Saturday, January 18, 2014

Your First Bonefish Trip… What You Need to Know

A great article from my long-time friend, Franklyn Gorell, at the International Angler in Pittsburgh, PA. 

The guys at the International Angler have a tremendous amount of bonefishing experience and as such, are a good resource for traveling anglers. If you're looking for gear, flies or advice give them a call at 412-788-8088. Tell them Angling Destinations sent you! 

In this article, Franklyn has compiled some very good advice. If you're contemplating your first bonefish trip, this is a must read! (Also some good hints for any old hands at the sport.)

General information:

How and where do I book my trip?

Almost all lodges use a booking agent. You should be aware that many are just glorified travel agencies and know little about the actual fishing. Check them out and get references. We recommend Angling Destinations as an experienced, knowledgeable and honest booking agent.

We, of course, think you should book through a knowledgeable fly shop. Booking with a shop costs no more, as the agent pays the shop a small commission. They usually have someone from the shop on the trip to help with problems, gear and “smoothing the way”.

Tell the shop, or agent, what you have in mind for your trip, what your budget is and your skill level as a fisherman and caster. Be honest - they really need to know to advise you properly. A knowledgeable shop will help you pick the destination that is right for you, advise you on what equipment, flies, etc. you need (and what you don’t need), give you casting lessons and set you up for a good experience.

The Lodge:

Most bonefish destinations are VERY casual! Dress is light fishing pants or shorts and fishing T-shirts . Things run on a different “urgency” level than you may be used to -- relax and slow down and you will enjoy your trip a lot more !

Make sure you have all the information you need for arrival - what specific airport you are to fly into (some islands have more than one], the contact person and phone # at the lodge [not their US booking #), where and who will pick you up @ the airport. 

If you have specific needs [food or other allergies, special diet needs, medical conditions the lodge should be aware of, etc.] make sure you discuss them with your shop or agent BEFORE you go. If you want to have specific items (special brands of liquor / wine, cigars, etc.) ask for or arrange for them in advance or bring them with you.

What do I need to take: 

Need and want can be interchangeable terms for fly fishermen, but the MINIMUM you need is: 

1.) Buy trip insurance and hope you don’t need it.

2.) A 9 foot 8 or 9 weight travel (4 piece) rod suited to your casting style. It is always good to have a backup rod in case of damage - which happens more often than you would think.

3.) A reel designed for use in saltwater (which is very corrosive) with a good, smooth drag. It should hold your fly line and at least 150 yards of 20 lb. backing.

4.) A good quality floating line matched to your rod. It should be specifically designed for saltwater flats fishing. An extra line is a good idea. 

5.)  Good polarized sun glasses- preferably in a shade of yellow/brown or copper. 

6.) A selection of flies suited to your destination and a box to carry them in. 

7.)  Some 9 and 12 foot leaders suitable for saltwater flies and conditions (.026 butt or heavier) and some tippet spools ,preferably fluorocarbon, to match. 0x, 1x and 2x usually work well. A spool of hard/stiff .027 or .028 material is good for lengthening leaders- always from the butt end. 

8.) A pair of comfortable flats wading boots and some wading socks. Wear the boots around the house to make sure they are broken in and really are comfortable - you will be wearing them all week. 

9.)  A GOOD rain jacket with a hood 

10.)  A hat with a good brim - preferably with a dark underside to the brim. 

11.)  Three quick dry fishing shirts and 3 pair of quick dry fishing pants. You can wear each for 2 days or wash and hang them dry overnight. They should be in muted colors [bonefish see very well ]. Some islands have biting horseflies (Doctor Flies) and wearing shorts can be a really bad experience. A pair of shorts and a couple of shirts/ T shirts for around the lodge. 

12.) A pair of clippers, forceps, a hook sharpener and lots of good sunblock (put on 2 times a day). 

There is a lot more stuff you might want to have with you on a trip, but you must have the above items. It is also a good idea to read a good book on Bonefishing before you go.

How to tip:

Ask your shop/ booking agent [or the lodge manager] what is normal at a specificlodge, both for the guides and the house staff. At most places you will be OK with $50 per day per person for guides and $10-20 per day per person for house staff. Special service or effort always deserves extra.

