Anticipation is one of the most powerful sensations in angling. In clear-water flats fishing, the greatest thrill comes in the instance between when the fish is spotted, and the presentation is taken or refused. The combination of visual drama and tactile electricity between angler and quarry truly gets the heart pumping!
More so than any other flats species, bonefish prefer to reside in extremely shallow water. Bonefish present themselves in a variety of conditions: they can be found cruising over clean-bottomed flats, “tailing” in shallow water, or “waking” through the turtle grass. The more times a fish spends in shallow water, the greater the sight-fishing opportunities. In fact, “bone-hunting” is actually a more appropriate term than “bonefishing,” as an encounter with a bonefish almost always entails stalking as the angler tries to spot and entice the fish before being detected. When it all goes as planned, the reward is that much-celebrated blistering run. Again, as with the stalk, the visual element adds an additional excitement to the fight, as the running bonefish often remains in sight throughout most of the battle.
The bonefish has many other unique virtues. In productive areas, they are extremely abundant. It is not uncommon to catch twenty or so bones in a single day without much effort. Constant action is always a consideration not matter where you’re fishing, and bonefish keep things hopping by presenting numerous “targets” throughout any average day on the water. Though somewhat on the spooky side, bonefish are eager takers and not typically finicky (like permit) or moody (like tarpon). This makes them one of the most dependable fish on the flats.
Before trying to make a final booking decision, carefully weigh the following key considerations:
Wade Fishing vs. Fishing from a Flats Skiff:
Do you want the option to wade on a daily basis? Do you prefer to fish exclusively from a boat, or do you want to have the option of both? Many anglers love to wade. Wading gives them a great deal of freedom and peace on the flats. Some individuals can not (due to physical limitations), or do not like to wade, while other people like to have both options. When choosing a particular location , keep in mind that not all bonefish resources have wadeable flats. Bottom substrata can vary greatly from deep mud to solid coral foundation. Certain destinations are limited to wade-fishing exclusively, as they do not offer specialized flats fishing skiffs. This is heaven for those able to wade all day, but absolutely the wrong choice for someone physically challenged. Other destinations offer extremely limited wading opportunities. The majority of their flats are too soft to wade and therefore one should expect to fish almost exclusively from a skiff. Then there are those locations that offer both wading and boat fishing opportunities, depending on the angler’s personal preference. Keep in mind which of these scenarios most appeals to you.
Average Fish Size vs. Sheer Number
Is the size of individual fish more important than the sheer numbers of bonefish in a given area, or vice versa? The average fish size and populations density of bonefish can very significantly from location to location. Some individuals would rather catch one trophy bonefish than thirty smaller fish in a day’s angling. Other anglers prefer constant action, forfeiting size for continual fishing opportunities. Ask yourself what is most important.
Seasonal & Environmental Considerations
Make sure that the date of your trip coincides with the optimal fishing times of a particular destination. Virtually every bonefishing location around the world has a specific and dependable time window when fishing conditions are at their best. This applies even to the “year-round” fisheries of the South Pacific. Keep in mind that the “optimal” fishing times for a given resource can often get booked up months (and even years) in advance.
Weather is an important flats fishing variable regardless of the species. Choose months known for their cooperative behavior. Strong wind, rain and cold are often the angler’s nemesis. Light wind, dependable warm weather and sunny conditions are ideal.
Dramatic tide cycles (where applicable) can often influence where, how, and when bonefish feed. Carefully study the tide charts for your area of interest, paying special attention to the onset of incoming tides. Bonefish tend to feed most aggressively from the onset of flow tide to its peak. “Ebb” or outgoing tides are typically less productive. Try to coordinate a week where the “flow” tide begins at a reasonable hour in the morning or early afternoon to maximize each day’s fishing.
Are you solely interested in bonefish, or do you want the option of catching other species as well? If you’re rabid about catching only bonefish, choose a destination where this species is the main focus. Often snook, tarpon, permit, reef and even offshore species can be caught in close proximity to a given bonefish resource. You are always at the mercy of nature’s whim no matter how productive the particular bonefish resource. Remember that “back-up” species can save the day when the bonefishing takes a down turn.
Christmas Island, Los Roques, the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, and the Yucatan Peninsula
The number of lodges and independent outfitters offering bonefish-related packages is mind-boggling. To simplify some of t he confusion, bonefish destinations can be broken down into generalized geographical quadrants. These areas offer distinct conditions that do not vary significantly throughout their range. After reading through each location synopsis, one or two specifi c areas will clearly predominate in terms of offering the most attractive package for you. Once a general area has been chosen, the next step is to choose a specific lodge or outfitter. There is often a range of accommodation, outfitting and access choi ces for a particular bonefish destination. If you have the money, “full service” lodges are often the best option. If you want to save money, try booking guides on a daily basis separately from your accommodations. If you have the time and patience, “d o-it-yourself” trips can be a great adventure, but these require a great deal of research. At the least, call around querying several individuals who have previously fished the location. If you plan to “do-it-yourself,” hire a guide initially to learn the ropes of a new area.
