Saturday, November 2, 2013

Bonefish 101: A Few Hints to Improve Your Bonefishing

Angling Destinations

bonefish 101

A few hints to improve your bonefishing...



Bonefish are sleek and slender, shy and suspicious. They reflect perfectly the pastel sparkling water where they make their home. With silver sides reflecting all, they seemingly have the ability to change color.
Bonefishing combines the best of hunting and fishing. You must have the visual concentration and patience to find the fish and a hunter's stalking ability to get within casting range. Your cast must deliver the fly quietly and precisely. You must entice the fish, with a proper retrieve, to accept and eat your fly. You must develop a feel for the hookset. In bonefishing, rarely is blind luck rewarded. Usually, the fisherman with the most skills catches the most fish.

The reward for all this concentration and applied technique is the hookup... the magical moment when a ghostly shadow becomes attached to your casting arm. Once hooked, you struggle for control as a bonefish run is explosive and blazing. Line rattles through your rod’s guides in a demonstration of pure power... 50, 100, then 150 yards of backing evaporate into the mix of sizzling tropical heat and gin clear water.
This is bonefishing. For many anglers, after all the trout, salmon, tarpon, and sailfish, the bonefish is still the ultimate quarry. The bonefish, Albula vulpes, the grey ghost, brings anglers back to the flats time and time again, year after year. Many words have been written about why we do it, but it’s really just "damn good fun".

bonefish 101 

The majority of bonefishing is done with a weight forward floating line (WFF). These lines lift easily off the water without spooking the fish and rarely get hung up on the bottom. Use a neutral or pale colored fly line; gray or sand is best. Very bright lines, especially fluorescent colors, can be as easy for the fish to see as it is for you. If you use bright fly lines, make sure your leader is long enough to compensate for the line's increased visibility.

Throw a wet towel over any obstructions on the casting deck of your boat. Cleats and handles can easily snare your fly line and ruin a cast or worse, break off a fish.

Don't strip out more line than you need to make your cast. Make a practice cast, then leave that measured amount of the line trailing in the water (if you are wading,) or stacked carefully on deck (if you are casting from a boat). This will minimize the amount of line that can tangle on your feet or form knots. 

  Do not pull line off your reel and stack it on the deck of the boat. If you do, the forward portion of your line is underneath the pile, then when you cast with the line stacked in this fashion, you will end up with a tangled bird's nest. Make sure you make a practice cast, then stack your line.

If you are casting from the deck of a boat take off your shoes. This will allow you to feel the fly line stacked on the deck and you can avoid stepping on it.

If you are using a monofilament butt section use .025 or heavier. This will transfer the energy from your cast to the leader. A butt section of less than .025 causes the cast to die as the energy is transferred from line to leader.

Using loop-to-loop connections allows you to change leaders quickly.  Attach a two foot butt section to your fly line, as mentioned above, then tie a loop in the end. Then, depending on conditions, you can use a pre-looped 7 foot leader if it’s windy or up to a 15 foot leader, if it is calm.

A ten to fifteen pound fluorocarbon tippet works well on bonefish. Check your leader regularly for abrasion and retie your fly after each fish. Test your knots every time you tie on a new tippet or fly. Don’t just pull halfheartedly when testing these connections... TEST IT! It's better to find out now than later when a fish is on!


bonefish 101 

The most important aspect of fly selection is sink rate. When tying or purchasing bonefish flies, vary the sink rate of your assortment through no eyes (also called blind), to pearl plastic eyes, to bead chain eyes (various sizes available), to lead barbell eyes (heaviest). This allows you to fish different depths of water and to tailing fish (cast close with light fly) and fast cruising fish (cast well ahead with quick sinking fly), effectively.

Use the right fly. In most cases that means using the heaviest fly that conditions will allow. Weight is my single biggest consideration when choosing a fly. Most bonefish, but especially big bonefish, will refuse a fly that isn't on the bottom. The fly must also stay on the bottom. Wind and tidal current can pull on too light a fly and move it up and off the bottom. This makes bonefish nervous, because their prey do not behave like this... bonefish prey hug the bottom!  If a bonefish follows your fly and does not tip down or comes up in the water column to look, your fly is too light. Be more concerned with the weight of your fly than with the pattern you use. Experienced anglers may not change a fly pattern during the day, but they do change the weight of the fly often based on current conditions and water depth.

