Saltwater 101: A Beginner's Guide to Bonefishing

A few basics in regard to gear and technique will help the first-time bonefisherman skip remedial lessons and go straight to the head of the class.

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Many inland trout anglers are lured to saltwater fly fishing by exciting tales of bonefish runs and battles that border on an angling epoch. Indeed, bonefish are sleek, muscular marauders who run like hell from anything they even imagine may be a threat to them. Still, too many fly fishermen new to salt water head to the tropics unfamiliar with the sleek, gray ghosts they've heard so much about and spend the first few days simply learning the ropes instead of catching fish. A few basics in regard to gear and technique will help the first-time bonefisherman skip those remedial lessons and go straight to the head of the class.

Dress for Success
Take care in selecting your clothing when bonefishing. I like clothes that are made of a lightweight material that will dry fast should I get wet, a frequent occurrence around water. But more importantly, I like to dress in light colors, such as pale blues or khakis. This color also applies to the rain gear I take out in the boat with me.

One of the worst things a beginning bonefisher can do is show up at the dock with a pair of black-soled shoes. Most of these shoes will leave black marking all over the guide's boat, which he is then forced to scrub off each evening. Select a pair of shoes that have a light-colored sole and preferably a light-colored upper that will reflect the heat of the sun.

Last but not the least is the hat you select to wear. I like a hat that will shade me from the sun and cut down on the amount of glare coming off the water. It is also important that the underside of the brim is black or dark green to absorb some of the glare rather than reflect it all back into your face.

What You See is What You Get
Polarized glasses are an essential piece of equipment for the bonefisherman, because it's next to impossible to catch a fish you don't see. As a matter of fact, I take two or three pairs with me on each trip, each one with a different color lens. Spotting a bonefish cruising across a sandy flat on a bright, sunlit day is one thing; try picking one out on a multicolored-bottom flat or a flat that is roiled up by the wind, even under a sunlit sky. When the sun is out, the angler has the opportunity to see most of the bonefish he casts to; however, on those days when the sun is hidden behind clouds or when it is raining, one needs the eyes of a god to spot them.

Part of the reason we have such a hard time seeing bonefish is their outer covering of scales. These scales give the fish a mirrored coating that allows it to blend into the surrounding water. All the guide and angler can look for is the shadow that the bonefish cannot escape throwing, some form of movement when the fish changes direction, or a puff of mud which he either blows off the bottom while feeding or kicks up when he streaks off.

Rods, Reels, Tackle
Your choice of tackle warrants careful consideration. Remember, you are fishing in salt water, which can literally destroy a non-anodized reel in a few days. Take a good reel made for the saltwater environment that has sufficient capacity for the fly line and 150 yards of backing. This reel also needs a smooth drag and an exposed rim that will help slow a fish down.

For a rod, I like a three-piece 9-foot rod for an 8-weight line or perhaps a 9-weight when targeting big fish. I prefer fast-action tapers with a butt that will turn a fish if I really need to do so. The Sage RPLX and the Scott STS Saltwater rods have both won a place in my travel cases.

The basic fly line used for bonefish is a floater. Choose whatever brand you want, but pick a pale-colored line such as the Mastery Saltwater taper. In certain fishing situations, though, where the sun literally tries to burn your eyes out of their sockets, a pale-colored line gets lost in the brightness. To offset this, I splice a 2-foot section of bright-orange fly line to the tip of my pale fly line. I can see this no matter how bright the sun gets.

A bonefisherman need not get too exotic with his leaders. The overall length of the leader need not be more than 10 feet, with a butt section of stiff around .022 to .024 in diameter and a soft, limp tippet section ranging from 8- to 12-pound. The heavier tippet is reserved for those bonefish flats where I intend to hook larger fish or those where there is substantial bottom structure such as staghorn coral to contend with.

Flies
A couple of boxes of assorted weighted and nonweighted flies are all one needs for most areas. Your guide will always have a favorite pattern that he will offer you. Try it; more often than not, it will work better than what you brought. When the choice is left up to me, I try two different approaches. I try to match the bottom color with my fly first, and if that gets snubbed, I'll go with a fly that contrasts with the bottom color. In almost all cases I have some kind of bait in mind which I am told the local bonefish key on, be it worms, crabs or shrimp. A good selection of flies would include a Crazy Charlies, Flats Fodder, Clouser Minnows, etc. Carry these in a range of sizes from 1/0 down to a size 8.