Christmas Island in the South Pacific lies approximately 1300 miles southwest of Hawaii (on an almost direct line tow ard Australia). The island’s proximity to the equator creates one of the only dependable, year-round bonefishing resources, through spring and summer months are sometimes frequented by brief rain showers.
Christmas Island’s diverse appeal makes it one of the top choices as a destination. Geographical location is only one of its many virtues. The island encompasses a huge area of wadeable flats which stretch for countless miles. Those who do not like to wade should probably rule out this destina tion, as the flats boats available are of poor, undependable quality. If you want to fish, you’ll have to wade.
Christmas’ flats teem with bonefish. It is not uncommon to catch thirty or more bones in a day. If you’re looking for plenty of ac tion, this is definitely the destination. The average fish size at Christmas is a bit on the small side, with bones in the two to four pound range being the most common. This “average” is a bit deceptive, as there are hoards of much larger bonefish swim ming the islands’ shores. The problem (if you can call it that) is that most anglers fish indiscriminately, casting to the first bonefish that comes along. Those anglers willing to concentrate their efforts in deeper water along the flats’ edges should have no problem connecting with a ten-pound plus trophy. If you’re especially interested in trophy-size bones, book your trip during the spring when tides are most drastic. Though these heavy tides limit the amount of productive daily fishing time, they seem to encourage larger bones to venture onto the flats. As always, daily tide cycles are a crucial factor to consider when deciding on a specific date to book at Christmas. Remember to try to coordinate a week where the incoming tide begins at a reas onable hour in the morning or afternoon.
Note: Christmas Island is not the only bonefishing location in the South Pacific. Kanton Island, located approximately 2,2 00 miles west from Christmas is in the process of opening a full-scale bonefishing operation as soon as the operator can arrange dependable flights onto the island. The whole chain of islands surrounding Christmas (all the way to Fiji) have bonefish populations to one degree or another. Finding dependable guides and boat transportation to the productive flats is another matter.
Aside from the occasional barracuda and “sweet lips,” the only incidental species commonly encountered on Christmas’ flats are trevally. These jack crevalle-like fish are extremely exciting game fish known for their aggressive nature, explosive topwater strike and powerful fight. One of the Island’s trevally species, the “giant” trevally, commonly exceeds sixty pounds. Don’t expect to encounter tarpon, permit or snook on the island.
Christmas’ offshore and reef fishing are outstanding. Wahoo and yellowfin tuna are extremely abundant and blue marlin are commonly taken up to about three hundred pounds. If you’re serious about offshore or reef fishing, make sure to bring your own tackle.
Realistically there is only one place to stay on the island the Captain Cook Hotel (there are a few other seedy places to stay if you’re willing to fight with the rats all night long). This concrete structure isn’t exactly the Ritz Carlton, but it does offer a clean, comfortable night’s sleep. The hotel’s restaurant offers ample quantities of fresh seafood and other simple culinary choices.
Los Roques Island (Venezuela) has many of the same attractive features as Christmas Island but is located much closer to home. Los Roques can be reached by means of a painless, half-hour ch arter flight from La Guaira International Airport (located on the Atlantic coast, some twelve miles north of the inland city of Caracas). Much like Christmas Island, Los Roques offers anglers expansive, wadeable, hard-bottom flats. In addition, the Isla nd’s premier outfitter, Macabi Lodge, also gives its clients the option of poling the flats in small skiffs.
Los Roques’ average bone runs slightly larger than Christmas’. Fish in the 3 to 7-pound range are most common, though Los Roques’ bonefish rarely exceed 10 pounds, which is not necessarily true at Christmas. Incidental species include a healthy barracuda population, along with an occasional tarpon or permit. The La Guaira bank, located roughly between the island and the mainland, offers s ome of the finest white marlin fly fishing in the world, but be prepared for rough seas!
Fishing during the winter months can be very productive, though water temperatures often fluctuate drastically from mid-November through early May. Don’t tak e any chances! If you plan to fish Los Roques, book during the months of June, July, September and October. Water temperature and fishing productivity remain at a constant, dependable level during these months.
The Bahamas really deserve their own separate article. The Bahamas encompasse a vast labyrinth of cays and islands littered with productive bonefish spots. From north to south, Abaco, Andros, Exuma(s), Crooked Island, Acklins and Long Island remain some of the more popular destinations. There are dozens of outfitting choices, from full-service lodges to traveling “mother ship” operations, to daily-rate guides running out of nearly every sizeable population center.
Those unable to wade should pay particular attention to the Bahamas, as many outfitters offer clients top-quality flats skiffs. Do you homework and thoroughly check dependable references before making a final bookin g.
