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

June 2004

The past few days have been different. I am tempted, as I suppose anyone would be, to give myself some credit. After all, it could be that I am getting good at this. I’ve spent enough time at it, that’s a fact, so I suppose it’s an option I must consider, you know, out of fairness. And the recent fish I’ve taken were tricky, requiring pinpoint presentations, delicacy, and the knowledge of how to fish the fly properly.

One in particular sticks in my mind. It was a rainy day on the flats, so my dad and I decided to play hooky and hit our favorite flat. The bones there tail well, but are tough customers. You’ve got to soft sell it. I took a fish early over a mixed bottom of grass and sand. The fish materialized about 30 feet out but headed into the glare. I cast to intercept and simply let the fly sit. One twitch and a bonefish tail popped up about where my fly probably was, so I stripped and came tight—a nice three-pounder. Later the tide brought more tailers and I spotted a pair coming down the shore. Big fish, these, and over grass, so my hopes were low. I waded out, cast, and began a slow subtle retrieve that ended (surprisingly) with the fish actually swallowing the fly—I think more out of spite more than anything. Big fish have a predatory streak that often works in the angler’s favor. That one was close to five, maybe six pounds. One of my biggest landed.

Of course, you can combine all the desirables—delicate presentation, accuracy, and the right fly—and still blank out. You’ve really got to be in the right place at the right time, and in the salt, that means tides. Sure, there may be those old bruisers that you can almost always find on a particular flat regardless of tide, but can you get them to eat? One of my favorite flats has a trio of bonefish that live there. The Three Amigos, I call them. I occasionally guide there and have anglers cast to these fish on a somewhat regular basis. They never eat the fly, ever. At best they ignore it. Other times they quietly sink away as soon as the fly hits the water. I’ve almost come to regard these fish as uncatchable, almost, but that doesn’t mean I’ll stop casting at them.

That reminds me of another small flat here that gets lots of pressure. It’s easy to find, close to the harbor and has good numbers of bonefish most of the time. Let’s call it Square Hole Flat. To say fish there are picky is an understatement. But even these old campaigners make mistakes. I fish the flat fairly regularly—the fish are there, after all—and when the bite is on we catch fish. It’s not easy, but we do it. Bearing this in mind, I was not prepared for the experience I had there a few days ago.


June 11, 2004

Home flat. Wind: ENE, about 5 knots. Tide: slack, low.

Stopped off to check the flat for a trip tomorrow and maybe wet a line. Tough fishing this morning and I felt like a little stress relief. Maybe I just wanted reassurance that it all still worked. I waded out to some nervous water about a hundred feet off. Might be a laid-up school—tough fish, and not usually feeding. I began pulling out line, getting ready to toss a long careful cast to the edge of the school. Sometimes you can fool one that way.

As I finished stripping out line I looked over at the school; they were within forty feet and moving fast.  Dozens of fins pierced the surface as they swam in six inches of water toward me. I crouched down, practically sitting in the water, and flipped my fly out. They swam to within fifteen feet and settled down again, seemingly oblivious of my presence. I was sure my fly was in the middle of the school, so I took the only available option: I fished the fly. The leader knot was almost three feet inside the rod tip before I felt the line tighten and set the hook. I stood up, bonefish around my feet, my fly in the mouth of the leader—a big ol’ rusty backed fish with a ragged tail and missing scales.

“Big fella!” I grunted to myself as the fish cleared out and raised hell all over that flat. Aside from a couple anxious seconds as I cleared sixty-some feet of loose fly line, the fight was a purely enjoyable spectacle: western sun and blue horizon bisected by a clean angle of line, and small explosions at various points of retreat and return. Two minutes later I released the leader to find the scattered remains of the school in the gathering dusk.

That kind of experience can be deceiving. Was it luck? Instinct? I think we can discount providence out of hand. Whatever the case, I think I’ll not be expecting that to happen again anytime soon, but I’ll keep hoping.

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