BREAKING EVEN: A Month in Bonefishing (Pt. I)

A Month in Bonefishing

June, 2004

In the past few weeks I’ve caught more big bonefish than I have in all my previous fishing combined. Not that I’ve caught many. No one catches many big bones.

Of course, even now that I say it I realize the definition of a big bonefish is itself a matter of debate, so maybe I didn’t catch any really big bones after all. If I was in the Florida Keys a fish over ten pounds would be big, since I’ve heard that the average in the Upper Keys is nine. If it was Belize I’d consider anything over five pounds to be huge, since the average there was somewhat less than three. I suppose this means that big is a relative term, even within the same species, but I also imagine that there must be some kind of empirical measure of big. I mean, a five-pounder might be huge somewhere, but it’s still only five pounds—not that a five pound bonefish is peanuts, but we are talking about big fish here.

It occurs to me that perhaps the concept of ‘big’ is somehow connected with availability. In a place like the aforementioned Keys, which boasts the world record fly-caught bonefish—a fifteen-plus pound monster—one must assume that the biggest fish that’s been caught is not the biggest out there. There are probably a few old rusty-backed, ragged finned torpedoes swimming around the “downtown flats” that make that fifteen-pounder look small. Even though it was half a world away, let’s not forget that the all tackle world record bonefish weighed in somewhere around twenty pounds. I can’t actually conceive of catching a bonefish that big (and even the thought of what one must look like reminds me of creatures from some of my more feverish imaginings), and fishing being what it is, there is too much that can go wrong with fish that size—and that’s making the rather large assumption that you could even convince a fish that smart to eat your fly in the first place…never mind what it would do to your tackle (composure, heart rate, and bladder control) if you did.

Just for the record, a big fish down here is over seven pounds and I see fish with some regularity that would go near ten—big fish anywhere. Then there was that one cast to a small school of really big fish. There were a couple of fish in there that I’d swear went fifteen pounds. But, like I said, when thinking about fish that can conceivably be on the end of your line we’re probably not talking about the biggest out there. Be it rarity or pure poundage, however you define a big fish, there is still something like a universal scale we anglers use—somewhere between leviathan and peanuts. A fish we can all reasonably hope to catch, someday, (you know, when we get our double-haul down, are comfortable casting in a 20 knot breeze, and can afford the guide to get us there).

Of course, size is not the only consideration. For some reason I associate big fish with extreme difficulty, and I don’t just mean difficulty after they’ve been hooked. (There’s usually plenty of that.) Particularly in the case of bonefish, it seems that age and size conveys a certain amount of wiliness. They seem to regard anglers with a certain disdain, and flies can seem to get the cold shoulder more often than not. I’ve had quite large fish—fish in the seven to eight pound range—swim right over Merkins, Gotchas, and a whole panoply of bonefish flies like they were made of glass. Then I’ve had the same fish spook from a #8 Bonefish Special like it was a five-foot cuda. I’ve had them swim up behind me, swim to within a yard or so, and regard me with what I took to be contempt, but may have been outright curiosity. (After all, who knows how long they were behind me, and perhaps they were simply wondering how long it would take me to notice them. I imagine myself staring keenly into the middle distance, vainly searching for fish when one was a rod’s length behind me). “Come now,” they seemed to say, when I finally turned around, “who do you think you’re fooling?”

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