The Bonefish is very special because it will come up onto very shallow water called “flats” with the incoming tide and feed on small crustaceans, small fish and worms. When hooked on a fly in this shallow water they will run off at speeds not normally experienced by fly fishers. Bonefish are completely smooth with no sharp fins or teeth. After you land one you can wet your hand and pick it up and turn it up side down which makes it relax so you can remove the fly more easily.
You can find Bonefish in the tropics near the equator almost 12 months of the year. The closer you are to the equator, the less likely that winter storms or cold fronts will cool off the flats and reduce your chances of being successful. Spring and fall is the most popular time to go for Bonefish. Late summer and fall does have the chance of hurricanes so spring is the favorite of many serious Bonefishers. Summer can be good fishing especially early and late in the day. Some places with extensive shallow flats like the Bahamas can have vast flats that are just too warm for Bonefish in the summer months.
Bonefish are found all around the world in the warm shallow saltwater near the Equator. There are lots of DIY destinations like the Mexican Yucatan and the Bahamas where you can have a nice tropical vacation with a little Bonefishing thrown in. While on a family getaway you might line up a local flats guide for one or two days to improve your chances of success plus you will learn some technique too. You can do the full on tropical saltwater flats lodge trip if you want to really get into the Bonefish world. These week long trips are going to be $2000 to $4000 plus airfare, gratuities and tackle. For a serious trip spring time is the most popular to ensure the best conditions. Some of the best places are Christmas Island, the Bahamas and the Mexican and Belizean Yucatan.
Ideally some destinations have solid shallow flats that can be waded and others have a combination of firm and softer mushy flats that require a poled shallow draft outboard skiff to access the fish. Wading on shallow firm light colored sand flats is my favorite Bonefishing situation. This would be placed like Christmas Island and some parts of the Yucatan, like Ascension Bay, and some of the Bahamas. Wading on shallow flat does not require long casting as it does from a boat. Also on shallow light colored flats you can more easily spot the Bonefish. On flats with a darker bottom, like Turtle grass, it is more difficult to see fish. Casting from a poled skiff is fine but you need to make longer casts because the fish are more aware of the boat and people up high making a tall silhouette. Some places we fish have soft flats so a skiff is the only way to get to the Bonefish.
There are many factors that make spotting Bonefish cruising and feeding under water easier or more difficult. Too much wind makes it more difficult to see the fish but no wind can make them more spooky too. Clouds make more glare so a clear sky is nice. While wading or poling the flats we will stop as dark clouds come over because with “the lights out” we can no longer see the fish. Having a large wide brim hat with a dark underside and a chin strap is a necessity. Also having high quality Polarized ground glass sunglasses is a must to see through the surface glare to see the structure and fish. **One thing I have noticed after taking many groups of new Bonefishers on week long lodge trips is that if they don’t get off by there selves, after a few days, to wade and spot their own fish they will not learn how to spot fish. It is very easy to just wade along with your guide and cast “35 feet” to where he has pointed your rod. At first you need the guide to help you spot fish but after a while, in the better conditions, you should see them too.
Most use 9 foot graphite fly rods that are in 4 pieces for travel. Most anglers will use #6 to #9 line sizes for Bonefish, depending on the wind and average fly sizes to be used. Better casters can use small line sizes too. I recommend a #8 line rod for most people and most destinations for Bonefish. A good fly reel with a smooth disc drag is needed because these fish can make very long fast runs. Having a light reel is good because you might be carrying it and casting it for many hours daily. Having a large diameter fly reel is good for cranking in large amounts of backing from long runs. I think that 150 yards of 20# Dacron backing is average. Most use weight forward tropical floating lines for over 95% of their Bonefishing. While wading it is nice to have a medium stiff line because it will not get very hot as you drag it through the shallow water. On the deck of a flats skiff you will want a stiffer tropical line so it will not get too hot and start tangling in the extreme heat. For wading your casts are fairly short so a line with a shorter head length is good. We use what is called a “Saltwater” line for wading. Out of a skiff you need to make longer casts so there we use the “Bonefish” lines which usually have longer heads.
Leaders & Tippet
I like ~10 foot 10 to 12 pound knotless Bonefish leaders that I can add some compatible tippet too for more length when needed. Some times we add more tippet to the system when we are fishing in deeper water with weighted flies so the flies will get quickly to the bottom. Hand tied leaders are OK but vegetation can collect on each knot plus knots can catch on the coral and mangrove shoots.
