The bonefish and its world
Bonefishing takes us to some of the worlds most beautiful and magical places. No wonder many people dream about sight fishing for bonefish and share memorable moments with friends, Good fishing and lots of smiles that’s what bonefishing is all about!
There are different species of bonefish all belonging to the Albulidae family. In the past we thought there was only one species of bonefish. But since then nine different species have been identified. There are 6 species in the Pacific and 3 species in the Caribbean, they look so much alike that most of the recognition has to be done by genetic analysis. The habitat of the bonefish stretches from South Africa all the way up to ……. There you can find them in tropical and subtropical waters around flats and intertidal areas.
And even at one certain destination you can encounter multiple types of bonefish. In my own experience even the same type of bonefish can differ a lot in behavior. For example one fish can be an ocean fish that visits a turtle grass flat to feed. While the other spends his live in a bay and moves on to the sand flats to feed along one of the many mangrove roots the fish can find there. Those same two fish can act and feed very differently, so it’s wise to study those differences. Sometimes they can be very subtle and other times very large. The main thing is that you will be more successful on your next trip to the flats if you now something about the bonefish and it’s surroundings. So you understand why a certain fish acts the way he does and another fish will act totally different. That will make the difference between catching bonefish or getting skunked!
Bonefish are powerful and run very fast and hard when hooked. For that reason a lot of fly anglers love them, they are truly a wonderful sport fish. Most bonefish are caught in depths from 15cm to 3m (6inch to 10ft). Bonefish can grow very large and the all tackle world record is a 19Lbs (8,61kg) bruiser caught in South Africa on conventional tackle. But there are probably even bigger fish out there. A 10pound fish is considered a trophy fish anywhere around the world and on fly a fish of a live time.
Notice the beautiful rainbow colors on the bonefish scales.
And by growing about a pound every year a 10pound trophy is a worthy adversary, it did not grow this big and old by being stupid. Their size varies at the different destinations around the world, the largest fish are normally found at the Florida Keys’s, Andros Island and Bimini. Those spots produce the most trophy fish any given time or year. But in addition Los Roques also has some large bonefish. But spots like Belize and Mexico have a lot more bonefish around all though their size is considerably smaller, with fish averaging about 1-3 pounds. It’s up to the angler what he or she prefers and I will go into further detail in another chapter dedicated especially to destinations.
Like any other fish bonefish are under constant threat. Not only from large birds, sharks, barracudas and other large fish. But unfortunately humans as well, we are a growing threat for these amazing game fish. Not just from fishermen that fish so they can feed their families. The reality is far worse, pollution, growing number of people enjoying water sports, large cruise ships and the destruction of habitat to name a few all form a serious threat. It is good to hear that multiple organizations and individuals are taking action to counteract this. And we fishermen our selves can contribute to the cause. By not leaving anything behind on the flats but smiles and being careful when we wade so we don’t destroy the small plant and animal live while we’re on the flats. If everyone is careful and respectful we will make a big difference! So that the next generation can enjoy these beautiful places as well.
Most bonefish actually stay most of their lives in deeper water and not on the flats. So why do they come on to the flats where they are vulnerable and likely to be attacked by sharks and barracudas etc. Well you probably guest it all ready but yes! food! Because when the tide is right and the water level high enough it will grant access for bonefish to come on to the flats and feed on all sorts of crabs, clams, shrimps, small baitfish and many more. There for the taking for the bonefish it’s an all you can eat buffet . That is the place where you want to find them, happy and feeding. But also just before they are ready to go onto the flat can be a magical time. They will be in the deeper parts or channels waiting for the perfect time to enter the flat. Also when they get of the flat going back to deeper water because the tide is falling can be a very good time to fish. Especially when they return from the mangroves, where it can be difficult or even impossible to hook and land them. But when they have had a real feast in there and their belly are content it can be hard to trick them sometimes, but it’s always a good time to try to entice them with your fly. There are a number of specific types of flats we can encounter. Sand, turtle grass, mud, coral and mangrove flats.
A typical sand flat with firm bottom, shadows are spotted very easily!
These flats are usually large light colored sand flats and are easy to fish because you can spot the bonefish or more likely their shadows a lot easier. Also you don’t have to be so precise with your presentations, because most of the time there are no obstacles like mangroves or coral to take into account. Your fly won’t hang up on grass, rocks or coral and nine out of the ten times the fly doesn’t require a weed guard.
Now you ready and you cast your fly out to the fish and the fish slams it and you strip set… fish on! Because you’re on a sand flat you don’t have to worry about losing the fish to the sharp coral or the mangroves. And the bonefish has all the space it needs to run and rip the backing from your reel. So are there only pro’s and no con’s ? No off course there are factors that will make it not as easy as is seems. For one the fish are usually more spooky, especially when the water is shallow. It also can be hard to select a spot on a flat to look for the fish, because there are no structures or key points to look for. Another point is that you can see them better, but they will see you better as well it works both way’s. So they will spook a lot quicker, so think about your own shadow and the shadow that your fly line creates. Because if they will spot any shadows, the bonefish are likely to spook and rush of the flat. Taking other bonefish with them in the process. If clouds obscure the sun it can be very difficult to spot the fish especially cruising bones. So if they are not tailing and you can not spot the nervous water because of water depth or small waves created by the wind you will have a hard time spotting them. They are not called the ghosts of the flats for no reason. You will see them clear as clear as day one moment and when a cloud blocks the sun the next thing you know they are gone. And when the sun does return, the bones are nowhere to be found.
Close to and almost on the shore of an ocean sand flat, this actually is an unhooked fish looking for food!
