Suspended in Time

Catching a Ghost You Can’t See

Capt. Steve Dougherty July 22, 2015

The Bahamas are a special place for many reasons, but with 700 islands and 2,400 cays providing immense bonefish habitat including tidal creeks, mangrove shorelines, ocean side flats, salt ponds and more, anglers intent on stalking the elusive gray ghost have nothing more to ask for.

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When you spot a mud on the flats, look for fish on the up current side of the cloak.

Traveling to The Bahamas by air leaves visitors in awe over the tropical shallows that circumnavigate nearly every island in the expansive archipelago. It doesn’t get much better, with almost every outpost providing consistent action year-round. In fact, choosing just one bonefish lodge can prove to be a challenge in itself, yet the real difficulty arises when the guide whispers, “Pair of fish, moving left to right at 10 yards,” and all you see is glare.

If you’ve stalked Bahamian bonefish on foot or poled over a freshly submerged flat, you’ve likely noticed the small holes in the sand left by feeding bonefish on the previous tide.

Bonefish, and any shallow water game fish for that matter, occupy a shallow flat for two basic reasons. First and foremost because the flooding tide enables access to previously inaccessible areas, and secondly because of the presence of forage. Without the tide or crustaceans and invertebrates buried in the sand, bonefish would never venture into the shallows.

Successful shallow water sight fishing in this or any venue lies in your ability to spot fish below the surface. Bonefish have incredibly reflective scales that provide an impossible to see color pattern, accentuated by olive green backs and silvery flanks that perfectly mirror their surroundings. Even the most experienced flats guides have difficulties spotting fish in anything less than ideal lighting conditions, and it’s rare that you will ever see a perfect silhouette of the particular fish you are casting to. More often than not you’re identifying and presenting to shadows, tailfins, disturbed water and muds. The latter of which may range from a lone puff created by a single fish to a giant disturbance created by a battalion of foraging fish.

Mudding bonefish are actively feeding and focused intently on rooting the bottom to dislodge invertebrates like crabs, shrimp and snails. The easily disturbed sediment dusts the normally crystal clear water and creates a muddy cloak for aggressive bones. Almost as dead a giveaway as tailing fish, muds signal a definitive feeding scenario. However, as you gaze off into the glistening shallows your eyes will play tricks on you. If you believe you spot a mud from a distance, keep your eyes focused on the disturbance and see if it changes shape with the current. If it does, you’ve likely hit pay dirt.

On a large flat a school of bonefish can create a mud that spans several hundred yards and to be successful here you’ll have to determine which direction the feeding fish are moving. If you cast to the backside of the mud, you’ll be presenting to where the fish just were. Since it will be very challenging to see through the milky water, by understanding what you’re looking at and what you’re looking for you’ll be able to find and fool bonefish in even the poorest light.

Fresh muds reveal exactly where the action is unfolding and have more vibrant color than older muds. Gray, milky, dusty and pink sediment will be more noticeable if it’s fresh, while older muds dissipate quickly with the moving tide, making the water appear chalky and pale as the sediment begins to settle. By observing the direction and speed of the mud’s movement from a distance anglers can not only determine the location of feeding fish, but also exactly how they need to approach the mud to achieve an effective presentation.

If you’ve stalked Bahamian bonefish on foot or poled over a freshly submerged flat, you’ve likely noticed the small holes in the sand left by feeding bonefish on the previous tide. When searching out shrimp and crabs buried in the substrate, bonefish will blow a puff of water into the sand to dislodge the food source. This is what creates the muddy appearance in the first place. If you see these holes in the flat you are too late, but they are a great indication of where to look on the next flooding tide.

When you do stumble upon a mud with actively feeding fish, present a cast up tide of the disturbance and let the current carry your fly to the churned up sediment. Bonefish more often than not feed into the current, and this will bring your fly right through the kitchen door. Because mudding bonefish are heavily focused on rooting the bottom, it’s important the fly you present is tied with lead eyes to get your offering to the strike zone quickly. Mudding fish are generally super aggressive, so from here it should be game on!

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