Many people feel that tipping should only be for extra service. However, the reality is that a tipping system has developed in most areas and a very large percentage of the guide/staff income is derived from your tips. It is, of course, a “hidden cost” of the trip -- but not tipping these people is not a realistic option at most destinations.

Basic Fishing Knowledge:

At most lodges there is a preset fishing “program” that the lodge management and the guides have developed over time. This involves rotation of areas to be fished, times you will depart from and return to the lodge, possible rotation of guides and clients, etc. DO NOT FIGHT THE PROGRAM! If something is not to your liking, talk about it with the lodge manager or the head guide. They will try to accommodate most reasonable requests.

Unless you came with a partner or a group, or have made arrangements to room and fish as a single, you will be paired with another angler. Depending on the lodge, the specific flats you will be fishing and the tides, you will be either fishing from a boat or wading. These require different skills and have different rules and etiquette.

Fishing from the boat:

When boat fishing, the guide will normally be poling the boat from the rear, usually from a raised platform which makes it easier both to pole and to see fish. He will normally see fish before you do and will tell you where they are. The standard is to use a clock face with 12:00 being straight ahead of the bow of the boat, 10:00 being to the left and 2:00 being to the right as on a clock. He will also tell you how far away the fish are. 

He may say “10:00 at 40 feet”. However, his 40 feet and yours may not be the same. When you first get up on the casting area, make a cast and ask him how far the cast was, so you are both on the same distance page. You might/ should also show him your “best” cast so he knows how close he needs to position the boat for you.

Before getting on the casting area, it is a good idea to remove your shoes and wear just your socks. You will be able to feel the line under your feet much better, so you won’t be standing on it when you make a cast. Strip out [and stretch if needed] enough line for a long [for you] cast and make the cast, then strip the line back into the boat (into an area clear of obstructions that might catch your line) so that it is “right side up” for your presentation cast. Hold the fly in your non-casting hand with the leader and at least a rod length on fly line out of the top guide. Pay attention that the leader/line runs back along the side of the boat, not under the front where it can catch on cleats and not so far back along the side as to interfere with the guide poling the boat. You will now be able to roll cast the fly out, pick it up and make your back cast. Try to learn to deliver the fly with no more than 2 back casts, as the boat and the fish are both moving and will close together quickly. Think about making only one cast and wait until conditions [distance, angle, etc,] are as good as you think they will get - then make your cast.

Don’t just rely on the guide to spot fish for you, but try to learn to see them yourself. Look thru the water at the bottom and then let your eyes scan back and forth and move out. Human eyes are predator eyes and are designed to see movement, so if you are looking at the bottom you will see movement across the bottom and nervous water and “tails” on top without having to look at the surface. If/ when you or your companion catches and releases a fish, look at it swim away until you can no longer see it. This will help your brain to recognize what you are looking for.

When fishing from the boat, the anglers take turns. The general rule is that you stay “up” on the casting area until you get a shot at a fish, wether you hook it or not, or 30 minutes have passed. Then you get down - NO EXCEPTIONS - unless you and your companion have agreed to different rules. You should start the day by going over and agreeing to the rules you will fish by, so no one has any hard feelings at the end of the day.

When you come on fish, the guide will turn the boat [if necessary] to give you a better casting angle. Do not make a cast where your fly travels across or thru the boat - the guide and your companion do not want to be hooked because you got excited. It is the job of the person not fishing to stay out of the way of the fisherman and the guide, not make ANY noise in the boat [sound travels much better in water than in air] and help in any way that you can. Try to make being in a small boat all day with you a pleasant experience and you will all enjoy it more.

Wade Fishing:

Wade fishing in shallow water, especially to tailing fish, is what most experienced bone fishermen think the sport is all about. Fishing from the boat has the advantage of covering a lot more water and of seeing the fish better and farther away, but things also happen faster since the boat and the fish are moving quickly towards each other.The wading angler is one on one with the bonefish and more in control of the stalk, the tempo and the angle of presentation.

Normally, the guide walks with his anglers and helps them spot fish. It is harder to spot fish when you are wading, as your eyes are lower above the water surface. So when you do see them, they are usually closer to you.

Go where and do what the guide tells you. Take your “question” from him and talk to him about what you don’t understand. You can learn a lot being with a guide for a day... if you make the effort. Be aware at all times where your guide and companion are, so that you do not hook them. Treat your guide and companion with respect and courtesy and they may end up being a friend. Remember, your guide knows more than you do, so try to learn from him rather than impress him.

