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Fly Fishing for Bonefish
written by Larry Larsen

Catching bonefish on a fly requires stealth, determination and strategy. Bone up on the fundamentals with these bonefishing basics.
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Bonefish on the Fly
Bonefish love flies that twitch along the bottom in the shallow flats.

By the time I made four casts to work out the kinks in my fly presentation, we reached the small school of bones that moved by our boat just as we neared the leeward side of some mangroves. The school of 12 separated as my fly splashed down too close, but they reformed to allow a second presentation that, not surprisingly, spooked them again.

"Seven other bones are heading your way," my guide said. We waited, and sure enough, they pushed toward us. My guide saw their slight wakes first and directed me to cast about 4 feet in front of them. The small pack separated and went around it as I slowly twitched the shrimp imitation. They moved up to our boat and then rapidly sped off in several directions.

The guide then poled our skiff around the mangrove point to another spot where the cove "necked down" to a 20-foot wide cut. Beyond that, the water split into three channels that narrowed further and disappeared into the flooded mangroves.

"There's movement in that cut," he pointed out as we neared the spot. "See them back at the edge of the mangroves? There must be 50 or more there."

Indeed, a large school was working the bottom in and around the flooded mangroves at the end of the three tiny channels. As we neared, a dozen or more split off the main pack of bones and started to feed toward our now stationary position. I placed my cast 8 feet in front of the school and started to strip the fly line. Two fish moved by, but a third bolted toward the fly and grabbed it. I set the hook.

Tailing Bonefish
Feeding bonefish are often spotted by their tails sticking through the surface.

Like a small, out-of-control freight train, the bonefish burst 15 feet back into the flooded mangroves, turned and then streaked through another seven huge clumps of mangrove bush. My line was intertwined into the maze of bushes, but the fish was still on. I knew that I would never be able to drag the bonefish 40 yards back out of the entanglements. There was no way.  

The fish seemed to wallow in shallow water far back into the mangroves but it couldn't move far at this point. My guide quickly jumped down from the poling platform into the knee-deep water and made his way into the mangroves toward the fish. A few minutes later, he grabbed the 3-pound bonefish and held it up for me to admire.

Bonefish action on flies often follows a similar scenario whether it is in Central America, the Caribbean or far off in the Pacific. A small school may bolt away from one cast and then, incredibly enough, turn back toward you and settle right down. From that school, a bonefish may grab the next presentation and put up an exciting battle.

To catch bones from a boat, the angler usually helps scan the flats from the bow deck.  The guide will often pole the flats until he sees a school or an individual fish and then will carefully analyze the approach. He wants to know the direction the fish are heading to get in front and on the optimal side of them. That way, the angler can cast in front of the fish and pull the fly away from it.

It's more difficult, however, to fish the fly in front of the fish when it is heading at you. The fly fisherman has to strip that much faster because the fly should be moving. To best determine the position of the boat, the guide should know what the best casting distance is for the angler and try not to get any closer than that. 

Wading Bonefish Angler
Wading anglers often stalk bonefish on shallow flats.

The guide's keen eyesight often directs the cast with instructions on direction and distance from the boat. Then the angler places the fly there and starts stripping the line slowly to move it back toward the boat. When the bonefish takes the fly, the angler pulls upward on the rod to set the hook and the battle begins. The bone will often make long runs on wide-open flats before the angler can get some of the line back on the reel.

Bones are usually in the shallow bays around islands and on slowly tapering flats off each side. Waters that are 2 to 3-1/2 feet deep over grass patches and surrounded by white sands are ideal; bonefish love hard, pebble bottoms having scattered turtle grass where they can root around for shrimp and crabs. Hard bottom such as sand or rocks is often wadeable but some flats with mud or soft bottom require boat presentations only.

Most bonefishing guides recommend a 10- or 12-pound test tapered fluorocarbon leader and a selection of size 4 or 6 flies that move like small crustacean, such as Crazy Charlies, Gotchas, crabs, shrimps and other bonefish specials. Rods in the 7- to 8-weight class on light wind days and 9-weights on windy days are preferable, although you often won't know about the wind conditions until you're on the water. The typical productive casting distance is about 40 to 50 feet.

Most fly fishermen prefer morning trips. The fishing is usually better then, particularly with the minimal wind and the low sun at the angler's back. In most bonefish areas, the wind usually lays a little overnight and often increases in the afternoon.

There seem to be a lot more bonefish around during the typical winter "dry season," although the days are often windy which presents a challenge for fly casters.  During the rainy season you may find rougher water, but the winds may not be as problematic.

When stalking bones, whether from a boat or wading, cloud cover can be a double-edge sword. You can get much closer to the fish without them becoming overly-cautious, but you cannot see them as well at long distances. On bright, sunny calm days, sometimes called "picture perfect", the angler and guide can see the fish at great distances. The bones can also see them. As a result, the angler may not catch a lot more.

On a bright, sunny day, the actual shadow of your line or fly may spook the fish, but on a day that is slightly overcast you won't experience that as much. Presenting a fly to a bonefish on a flat anytime can be frustrating, but it's always enjoyable!

Shop all Bonefish Fly Fishing Gear.

Larry Larsen, an inductee in the Fishing Hall of Fame, has traveled to 15 islands to chase bonefish and is the author of 21 books.

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