The most popular type of Bonefish fly is the “Crazy Charlie” style patterns which are supposed to look like a small shrimp. Small crab patterns are good too. The most common fly sizes are #4 to #8 and I recommend pinching down or removing the barbs so you can more easily release these wonderful fish. The extreme range of hook sizes is #1 to #10 depending on conditions. When fishing very remote places where the Bonefish rarely see flies, we use larger flies and conversely, where they are fished almost daily, like right in front of the lodge, we might use smaller flies. We use larger weighted flies when the water we are fishing is deeper, especially with a tide movement, so it will get down and stop on the bottom. We use un-weighted flies when fishing over a shallow bottom covered with either turtle grass or coral gardens.
In saltwater fly fishing I feel that casting ability is very important for the angler’s success. Today we have good medium priced fly rods that will cast well for most anglers. I would recommend buying the very best fly lines available for Bonefishing. Cleaning and dressing the lines is important too. You will want to get some help with learning to cast a tight loop that will cut throw the wind and how to “double haul” so you can get more line speed for longer casts. **When it is really windy I try to get myself positioned in a better place while wading, like up wind, to cast more accurately. Also, a side arm cast with the line moving lower, very close to the water, can be an advantage in very windy situations while wading the flats.
Clothing & Equipment
I like light weight, light colored long sleeve shirts and long pants for a full week trip on the glaring light colored tropical flats. A hat or two with full coverage and a chin strap is needed. Some use sun gloves and/or stripping gloves now too. Having good water proof sun screen and Chap Stick are a must. Many are using the light weight neck gators like the new Buff products. Some like a fanny pack with a water bottle to carry extra gear while wading. Some use boat bags while fishing from a poled skiff. Small pliers or forceps with a cutter are needed. Maybe a small file and smooth hook hone too. Have a good pair or two of high quality Polarized sunglasses with a neck strap. Sun glasses with natural earth tones like light brown, yellow or amber are best for seeing fish and structure under water. Have a cleaning cloth and liquid spray cleaner for your glasses. High top Flats Booties are designed to protect your feet from the coral and keep the sand out too.
Tides, Time of day & Wind
Tides and wind speed and direction can really effect the Bonefish’s feeding patterns. Optimally, an incoming tide in the morning is usually very good. On average mid-afternoons have not been really productive for me. A top veteran Yucatan flats guide told me that the Bonefish had been up all morning feeding and now in the afternoon they were full and tired. On a full moon and a new moon you have “spring tides” which have higher exchanges of water. The low tides can completely drain the flats and the high tides can allow the fish to get way up even into the vegetation where they are not easy to catch. On the two quarter moons each month you will have “neap” tides which have subtle water level changes so the time of day you fish is less important. The wind direction and speed can make the actual tide higher or lower than it should be. Near the equator the tide changes are not that much to start with but it does affect the fish a lot. Bonefish like to swim in with the tide as it rises so they can eat the little critters that live on the shallow flats. As the tide recedes the Bonefish will set up in a drainage “creek” on a flat and intercept the food that is washing off the flats.
As you are moving across the flats you will notice that as you look in different directions you will be able to see better and worse through the surface glare. Try to scan the flats back and forth slowly looking for anything that might look like a fish. Try to focus on anything you can see on the bottom as you scan for fish. This will help you to see through the surface glare. If you don’t see any fish then keep moving. If you run into some fish then slow down or even stop. Sometime they will come through that spot by the dozens for a hour or more like birds on a fly way. Bonefish will be either cruising the flats, usually headed into the tide or they will be stopped with their head down and tale up rooting for something on the bottom. This is called “tailing”. When they are cruising I try to get the fly out in front of them and let it rest on the bottom. As they get near the fly I will give it a short quick strip which will make it hop off the bottom like a small shrimp and then settle again. If the Bonefish likes the fly and see it, he will usually move over to it and stop and turn up on it to eat it. At this time I merely make a very long slow strip with the rod tip down. If I feel any tension I ‘strip strike’ to hook the fish. If I don’t hook the fish then I merely start the slow strip again and see if the fish is still after my fly. If a fish approaches your fly and you make a little hop or two and it suddenly flares or spooks from it, I would change to a different pattern. Try a different size or different color or both.
*We recommend that you have your guide check out you leader system right off so they can adjust it to the conditions. Also open up your fly box and let them pick the flies to use. I think it is smart because they usually know best plus it shows respect for their ability. Third world guides don’t always speak our language well but they usually really know their stuff. The nicer you are to your guide the harder they will work to get you into fish.
Much of this I learned from our wonderful native guides over the years. I hope this helps you have a better time catching these nice silver ghosts.
Kiene’s American Fly Fishing Company
*Contact me anytime with questions or comments or to just talk Bonefishing.