Finding and spotting bonefish
More often than not this is the most difficult aspect of the Bonefishing game. Especially when the sun is low on the horizon or obscured by clouds. The first time I went flats fishing for bonefish I could not believe there was a single fish on the flat. For more than an hour I just could not spot even a single fish. Until suddenly I spotted a tailing bonefish, it flashed its tail like a mirror and I still remember that day like it was yesterday. My hart raced… finally a bonefish! I could not believe my eyes, but it was there right in front of me! I waded very carefully towards the tailing fish and suddenly boom… out of nowhere another tail, just 40ft from were I was standing. Luckily this fish tailed because if not I probably wouldn’t have seen it, I was that focused on the first fish I spotted. I made my first cast to a bonefish and the fly landed what I thought was to close, but the fish rushed to my fly and it only took 2 strips and I was connected to my very first bonefish. The fish wasn’t a monster weighing about 3pounds but I was as happy as a kid in a candy store! After I released the fish and I had come to my senses I realized that there were probably more fish on the flat. I just wasn’t seeing them when they weren’t tailing. I started to slow down looking more carefully. Soon after that I spotted a cruising fish, well actually not the fish but his shadow on the sand bottom. Damm these fish were properly camouflaged and hard to spot. I caught a few bones that trip and yes I was very happy doing so. But everything changed when later that year I fished with a guide for the first time. Now I like DIY fishing no doubt about it, but the learning curve is way steeper when fishing with a good guide. If a flats guide knows how to share his knowledge with his clients he’s worth his weight in gold. I myself learned a lot on that trip from my guide and this improved my fishing considerably and much faster than figuring it all out on myself. Now some lodges will bring their clients to deeper water to fish the muddy water created by large schools of bonefish. You can catch a lot of bonefish that way, just cast into the mud let your fly sink and strip… success guarantied. But for many others and me that has absolutely nothing to do with Bonefishing. I’ll rather catch one fish that I sight fished for than a 100 blind casting. Because that’s what’s flats fishing is all about for me, spotting the fish and seeing it chase your fly and eat it.
So where to look for when out on the flat? Bonefish can swim in singles, doubles and triples or even in small or very large groups up to over a hundred fish. The bigger the group is the easier to spot them but the larger fish often hunt and live as solitary fish. As a starting point always look were you can see, makes sense right!? Because of the angle of the sun you can see well in some areas. You should focus on these areas but a quick scan of the other areas never hurt though. Scan the area you can see best systematically, this is the area you should focus on most of the time. The easiest way to spot a bonefish is when he’s tailing. What the fish does is digging his nose in the ground looking for a tasty snack. Doing so in shallow water the fish will reveal his tail or sometimes even half of its body to you. What you’ll see is either the tail or you’ll see little mirrors lighting up. The tail of bonefish will reflect the sun making them easy to spot for the angler.
Always be careful when you have the urge to rush to the first tailing bonefish you spot. Because you might spook other fish you didn’t see just yet. Usually he has some buddy’s in the direct area joining in on the buffet. Sometimes when the wind is gone you can hear them tailing, splashing around while feeding with not a care in the world. But other times you can only see just a small tip of their tail! Below are a few photographs showing tailing bonefish under different circumstances.
How many fish do you count? Easy to spot them like this, you can even see the direction in which they are facing, so you know exactly were to put your fly!
When you spot group of tailing bonefish always remember that there are probably more fish around. Because not every fish tails at the same time so just watch them closely for a few moments before presenting your fly. That way you are sure that you won’t spook any fish that you over looked. Because when you by mistake spook even a single bonefish, all of them will spook and rush to safety. Another technique is to cast well ahead of the group and slowly strip your fly. If you don’t hook up make your next cast a bit closer. Repeat this about 2-3 times before presenting your fly to the lead fish you can see. Remember that when fish are tailing you normally should present your fly about 1-2ft from his head. Because if your fly lands to far away from the fish it probably won’t even notice your fly. The fish will stir up the bottom creating muddy and murky water while looking for food. So present your fly in the zone the fish is looking for food. Using light or even an un weighted fly will allow you to do just that without spooking the fish.
A single small fish is a lot harder to spot than a group of Bonefish.
Two fish barely breaking the surface with their tail and back fin, but quit easy to spot.
Same two fish just a moment later, not so easy to spot anymore are they!
