The bonefish broke away from the school and took the fly. After the student set the hook, the fish quickly started its famous run, which gives the species the name “torpedo of the flats”. After a run of perhaps 120 yards, the bonefish slowed down and turned – to the relief of the angler – and after a couple of shorter runs, the happy angler had caught his first bonefish. After a couple of handshakes from the guide and me, it was time to wade-on and look for more fish. This was the morning of the second day of The Orvis Bahamas Bonefish School, on famous Andros Island.
Most beginning bonefish anglers have fished for trout and are looking for new challenges and some sunshine and excitement in the dead of winter. Bonefish tackle is not complicated, and the same outfit will serve you well for bonefishing from the Bahamas to the Seychelles.
Fly rods: A nine foot, eight or nine weight rod, with a mid or tip-flex action will handle the majority of bonefishing situations. If the majority of the bonefish are large, like in the Florida Keys, a 9-weight outfit is the best choice. Also, if you are going to a bonefish destination during the windy season a 9-weight will make the job easier. If most of your fishing will be for smaller fish with smaller flies, or you don’t expect a lot of wind, an 8-weight will do just fine and will give you an added measure of delicacy—bonefish can be spooky! Eight and nine weights also double as “baby” tarpon rods (tarpon under fifty pounds). These babies are great fun!
Fly reels: Fly reels for bonefishing are a very important, just as important as the fly rod. Reels for bonefish should have the capacity to hold at least 175 to 200 yards of 30 pound test backing. Many anglers these days prefer large arbor reels. Large arbor reels offer anglers the ability to retrieve line much faster than conventional fly reels: after a bonefish makes that first run, they will sometimes swim (very quickly) back toward the angler. Large arbor reels help you maintain a tight line, and put pressure on the fish--with slack in the line it is easier for the bonefish to wrap the leader around coral heads (I think they do this on purpose) and other obstructions. Maintaining a tight line and putting pressure on the fish will also help you “lead” the bonefish away from other objects, such as mangrove shoots.
I’ll never forget the first bonefish I hooked. After the first long run, the fish started swimming toward me, and I could no longer feel the fish. After several minutes of franticly cranking (with a conventional fly reel), I realized I was fighting the fly line, not the fish. Sometime during the fight, probably just as the fish started swimming toward me, slack line let the fish shake the hook, resulting in my first bonefish L.D.R. (long distance release).
Reflecting back on that first bonefish encounter (and others), a large arbor reel would have helped me keep a tight line, and avoid the dreaded L.D.R. A few years ago I was conducting a fly fishing school in California, one of the students mentioned to me that she had some arthritis in her hand, and because of her limited movement, large arbor reels made it much easier for her to retrieve line.
The importance of a smooth drag system should not be overlooked. Line should come off the reel without hesitation, or “hanging-up”. If the drag sticks or hesitates, when a bonefish makes a sizzling run, you will end-up with a broken leader. The reels we used in the bonefish school are all OrvisBattenkill Large Arbors, and they perform flawlessly. A thought on which hand you should retrieve with: I recommend you retrieve line with the hand you can get the line in the quickest, (I have done a lot of studies on this) and most people can retrieve line faster with their dominant hand.
Fly lines: Fly lines for bonefish should be floating, with a weight forward taper, matched to the weight of the rod. Choose a bonefish taper – these lines are specially designed to be fished in warm tropical environments. In hot weather conditions, a standard fly line can become sticky and too soft, and will neither cast nor shoot through the guides as well.
Flies: Bonefish feed primarily on crustaceans (shrimps and crabs) so most bonefish flies are tied to imitate them. Bonefish flies are tied on size 4, 6, and 8 hooks – remember, hook size and fly size mean the same thing, the flies are tied in proportion to the size of the hook. Because most bonefish flies are fished on or near the bottom, the flies are usually tied with the hook inverted, or hook up, to help keep the fly from hanging up on bottom obstructions, coral, and grass. Bonefish flies are usually weighted – an exception to this would be fishing for bonefish in very shallow water (10 to 18 inches deep). In skinny water conditions, the fish are extremely spooky, and an unweighted fly will land softer in the water than a weighted fly. Weighted flies are usually tied with bead chain eyes or heavier dumbbell eyes to help get the flies on or near the bottom quickly. Remember, bonefish, with their “under slung” mouths feed mostly on the bottom. The type of weighted fly you choose will be determined by water depth – plastic eyes for very shallow water, bead chain eyes for knee-deep water, and dumbbell eyes for deeper water. Some of the top producers throughout bonefish country include Crazy Charlies, Bonefish Gotchas, and Meko Specials. As far as fly color is concerned, a good rule of thumb is to match the color of the fly to the color of the bottom. Prey take on the color of the surrounding environment for camouflage. When fishing in off-colored (murky) water choose a larger fly with more “bulk” – a larger, bulkier fly will “push” more water – helping bonefish “hear” the fly using their lateral line system.
