After a lot of reading about bonefishing legend Ansil Saunders, I’m finally walking up to his quaint shop on Bimini. It’s painted green, and the front doors are wide open. A custom Saunders flats skiff is in progress. Sitting in a beach chair by one of his other skiffs, Jewel, is Saunders, now 84. There’s a quick hello, and he leads me to a picture nailed to a wooden shelf. “[Jerry Lavenstein and I] couldn’t get Bonefish Willy out of the picture because he held the record with [pro golfer] Sam Sneed for 18 years with a 15-pound bonefish. We broke it that day with a 16-pound bonefish. You see how he looks like he wants to cry?”
Do you still fish?
I still go out and fish. I went bonefishing yesterday. We always catch fish. I have a reputation to live up to, which is bad for me. I was in the Miami Herald one time saying if you go with me and don’t catch a bonefish, I’ll [take you] the next day for free. It’s only backfired on me once. Bonefish was easy for me to catch. I caught them every time I went fishing. The most I’ve caught in a day was 50, twice. I remember one time, bonefish was so thick over the flats that we averaged over a hundred a week, fishing every day.
What’s the best part of going out?
To see the sun rise out there, sometimes it’s so quiet your ears start to ring. There’s nothing else out there but the splash of a bonefish tail. To go out there, you get paid to do what you love the most.
How many skiffs have you built, and what’s the biggest to date?
I think the one I’m building makes 34. I built six boats, starting at age 15, before I started to bonefish. Then I didn’t build a boat for 30 years. This one is a 15-foot boat. Usually, all I build is a 16-foot boat. The one I build for people normally has a console up front, but I don’t want that [in mine] because I pole up here. That console’s in my way. What I call ideal for bonefishing. I once took Dr. [Martin Luther] King out, but not in this boat. Another boat, not quite as pretty as this one.
Speaking of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., what was it like fishing with him?
We went through the mangroves. Dr. King really didn’t fish with me. He came here in 1964 to write the Nobel Prize acceptance speech, and again in 1968 to write the Sanitation Workers Speech. We went to Bonefish Creek. I have a deck about 12 feet long, 12 feet wide in the mangroves. I carry people there now to say my Creation Psalm I recited for Dr. King that day. When we reached the mangroves, there were birds overhead, the tide was trickling by and a stingray was burying and reburying. He said: ‘There’s so much life all around us. How can people not believe in the existence of God? Ansil, what do you do when you bring people out here and there’s all this life around them?’ I said I wrote a psalm that poses serious questions, and I leave them to ponder those questions. He said he’d like to hear it, and I said, “Dr. King, you’re the spokesman, people want to hear you talk.” He said: “I’m tired of listening to myself. I want to hear somebody else sometimes.” So I read him what I called the 151st Psalm at the time. Now I call it the Creation Psalm.
Who are some other people you’ve met?
I met [British prime minister] Margaret Thatcher twice, the queen twice and Muhammad Ali twice.
The queen of England?
Yes, I met her twice. Made a necklace for her, of shells from Bimini. All the islands gave her some sort of present when she came to Nassau once. She asked, “What do you do?” I said, “Well, I build boats, and I’m also the bonefish guide.” She asked, “What is a bonefish?” I said: “They’re small fish. The world record is 15 pounds [at the time]. Pound for pound, it’s about the strongest fish around. A 10-pound bonefish can run off 200 yards of 8-pound-test line. People come from all over to catch them because of the fight. You have to stalk them like you do a deer because they’re frightened of noises.”She said, “Oh, I’d love to come back and catch me a sailfish.” I said to myself, Who’s talking about sailfish?