Group of seven bones, maybe even more? Not all fish are tailing at the same time, take this into account when presenting your fly. Think before you make your cast!
Now the bones are much harder to spot and a pair of polarized glasses will become a must. Because they will let you see through the glare on the water created by the sun. Making it way easier to spot fish any given time and as a bonus they also protect your eyes at the same time. Witch is important when casting in windy conditions, the last thing you need is a sharp hook in your eye. How hard it will be to spot fish depends on where and when you are fishing. A cruising bonefish on a turtle grass flat at the end of a day with the sun touching the horizon is near to impossible. While on a sand flat that same fish at noon can be easy to spot. It all depends, but there are some key things to look for.
Shadows, when the sun is high in the sky it will create hard shadows. So instead of looking for the fish it self, look for their shadows. This only works when the sun is strong enough and you have light colored bottoms, makes sense right! Movement, ever looked up for no apparent reason while sitting at the kitchen table ready the newspaper, to see somebody walking past your window? Its very likely you’ve experienced something similar to this because the human eye (brain) is very sensitive to movement. Now it can be hard to see if something is moving or not in the water, even harder from a moving flats skiff. So what I do is look for a reference point in the water it can be anything as long as it is stationary. A rock, mangrove or just a dark spot on the bottom anything you can easily spot. Now compare the distance between your reference point and the bonefish, you can see if its moving or not in a second. Remember if its not moving… its very unlikely to be a bonefish because they are always on the move looking for food or getting from or to the food source. Only once have I encountered bonefish not moving, laid up mid water in a deep channel. It was almost like they were sleeping, not something you see every day. Shine, remember bonefish are like mirrors that’s why they are so hard to spot at times, they reflect their surroundings making them virtually invisible. But they also reflect the sun! So if you see something flashing underwater, it’s possibly a bonefish flanking so keep that in mind. Mudding, when bonefish feed they sometimes create little puffs of mud or when in large groups they can create giant clouds of mud in the water. This is a key thing to look for, if you see a mud puff look for fish in that area. The bonefish is probably in the vicinity of the puff or maybe even in it. No sun and no tailing fish… find the mud’s and you’ll find the bonefish. Nervous water, a single fish, multiple fish or schools of fish create this when they swim near the surface. By doing so they create a disturbance in the water that you will be able to spot. It can look like a v-shape or just a ripple. When you fish the flats on a regular bases you eventually will spot the different kinds of nervous water. You’ll be able to see if it’s a bonefish or just a school of mullet that are creating the disturbance in the surface of the water.
But what if you don’t see any bonefish? Are you in the wrong spot? You don’t want to be spending time in an area that holds no fish.
By knowing what to look for on a flat you can see if there have been bonefish in the area. One way to do that is to look for signs of bonefish that have been feeding in the area. If the bottom allows it, you’ll see small holes that bonefish create by digging with their nose. Seeing a lot of holes… then the bonefish visit the area on a regular basis to feed and that is good news. Because you are in the right spot, so if the tide is right sooner or later the bones will come to feed. Another thing to look for is bonefish prey and general life on the flats. Because if they can access the area and there is an abundance of food it is very likely they visit that particular flat. Seeing lots of crabs, shrimps, clams and small baitfish is always a good thing.
Perfect camouflage green/grey striped back and silver flanks, beautiful fish!
Your eyes will have to adapt to spotting bonefish on the flats. So the more experienced you are and the more time you spend fishing the flats the better you’ll get. Another way to teach you eyes and brain to recognize bonefish is to always follow the bonefish after you’ve released one. Try to track your released fish for as long as you possibly can. This way you train your eyes and brain to remember what a bonefish looks like. The temperature on a flat can be of vital importance, to hot or to cold and they won’t come onto the flat. Generally the bigger the bonefish the longer it can keep on visiting the flats, but a safe zone is between 27 and 37,9 Degrees Celsius. If the temperatures are higher or lower than that it’s not likely that bonefish visit the area. So a small thermometer is always a handy tool to take with you on your flats trip. Or you can always book a trip to a well known flats fishing lodge and fish with a guide that now’s were the bonefish are at any given time. But always ask him questions when your out fishing together on the flats, knowledge is power after all. And the more you learn from him the better an bonefish angler you will become.
DD-Shrimp my #1 Bonefish fly !