Larger than average bonefish (4 to 10-pounds) make the Bahamas a good choice for individuals interested in catching big fish. Depending on the month and specific location, incidental species can include: barracuda, permit, tarpon, reef and offs hore species but if you’re actively looking for a location offering dependable numbers or types of “incidental” species, there are better options than the Bahamas.
Winter fishing can be productive, but anglers are often at the mercy of heavy winds and/or cold water temperatures. March is a notoriously windy month throughout the Caribbean. The less wind there is, the more flats locations you’ll have on a daily basis. With this in mind, try and book starting from Mid-April through June. The likel ihood of daily rain showers increases as hurricane season approaches. Keep this in mind from July through the fall.
The Florida Keys also deserve their own place in the upper echelons of the bonefishing world. Proximi ty is one of the first attractions. One can get into bonefish literally within sight of Miami. Popular access points include Islamorada (known especially for its trophy fish), Key Largo, Marathon and Key West to name a few. Also, Keys’ guides will oft en work the best areas depending on specific conditions.
The Keys’ guides are undoubtedly the most professional group in the industry and their intensity and flats sav vy is second to none. Competition and heavy fishing pressure force guides to work extremely hard for their clients.
The bonefish in the Keys have a reputation for their often picky and spooky nature. This is true wherever a fish population receiv es considerable pressure. Novice anglers should keep this in mind — the Florida Keys are not necessarily the best place to get indoctrinated in the nuances of bonefishing. Average fish size throughout the Keys is one of the most impressive anywhere. B onefish from 7 to 10-pounds are extremely common. Bones in the 10 to 15-pound category are often a familiar sight in a day’s outing. Catching them is another matter entirely. Overall daily numbers of landed fish is typically not as high as other desti nations, but size makes up for the deficit.
Incidental species’ include everything from trophy tarpon and permit, to snook, reef species and even redfish and freshwater black bass (if you’re willing to drive). South Florida has a great deal to off er, especially if you can put up with the crowds.
When planning a bonefishing trip to the Florida Keys. March is generally quite windy. April is a bit better but can be just as “iffy” as March. May through mid-June are regarded as optimal. An a dded plus during these months is the coinciding tarpon run. Late June through early Fall is also productive if you can stand the heat. Rain showers generally increase as hurricane approaches.
Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, especially in the Ascension Bay area, is yet another bonefishing hot spot. Though on the slightly smaller side, the average Yucatan bonefish runs from 2 to 4-pounds. Interestingly, this average has increased slightly over the past few years. Fish betw een five and eight pounds are on the increase, and even ten-pound fish, extremely rare until recently, are now becoming common. Sheer numbers of bonefish help make up for a smaller average size. The Yucatan’s bonefish population runs a close second to L os Roques’ and Christmas Island’s.
If you’re also interested in catching a variety of incidental species, the Yucatan is hard to top. Depending on the location, permit, tarpon, snook, reef and offshore species can all be encountered in extremely close proximity. Like the other Caribbean destinations, plan your trip between mid-April and early June.
Other Potential Destination
Belize, Honduras, Cuba, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Northeastern Brazil all offer bonefishing to a certain degree. The reason these locations have not been specifically addressed is that each has specific limitations regarding either angling or access. Both Belize and Honduras h ave potential, but their bonefish resources pale in comparison with the fisheries mentioned above. The strengths of both countries are their permit and tarpon fishing; bonefishing should be considered merely as an additional, albeit incidental, attracti on.
Positive reports have been coming out of Cuba lately, especially regarding the Archipelago de Los Jardines. Unfortunately, we Americans are technically not allowed to fish Cuban waters. In fact, a special Treasury Department license must be obtained to travel to Cuba.
There is not a single flats destination that is not subjected to daily breezes. A stiff, powerful rod none feet or longer is needed to punch a cast into the wind. Al ways bring at least two fly rods on any bonefishing trip — three rods are even better.
For smaller bones a 6- or 7-weight rod is perfect. Larger bonefish should be tackled with a 7- to 9-weight rod. Big bones typically reside in fairly deep wate r, and therefore they should be fished with weighted patterns. It’s difficult to throw a heavy fly on a 6- or 7-weight rod. The increased line weight and bigger rod will also come in handy when the wind picks up.
Bonefish are most often fished with a weight-forward (also called saltwater taper), full floating line. Even fish residing in fairly deep water can be reached with weighted flies. Tapered nine to 12-foot lea ders are the rule. Tippet size varies depending upon the size and spookiness of the fish.
Individual patterns vary greatly in size, shape, and color, from location to location. Belizean “bones,” for example, are fished with patterns as small as s ize #10. Larger bonefish or those in deep water are fished with patterns as large as 2/0. Fly color and shape depends upon the food items in a given area and bottom coloration. Typically, light-colored patterns are used over correspondingly light botto ms. Brown and green-shaded patterns are used in turtle grass and silty or dark bottoms. Many destinations’ flats are covered with turtle grass. In this case, choose patterns with a weedless design.