We fished until dark, but none would take. We marked their progress by the flashing tails and cast long leads to them with light flies. When they approached we’d strip the fly and they’d disappear in an explosion of water, perhaps to bide their time off the edge until the flats were peaceful again. Tough fish, or perhaps we were just incompetent. In retrospect, that seems more likely.
I don’t know that there are many who can relate to teaching themselves to fly-fish nowadays—I mean being really on your own without even the option of getting help. I imagine there are even fewer who taught themselves on bonefish. More and more it seems like folks take one of those classes down at the local fly shop. I’ve even heard they have fly fishing courses at colleges, along the same lines as a wine-tasting class, I guess. Others hire guides, and if they’re lucky they get one who’s OK with spending more time tutoring than actually guiding their clients to fish. Most guides I’ve heard of didn’t sign up for that. In fact, the clever guide will refrain from bashing a nice fishing hole with the flailings of rank amateurs, stiff penalties for profaning the sanctity of the water notwithstanding. And even for experienced trout anglers, fishing the flats can be tricky, the whole concept seems difficult for freshwater, “bug-people” to relate to. Hell, it was difficult enough for us, and we grew up with salt spray on our lips.
Old salts though we were, we still had to work to figure out how to catch fish with a fly rod. I mean, it wasn’t like we could just go down to the fly-shop and ask some expert how to catch ‘em. We had neither shop nor expert, so we became both. I collected materials wherever I could find them and tied flies for everything from tuna to tarpon. My dad read books, and I dredged the rare fly fishing magazine for any information that might help. But that was the easy part. Any old book on fly-fishing in saltwater could tell what to use for tarpon, bones, and permit. The trick was, how were you supposed to use the flies once they were made? How did you move them to elicit the bite?
Tarpon seemed easiest at first. Most any old fly would do, though they definitely had ideas about what they liked best. Mostly you just show them a fly and pull it away. They usually do the rest, but you’ve still got to have patience. Sometimes tarpon will track a fly for a ways before eating, but they can flat out see. If a fly falls anywhere within a ten foot area in front of them, chances are they see it, it’s just a matter of letting them catch it. Once that happens you’ve got a whole new set of problems to deal with. The initial strike of a tarpon is so violent that it almost never fails to take you by surprise, even when you see it coming. The shock of that giant mouth exploding on the fly has been known to produce hilarious reactions from anglers. It doesn’t help that the fish are typically large and are usually fished for near the surface so that every stage of the encounter—the cast, the follow, the take and the hook-up—is clearly visible. Many anglers have been left holding a limp rod, draped in fly line and ruefully watching the retreating wake of a tarpon they struck too soon or held too tightly. I take my place among them.
Bonefish, well, they’re an altogether different deal—almost the antithesis of tarpon. For one thing, they swim looking down, not up. This means dragging a fly over their heads doesn’t work like it will with tarpon. If they notice that at all they’ll probably spook and blow out. Secondly, for all practical purposes they never jump or roll. Feeding tarpon often give away their location by spectacular jumps and surface thrashing. Happy tarpon roll. By contrast, feeding bones only occasionally belie their location with a gracefully raised tail and while I might describe a tailing bonefish as “spectacular”, it obviously doesn’t have the same physical weight as a 40-80 pound, airborne fish. It’s a lot quieter too. Lastly, bones usually eat prey that’s trying to hide, not flee, so while he may chase down a meal he would rather pick it up off the bottom, with as little energy expenditure as possible. No surface thrashes. No wild jumps.
I mention all these differences to emphasize that if you fish for bones like they’re tarpon the outcome is predictably obvious. Keeping this in mind, here’s a list of tips I’ve accumulated for myself while bonefishing:
- Scaring the fish is bad; don’t line it, bean it with the fly, or fall on it.
- Quiet is good; use “quiet” flies, lead the fish, and stop yelling to your partner, “See ‘im!? He’s right there!” In fact, if you can refrain from talking at all, so much the better.
- Fish your fly on the bottom, where the food is supposed to be. This means waiting for the fly to actually sink before frantically pulling it away from your prey… which of course you’re not supposed to do. Remember, feed the fish… as in, let it catch the fly.
- If fate smiles and the fish takes, never, ever, ever strike with the rod to set the hook because…
- You can’t think as fast as a bonefish can swim. Just get it on the reel, even if you have to back up to clear the loose line.
- Try not to fall over while you’re doing this.
I humbly offer these pieces of patently sage advice, all from personal experience. It’s certainly not all you need, but you’re now as well equipped as we are to go catch a bonefish.
Anyway, like I was saying, the fish wouldn’t take. That was not really surprising. They never did. When it got dark we got in the truck and drove away, lying to each other on the way home about how we “really thought we’d get a take today.”
We still hadn’t cracked their code, but in time we would. In time we would learn to track the fish better and get the fly to the bottom before they got there. We’d learn to just twitch it ever so slightly, just like a crab burying itself in the sand. A twitch is all you need, you see. In time we’d also learn to feel for the almost imperceptible take and set the hook lightly, merely bringing the line tight until we got them on the reel. Their first run would do the hooking for us. In time we’d learn and then we’d be the experts and when people asked we’d be able to say, “Bonefish? Hell, they’re easy. Just tie good knots and don’t fall in the water. The rest’ll come to ya.”