet behind the ray and the permit crushed it, taking off on a blistering run. Twenty long minutes later, Saunders netted my catch, an 18-pound beauty. We kept working our way south toward Field Point, when Saunders spotted a bonefish hunting shrimp along a stretch of cracked bottom. I tossed a hooked shrimp near the cautious fish and got lucky; he snatched my bait and jetted off in a bolt of silver lightning. Bonefish – which can grow to 3 feet or more and weigh 20 pounds – spook easily, and after finally catching one, I could see how these little buggers grab ahold of you and leave you wanting more. "Bonefish are too special to kill," Saunders said. "Take a picture and let them go on their way."
These days Saunders is as well known for his hand-built boats as he is for his angling prowess. He learned the art of building boats – like the Jewel – from his father and grandfather, and over the years he has perfected a design that ideally suits his environment. Using hardwoods such as white oak, African mahogany and the locally grown horseflesh, Saunders spends two months crafting lightweight, shallow-running vessels that look gorgeous and stand up to the rigors of daily fishing. Well-to-do Americans have been known to pay $40,000 for one of Saunders' skiffs. "Ansil," Dr. King had asked that day on the water, "what do you do when you have people in the boat and they see all this and yet not believe in God?" Saunders mentioned to 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.
The elder bonefish guide paused for a moment, took a breath and launched into the same psalm he had delivered for Dr. King four decades earlier. For 20 minutes or more, he spoke of rivers, mountains, brothers and sisters, relaying his message that God is everywhere. Sitting there in his skiff – his church – I hung on every word. "When I finished, 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.'"
King traveled back to Memphis and delivered his speech to the striking sanitation workers. 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 next day.
"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 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 photos of his famous friends and his latest handmade work in progress. Listen carefully as he explains the art of working with the grain of the wood. Rub your hand over the fine African mahogany, admire the amber glow of the horseflesh wood and prepare yourself for a lesson on the history of the island and on human nature in general. Or better yet, get out on the water with Saunders, and let him show you his church firsthand.