Bonefish have a powerful sense of smell. They can smell shrimp and crabs they cannot see. They can also smell insect repellent, sun block, gasoline and after-shave. Keeping your hands clean will help keep your fly clean. Never grip your fly by the tied portion, always grip your fly at the bend of the hook. 

As a general rule, use light-colored flies on light (sandy) bottoms and dark-colored flies on dark (turtlegrass, coral) bottoms. In nature, being too visible can be dangerous.  Most prey on bonefish flats are well-camouflaged. Try smaller flies (6,8) to fish that are spooky or are tailing on clear shallow flats in calm weather conditions. On deeper flats, or in windy conditions, larger flies (2,4) work well on larger fish or fish that are cruising very fast. 

Subtle earth tone flies, (tan, brown, olive, green, gold, yellow) work best on sunny, bright days in shallow water when bonefish are spooky. Bright flies, (pink, orange, chartreuse) work best on cloudy or darker days in deeper water or later in the day especially at sunset.

Fly tip: Rub your fly in the sand after handling. This makes the fly smell like the ocean and its surroundings. Not like your sunscreen, insect repellant or deodorant. 

Fishing for these elusive creatures is as much hunting as it is fishing...

-You must have the visual concentration and patience to find the fish and a hunter's stalking ability to get within casting range.
-Your cast must deliver the fly quietly and precisely. 
-You must entice the fish, with a proper retrieve, to accept and eat your fly. 
-You must develop a feel for the hookset. 
-You must fight the fish properly to bring it to hand.

...screw up any of these steps and you’re left with nothing. All you get is a big goose egg and an evening of what could have been.

bonefish 101 

In the boat, be quiet, don’t drop cooler lids or bang the boat’s hull. When wading, be quiet and go slowly. Bonefish can "feel" water being pushed by your legs. Use your eyes... scan constantly, you are hunting as much as fishing. 
Bonefish have an acute sense of vision enabling them to see colors well and in a wide variety of light conditions. They can see motion in muddy or clear water and also when they are stationary or traveling at top speed. That mango Hawaiian shirt looks good in pictures, but tan and pale blue will allow you to spook fewer fish. Remember to remove shiny jewelry. Also, don't hesitate to cast from your knees or to crouch if need be. Try to disappear into the fish’s surroundings. Stand in shadows, on patches of turtlegrass, behind trees, rocks, or mangroves.

Don't wade into the water from the shore without looking into the shallows first. In other words, look closely before you enter the water.
Don't wade noisily or too quickly to get to an area that looks promising. This drastically reduces your odds of success once you get there. Likewise, don't wade quickly thru a shallow bar to "get to the other side".

Don't false cast or practice casting while you are wading. You are alerting fish as to your presence.

Use the wind and sun to your advantage. If possible, wade a flat with the wind behind you. If there is little or no wind, have the sun behind you. Often, after spotting fish, you have time to navigate upwind of the fish, but wade slowly until you are in place to make your cast.

 A hat with a long bill will protect your face from the sun but will also improve your vision especially if the bill's underside is dark. The dark underside absorbs reflected light.

Scan the water constantly. You can look for surface disturbances (called nervous water), but to consistently spot bonefish, you must imagine the water does not exist by looking through it to the bottom. 

Equipment Tip: Polarized sunglasses are absolutely essential for spotting bonefish. Brown or gray lenses work best on bright days; yellow on cloudy, low light days. Copper or amber are the best all around lenses. Wrap around style will eliminate much peripheral light. Make sure you use an eyeglass retainer strap to avoid losing your expensive glasses. For more info click  here:

A Word on Stealth: Fish may not immediately leave an area when they become aware of your presence, but they will behave differently. If they know something is up, they are far less likely to eat. In order to get a shot at a big bone before he "makes you", you must learn to think like a predator...  this is, after all, what you are. Your mindset is all important.

