Research pays off before you DIY wade fishing the Keys
Wade Fly Fishing the Florida Keys; What I Learned
As a first-timer, all I can say for advice is plan to stay four or five days. Stay on Islamorada. You can get a room as low as $49 a night, right near where the Flats Guides launch. Stay for 4 or 5 nights. Key Lantern Motel...clean, but spartan. A buddy, who's fished there before, marked several Keys flats on my Florida DeLorme. Capt. John Kumiski's, Flyrodding Florida Salt shows that Islamorada has enough flats nearby to keep the wading angler busy for months. Most of the public access wading flats in the Keys are near Islamorada, Lower Matacumbe Key, Long Key, Bahia Honda Key and Marathon Key. If I were going there again, I'd spend at least 2 or 3 full days wading each tide per day. Be sure to stand, though. Don't wade aimlessly or you'll stir up the mud (Bonefish avoid muddy water). Pick a spot from the beach, then wade out and watch for fish. Sun at your back, wind on your side, you'll be experiencing the beauty of the scene; the big sky meeting ocean in brilliant hues of green and blue, sunrises and sunsets, crystalline water, colorful marine life, some swimming above and some affixed to a carpet of sparse grasses and firm-to-squishy bottom. As you wade, calf-deep in 77-degree salt water, like me, you may think that except for the nearby Route 1 road traffic, this is as much serenity as any flyrodder needs. The Bonefish is a spooky, fast, hard to hook and hard to land game fish. Seeing them is a thrill. Casting to them is a challenge and exciting.
Teaming up with a friend, who's been Tarpon fishing, Permit fishing or Bone fishing, here on the Keys or elsewhere, is smart. The more eyes on the water, the better. You'll be more confident too, if you practice some casting on windy days like I did in advance of your Keys trip. I needed to make strong, accurate, athletic casts in all directions. Coil lots of line in loops in your line hand so that in only a few motions, you can deliver 30 to 60 feet in a hurry.
We hired a guide not so much as to 'catch us fish', but to learn techniques and areas to fish from a local. We asked questions like, "Where can we wade?" We did get the guide's pick on a location, a little on tides. He did our rigging, but he didn't say much more about wading. I tried to pick his brain, but not much of a flow of info erupted. A guide here may give up stuff you may not get to learn otherwise. On the other hand, he may not tell you the day's techniques in any great detail; like different ways to present to certain fish, like what conditions we'll encounter, how to respond to the "boat clock". You might get taken by surprise if all of a sudden your guide yells at the top of his lungs, "Your eleven thirty! Ten Feet out! Strip! Strip! Strip!" You're supposed to do this all at once. A good guide though, will talk a blue streak about what you should expect today while he checks your rigging, tests your knots. It might make a difference whether you say you "have some experience" or not. I'd say, try your best to talk to your guide a lot in advance and maybe tell him you are a total beginner.
I should have asked the guide that day to simply find us some tailing Bonefish. We opted to give him a broad idea instead, simply asking to fish for Bonefish and Tarpon. He took what I suspect was his usual route. The wind didn't find him as much as he found the wind. I can say for certain that it is less fun to cast into a wind to a spooked school of Bonefish from a bouncing platform than it is to wade another less windy flat and cast to tails. I should have asked the guide to just find some tails. Maybe then he could have taken us to more flats on the lee side. I'm surprised he didn't think of that himself. I didn't complain or offer up alternatives, because I'm too new to the Keys, so after just doing his morning loop, and all of us looking for Bonefish in wind for three hours, we gave up and finally asked him to go find Tarpon. He found them off shore in weeds and more wind. We each had several chances, but it was few and spooky fish and long 50-mile an hour bouncing rides between pole sets. All in all this was an expensive boat ride but we had some chances.
Wading for Tailing Bones
Tailing Bonefish, "Happy fish", as my buddy says. Translucent forked tails, fluttering just above the surface, a click, click, click sound near you that says, "I'm chomping crabs and mud!" Also saying, "My head is down in the mud and I'm pushing with my tail, rooting out that crab!" Bonefish jaws are among the strongest in the animal world. They can crush a hard shell easily, so a finger, I don't want to think about that! Crabs are afraid of Bonefish and their only way to survive is to burrow down in the flat. They can't outrun a Bonefish so they hide; hoping the little puff of mud they dig up isn't seen (As if crabs have ability to "hope").
In all the hours we fished, over two full days, we cast to maybe 16 Bonefish between us that were tailing and it was fun. We fished at three different flats on one or more tides. We searched for other flats. Some of the flats we looked over but never fished because of windy conditions or because it was getting late. We took a ride to Key West and had a lunch, a break from standing and watching water. Dave and I hooked up 5 times and landed all fish. It was a thrill for me because they were my first fly-cought Bonefish.
Tips I Was Given
Look for tails anywhere, especially near the shore in really skinny water. They can show up anywhere, so be prepared to cast in any direction. Cast to as near to the puffs or better yet, near the flipping tails while they flip. "Tails up" means the Bonefish's head is down in the mud chomping and he might not notice the plop of the fly near him. Maybe he'll be facing your fly in the mud as you twitch it. As you twitch it just enough to cause another "puff", he may chomp on it. After a Bonefish takes, he runs up to thirty MPH. ...that's why I'm going Bone fishing in the Keys again.
By Marshall DeMott
Marshall lives in Clinton, Maine, in the summer and in Naples, Florida in the winter. He guides the Kennebec River through his own service at Maine Fly Fishing Guide - Maine Fishing Reports, Maine Trout Fishing, Maine Salmon Fishing, Maine Flies