Biscayne Bliss

Master the critical factors required to achieve success in this shallow water Mecca where bonefish and permit reign supreme.

Capt. Mo Estevez March 22, 2012

It was a typical spring morning, with a brisk east wind creating a slight chop on the surface as we methodically traversed the shallow flat. With clear skies providing perfect visibility, my heart immediately began to race when I spotted a pair of shimmering shadows race in from about 50 feet away. My angler on the bow quickly picked out the targets and tossed a lively blue crab in their direction. Both permit charged the properly presented crustacean and as we held our breaths in anticipation, we were rewarded for perfect execution. The reel started to sing as 20 pounds of frantic silver headed straight to the nearest channel. Welcome to springtime in Miami’s Biscayne Bay, where trophy bonefish and permit rule the shallows.

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Photo: Pat Ford

Nestled between the chilly days of winter and South Florida’s searing summer afternoons, the spring season is much welcomed across our region. March through May marks a transitional period for us, with cold fronts decreasing in frequency and intensity with each passing week. With air and water temperatures beginning to stabilize, bonefish and permit will forage on the flats for longer periods of time, making them both more predictable and more approachable.

If you are unfamiliar with Biscayne Bay, start your search along the lighter bottom ocean side flats where it will be easier to spot fish.

For those who are unaware, Biscayne Bay is an elongated lagoon that stretches approximately 40-miles from Miami to the Upper Keys. Providing critical habitat for numerous species of flora and fauna, much of the bay lies within the boundary of Biscayne National Park. A majority of sight fishing for permit and bonefish takes place along the ocean side flats of Key Biscayne to the boundary of Biscayne National Park south of the Arsenicker Keys. In particular, anglers typically fish the southern and central portions of the bay since these areas have seen less development and degradation.

The lush shallows that harbor our prized targets are divided between the ocean side flats and the west side flats. While both sides of the bay hold equally thrilling opportunities, there are a few key differences between the two areas. The west side flats typically feature dark bottoms, lush grass and weaker tidal flow, while the ocean side flats feature lighter bottoms and stronger tidal movements. This is important to note and makes a huge impact on days with poor visibility. With its darker bottom, it is harder to spot fish on the west side due to the lack of contrast. If you are unfamiliar with Biscayne Bay, start your search along the lighter bottom ocean side flats where it will be easier to spot fish.

When it comes to successful sight fishing there are three critical factors one must consider and master. The first factor is sunlight. No matter how skilled of an angler you are, if you can’t see the fish you don’t have a chance at catching them. This is why good visibility is paramount in the world of shallow water sight fishing. Polarized sunglasses with amber or copper tinted lenses will further enhance your ability to spot fish under challenging conditions.

The second factor you must take into consideration is the tide. Feeding bonefish, and especially permit, require some sort of water flow and without it you are simply wasting your time. If you find yourself working a flat with minimal tidal movement, such as what occurs during slack tide, move on and locate an area with noticeable water flow such as a narrow channel or cut between spoil islands. You could also head to the opposite side of the bay where there is generally a 45-minute difference in the tide. By moving from the west side to the east side, or vice versa, you will be able to stay on the bite. It’s equally important to note the direction in which the current is flowing. This is important because bonefish and permit generally move and feed into the current. If at all possible, you always want to work a flat by using the current to your advantage. This will enable you to spot the fish before they spot you.

The last factor to consider is wind direction. In an ideal situation you want to pole with the sun and wind at your back. This will offer the best visibility and enable longer casts to approaching fish. Just as important, it will allow for less strenuous poling. Springtime is typically a breezy time of year in South Florida and thanks to predominantly east winds and a rising sun from the east, poling against the wind on ocean side flats is rarely necessary. However, fishing in the afternoons will require you pole in an easterly direction in order to keep the setting sun at your back. During these conditions, I prefer to pole at right angles similar to how a sailboat tacks into the wind. I do this to avoid casting and poling directly into the wind.

Thankfully, bonefish and permit are found on many of the same flats. When I approach a promising location I like to start my search by poling the edge of the flat along the down current side. What I have found is that fish generally forage these areas first as they continue to work their way up the flat into the current.

Finding the fish by putting yourself in prime position is key, but having the proper tackle is also a must. When chasing bonefish and permit I prefer 7’6″ spinning rods paired with quality reels that hold at least 200 yards of 10 lb. line. It’s important your rods have a fast tip so you can effectively toss live shrimp and silver dollar sized crabs in a 15 to 20 mph wind, yet they must also have enough backbone to put the heat on powerful fish and shorten the fight.

No matter my intended target, I always use a Bimini twist to form a double line and a uni-to-uni knot to secure a 36-inch length of 20 lb. fluorocarbon leader. While remaining nearly invisible underwater, fluorocarbon is also desirable due to its inherent abrasion resistance. With channel edges, sea fans and crab traps prevalent, you’ll need all the help you can get. The bait of choice for bonefish is a medium sized live shrimp with the tail pinched off. There are two reasons for pinching the tail off the shrimp. One is to prevent the shrimp from spinning and the second is to release natural scent, which enables cruising bonefish to more easily find your offering among the turtle grass and current.

To increase casting distance and get your offering to the bottom quickly, I recommend adding a split shot just above the hook. You can add and remove split shots throughout the day depending on wind, depth and velocity of the current. If you are blessed with a rare calm spring morning and find tailing fish, it is a good idea to remove the split shots all together in order minimize the sound made when the shrimp lands in the water. On the other hand, the chop created by windy days will mask much of the noise associated with a cast placed close to your intended target.

If you prefer to fish with jigs, I like using brown or pink wiggle jigs with a weed guard, but don’t hesitate to tip it with a piece of fresh shrimp if you are getting rejections. As added insurance in the event the bones are not in the mood for shrimp, I like to have a few nickel sized live crabs in the well.

Although I have hooked permit using large shrimp, the top bait is a silver dollar sized live blue crab hooked through the corner of the carapace. It is critical to ensure the hook is not placed deep toward the center of the crab, since this will injure their internal organs and lead to their premature demise.

Remember the story I opened up with? That was my client’s first permit and he was excited for good reason…it took him a few years to persuade his first Biscayne Bay permit. Fishing the flats is not an easy game but it is no doubt an exciting one. So get out there, have fun and make sure you enjoy every second of it.

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