By Capt Barry Hoffman
So, you want to catch a bonefish? I'm often asked to take anglers bonefishing. They are one of my favorite gamefish to pursue. Usually my initial phone conversations with a prospective client go something like this. "Say, I'd like to come down there and catch a few bonefish, perhaps a permit and some tarpon if we have time. At about this time, these little red flags pop up in my head. It is obvious to me that this poor soul is a bit unfamiliar with the sport of sight fishing. In an effort to be realistic with the angler, I'll tell him that for most folks catching one or two bonefish is considered a great day in the Keys. The usual response is. "What, they ain't runnin down dere?" On an average day, we should get between 20 and 25 shots at fish that average 8 pounds or more. Fishing for bonefish is one of the most demanding fly casting challenges there is. The casts are often long, they must be accurate, and conditions are rarely ideal.
Sight fishing for bonefish requires three things from the angler. Good casting ability, flats vision, and a bit of geometry. The ability to cast well, be it fly or spinning tackle, is above all, the most important. If fly fishing, learning to cast at all angles into the wind, very quickly and accurately with a minimum of false casting at some distance from the boat is very important to the success of your day or lack thereof. In addition, the ability to present a fly on the back cast and to perform a double haul and water haul cast will have a profound effect on your catch ratio. Learning to spot the fish can be tricky, especially for a novice bone fisherman. Unfortunately there really is no way to practice your flats vision. It does however, get easier as your time spent on the water and the sun's height on the horizon increases. I've included a few ways to help flatten the learning curve here, seebelow. Finally, if one is able to pull it all together and take the direction of the wind, the water and fish into account, AND make the proper cast, hookups increase dramatically.
What can you do to prepare before your trip? PRACTICE! Get out into the wind and practice your accuracy. Don't just blindly cast, pick a target and hit it. Most casts for bonefish are within 50 feet of the boat. Trouble is the fish are always moving, making the window of opportunity a very small one. You have to be able to cast quickly to the fish where you expect them to be, not where they are. Spin fisherman, use a 1/4 - 3/8 oz weight or jig on 10 pound monofilament. Fly casters, practicing the aforementioned techniques (quickness and accuracy of cast) is highly recommended. Focus on casting 50 feet. Get out into the wind and learn to throw into it, across it and a backhanded presentation into it. That 50 foot cast might only make it only 20 feet into a 15 knot wind. Although I really do enjoy showing someone the techniques of saltwater fly casting, this is often at an expense of time searching for fish and opportunities missed. Better to practice before your trip or at least get with me before our charter for a quick lesson. Find a fly shop that has experience in salt water fishing. Casting to trout on Golden Pond is far removed from the intensity on a bonefish flat.
on selecting a fly line...
Selecting the right fly line greatly increases your chances for success and makes the fishing much more enjoyable, but which line is the right one? Most bonefishing is done in very shallow water with sinking flies, so a floating line is all that is normally needed. I am partial to the SA Mastery Bonefish taper or the SA Ultra Bonefish taper. While the heads are a bit smaller, harder running lines shoot like rockets for longer casts and they are also stiffer so they are more tangle resistant than any other line. These lines are great for good casters, but the extra head length can be a problem for beginners and intermediates or for anyone not accustomed to long-range casting. To make these work best, you need to be able to carry at least 40 feet of line outside the rod. Suggestion? Consider the Ultra Bonefish or SWT lines. These have shorter, 30 foot heads that shoot well with less line in the air, which is a good thing for less experienced anglers. If you choose one of the Ultra lines, you should buy it one or two sizes heavier than your rod's rating as the short head doesn't load the rod the way it was designed to load. Although a great line for other fishing situations, steer clear of the Wind Cheater line and learn to cast properly.
When on the flats, it's important to properly choose the weight of your fly. The fly must get down to the level of the fish before they pass over it. Or, it may be too shallow and a heavily weighted fly may foul deeply in the turtle grass. Also, with any strong tidal currents, it may get swept away from their feeding path. It is very important to pay attention to the direction of the water flow upon the flat. Look at the direction the sea grass is bending or stir up some mud with your push pole.
