TOP 5 Bonefishing Tips… “More like guidelines than actual rules.”
You can’t catch bonefish until you can catch bonefish. It’s a lot like the one hand clapping thing. All the beginning bonefish anglers I know broke off their first fish, even the first few, and those are the one’s they actually hooked. There were probably a few others they didn’t set the hook on and the fish spit the fly, and maybe a few more came off a couple seconds into the first run. The usual.
Dick Brown, author of Bonefish Fly Patterns and Fly Fishing for Bonefish, mentions that larger specimens can swim in excess of 25 miles per hour, which in kilometers is… something. Whatever. All I know is they swim faster than my brain can engage my muscles. Imagine the biggest trout you’ve ever hooked. Now imagine that instead of a decent 5 mile per hour spurt—which the stats say is probably what that trout was doing—it did that squared and did it for a couple hundred feet, easy. That’s what we’re talking about here. Bonefish—even the small ones, the ones under 3 pounds—break 10-pound tippets with little more than a shake of their heads. The big ones do it with a casualness that’s scary.
But before you can break them off you’ve got to hook them, which means getting the fly in front of them. When they’re spooky you’ve got to be able to turn over a fairly large fly on a 10 to 12-foot leader in a 10 to 20 knot wind at distances up to 70 feet. And they seem to be spooky a lot. Of course, this makes them great quarry on a fly rod.
Over time I’ve developed a few rules for bonefishing. Ok, they’re not rules, since you will have to break almost all of them at one time or another, but they have been useful guidelines over the last decade or so. Judge for yourself.
#1: Let the fish see the fly.
It is a continuous source of surprise to me how many anglers begin stripping as soon as the fly hits water, essentially preventing the fish from ever seeing the fly. Guess what? If the bonefish never sees your fly, it can’t eat the fly.
What we should do is to let the fly sink to the bottom—which means you have to know how long that takes—and until the fish is close enough to actually see it. Then we can twitch it, and I mean twitch: no foot-long strips that make the fly look like super-minnow taking to the skies. Bonefish aren’t jacks. Their prey tries to hide, not run, and you only need to impart enough movement to make the fly look alive—like a little crab, shrimp, or worm thingy trying to bury itself in the sand and not become dinner. So, just twitch it!
#2: Never set the hook.
Ok, I know, I know, you’re supposed to “strip strike”. Sure, but that doesn’t actually mean hammering the hook in there, like you’re tarpon fishing. Just come tight, raise your rod and watch your line.
On a day-to-day basis bonefish operate with an excess of some kind of hormone or other: call it a permanent chemical imbalance. They are constantly on a knife edge balance of should I eat that or run away from it. Once they feel the hook they usually bolt immediately, so you’ve got to be ready. The first run of a bonefish deals harshly with loose line, throwing loops of it around rod handles, reels, buttons, pliers, water-bottles, and angler’s necks—much to the amusement of fishing companions, guides and (presumably) fish. Keeping a death grip on the fly line will result in: a) the fish breaking the tippet or straightening the hook or, b) the fly line will start jumping around looking for something to catch on. It usually finds it. Merely keeping a light tension allows the fish to swim off (or back to his schoolmates) taking line in a manner you can control. When it’s on the reel the increased pressure of the drag will usually prompt its first run. This will do all the hooking you need and dig the hook in gradually, resulting in better hook placement and penetration.
Setting the hook hard like it’s a bass will usually only accomplish two things: 1) The fish will bolt, and 2) Your tippet will snap (though not always in that order).
#3: Let the fish run.
This may seem obvious, but beginning bonefishers are usually unprepared for the speed and power of a bonefish. They’re used to trout, maybe, or bass that chug around before pulling out a few feet of fly-line. Even redfish muscle about for a minute before grinding out a few yards.
Several times I’ve turned to a shocked angler holding a limp line and asked, “Exactly what do you think ‘into the backing’ means?”
“Buh-bu-but, it was taking all my line.”
“Yeah, that’s the general idea.”
#4: Keep the fish on the reel.
Bonefish seem to have two mains tricks. First, they run like hell away from danger. As I mentioned this often ends (or begins) in broken tippets, straightened hooks, or pulled knots. If that first run doesn’t work, the fish turns and runs back at you. Fast. This is where it’s easy to make a mistake and start stripping line back in. Only problem is when the bonefish reaches you it usually takes off again, pulling that loose line back out. Since the fish is now swimming a top speed again it’s hard to control and before you know it you’ve got line jumping all over again, which (as we’ve discussed) usually ends badly.
It’s much better to stay on the reel and crank like mad to keep tight. A bonefish’s mouth seems almost designed to hold a hook, and even with a little slack in the line you’ll lose surprisingly few fish, certainly not as many as you would with loose fly-line jumping all over the landscape. Remain calm and keep cranking. Eventually the line will come tight again and you’ll land your fish, and then you can begin wondering how such a little thing pulled so hard.
#5 Keep the fish in the water.
Ok, hear me out: you put the hook into the fish under water, you can take it back out the same way. Unless the fish has swallowed the hook—unlikely—you don’t need to take it out of the water to remove the hook. It’s ok, you can still say you caught it. It’s sooo much better for the fish if you leave it underwater—you know, where it lives. There’s a raft of research on this subject, but you can just trust me. Unless it’s your first fish, or a real monster, you don’t even need a picture, just slip the (barbless) hook out and watch it swim away.
In the background there will probably be great scenery (though you’re unlikely to notice at that particular moment), and later there will likely be frosty beverages in your hands, (useful for taking the cramps out of our tired fingers). Of course, that’s only if you’re on vacation. If you happen to live there you can’t afford the frosty beverages, saving money for a new fly line or maybe some more hooks and tippet material—you know, stuff you need. Because if you live there tomorrow you’re going bonefishing.
And now: a little gratuitous POTC. Enjoy.