Do It Yourself Bonefish in the Florida Keys
“There’s a tailer at one o’clock, about 120 feet out!” Ken and Eldon Shannon were experiencing their first taste of bonefishing, and I wanted it to be a success. I began poling the boat as quickly and quietly as I could through the crystal-clear water toward the feeding bonefish, keeping an eye out for others on the way.
The glare from the setting sun made visibility difficult. Too difficult. As we neared casting range of our target, we practically ran over an unseen bone. He spooked and rocketed away, right into our quarry. We then watched both fish shoot off into deeper water as we muttered to ourselves.
Bonefishing in the Florida Keys can be expensive. Add up the cost of a good guide ($350-400 per day), the hotel room ($50-125 per day), meals, drinks, and incidentals, and a week’s fishing can eat up a couple of month’s salary. Many folks who would like to catch bones simply can’t afford that. The solution? Go bonefishing, but find your own fish. You won’t catch as many fish as you would had you hired a guide, but you’ll find tremendous satisfaction in doing it yourself.
Where and When To Find Fish
The Keys boast two state parks with excellent bonefish flats convenient to the campsites. The first, Long Key State Park, contains sixty campsites literally right on the water. Even anglers without boats can catch bones here by wading. The flats at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park on Key Largo require a boat, but just about any boat that will float in shallow water will do, since you can wade once you get to the flats. Canoes work quite well. Both motor boats and canoes are available for rent at Pennekamp.
The visiting angler needs to know where and when to look, what to look for, and what tackle and techniques to use. On Long Key, look for bones on the flat directly in front of the campground. Also, try the flats in Long Key Bight at the eastern end of the key. A technique that I find effective involves blindcasting into deeper water while I search the shallows for fish that I can see, either cruising or tailing. Fish are sometimes lined and spooked while blindcasting, but you’ll also pick up fish this way, too. Also, I don’t usually mind spooking fish if it assures me that they are in fact in the area I am fishing.
Out of Pennekamp there are several places to find bones regardless of the wind direction. The first is the northeastern side of Largo Sound. With a wind from any eastern direction you can find protected waters here. The second is the entire Atlantic side of Key Largo from Garden Cove in the north to Lower Sound Point in the south. These extensive flats are fishable with a wind from the west, north, or south. Finally, bones also feed on the flat to the south of the channel out of South Sound Creek, including the backside of the point. You’ll find a lee shore here when the wind blows from the north.
The best time of the year to look for bones is from about the middle of March to the middle of June, and again from about the end of September to the middle of November. Bones will feed all day long during these seasons. Fishing can be excellent early in the morning during the summer and on warm, sunny afternoons in the winter but these are not optimum times of the year.
Finding Fish on the Flats
Especially if you are wading, the best tide is low rising tide, early in the morning. In this situation the fish are hungry and about as aggressive as bonefish ever get. Practically speaking, when I’m in the Keys I go fishing regardless of the tide. With low water I can see the lay of the bottom and find likely cruising lanes for the fish. I’ll work these when the water starts to rise. With very high tides I just blind cast and hope for the best. This works, as I’ve taken both bones and permit this way.
First-time bonefishers often have difficulty seeing fish because they don’t know what to look for. Bonefish “tail”. They grub their snouts in the bottom, rooting for crabs, shrimp, or other food items. This causes their tails to stick into the air and wave like little flags.
When the water is too deep for tailers, look for “muds”. Again, the grubbing in the bottom stirs up mud which the current carries. These are easy to see.
A fish cruising in shallow water pushes a hump of water above it, known as a wake. These can be blatant or subtle and get easier to see with practice. They should always be investigated. Disturbances in the normal pattern of the waves must be caused by something under the surface, whether a shark, a ray, or a bonefish. Speaking of rays, bonefish and other species will often follow feeding stingrays. If you see a mudding rays take the time to make several casts to it, not to catch the ray but to catch anything that might be accompanying it.
Finally, look for dark shapes moving over light bottom. I find bonefish practically impossible to see over dark bottom, and if I do see them, they’re usually fleeing in terror because I put the boat over them. But I’d rather see them fleeing than not see any at all!
Tackle & Technique
Tackle requirements are simple. Fly-fishermen would use a seven to nine weight rod and should carry a floating and a sink-tip line to match. Fly leaders should start at about nine feet, tapered down to an eight or ten pound tippet. Increase the leader length when the wind stops blowing (which seems to happen only infrequently in the Keys). Bones lack teeth so no shock leader is needed.
Flies for bones run from about size six to size one and usually are tiedinverted to keep grass off of the point. Both weighted and unweighted versions should be carried. Some should have weedguards, too. Snapping shrimp, bonefish specials, Clouser deep minnows, and various types of epoxy flies are all popular and effective. Most good bonefishermen believe that presentation is much more important than pattern.
Simple techniques work for bonefish and success depends on how effectively they’re carried out. To use the first, simply pole (or paddle) across the shallow water looking for fish. When one is sighted cast in front of it and close enough that the fish can see or hear the fly, but not close enough to spook it. Bonefish move fairly quickly and you can lead them by five or six feet and still be in the ballpark.
Take care not to let the fly look like it’s attacking the fish. This spooks them every time! The fly should be presented so that it looks like it’s fleeing from its predator.
The second technique requires the purchase of ten dozen or so shrimp, and the manufacture of a chumming tube. The tube is a length of PVC pipe with many small holes drilled in it. It’s capped permanently at one end and has a removable cap at the other end. Finally, a nylon cord is attached. The fisherman locates a sandy spot on the bottom and anchors his boat uptide of it over the grass. Four or five dozen shrimp are cut up and put in the tube along with several live ones. The tube is then tossed out over the sand. The bonefish can smell the chum from a considerable distance and come to investigate. When the angler sees the fish over the sand, he presents his fly. Very effective!
After hooking a bone, keep the rod tip up in the air. They run at high speeds close to an abrasive bottom. The chafing of seafans, mangrove shoots, and other obstructions will weaken and eventually break your line.
If you’re Planning to go…
A few other items should be carried onto the flat. One is a pushpole for moving the boat. This can be a Loomis graphite pole or a cedar closet rod, but it makes for silent and precise boat handling. For my canoe I have a 14 foot, two piece ferruled push pole made by Moonlighter Marine Products of Miami [(305) 895-6362} that I can use while standing up, allowing me to search. Polarized sunglasses and a hat make it much easier to see into the water. Sunscreen protects the angler from the South Florida sun. For the angler who likes to be prepared for all possibilities, a fly rod rigged for barracuda and another rigged with a crab fly for permit would be a good idea.
You can camp at either Long Key State Park and Pennekamp State Park, but don’t head off to the Keys without first making reservations. I usually make reservations at both and wait until I get there to see what the weather conditions are before deciding at which one to stay. Either will accept reservations sixty days ahead of the day of arrival. The number at Long Key is (305) 664-4815 and at Pennekamp (305) 451-1202. And best of luck to you in your quest for a bone on your own!