For most shallow water anglers the allure of the sport will always be in the adventure of the stalk. When all of the elements come together and we find ourselves alone in the presence of prized game fish, we have only then truly reached shallow water nirvana. For South Florida anglers the white-sand flats and icy-blue iridescent waters of the nearby Bahamas offer a welcomed change of pace with a multitude of cays, mangrove islands, and pristine flats to explore. Some of my fondest memories involve the crystal clear shallows of The Bahamas, schools of tailing bonefish, and the enthusiasm of my father as he coached me in the “hunt.” He pushed me in the right direction and now I dedicate my life to re-living those moments.
The Bahamas have a magical draw and when I caught wind of a recently developed private island resort in The Exumas, I knew another adventure for the memory books was just a short flight away. A few phone calls later and I was soon en route to Fowl Cay for a serious bonefishing mission at The Royal Plantation Resort.
Sure, anyone can visit The Bahamas and rack up impressive release numbers under the guidance of a skilled coach, but to be successful on your own endeavors is a different story altogether.
Although there are several esteemed bonefish guides in The Exumas that know the area around Fowl Cay like the back of their hand, I really wanted to try and find bonefish on my own without the help of a local professional. Why? Because not only will a do-it-yourself adventure cut major expenses from a trip’s budget, but it also offers the satisfaction of finding fish based on your own research and abilities. For many adventurous light tackle anglers such as myself, targeting the elusive bonefish without the help of an expert guide can be very rewarding—as long as the right steps are taken while preparing for the trip.
Any self-guided bonefish adventure to The Bahamas should begin with thorough research of the specific region you intend on visiting. The first order of business is to obtain nautical charts clearly illustrating the varying depths and bottom contours present throughout the area. Look for shallow coves, bays, and shorelines where the water is no more than a couple of feet deep. The most promising flats will be in close proximity to mangroves and tidal creeks—two features that are clearly noted on most nautical charts. Make note of the most promising stretches to use as a reference once your adventure begins.
The second step in planning a do-it-yourself bonefish adventure is making sure that you will have adequate access to the spots you have chosen to fish. Can you reach productive flats by foot from your resort, hotel or lodge? You should ask before booking. If not, are there boat or kayak rentals available on the island? These two questions can be answered by examining maps of your intended destination as well as researching the internet for rental facilities.
The third step is having a firm understanding of the tides. Bonefish base their feeding habits on tidal flow and knowing what the tide will be doing when you start fishing can mean the difference between a hot bite and never seeing a single fish. As a general rule, bonefish move in the same direction as the tide when it floods onto a flat, typically facing into the tide. This allows the fish to access and feed in areas that were previously too shallow or fully exposed at low tide. During a falling tide bonefish will retreat back to deeper channels, often feeding ferociously on their way off the flat. With a clear and up-to-date knowledge of the tides it is possible to make accurate predictions as to where the schools will be foraging. Of course, this may take some trial and error to perfect, but the more time you spend without the aide of a professional, the more you will become dialed in to the behavior of the bones. Sure, anyone can visit The Bahamas and rack up impressive release numbers under the guidance of a skilled coach, but to be successful on your own endeavors is a different story altogether.
The fourth and final step in a “Bahamian Do-It-Yourself Bonefish Hunt” is to arm yourself with the right tackle. If you are a fly fisherman, a 9-weight rod/reel outfit has enough power to get off the necessary long casts during windy conditions. Because the weather can be unpredictable while in the islands, a 9-weight should be the first choice when selecting your tackle. However during the summer, many anglers downsize to a 6 or 7-weight when calm conditions prevail. As far as flies go, rarely will you encounter a Bahamian bonefish that will pass up a properly presented Gotcha. Crazy Charlies are my second favorite and Pink Puffs comes in at a close third. Since fly shops are relatively non-existent in The Bahamas, it will serve you well to bring at least six flies for each day you plan to fish. Barracuda, houndfish and other toothy predators often shadow schools of bonefish and will make short work of your light terminal tackle.
Spin fishermen should arm themselves with a light action rod/reel combo loaded with 6 to 12lb. test. Brown, pink, or white skimmer jigs get the nod as far as artificials go, but nothing beats a ¼ oz. jighead tipped with fresh shrimp, crab, or conch. Remember, whether you are casting to bones with a fly or spinning rod it is essential you lead the fish by at least six feet.
On my recent trip to Royal Plantation Resort (www.royalplantationisland.com), our preparation was rewarded on the first morning we ventured to the flats. The resort offers guests access to eight boats when heading out for the day’s activities. We chose a 16′ skiff for our flats fishing endeavors and after only a short run we arrived at our first destination. The tide had already bottomed out and the water was now pushing up onto the flats with the flooding tide. We anchored the skiff and began wading towards the interior of the island. For over an hour we scoured one flat after the next with no signs of life. As we worked our way towards the last stretch of flats at the end of the bay we were shaking our heads, puzzled how there could be no bonefish in such a fertile and promising expanse of skinny water. All of a sudden there were tails popping up everywhere with prominent muds in nearly every direction. Apparently the sneaky bonefish stayed one step ahead of us, following the tide to the end of the bay before we ultimately arrived at the same destination.
The bonefish were eager to feed and from here on out nearly every cast resulted in a strike. The grey ghosts were riding the tide, pushing up on a fresh flat as soon as there was enough water to allow it. Most were small to medium size, but bigger bones up to 10-pounds could be seen sporadically cruising the perimeter of the schools. Casting to these larger fish became the name of the game with the fast-paced action continuing for over an hour. The tide eventually switched and the bonefish became much more wary. With over a foot of water covering the shallows they began to scatter in every direction. Despite the disappearance of the schools, I was impressed by how much we learned on our own, without the aide of a Bahamian guide with the visual acuity of a frigate. We found these fish, figured out their routine, and caught them all on our own.
The flats we found surrounding Fowl Cay were some of the most amazing bonefish flats I’ve seen in my 26-years visiting The Bahamas, but that doesn’t mean that all of the great do-it-yourself opportunities are confined to The Exumas. There are literally thousands of flats accessible to adventurous do-it-yourself anglers throughout the entire Bahamian Archipelago.
In Eleuthera, Harbour Island hosts some very productive wade fishing opportunities for bonefish just north of town, although these easily accessible flats are fished pretty hard and the bones have become quite finicky from all of the pressure. The more you get off the beaten path and into more remote locations the better off you’ll be. In the Abacos just about every Out Island has a small flat where truly monster bonefish can be found riding the tide all year long. Down south around Crooked Island the sheer amount of bonefish flats accessible by foot is staggering! Acklins Island is yet another Bahamian destination where self-guided bonefishing is not only a possibility, but a real likelihood for sensational success. The best part about do-it yourself bonefishing is you get to truly customize your trip to suit your needs and desires. To be successful on your own it is crucial you are resourceful, educated, observant, and most importantly not afraid to ask questions. A strong passion for adventure doesn’t hurt either.
Fly Outfits: 7 to 9-weight with 200-yards of 20lb. backing
Leaders: 8 to 12lb. tapered bonefish leaders
Flies: #4 – #6 Gotchas, Crazy Charlies, Pink Puffs
Spinning Outfits: 7-ft. graphite rods
Line: 6 to 12lb. test monofilament or braid
Terminal Tackle: Skimmer Jigs. 1/16 & 1/8 oz. in pink/white, white/white, brown/beige