Leaders: 9 foot knotless tapered leader in 8 to 12 pound test (depending on conditions, and fly size) are all you will need. Some anglers prefer to tie their leaders, but keep in mind the knots on a knotted leader are much more likely to catch on aquatic grass and coral. When fishing in shallow water for spooky bonefish, go to a longer leader by simply adding 2 to 3 feet to of .023” leader material to the butt end of your 9 foot knotless leader. In the last couple of years, I have gone exclusively to Mirage Fluorocarbon leaders for bonefish, for their abrasion resistance and knot strength. Mirage is also more “invisible” to the fish because its refractive index is closer to water than nylon.
Sunglasses: Because bonefishing is a sight casting game, polarized sunglasses are an absolute must. As far as lens color is concerned, choose a brown or copper colored lens for normal conditions on the flats, and an amber or yellow lens for cloudy, overcast conditions (gray lens are not the best color for sight casting on the flats).
Casting: Because of wind, fly casting in saltwater can be quite demanding. Most casts to bonefish are between 35 and 60 feet, with a certain amount of accuracy (especially when casting to “tailing” bonefish). Forget about the old casting method of stopping the rod at two o’clock and ten o’clock – this can be very restrictive, especially for longer casts: the distance of the casting stroke is determined by how much line you have out of the tip of the rod (short line, short stroke, longer line, longer stroke), not by a clock. Learn to keep false casting to a minimum.
Students often ask me in our fly fishing schools to describe the difference between casting to trout in moving water, and casting to saltwater species. Trout, in moving water, remain fairly stationary (especially in moderate to fast current) to conserve energy, and let the current bring them food. Saltwater fish are usually always on the move, chasing prey, or fleeing from predators trying to eat them. When a bonefish is sighted, it is important to get the fly to the fish quickly, by making as few false casts as possible. Learning to double haul will make long distance casting much easier, and make it easier to cast in windy conditions. Also, the hauls you give to the line when you double haul will take a lot of stress and strain off of your casting arm, and will enable you to fish for longer periods of time without tiring.
Presentation: Bonefish normally feed on food items that use short, quick bursts of speed to escape: your fly retrieves should reflect these movements. After the cast is made, get into a good fishing position by hooking fly line over the middle or index finger of the hand holding the rod grip, lower the rod tip to the surface, and eliminate all slack line between the rod tip and fly. Retrieve the fly with the rod pointing straight toward the fly. In this position, you will have better control of the fly; feel the fish take the fly, and put yourself in a much better hook-setting position. Vary the speed of the retrieves until you figure out what is working – six to twelve inch pulls are usually best – and remember, the slower you retrieve, the deeper the fly will stay in the water column.
The position of the bonefish to the angler is critical. Fish that are swimming toward, or to the side of you offer the best “shots”. In this position, you can present the fly to make it look like it is trying to escape. Fish that are swimming away from you offer the poorest shots-- a fly line cast over the fish can spook it, and retrieving the fly toward a bonefish is unnatural (shrimps and crabs do not swim toward bonefish). Keep the fly moving. When a bonefish has spotted your fly and moves toward it, resist the temptation to stop and let the fish catch up to the fly because the fish may loose interest.
Setting the hook: Bonefish do not have tough bony mouths like tarpon, so you don’t need to use a lot of hook setting energy. When a bonefish takes, use a strip-strike to set the hook: when you feel the fish take the fly, strip the line with your line hand, keeping the rod tip low. After the fish is hooked, you can then lift the rod, (usually it’s best to lift the rod slightly off to the side, rather than straight up), clear the line (get the line on the reel), and enjoy the run. For more hook-ups, remember to keep the hook points sharp. To make releasing fish easier, and to do less damage to the fish, mash the barbs of the hooks down.
Of all the students attending The Orvis Bahamas Bonefish School this year, only one person had previous saltwater experience and two students had no previous fly fishing experience at all. Not only did all the students end up catching bonefish in the school, some of the students had double digit days – and most importantly – had a great time in a beautiful environment pursuing the “ghost of the flats”.