A trick I often use is when you spot a fish or a group of fish to not only keep your eyes on them at all times, but also to predict their angle off approach and very important the speed they are swimming at. So that when all of a sudden the sun is gone I can estimate where the bones are going. What I do in this case is predict their direction, make a long cast and wait. Until I think the fish are in the zone so they are able to spot my fly. When it is time I will slowly strip my fly, what that will do is it creates puffs of sand in addition to my fly that is moving. I have caught many fish this way, fish that normally would swim off or spook when they got to close.
These beautiful looking turtle grass flats are home to an amazing variety of prey for the bonefish. So it is only natural that the bones love these spots and it will also provide them with camouflage for birds from above and other predators lurking around. While it can be difficult to spot them I always love turtle grass flats. For one the fish are less likely to spook, so you can approach them quit easy but you’ll have to make a close in their face presentation or they won’t even see you fly. Making it a frustrating game at times. But in my opinion far more rewarding because your level of skill has to be higher then say on a sand flat. There are some things to pay attention to, your fly must have a weed guard or you’ll hang-up on the grass every time and by doing so spooking the bonefish. Or you must fish un-weighed flies that hover just above the grass, but my experiences with un-weighted flies are not very positive. Because bonefish are by nature bottom feeders, while I have caught them even on dry flies imitating a small crab they are true bottom feeders. They are just designed that way, so more often than not if your fly isn’t on or at least near the bottom the bones won’t even notice your fly. So my preferred way is to use a weed guard, there are many types of weed guards you can use. And everyone has their own favorite one, but what I like to use is a single post weed guard. Consisting off one piece of 12-25pound of hard mono, depending on the size of fly I am using.
The flies I use on grass flats differ from the flies I use on sand flats. Just because of the fact that in these two areas live different prey types. As a standard you can match the color of your fly to the color of the bottom you are fishing on. So for example on a grass flat olive shrimps and crabs usually work great, what I also like is a contrasting color. Maybe a little orange imitating an egg sack!? This ensures the fish more easily spots the fly. No wonder an olive DD-shrimp is my go to fly for grass flats.
These are flats with very soft bottom and you can sink into the mud as far as up to your or even over your knees at some spots. Thus making it very difficult for fishing on foot. And more often than not impossible to fish effectively while wading. But bonefish love to root around these flats and dig for clams, crabs and shrimps. So it can be very rewarding to fish these types of flats from a boat or if possible from shore or from the edges that have a firm bottom. If the only way you can fish is to wade, do not wade a lot and stand still at one spot and wait for the fish to come to you. This way you won’t spook them and you’ll have a good chance of catching them.
Here is an example of a mud flat (notice the murky water) I jumped out off the boat for a quick picture before releasing this gorgeous bonefish. My ankles disappeared well in to the mud. Wade fishing here was not an good option.
If you strip slowly you will also create puffs in the mudd with your fly. And I can tell you from experience that bonefish will come from afar rushing to inhale your offering. On these flats you can also easily spot if here have been bonefish feeding in the area. They will create small light colored holes in the mud. And remember the bigger the hole, the bigger that fish will be.
This is for me the toughest place to fish for bonefish and in some cases practically impossible. You’ll be able to hook them, but landing a bonefish that bolts away after he realizes something is wrong is a real challenge. When you have razor sharp coral everywhere it is a no-go for me personally. So in the case you encounter places with lots of sharp coral heads make sure to use much stronger tippet. And make the consideration for yourself if it is worth losing all your flies and leaving the fish with an irritating and possibly hazardous lip piercing. But non the les bonefish love to feed over coral flats, the coral provides prey with lots of cover. So there is an abundance of small shrimp crab and other prey that bonefish love. Again it is difficult to spot them at times, but when the bones are happily feeding and tailing it can be a magical place to fish. Just remember to use barbles hooks, strong tippet and tighten the drag on your reel and try to direct the fish away from the razor sharp coral. Normally I use flies with a weed guards, because there can be a lot of small rocks, turtle grass and other debris that will hang-up on your fly. Making the fly a fish spooker, instead of a fish catcher.
With mangrove flats I mean flats that holds a lot of mangroves on it, some very small but sometimes also big bushes of mangrove. In addition also the edges of the flat are normally covered with mangroves. The mangrove flats often hold the most bonefish prey of all types of flats. And for me it is often the most beautiful of all flats to fish. The scenery is simply breathtaking and making a precision cast to a fish that is cruising along the mangroves seeing it eat your fly and challenge you skills during the battle is an amazing experience for me. There are two types of mangrove to be found, the red and black mangroves. The red mangrove is the one we find on the flats and you can identify them easily by their elaborate prop and aerial system witch stabilizes the tree. The roots contain a waxy substance that helps keep salt out. The red mangrove is very sensitive and if it loses half of it’s leaves it will die. So never harm a mangrove not even a single one. Because they are of vital importance to the flats and the creatures calling it home.
Think where to position your self, for the best possible presentation to the fish.
When you wade along the mangroves look closely and try to determine what route the bonefish are likely to take. With this knowledge you can plot your own route and don’t forget to take the wind into the equation. Look for spots where the fish are canalized and try to set up your presentation in advance. This way you are one step ahead of the fish!
All though beautiful, the mangroves also provide a challenge for the angler. Fish can easily swim through and around the mangroves when hooked. If this is the case slacken off you line and try to free your line from the mangroves. This can be a bit of a hassle sometimes for you or your guide, but well worth it when a few moments later you’re holding one of those perfectly shaped silver bullets. When there are a lot of mangroves in the area I normally use tippet that has a greater breaking strength, just to be on the safe side. We don’t want a bonefish swimming around with a fly and 12ft of leader. But also we don’t want to damage our leader or worse our fly line.
A very good spot with a lot of bonefish, be ready for the chase!