Let’s talk about bonefish, aka the Grey Ghost, the White Fox, and other pseudonyms for the famous bonefish that inhabit the worlds’ shallow waters. We, as fly fisherman, love to sensationalize things; dry fly fishing is a religion, streamer fishing is a cult, brook trout are synonymous with perfection, etcetera. But it stops at bonefish, perhaps because sensationalizing the sensational is impossible, or perhaps because our vocabulary doesn’t expand far enough to do so.
Bonefish are as perfect a game fish as you can find, even after just seven days of stalking them I am thoroughly convinced of that. They are smart, but not too smart, hard to see but not impossible to see, and difficult, but not all together sentient. If you do everything right, they will reward you, but if you make even the inkling of a mistake you can forget about it. That’s what the perfect game fish ought to be, not easy, not hard, but just right.
And spotting, casting to, hooking, and landing a bonefish on your own...well...that requires the most descriptive, most graphic, most visual word a writer can use. The one word saved for special occasions of a tantalizing nature: indescribable.
If not for wanting it all to myself I would suggest that everyone should experience it. If you do, here are a few tips, ideas, and things I wish I’d known from myself from the egregious minds of the famous Tom Ciocco, as salty as sea dogs come, and myself, lightly salted like a pack of almonds.
Sunscreen is ultra important in saltwater fishing because if you have good fishing weather the sun will be beating down on you, and reflecting from the water constantly. Bring a Coppertone Sunscreen Stick, it is perfect for your face, neck and ears as well as easy and fast without the greasy hands.
Throw a little microfiber cloth in your bag to wipe your glasses off with. They will get smudged and sweaty. The ability to see fish is hugely important, and dirty glasses do not facilitate that.
Split flies up in checked luggage and carry on just in case an over zealous, first day on the job, TSA agent has a problem with size 1 hooks.
Bring books to read because your lodge may not have a TV, good WIFI, or anything else to do in the off hours of the day. I read a John Grisham in three days.
Don’t put anything fragile in checked luggage, even fairly sturdy things can break, because they are not gentle with those bags at all.
Seeing bonefish is hard. They (the experts I guess) say: Look for moving shadows. Personally I saw their backs better. I focused on either an olive spot that was moving (facing towards or away) or a long olive line that was moving (swimming right to left). If you’re in the right spot, moving the right direction, they should be facing you which is when it is easiest to spot them anyways. Also if you see a fishy looking olive spot and then it disappears that was probably a fish that was facing you and turned sideways. There are so many little tips and tricks to seeing bonefish, of which I know maybe three, but they
are not this invisible ghost that just disappears at the snap of a finger, it is possible to see them.
Bonefish are certainly spooky to the “plop” of a fly, which you would expect, lots of fish are. To counter that, cast well in front of the fish, and let them come to the fly. The great thing about bonefish is they constantly move so you can do that, even tailing fish don’t just sit in one place.
Cast to every fish, even fleeing ones, sometimes they just turn on the fly and eat it, after all that’s what they’re there for.
When wading if a cloud bank moves in over the sun just stop, let the clouds move off, then do a quick scan around before continuing on. Sometimes fish will move into the area that you couldn’t see. Cloud cover is also easier light to see tails in, so take the chance to scan a long ways out for tailing fish, and nervous water.
Lighter wind = longer leader. That is not a myth, bonefish do not like fly line.
If possible put the wind and sun at your back, casting to fish and spotting fish is ten times easier that way.
Bring an extra fly line. I was glad I had mine when I had fish take me in around some rocks and scuff up my first fly line because after that stripping it in was like running a saw blade over my finger.
Let the fish eat. Bonefish do not eat moving flies often, maybe a couple in a group fighting for it will, but usually they want it sitting still. In my opinion that was the hardest part; knowing when to strip set. You have to see the fish physically dip his head to inhale your fly before pulling tight. And the strip set is not a bass strip set, or a redfish strip set, it is a long, slow, drag meant to prick the fish with the hook, at that point he will take off and set it himself. Which makes sense, but is difficult to do because seeing the fish eat is really hard, and at first your timing is going to be off.
Read books! Of all the fishing I have done bonefishing books have been the most helpful. They aren’t as sensationalized, and fluff filled as some of the other books I’ve read, and they really helped me a lot.
Get a guide, if only for a day or two. It makes spotting and hooking fish on your own ten times easier. Many times with the guide he would say “fish, straight ahead, forty feet” then point, and just like that they would materialize as if they were there the whole time--which they were, but I couldn’t see them. Just having fish pointed out for a couple days cut my learning curve down on spotting them an incredible amount.
Bring a washcloth to land fish with. They are slimy little buggers!
Adding side shields to sunglasses can help block out sunlight, and make spotting fish way easier. You can make your own easily with some thin plastic and old tying scissors.
Pack just three changes of clothes and some mild detergent for a week of fishing. In the evening simply wash the clothes you wore that day and hang them out to dry.
Buy a cheap pair of pliers before going then simply throw them away before you leave. The saltwater destroys everything, don’t waste the money if this is your one trip for the year.
Practice casting, you will read this anywhere you research bonefishing, which you should. Casting is hugely important. Without a good double haul catching bonefish becomes almost impossible.
When wading wear two pairs of socks: ban-lon under a thicker pair, that way if you’re going to get a blister it will rub into the ban-lon first, not your skin.
Ask everyone you see for tips and places to go, especially on DIY trips.