Bonefish epitomize what saltwater fly fishing is all about. Catching one of these flats classics can be the highlight of any fly fisherman’s life.
Aptly referred to as the “ghosts of the flats,” they tout the ultimate camouflage and consistently deliver a challenge and a line-screaming run. Yet, they aren’t so impossibly tricky to catch that frustration takes over.
Let’s take a closer look at getting a bonefish on a fly…
All About Bonefish
Bonefish are one of the world’s premier gamefish because of their stealth, speed, and skittishness. Known as the “gray ghosts” because of their impeccable camouflage, they are an irresistible challenge for traditional and fly saltwater anglers.
As their name bluntly implies, they are a, well, boney fish and virtually inedible (though, of course, there are locations in which they are harvested for food).
The torpedo-shaped fish has a deeply forked tail, making it a powerful swimmer. The sides and belly are a uniform pattern and silver. Darker shading is often seen on the tips of the fins.
They have a distinctive snout that works much like a wet-vac hose, snuffling up mollusks and crustaceans from the seabed floor. Their teeth consist of hard dental plates that line their mouths, jaw, tongue, and throat and are specifically adapted to grinding their crunchy meals.
Bonefish are schooling fish. Schools can be as large as 400 fish. As they grow, they tend to break off into smaller schools. And when they are getting serious about hunting, they can swim on their own or in pairs.
They have a long life cycle and can live more than 20 years. It takes them 2-4 years to reach sexual maturity (they’ll be around 17 inches at this stage). They spawn offshore, and the species starts off its lifecycle looking more like an eel than a fish. During its transition, the 2 1/2-inch eel-like larva will begin to shrink and develop fins. Eventually, becoming a miniature 1 1/2-inch bonefish that begins to grow again.
One last weird fact about bonefish, is that they have a modified air bladder allowing them to process oxygen from the air, not just the water. This helps them in extremely shallow waters and brackish waters.
Where to Find Bonefish
Bonefish, perhaps being the perfect fly fishing species, are found worldwide in shallow tropical and subtropical waters in the flats and intertidal areas.
They delight anglers throughout portions of the Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific Ocean, and the Caribbean Sea.
Bonefish are known to virtually all fly anglers as one of the most sought-after species across the globe thanks to the ubiquitous dissemination of tales of bright silver bonefish tearing off line, disappearing backing at alarming rates, burning up reels, and so on. Add in the fact that all this is happening on a sun-bleached, sandy flat somewhere in the tropics, and it isn’t hard to paint a terribly appealing picture.
There are nine different species of bonefish, three in the Atlantic and six in the Pacific, leading to differences in length, weight, and looks in different regions.
Bones found in Florida and The Bahamas average 3 to 5 pounds and usually top out at about 14 to 16 pounds. The Florida bonefish record is 16 pounds 3 ounces, caught near Islamorada.
Bones found in Africa and Hawaii are thought to be the largest and can weigh up to 20 pounds.
Most bonefish are caught in shallow waters, from only a few inches to 10 feet. They like cruising the flats, either over white sand or dark seagrass. Always on the search for food, they will work their way up into the nutrient and food-rich backwaters and mangrove creeks.
Picking the Right Water
Bonefish, like many of us, are creatures of habit. The tides guide their schedule. As the coastal waters begin to flood the shallow flats, they come in from the depths. Hungry and hunting.
Bonefish have two signature moves that give away their location. The first is “tailing,” which is when they are so focused on their shallow-water prey that their tails flop on the surface. The other is “mudding,” which is when they channel their inner piggy and root up crunchy creatures from under the sand, creating a silt cloud.
The best fishing is during the last few hours of the tide. The fish are still hunting, and the falling water starts to concentrate them together, and they will head toward the deeper channels. Find one of these underwater streams, and you’ll have the equivalent of rush-hour traffic for bonefish.