Stealth is as much an attitude as any particular technique. When you integrate the attitude of the hunter and all that entails, you are well on your way to becoming invisible to your quarry. This single thing will increase your fishing productivity more than any other single skill learned!! 

bonefish 101 

There is a certain depth at which bonefish are most often found. It may vary a bit, but at this particular depth, once found, they will continue to be found at this depth. Learn to feel and seek this level. Get a gut level feel for it. If you are not seeing fish because you might be too deep, wade to more shallow water and vice versa.

Once you find fish, more fish will be found at that level especially on that stage of the tide. Usually it is around knee deep to mid-calf. It will be towards the more shallow end on a rising tide when they will push their luck (sometimes very aggressively especially on spring tides) and at the deeper end on a falling tide.

The same can be said for direction. If you encounter fish coming from a certain direction, they will almost certainly continue to come from that direction on that stage of the tide. Knowing this will help you tremendously when planning your strategy.

Be aware of the type of terrain you are on too! Undulating flats can allow bones to follow the deeper arteries into very shallow water. Bones will often tail in extremely shallow water if deep water is immediately adjacent. Sand bars, undulating flats and shallow crests of deeper flats are all areas that fish rely on to be in the shallowest water possible. 

Remember bonefish want to be in shallow water. They want it, they seek it... the need it! At high tide, they are literally in deep trouble. This is why they go up into the mangroves or school-up at high tide. They won't spread out again until the tide has fallen to "their" level. Then they rarely follow deep channels or creeks. They filter in on edges. And when the tide rises again, they seek the shallowest rivulets or newly flooded flats where they can stay as shallow as possible.

bonefish 101 

Why do bonefish seek the shallows so single-mindedly? Were bonefish designed to live in the shallows? Do they have an important advantage in skinny water? The answer is, yes, yes... and hell yes! 

Let's skip the huge tail, mirror-like scales and underslung mouth all of which give bonefish a huge advantage in the shallows. Instead let's concentrate on one of their biggest assets: SLIME! A slime that covers their bodies.
In the shallows bonefish can accelerate and reach top speed quickly without the turbulence that hinders other species. If you've ever paddled a canoe and hit shallow water, you know about this turbulence. It makes it impossible to paddle any faster in shallow water. It is the same principle that makes a plane hover over the runway before landing. Pilots call it the ground effect. The bonefish slime reduces this turbulence and allows bonefish to go fast in very shallow water. Hence the shallows are their niche and of course, where we find them. It is not an accident. Sharks and 'cudas struggle in very shallow water, but quickly gain a the advantage in just a little bit deeper water.

bonefish 101 

False cast away from the fish, especially with slow moving or tailing fish. This will keep the fly line from spooking the fish. Cast away at a 45° to 90° angle from the direction that the fish are heading.

If it is windy, make your false cast by holding your rod as parallel as possible to the plane of the water. The wind’s friction with the water lessens its velocity in the area 3 to 4 feet above the water's surface. This casting technique makes it harder for the fish to see the fly line and allows for a very quiet presentation since the fly does not drop from much height.

It is better to cast too short and hope the fish sees the fly, than to cast too long and spook the fish. In nature, prey species rarely move toward a predator. Never place a fly so that when retrieved, it moves toward a bonefish. Predators chase their prey, they expect their prey to be moving away from them and fleeing. When confronted with an approaching fly, a bonefish will change roles and become quite nervous. They change from predator to prey and often flee. Few fish can leave a flat as quickly as a bonefish! 

Generally, a tailing fish has his head tipped down and is already occupied... consequently, the fly must be dropped very close to him.  In contrast, cruising fish can see a fly from a much greater distance and the fly can and should be presented further away.

Learn to strip-strike. Trout fishermen (there are lots of us), usually raise the rod tip to strike a fish. This technique, when used on a bonefish, will quickly remove the fly from its field of vision (if he has not eaten the fly). The strip-strike keeps the fly in the bonefish strike zone and will give you a second chance. A 1 to 3 foot strip-strike done firmly by the hand not holding the rod accomplishes the strip-strike.

When retrieving your fly, point your rod tip directly at the fly. This gives the proper action to the fly.

