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Watch for Bonefish

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Picture it now, peering through waters off Islamorada in the Keys. To the right splashes the tail of a busily feeding bonefish. Ever so cautiously, you begin working your line.

The fish obligingly keeps feeding. Your artificial fly drops delicately just right of the bone’s nose; the fish swallows it in an instant. You set the hook and the fish takes off on a characteristic run.

Bonefish are bottom-feeders and pockmark the sandy ocean floor with their mouths as they forage for crabs and shrimp. Bonefishing hotspots? The creatures are wildly unpredictable. Most anywhere in the backcountry is a potential bonefishing hotspot.

It’s easy to understand why bonefishing has made angling enthusiasts out of so many people. First, the fish inhabit some of the most beautiful waters on Earth. Anglers cast in waters so clear they oftentimes can see the fish’s shadow before the fish itself appears. The fish spooks easily, however, and is difficult to hook, which adds to the thrill of the chase.

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Captain Ted Wilson with Melanie in Islamorada, Florida Keys. Photo courtesy of CaptainTedWilson.com
Captain Ted Wilson with Melanie in Islamorada, Florida Keys. Photo courtesy of CaptainTedWilson.com

In addition, bonefishing is intrinsically exciting. Tension builds with visually scanning the water, wondering if you can interpret the flashings of the sunlit sea enough to tell a bonefish from a wave shadow. Once you see fish, the challenge becomes placing your lure in just the right place so as to interest but not frighten the fish. Anticipation grows with waiting to see if the creature will accept your offering. After that, there’s the explosive release when line whirls off your reel as the bonefish begins its run.

Once hooked, a bonefish will tear away with 150 yards of line and you may think it will never stop. When you’ve won the battle—and to ensure their survival—you must reel them in quickly.

The fly-fishing drill goes something like this: you stand on the bow of a skiff while your guide poles the craft across the flats. You’ve stripped off 20 feet of line, which is lying in loose coils at your feet, and you’re holding the rod in your casting hand, the fly in the other. When your guide spots a group of bonefish on the flats, he points it out to you.

If the fish are 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.

Photo courtesy of CaptainTedWilson.com
Photo courtesy of CaptainTedWilson.com

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 go through a magical reduction from the brute that burned line off your reel to the demure fellow in your hand as you gently remove the fly.

While you can’t beat fishing for bones using a fly rod, probably more bonefish are caught with spin-casting gear than with fly-fishing tackle.

Eight-pound monofilament is an ideal line test. Often you see the bonefish that you cast to, but occasionally a random cast will catch a fish you weren’t aware was there. Consequently, it is a good idea to cast a grub blindly every few minutes because of an unrecognized but moving object.

Pound for pound, the bonefish makes the best run of any game fish that can be fished. When hooked, the fish takes off in the direction it was headed when it grabbed your bait. It’s the only way this creature knows how to escape danger. Few anglers would dispute the assertion that bonefish deserve to be classed as a top saltwater sport fish. Former President George H.W. Bush is a big fan of bonefishing around Islamorada. In 1994 he co-founded the George Bush Cheeca Lodge Bonefishing Tournament.

When you leave things such as noise, bills, a root canal and world news behind to go fishing for bones, you are also getting an excuse for entering a world of magical dimensions. Enjoy.



Robert James Sales Baybone Celebrity Tournament

October 10-12, 2014 

The Baybone targets bonefish to raise money for cystic fibrosis research. For information contact Susan Ellis at 305-884-2002 or susan@redbone.org. 


Islamorada Fall All-Tackle Bonefish and Permit Championship

October 13-15, 2014

Attracts newcomers to face seasoned veterans in a competitive format. Contact is Betsy Bullard at 305-587-1460 or fishnfever@bellsouth.net.


The Cheeca Lodge All-American Backcountry Tournament

November 14-16, 2014

Features anglers targeting bonefish, tarpon and permit. For information contact Julie Olsen jolsen@cheeca.com.

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So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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