You can also fly fish for bonefish over a drop-off when they’ve gathered in schools in the deeper water. The excitement level isn’t as high, as you aren’t fishing by sight, but your chances may go way up.
On poor visibility days, when spotting bonefish on the flats is nearly impossible, follow them into the still waters of the mangroves. Just keep in mind that when they start that screaming fast run, they’ll be heading straight for those roots, so be ready!
Packing the Tacklebox
Bonefish are one of the most well-known saltwater species and are a great introductory fish. Thankfully, they are not as huge or finicky as some of the other prized sportfish, like the temperamental triggerfish or the persnickety permits. The gear needed for them is relatively straightforward. Here are the basics…
Rods—an 8 to 10-weight rod will serve you well. The 9-weight will do a better job than an 8 if casting into a strong wind.
Reels—the most important feature is a smooth drag. A sticky drag will result in a broken leader. Plus, a bonefish doesn’t need the same type of stopping power as you’d need for triggerfish or wahoo, and it should have the capacity to hold at least 175 to 200 yards of 30-pound test backing.
Leaders—range from 8lb fluorocarbon to 20lb. If you are spooking the fish easily, drop it down.
Flies—bonefish feed primarily on crustaceans, so selecting a crab or shrimp pattern is the safest bet. If over sandy flats, choose a lighter color. If over seagrass, choose a darker color. Bonefish flies are usually weighted. For shallow waters, choose a lighter weight, like bead chain eyes. For deeper waters, choose a heavier weight, like dumbbells. Popular flies include Bonefish bitters, Alphexo Crab, Crazy Charlie Crabs, Veverka Mantis Shrimp, and Gotcha Shrimp.
Hooks—the hook is often tied onto an inverted 4, 6, or 8 hooks to prevent the fly from snagging on the coral and seagrass.
The last thing to make sure you grab is a good pair of polarized glasses to help with spotting.
Tips for Catching Bonefish on a Fly
Bonefish are notoriously hard to see. And since it’s hard to catch what you can’t see on the flats, learning to spot these fish may be the hardest thing about catching them.
Their mirror-like scales act like an invisibility cloak, reflecting their environment. In time, anglers learn to look for what they can’t see—a void in the sand pattern. A shadow that doesn’t belong.
Spotting is easiest with clear skies and when the sun hits the water at an angle.
Once seen, it’s time to cast. Here, accuracy counts. Too close, and these fish will spook and flee. They are not the apex predators of their waters. Too far, and they won’t notice; again, they aren’t exactly voracious hunters. Sloppy casting risks scattering the entire school from the flat.
Experiment with your retrieves. The goal is to imitate the movement of their prey, which usually uses short bursts of speed to escape. On that note, casting to a fish that is moving away from you is challenging because, under normal circumstances, their prey would be moving toward them.
Once you see or feel the fish suck up your fly, gently strip set it. Keep the rod tip down (exactly what you don’t do when you’ve got a trout or other freshwater fish).
Bonefish are incredibly fast. A run of 120 yards isn’t uncommon. It’s a fun and challenging fight. Do your best to keep slack out of the line and the fish away from structures. After that, just enjoy the moment.
After the fight, it’s incredibly rewarding to see your fish close up. But this is perhaps the most important part of the catch—the part of letting them go properly to protect the long-term health and sustainability of the fishery. Try to keep them wet at all times. A bonefish removed from the water for longer than ten seconds is six times less likely to survive.
Bonefishing with Scout Boats
Bonefishing has proven irresistible for more than one angler.
And if you’re pursuing the “ghost of the flats,” Scout boats has several models to get you where you need to be—from the shallow water 231 XSB bay boats that will get you up into flats to the yacht tenders that can take you to the most desirable bonefish destinations in the Bahamas.
Take a look into why we are set apart in design and manufacturing.
Part of it is our innovative approach and quality materials. But part of it is, “Every Scout team member that has a hand on your boat has pride and precision in what they’re building, and for whom they’re building.”