Lift your fly line quietly and slowly off the water to initiate another cast. DO NOT use the water to load the rod tip. Many beginning anglers do this “water loading” of the rod tip to allow themselves to make longer casts or to cast into the wind. This noisy lift off will almost always spook bonefish.

Do your homework before going fishing. Learn to cast accurately and quickly. Do not false cast excessively. Learn to make 2-3 false casts playing out line with each cast then shooting your line accurately to the fish on your last cast. As well as wasting valuable time, repeatedly false casting over a fish (in an effort to "measure" distance and accuracy) often spooks fish as they repeatedly see the fly line whipping in the air.

Casting tip: The most common mistake made by anglers is to cast too early or too far. Many anglers cast too early because they believe that if they are not initially successful with a long cast, they will get another chance with a shorter cast. In reality, this rarely happens. If you try to make a cast longer than your skills or the conditions (primarily wind) allow and your fly does not get to the right spot, it will take too long to cast again. By the time you are reloaded, the bonefish will have moved on or will have become aware of your presence.

Imagine you only have only one cast you can make to any given fish. If you did indeed have only one cast you would wait for that perfect moment. You would wait for that moment when you know you can make the cast, when you know the fish will see your fly and when you know you'll be able to see where the fly lands.

Wading tip: When wading, use your legs as a thermometer. Get an idea of the temperature of the water you are finding bones in. If it is too hot, oxygen levels are too low and even if the water is appropriately shallow, bones will abandon the area. If the water is too cold, especially if the area is near deeper colder water, bones may move to more inland creeks and flats to maintain their metabolic abilities.

bonefish 101 

 When a bonefish follows a fly he will almost always take it. Some clues that a fish has taken your fly are: his dorsal fin or tail flutters or quivers, he flashes his side in the sun, a fish races a second fish to a spot or a fish scurries to another spot leaving his companions or school behind and most importantly, if he tips down and his tail comes out of the water. If any of these occur, chances are he has eaten your fly. Count off one or two seconds and strip-strike. Sometimes, if you can't see the fish, you can feel your line vibrate or jump. In that case, strip-strike again.
If a fish follows closely, but does not take your fly, change your retrieve: speed up, slow down or stop entirely. This change will often elicit a strike.
A bonefish can travel 26 m.p.h. for several hundred feet in six inches of water. Set your drag before you cast to a fish, and once hooked, get all the spare line safely out through the guides. Always fight a bonefish on the reel... to do otherwise, invites disaster. Until the fish is on the reel, watch your line, not the fish. After getting the line on the reel, hold your rod high. This will create a steeper angle and help the line get over coral and mangrove shoots, resulting in fewer break-offs.
The harder you fight a bonefish, the harder he will pull back. If a fish gets tangled around a mangrove, in the weeds or coral, take all the pressure off the fish. Bonefish will usually stop. You can untangle your line and resume the fight.
Handle a landed fish as little as possible (remember the all important slime?). Pinch the barbs on your hooks beforehand.  Hemostats will often allow you not to have to touch the fish at all.

When the day is done: To avoid corrosion, rinse your reel and rod with fresh water at the end of each day. After you start to head home, trail your fly line behind the boat (without a fly) to remove kinks and twists. As you reel in the fly line, pass it through a cloth soaked with fly line cleaner and you will be ready for the next day.

Here's to bonefish tails shimmering in the sun, perfect casts and screaming runs!

Angling Destinations, Inc.
P. O. Box 845
Sheridan, Wy 82801

© Scott S. Heywood


  1. My mind is there too Scott............I hate even thinking about winter being right around the corner!

  2. Amen!... although it looks like your deer hunting has gone well!

  3. Wow, that's just about every thing anyone needs to know about bonefishing. Well done. I really like that photo at the very beginning of Chapter 4. It's one of those photos that make me stop and study it and think about it and marvel at the colors and glassy water and wonder when that egret will find a fish. Beautiful shot.

  4. WOW awesome website. I am headed to Tulum Mexico this summer and im pumped to get out on some flats and hunt for these grey ghosts. This website was very informative.