Most importantly, walk SLOWLY and QUIETLY ! You are in the bonefish’s world when you are wading and you do not want him to know you are there. Bonefish see, hear and smell VERY well. As you get closer to fish you may have to cast sidearm or even get down on your knees to keep from being seen.

Do not get sunblock, insect repellent, gasoline, or anything that smells on your hands... and therefore on your fly.

Picking a Fly:

Bonefish normally do not like to see the fly drop . They want it to be on the bottom when they see it and to stay on/near the bottom when you strip it [as their prey does]. So you need to have different weight flies [lead eye, bead eye, tiny bead eye and no eye] for different water depths. You may also have to cast farther away from a fish in deeper water so that the fly is on the bottom when he sees it. A good rule is to use the heaviest fly you think you can get away with (without spooking the fish when the fly enters the water).

Don’t just tie on a fly. Think about water depth, but also about what type of prey the fish expect to see on the type of bottom you are fishing. Over grass, bonefish will be looking for crabs. Over a mixed sand, mud, grass bottom a “Charlie” type fly is great, on a sand bottom a swimming worm type fly and around mangroves crabs and “Charlies “ both work well. That is not to say that some fly may not work everywhere / anywhere, but why not increase your chances by giving them what they are looking for.

Some “extra “ info:

A head on shot, out to about 40 degrees, gives the best results for a fish taking your fly.

Bonefish do not like a fly to come at them. If your cast is past the fish let it sit. He may hear it enter the water, turn, see it and pick it up - but if you move it towards him he will always spook.

When you cast to a fish and the fly is on the bottom, make a long (maybe 2 feet) SLOW strip to get the fish’s attention and then go to short (3 to 6 inches) strips, with a pause between each strip. If the fish follows the fly, he is going to eat it and if he stops when you pause, he is eating the fly - even if you do not feel him. Your rod should be pointing right at the fish with the tip low to the water when you are stripping. If you stop and the fish stops, make a long, firm strip strike. If you feel the fish, make another stripe strike and only then, raise the rod. If you stripe strike and have not hooked the fish, the fly is still there in front of him and he may rush forward and eat it.

If not, continue stripping as before. If he follows and will not eat, stop the fly and count to three and strip strike.

When casting to a V wake coming to you [when you cannot see the fish] remember the lead fish is about 3 feet ahead of the V, so make your cast based on that.

You can cast very close (12 inches) to a tailing fish if you are using an unweighted [no eye] fly and you make the presentation while he is rooting in the bottom.

Don’t handle bonefish unless you have to, as you will rub off their “slime” coating. Before you reach down to unhook a fish, look around [especially behind] you for sharks and cuda’s who are waiting for that moment and may bite you by accident while trying to get your fish.

Closing Thoughts:

Not being able to cast well enough to get the fly to the fish under normal [WINDY] saltwater flats conditions is the single biggest problem (ask any guide) that occurs. An inability to cast under windy conditions can spoil your trip. If you cannot make an accurate 40 to 50 foot cast with wind you should get some casting lessons from a qualified instructor and practice until you can.

Don’t worry about the number of fish you hook. Enjoy the experience rather than competing with the other anglers and you will have a better trip.

Relax - look around - take a deep breath. It’s the Bahamas!


  1. Great article, pretty much covered it all. The only thing to add is to take time to look around, observe the mangroves and the flats bottom, bonefish live in some amazing places with lots of stuff to see and enjoy.

  2. Seeing the picture of the guy in the background wearing a red top, what are your experiences with bright colors? Never again will I wear red on the flats. One particularly cool spring on Andros, I wore my red fleece to keep warm. Fish would follow the fly and never eat and just turn away. Over and over. They just were not acting right, and on a hunch I put a tan shirt over top the fleece and you know what happened? The very next group that came in ate the fly without hesitation. Rest of the afternoon no problems and the fish all of a sudden became "willing". Didn't change flies, leader etc......only difference was the color of my top. Has anyone else had the same experience with that or any other color? So for me, I'd only recommend the blues, tans and turquiose colors of the flats for clothing.

  3. The contents has provided meaningful information thanks for sharing info ..

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