For flats anglers, bonefish are normally caught and released in shallow waters anywhere from 1 to 4 feet. But during the past holiday season, anglers aboard two Islamorada-based party boats reeled in bonefish in deep water while targeting lane snapper and porgies.
An angler on the Miss Islamorada, skippered by Captain Ben Loy out of Bud N' Mary's Fishing Marina, caught a small bonefish in the early afternoon of Dec. 29. The fisherman was using a rig with multiple hooks baited with squid. The "silver ghost" was photographed and quickly released.
"I've never seen anything like that," Loy said. "Who would have ever thought about catching a bonefish in 130 feet of water?"
But it turns out that wasn't the only bonefish caught in deep water off Islamorada in recent days.
Last Friday night, anglers onboard the Captain Michael out of Robbie's Marina in Islamorada were fishing a wreck in 119 feet.
Using the same deep-bottom tackle — known as chicken rigs — and squid for bait, they caught and released eight bonefish ranging from 18 to 24 inches. The next night, anglers on the Captain Michael, skippered by Tony Narvaez, scored two more bones.
"They were very lively," Narvaez said of all fish caught. "Once we tossed them back in the water, they took off."
Dr. Jerry Ault, director of the University of Miami Bonefish and Tarpon Research Center, said that the fish encountered in deep water were likely spawning and that late December through early January is the height of the bonefish reproductive season.
"Bonefish tend to spawn in deep water near the edge of the continental shelf, but it's certainly unusual to catch a bonefish in that kind of depth," Ault said. "Typically, they are inshore and this is really cool and of great (research) interest."
Although Florida Keys flats guides needn't worry about deep-water bonefish replacing traditional shallow-water targets, the bonefish release did fulfill a goal for Loy's angler.
"When he came on board, he said that he wanted to catch a swordfish or something really exotic," Loy said. "He got a bonefish instead and that's really special."