Best Friends for a Day
The guide cannot catch the bonefish for you, but he can truly make your day a winner or a loser. No matter what you have to report when you return to the dock, he still gets paid, so it's important to be ready when he finds fish.
Before you make your first attempt at casting to a bonefish, make several casts with the rod to become familiar with its action and to straighten out the fly line. This done, strip the fly line back into the boat and coil the fly line in a neat pile on the deck. Leave the last 35 to 40 feet of the fly line extended out through the rod tip, holding the fly between the thumb and forefinger of your left hand and the fly rod in your right. This leaves a long section of fly line that is dragged alongside the boat, ready to be cast in an instant.

Most of the time it is your guide who spots a bonefish long before you do. This is natural, since he is often sitting higher on a poling platform, and, of course, he's out there looking for bonefish practically every day. Once the guide spots a bonefish, he will inform you of its position, using a clock formation to do so. To understand his instructions, simply imagine that the bow of the boat is 12 o'clock and the stern is 6 o'clock, and then cast in the direction and to the distance he calls out.

To take advantage of this bit of intelligence, I always turn slightly to the right, pointing my left foot at the fish, and start a quick false cast to get the fly out in front of the fish. If the guide reports a fish that is close to the boat, say 20 feet, then I drop to one knee and roll cast the fly lightly in the direction he calls out.
Once you spot the fish, estimate how deep it is lying in the water. It is rare that a bonefish will rise up to a fly; most of the bonefish you'll encounter will be looking down toward the bottom for a meal. Therefore, a fly should be on or near the bottom when the bonefish first sees it. While false casting the fly, decide how fast it will sink and then lead the bonefish by enough distance to have your fly down on the bottom in time to be noted by the fish. This calculation can take a bit of practice and a helpful guide.

In certain bonefish situations - such as when bonefish are feeding intently or in very choppy water - a fly delivered with a bit of a "plop" sound will draw more interest. This also works on "mudding" bones. When bonefish go into a flat and stir up its bottom searching for prey, one of the few things you can do is drop a fly into the cloudy water with a bit of a plop to it.

Put It All Together
So let's assume you now have all the appropriate gear, your guide is poling you down a flat, and you're standing at the ready with the sun warming your back and the wind blowing lightly against your face. Suddenly you hear the whisper you have been preparing for: "Bonefish - 10 o'clock , 60 feet!"

You turn to the left, pointing your left foot at the target while simultaneously scanning for the fish. Next, you flip the fly from your hand into the water. While studying the 10 o'clock area, you begin to make a false cast. There he is at 50 feet and moving slowly - a bonefish! You drop the fly 10 feet in front of the fish and let it sink. The guide is steadying the boat. The bonefish continues to cruise along, stopping here and there blowing holes in the bottom, searching for food.
Your job now is to attract the bonefish to your fly. To do this you must impart some action into the fly. Keep the rod tip lowered, pointing at the fly. Now strip the fly toward you using the non-rod hand. Strip, strip, stop. Strip, strip, stop. Suddenly the bonefish turns and races over to see what it is that is running away from him. He stops just about on top of the fly, studying it intensely. Now you strip the fly once more. The bonefish's tail breaks the water's surface as he dives on the fleeing prey.

"Set the hook," shouts the guide. Stop: Do not lift the rod tip! Set the hook with a strip strike and continue to strip the fly line in until you can feel its weight. Now you can raise the tip of the rod.

Landing the Bonefish
Fighting a bonefish is not too difficult. The only thing to remember is that you can lose your fish quite easily if the rod is not held high. Bonefish can cut you off on any number of things: mangrove shoots, coral heads, etc. I like to hold my fly rod high enough to keep the line away from obstructions yet low enough to still not be able to apply direct pressure against his run.

When the bonefish first feels the hook, it pulls out all the stops and runs for the horizon. All you can do is make sure your fly line remains clear as it goes out through the rod guides. This is best done by making a big stripping guide out of the left hand's forefinger and thumb. Let the fish take the line on his first run. As he gets 50 to 75 yards of line off the reel, he will slow down. This is when you begin to reel him back to you.

Most bonefish make three to five runs before they are finally exhausted. While you are fighting your fish, keep a close eye out for sharks and barracuda, both of which like bonefish. One of the shark warnings you will experience is a sudden burst of energy coming from a tired bonefish once it sees a shark trailing it around the flat. The best thing to do is to pull sharply on the line, snapping the tippet and thus freeing the bonefish to escape.