Torpedo of the Flats, Flats Phantom, Grey Ghost – whatever the nickname, bonefish are the most pursued quarry on the flats, and the saltwater fish coveted the most by fly fishermen. For good reason – denizens of very shallow water, once hooked a bonefish has few options – no jumping or sounding – so they take off on sizzling, line-stripping runs designed to get as far away as possible pronto. These heart-pounding runs are what bring fly-fishing pros back to the flats again and again.
“Flats fishing” is a term for fishing from a flats boat or skiff in shallow inshore saltwater areas. Bonefishing is a shallow-water pursuit done in water ranging from 8 inches to several feet. Some of the best bonefishing in the world is found in South Florida and the Florida Keys.
This is exciting fishing because it’s about sight hunting for a particular target in clear shallow water. First you see the fish, and then you go after it. Make a mistake and he’s gone.
These torpedo shaped, silvery fish range in size from 4 to 15 pounds – the current IGFA record is 19. Bonefish generally eat crabs, worms, shrimp, and small baitfish. Younger ones form schools, but as the fish mature they become larger, solitary hunters.
Light tackle is generally the way to go — too heavy and you’ll hurt your chances in the shallow, crystal clear waters that bonefish prefer.
Unless you’re experienced and have the right boat, the best way to get the top results from your time on the water – and to learn – is to go with a good guide. While guides can do a lot for you, they can’t do your casting. Bonefish guides will tell you that casting ability is the number one reason why clients – fishing under identical conditions – succeed or fail. Accuracy is critical so practice up before you go. You’ll need to be able to deliver your fly swiftly when a bonefish is spotted – no time for multiple false casts – because the fish are always moving. Most casts to bonefish are between 35 and 60 feet.
Again, unless you’re a knowledgeable local, you’ll need advance advice from your guide on what tackle to bring. Conditions vary depending on the location. Generally, expect to need an 8 or 9-weight floating line. Leave the freshwater trout line at home. You’ll need something suited for the tropics. A 10-foot leader, tapering from a butt of .025 inches to 10-15 pound test will probably be in the ballpark.
Rely on local recommendations for your choice of flies. Because you’ll be fishing on or at the bottom, most flies are tied hook up (inverted), to prevent snagging on grass, coral or other bottom features. Bonefish flies are also usually weighted, to get down to the bottom faster, although unweighted flies come into play in super shallow conditions where the fish are spooky.
Anglers are able to pursue bonefish year-round in the Florida Keys. Because spring and fall provide the most stable water temperatures, fish can often be spotted throughout the day during those seasons.
One consideration if you’re going to use a guide. The traditional “flats boats” – developed over years to go silent and shallow – will handle 1-2 anglers and a guide. If you’re going to have more in your party you’ll need a guide with one of the newer shallow water “bay boats”, which will carry much more gear and accommodate four anglers comfortably.
One last tip. Polarized sunglasses are a must for sight casting on the flats. Experts recommend brown or copper colored lens for normal conditions, and amber or yellow for overcast conditions. No gray.
Catching a bonefish is something most fly fishermen aspire to, or at least dream about. Pound for pound, it’s one of the fastest and strongest fish found in saltwater.
If you haven’t tried it, you should.