Ansil Saunders:
Bimini’s Legendary Bonefishing Guide,
Poet, & Freedom-Fighter

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AAsk any local who Bimini’s most beloved guide and revered fly fisherman is, and they’ll all tell you one name: Ansil Saunders. Known on the island as a bonefishing legend, his story goes far beyond the Bahamas flats. Bimini-born, Saunders is fifth generation in a long line of boat builders originating from Scotland. He has been building boats since he was 15 years old and now at 86, has a total of 34 custom skiffs under his belt. Using mahogany, oak, and native horseflesh wood, Saunders builds his 16 ft. handcrafted vessels to perfectly navigate through Bimini’s shallow bonefish-rich waters.

For years, Ansil Saunders has been a visitor’s first port of call when Bimini bone fishing beckons. He’s had his share of remarkable moments on the flats, from taking out Richard Nixon, to helping to land an IGFA record-setting catch of a 16-pound bonefish – a record that still stands today. But his most renowned legacy is for something even more incredible. It was in 1964 when the legend guided one of history’s most honored leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A Legend Guiding A Legend

Saunders recalls Dr. King’s visit to Bimini as “killing two birds with one stone.” The civil rights leader came to the island to attain counsel from a fellow preacher and congressman Adam Clayton Powell, as well as to find inspiration in the beauty of Bimini. Powell, who was friendly with the locals, introduced King to Saunders, knowing the fisherman would take him to the perfect spot for some much-need reflection to write his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.

Bimini’s famed captain took Dr. King to a spot where he’d been bonefishing since childhood, Bonefish Creek. This was Saunders’ usual go-to spot for flat-fishing clients, but this time, his client didn’t come here to fish. Instead, he was there in search of inspiration he couldn’t find in any other place or with any other person. As Saunders arrived to his favorite spot, he cut the motor, making it nice and quiet to fully take in their surroundings. Saunders recollects the day almost poetically:

“You could hear the tide trickling and the birds singing overhead. And there was a stingray burying and reburying. I tied the boat, and we sat there for two hours, looking at the clouds, the sky, the little fish swimming in the water… After a while, Dr. King looked up and 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?’”

The Creation Psalm

Saunders’ response couldn’t have been any more fitting. He told Dr. King about a psalm he wrote right there, in that very spot where they were docked. He explained that the psalm poses serious questions, and leaves people to ponder those questions. When Dr. King asked to hear it, Ansil said, “Dr. King, you’re the spokesman, people want to hear you talk.” King responded, “I’m tired of listening to myself. I want to hear somebody else sometimes.”

So Saunders read him what he called the 151st Psalm at the time. Now he calls it the Creation Psalm, and it starts with, “Just look around and see God in everything. His name of love is written in every tiny raindrop. His name of wonder crowns the mountain peaks, swirls across the seas.” It goes on to describe God in a different light through his handwork and creation, all through breathtaking metaphors and astounding imagery: “God made the fish that swim in the ocean, the cows the graze on the hillside, and the stars that shine in the sky.”

When Saunders finished reciting the psalm, everything went quiet, and the only sound that could be heard was the pitter-pattering of bonefish skimming the water’s surface. Dr. King broke the silence as he said with tears in his eyes, “I feel like I could reach up and touch the face of God in this place. Ansil, everyone on the face of the earth needs to hear this psalm at least one time.”

Saunders reveals, “I didn’t know the psalm unless I looked at the paper. But one time I woke up and I just knew it without trying to memorize it. It was amazing.” Now during his boat tours, he carries people to that tranquil spot in Bonefish Creek which he renamed The Holy Grounds, and passionately recites the Creation Psalm he shared with Dr. King that day.

 

MLK’s Last Revelation

The bonefishing legend had the opportunity to meet up with Dr. King once more in 1968. He came back to Bimini to write his sanitations workers speech – the last oration he would ever deliver. That time around, Saunders noticed a difference in his friend. Dr. King was visibly worried about his future. He confessed to Saunders, “You know what? I don’t think I’ll make it past 40 years old.” He had this strong feeling that he was going to die. With that, Saunders took him back to the mangroves in a wooden boat named Ronnie Mae to write his speech, as well as part of his eulogy.

There in isolation, Dr. King meditated on his life, his strife, and his faith. He shared his thoughts with Saunders where they exchanged spiritual ideas about God and nature, before Dr. King left the island for the last time. He was assassinated on the evening of April 4th, 1968 in Memphis, only a few days after his sanitation workers’ strike speech, fulfilling his prophecy of never making it past the age of 40.

It’s no doubt that Bimini had a tremendous impact on Dr. King’s ideas about humanity and peace. Saunders recalls, “King used to say that Bimini was so peaceful and close to nature that only God could have created such a spot. He loved this place. I could tell when he first stepped on the soil that there was something special about him and Bimini.” And in the same manner, Dr. King’s life-long dedication to justice and human equality had a major influence on Saunders’ life.

The bonefisherman became an active member of the Bahamas independence movement, which allowed him to meet Margaret Thatcher and the Queen of England, twice. He, like Dr. King, was moved by something that is rarely gained without great sacrifice. And that something is freedom. Saunders lived through the Bahamian revolution and knows what it means to fight for a nation’s self-determination and independence. He masterminded Bimini’s first independence ceremony in 1973, recalling “a lift in his spirit” as he watched the Bahamian flag rise amidst a crowd of joyful people.

Saunders still carries the same pride and passion for the island that he once shared with Dr. King in the depths of Bimini’s mangrove forest. You, too, can experience that same unspeakable peace and spark of clarity Dr. King felt during your own visit – with Bimini’s bonefishing legend by your side, sharing unforgettable stories, guiding you to ultimate bliss.