Bonefish almost always will feed at some direction into the current. So position your skiff accordingly. Also, the presentation of the fly or bait, should be above, or up current of the feeding fish. I usually have my clients cast above and beyond the moving fish. This way they can always be on the fish on the first cast, which is usually the most important. They can then strip in the fly fast until it is in the strike zone at which time they can manipulate it in a more accurate manner. The spin fisherman should hold the rod high and reel the bait on the top of the water. When he approaches the strike zone, slow down and let the shrimp sink ahead of the fish.
The fish move fast under these conditions, so be prepared to water haul the fly line or recast that live shrimp and represent quickly. By the way a split shot above the hook on those live shrimp probably isn't a bad idea if the shrimp are on the small side. If fishing during the warmer months, a small crab will work as well.
the best times to bonefish.....We are able to pursue bonefish year-round in the Florida Keys. Like many other game fish, bonefish will take advantage of water temperature, tides and current to maximize their ability to eat. We are able to catch bonefish on a falling tide AND a rising tide of which we get two each day. Because I primarily sight fish for them, sunlight is perhaps the most important factor in finding bonefish. A sunny day sure makes a difference in the amount of "shots" I can get an angler. In the Winter months of December, January and February, a strong cold front may dramatically slow the fishing in the morning. A brisk cold wind can cool the water quickly, keeping the fish from making a presence upon the flats. Usually the afternoon provides a warming period for the flats, and we can find fish later in the day. Between the cold fronts, we can have spectacular weather, and find plenty of bonefish. Conversely in the heat of the summer, say July and August, the water can get very warm, holding little or no oxygen. Combined with the water temperature, bonefish seem to feed better in the early morning or late into the day/dusk. During the summer If there is a good breeze, it may push cool water across the flats from an adjoining basin, enticing the bonefish to enter a flat. The Spring and Fall provide the most stable of water temperatures, allowing us to normally find fish throughout the day.
on rigging a shrimp for spin fishing.....
One of the best ways to catch bonefish is on light tackle with live shrimp. I’ll use a seven foot fast action rod. Attached to it, a spinning reel with a line capacity of about 200 yards of ten pound test. The last twenty inches of line is doubled with a Bimini Twist. To this end a 2/0 hook is tied. I suggest using a Mustad freshwater hook #33637B. It’s a thin wire hook that will rust out quickly in the salt should you loose a bonefish to the bottom. The drag should be a very smooth one. These fish are capable of a long sustained run. The drag must be up to the task. When using live shrimp as a bait for bonefish, it is important to remove the tail before placement of the hook. In hooking the shrimp I’ll enter the open area where the tail was removed. Then I’ll thread the shrimp on the hook about the length of the shank. This is the point where I’ll come out of the bottom of the shrimp, pull the hook out until the hook eye is just inside the shrimp. Then I’ll turn the hook over and replace it up into the shrimp so that the point just sticks out of the top of the body of the shrimp. At this point I’ll crush the head. There are two reasons for rigging the shrimp this way. The first reason is to prevent the shrimp from spinning in the water upon retrieving it. Most times it will be important to manipulate the shrimp in order to get it in front of the moving school of bonefish. Having the tail attached would cause the shrimp to spin while retrieving line. This would put unnecessary twist in your line making it tougher to cast. You’ve already got enough to worry about with these fish! In addition sometimes it is necessary to hop the shrimp a bit to get their attention should the fish change its direction. With the tail removed the shrimp could move naturally (backwards) as though it’s trying to escape. Another plus to removing the tail of the shrimp and squeezing the head, it provides the addition of scent through the open wound. Many times it is the smell that will turn the head of a bonefish to track its prey upcurrent.
By Florida Keys Flats Fishing Guide, Capt. Barry Hoffman - index