Bonefish Lessons from Water Cay: Introduction and Part One

     Let's be clear, if fishing is your top priority and you believe that the only fisherman you should compare yourself to is the one you used to be, then the info below is your bell ringing. If you are a sponge for technical fly fishing info, there is little doubt that the guides at Water Cay Lodge are some of the most knowledgeable in the Bahamas and as such, the following info should be carefully noted. Also please note, you don't have to be fishing this area to benefit from this advice. Much of this info will work anywhere in the world that silver tails prowl and angler's hearts beat just a little bit faster for it.
So here you go... read it, digest it, use it!

Guide Ezra Thomas

Guide Sidney Thomas
Guide Greg Rolle
The Cast of Characters:
I first met Chuck Ash in 1979 and now am lucky enough to count him among my best friends. Chuck is an exemplary Alaskan fly fishing/wilderness guide having kayaked, rafted or waded most of the rivers and streams of any significance in Alaska. I have worked for Chuck as a guide for decades having floated and fished many of these rivers. I have learned much from him and like to think the feeling is mutual! I know his company, Brightwater Alaska, offers some of the best raft fishing trips in the world and those that fish with Chuck leave better anglers and people. Chuck is also an accomplished saltwater angler having fished all over the world usually hosting his own trips or hosting trips for us at Angling Destinations, Inc.

Hans Thallmayer with Greg Rolle

Alan Longfellow with Ezra Thomas
In late April, Chuck returned once again, to Water Cay Lodge on Grand Bahama Island with some of his best friends. What follows is the summary of the lessons learned from that trip. I have known some of the guys on this trip for many, many years and knowing their experience, urge you to pay attention to the words written below. The superb guides at Water Cay Lodge, along with the experienced individual in this group, generously contributed to this blog entry. These hints, observations and lessons mostly come from John Higgins and Chuck Ash, but also anecdotally from the rest of the guys, namely Eric Berger, Hans Thallmayer, Alan Longfellow and Scott Tanner. These thoughts were compiled during their “after-action’ sessions on the lodge porch each evening over sundowners. I wish I had been there!
Let's start with a short anecdote and trip report:

Water Cay, Grand Bahama Island 
April 27-May 4, 2012 
Journal entry from Thursday, 3 May 2012: 

Yesterday evening as we sat on the porch of the lodge rehashing the day, John had told us that he, Eric and Ezra had been fishing along the mangrove edge of the keys north of the lodge in the morning. The tide had just turned from an exceptional high and was starting to fall. As Ezra poled along John heard a sound, one that reminded him of the slurping “pop” that a surface feeding sea trout or small snook makes. Ezra had noticed it, too, and told John that it was bonefish feeding on the surface. He said that the bonefish will nose the leaves that the falling tide flushes out of the mangroves looking for crabs riding along on the leaves. Ezra doubled back to try to find the bonefish making the sound, but was never able to locate them. 

We all paid close attention as John related this tale because it was way beyond ‘Bonefish 101’ and outside of the collective experience of our group. This is the stuff that these guides know and teach and that you never read about in Brown or Kaufmann. 

Hans and I fished with Gregory today. Shortly after lunch, with the tide about an hour above dead low, we unassed the boat to wade along either side of a tidal creek that cut through a flat. Hans and Gregory were on the east side of the creek channel and I was on the west. Ten minutes later I released a nice fish, 8 lbs or so, whose daily routine I had interrupted as it was coming off of the flat toward the deeper water of the creek. 

As I continued south along the creek edge I heard another fish beating through the skinny water behind me. I turned and located it, and immediately saw that I would have no shot. It was too far off, moving too fast and was nearly to the creek. As I stood there scanning the flat, hoping that this fish had not been alone, I heard another sound behind me to the south, along my original direction of travel. This sound was a slurping “pop”. Had it not been for John relating what Ezra had taught him, I would have dismissed this sound,…but now it had significance. 
(Ed. note: For collaboration, see the following trip report from Angling Destinations website Water Cay Trip Report 2009 )

I turned and looked in the direction of what I’d heard. Forty yards out and just on the deep side of the channel’s edge I could see flashes of silver and a slight disturbance on the surface. I moved slowly and quietly into position and at about 15 yards I could both hear and see the fish, a group of a half dozen or so decent-sized bonefish feeding on the surface in two feet of water. 

