Bonefish Everywhere… Right?
June 28, 2000
It has been a continual source of surprise for me how many different species one can mistake for bonefish. To the neophyte any nervous water, splashes, wakes, or tails that appear on a flat are automatically “bones”. Man, nothing could be further from the truth. So far I’ve mistaken grunts, shads, mullets, jacks, barracuda, and even baby sharks for the coveted gray fox  , the “ghost of the flats”. I’ve come to realize that bonefish are seldom seen splashing or waking. Even in very shallow water they only present the subtlest of signs to the alert angler – perhaps an almost imperceptible disturbance and the occasional flicker of a tail or dorsal glinting in the setting sun – a sign easily missed by an ill-timed glance over your shoulder at jacks busting bait on the flat’s edge.
Of course, looking over your shoulder every once and a while can be a pretty good idea, especially on flats that border deeper water. These areas hold many young stingrays, a favorite food of sharks. Now, I’ve never heard of a fly fisherman getting attacked by a shark while wading the shallow grass flats, but they do wander into the shallows on high tides and can occasionally be seen cruising the edges. Hooked bonefish and snook that run off flats for open water can sometimes return to the angler as portions of their former selves – bleeding, severed heads ringing the dinner bell for all large predators in the area. About that time you want to find dry land pretty quick, but realize that the only way to shore is through the bog of the mangroves at your back or a few hundred yards around them.
The same thought process takes place when you look up from stalking a fish to see a tail and dorsal – both large, about four feet apart, and unmistakably shaped – slipping along the edge of your flat, barely a hundred feet away. You do some swift mental calculations and conclude that, one, the distance from tail to dorsal is only half the shark and, two, a hundred feet is not nearly enough distance between you and any fish that size.
That happened to me twice this weekend.
1 Albula Vulpes (lit. gray fox) is the scientific designation for the Atlantic bonefish. Derived from ablula, a word of indeterminate origin meaning gray and the Latin noun, vulpes or fox, this is one of the most aptly named fish I’ve ever encountered. To my mind foxes conjure vague notions of cunning and stealth. What’s more, they possess a natural shyness, an ability to make themselves scarce at the least sign of an unwelcome presence. Though solitary, at times they seem strangely playful, which makes sense in this context: foxes being more like cats than dogs and bonefish possessing the natural curiosity of the former. [back]