You can picture it now, peering through ankle-deep, gin-clear water where no more than 30 feet to the right splashes the tail of a busily-feeding bonefish. Cautiously you hunch over and begin working out line…the fly drops delicately just to the right of the bone’s nose…the fish swallows it in a flash. You set the hook, rod held high, and the fish takes off on one of those legendary runs that turn most knees to jelly.
It is easy to understand why bonefishing in the Caribbean has made enthusiasts out of so many people. The fish inhabit some of the most beautiful waters on Earth and bonefishing is intrinsically exciting. There is the tension of visually scanning the water before you, wondering whether you’ll ever be able to interpret the mystic flashings of the sunlit sea enough to tell a bonefish from a wave shadow.
Once you do see them, there is the challenge of placing your cast in just the right position so as to interest but not frighten the fish. Finally, there is the anticipation of waiting to see if the fish will accept your offering. After that, there is—or isn’t—the explosive release when the line starts whirring off the reel as the bonefish begins its time-honored run.
The fly-fishing drill goes thus: you stand on a small deck at the bow of a skiff while your guide poles the craft across the flats, where the water may be from six feet maximum to six inches deep. You’ve stripped off 20 or more feet of line, which is lying in loose coils at your feet, and you’re holding the rod in your casting hand and the fly in the other. When your guide spots a group of bonefish working their way across the flats, he points them out to you.
If the fish are unalarmed and moving at a leisurely pace, you cast 10 or 15 feet ahead of the lead fish across its line of travel and work the fly back so that it will (hopefully) be spotted by the school. When stripping the fly before an incoming bone, retrieve the line in foot-long jerks. Hold the rod so the tip is close to the water and pointed at the fly. The index finger and thumb of the hand holding the rod should form a circle around the line being stripped. Give the fly a tentative tug, just enough to pull it from a blade of grass should it be caught.
Bonefish are ready takers of a well-presented artificial fly, but they are so explosive once hooked that getting rid of slack line and getting the fish on the reel can, if you’re not careful, produce humiliating results. Their speed and power are so far out of proportion to their size that a bonefish, once landed, seems to have gone through a magical reduction from the brute that burned line off against the shrieking drag, to the demure fellow in your hand when you gently remove the fly.
As for tackle, I use a Rodon graphite/boron 9-foot rod taking a No. 10 line, and an 8-foot Lew Childre graphite rod that takes a No. 9, both on Bogdan saltwater fly-rod reels with 250 yards of backing. I’ve found bonefish in the Caribbean susceptible to such a wide variety of flies that I honestly wonder whether color is of much importance; my silver-bodied, rather gaudy shad flies almost never fail to attract a bone. I think the bonefish credo must be, at least in the Caribbean: if it moves, devour it.
While you can’t beat fishing for bones using a fly rod, probably more bonefish are caught off Caribbean islands with spinning or spin-casting gear and bait or jigs, than with fly-fishing tackle. When learning to cast light baits with a spinning rod, keep in mind that half the battle is won if you use the proper equipment. Eight-pound monofilament is a good start for line test. Have the spool filled to within a quarter-inch of the lip. This is important—too much line and it will jump off in a snarl; too little and the line resistance against the spool prevents long casts.
I have caught bonefish on the Belize Turneffe Flats, and off Bonaire, the Cayman Islands, and the Turks & Caicos Islands. Anglers can rent a boat with a captain for a half or full day of bonefishing with a number of local charter operators who generally furnish all the equipment you will need. In the Caribbean, you’re most apt to catch fish that weigh between five and fifteen pounds. Cool breezes can interrupt their feeding, so good angling days are easier to come by in spring, fall or summer.
Pound for pound, inch for inch, or by whatever yardstick you care to use, the bonefish makes the best initial run of any game fish that can be sought using fly or light spinning tackle. Few anglers would dispute the statement that they deserve to be classed as one of the top saltwater sport fish in the world. Once you’ve had your fill, remember to release what you’ve caught. Bonefish (as their name suggests) are, many people believe, inedible though some islanders do eat bonefish, cut into chunks and fried or baked whole.
Even if this strong, spooky fish weren’t so obliging as to live in the midst of the Caribbean’s natural splendor, its sporting qualities would still make it an angler’s odds-on favorite.
Joe Zentner is a retired professor, a freelance writer/photographer and an avid angler.