I put my first cast just on the shallow side of the group and the fly was immediately pounced on. No waiting for it to drop and no finicky take. Bam! and I was hooked up. 

The fish made an initial long run, starting out of the channel and onto the flat several times, but thinking better of it every time. The security it felt in the deeper water worked to my advantage because the tide was at dead low and the flat around me was hard-bottomed and partially exposed. Had that fish made a determined run across the flat it surely would have cut me off or scrubbed the fly out, but that wasn’t to be. After two runs into my backing and several more shorter runs up and down the creek channel, I had the fish at hand. It was broad-backed and maybe 6-7 pounds. 

I took a couple of quick snapshots, doing the best I could to manage the camera and rod while trying to maneuver the fish into position at my feet. Once I had a couple of photos for my journal, I backed fly out of the fish’s mouth. I gave a nod of thanks as it swam away, not only to the fish but also to John and Ezra for yesterday’s knowledge that made this fish possible today.” 

The weather on this trip was atypical and it used us pretty hard. The first two days were totally overcast with light rain and winds from the east 20-25 mph. On days three and four the rain quit, but the dense cloud cover persisted and the wind jumped an octave. It was bad enough on the morning of day three that we stayed off the water; high tide with a 30 mph wind scuff and low gray light. On day five the cloud cover opened up enough to give us mostly sunny conditions, but the wind stayed around 30 mph. The last day was our best. An early afternoon low tide, sunny skies and east winds at 10-15 mph. After the previous 5 days, this seemed like paradise! 

A week’s worth of weather like this defintely has an impact on the trip, but the direction that impact takes is a measure of the folks on the trip. You can bitch and rail at circumstance, you can curse your luck and feel sorry for yourself, or you can look on it as an opportunity, which is the direction we took. 

Every day we took our heavy-weather rods and stepped forth into the wind with anticipation. The challenges became opportunities, and with volumes of help and instruction from guides Sydney, Ezra and Gregory, who are as good at teaching as they are at guiding, we learned a tremendous amount and caught fish every day. here is what we learned:


-Don’t wear your wading boots on the casting deck. They are too noisy. 
-Stand well forward on the casting deck. It reduces rocking of the boat because the deck shape forces you more to the centerline and narrows your stance. 
-Don't room with Hans after he eats Bahamian "minced fish". 

Lines and Leaders 
-Shark Skin lines are too noisy, which guides feel transmits to the fish. Leave them home.  
-Clear Tip lines make it difficult for the guides (and you) to judge the proximity of line & leader to the fish, and as a result, difficult to know when & how to strip the fly. If the fish are spooky and you need more stealth, lengthen your leader (see below). 
-16 lb tippet is the best choice for general use, especially around mangroves and over hard bottom; more abrasion-resistant, so fewer fish lost. Fish are not leader shy. 
-14-12 lb tippet: Reserve for possible use under clear, low wind conditions if fish are spooky; there is no advantage otherwise.
-Leader length: Use 10-12’ with low-to-medium winds. Add butt section to leader to lengthen it. Use 9’ under windy conditions. It’s easier to turn over.
-The Longfellow Rule: check all your connections, especially fly line to backing. 

-Use lead-eyed flies, especially at the upper range of the tide. Only switch to bead eyes if the fish are jumpy at the splash of lead-eyed flies. 
-Must have patterns for Water Cay: reverse Gotchas w/ both bunny and craft fur wings, standard pink mini-puffs, bunny puffs w/ barred tan/brown rabbit strip, Borski’s fur shrimp (or Borski’s bonefish slider), light tan mantis shrimp. 
-Flies that worked: pink + tan, tangerine + tan, pink or tangerine with barred tan, reverse Gotcha with tan wing, reverse gotcha with bunny tail as well as bunny wing, plain or barred all seemed to be consistently attractive to fish. Guides will tell you that the fly doesn't matter - anything will work as long as it gets in front of the fish's cone of vision and doesn't move unnaturally (too fast, long strips, etc see addendum in this trip report Trip Report Water Cay ). White, barred-tail slider however was resoundingly rejected twice. Noise of entry matters. 
-I have quit fishing with crab and goby/blenny patterns. The bones like them fine, but I have too many deep-hooked fish with these type of flies. I do just as well with the above patterns and rarely injure a fish. 
-Use special flies to tailing fish because of shallow conditions. Light landing, but with a big body form that rides point up and slides over rough bottom. (I don't have that exact fly... yet.)