“So, what’s the big deal with catching a five pound fish in five inches of water?” If you have to ask, you’ve never been bonefishing.
Those were the exact words my guide muttered as we poled onto the crystal clear Stock Island flat just east of Key West. We had only been fishing for minutes when the shadowy figure meandering off our port side came into perfect view. It was a loner, but a famous seven or eight pound Florida Keys bonefish nonetheless, and surely enough to get my adrenaline pumping.
Without a moment’s hesitation, I calculated the bonefish’s speed and direction and zeroed-in on an imaginary “X” three feet up-current of where I believed the mirror image would appear. For the first cast of the day, my execution was flawless. The tailless shrimp landed precisely where I had hoped it would.
The instant the crustacean’s sweet juices infiltrated the flooding tide; the bonefish lit up with dark vertical bands and began its ritualistic pursuit like a hound dog hot on the trail of a fleeing fox. Snout tight to the dirt and swiftly moving back and forth in a seek-and-destroy sort of pattern, the hunter, intent on finding its prey, methodically closed the gap to within inches.
Motionless, I stood on the casting deck of the HPX with rod tip aimed directly at the circling silhouette. I swear when I tell you I was holding my breath. As the seconds ticked by in what felt like super slow motion, silently I hoped the grazing fish would inhale the shrimp and take off on the sort of screaming run these magical shallow-water opponents are known for.
As luck would have it, the fish did find the shrimp and in the blink of an eye and one quick bump, the eager-beaver snatched the critter between its rubbery lips, crushed it with its powerful jaw muscles, sucked it off the hook and kept on going- completely oblivious that it nearly felt the sting of a razor sharp hook. Ironically, I was the one that had just been played.
Those who have never spent time stalking the ‘grey ghost’ on a pristine Florida Keys flat couldn’t begin to imagine how complex this skinny water fishery really is. Bonefishing is no joke and whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of relating the fish’s size to the level of commitment required to be successful.
First, you have to locate a promising flat where packs of bonefish are likely to be feeding, and then pole across it in the correct direction in an attempt to intersect fish feeding into the moving current. Taking water clarity, position of the sun, and other factors into consideration, it is the guide’s job to literally scout the 360 degree playing field from atop his perch. Sounds easy, but ask any professional and they’ll tell it is far from it. Maneuvering a technical poling skiff with its occupants across sandy plateaus only inches deep with nothing more than a long fiberglass push-pole comes with its own unique set of challenges.
On a mission, it is the angler’s job to stand at full attention and scan the water in front of and to the sides of the skiff in search of shadows, reflections or any other sort of ‘fishy’ movement. With gentle breezes and birds of prey flying overhead, this in itself will test all of your patience and angling skills and is often what separates the boys from the men, figuratively speaking that is. One this is certain; without a quality pair of polarized sunglasses, the sun over your shoulders and an eye for the prize, you may never see what you are looking for even when it swims right under your nose. You will, however, undoubtedly cross paths with sharks, graceful rays, wading birds, prowling jack crevalle, barracuda and even laid-up tarpon. While some anglers bring along multiple rods rigged for whatever opportunity comes their way, I prefer to consider myself somewhat of a purist and other than a second stick on permanent stand-by with a permit crab, I’m there to bonefish.
Once on location, bonefishing is all about sight-fishing so you may be standing- rod in hand- for long periods of time waiting for a target to cast at. During other occasions, packs of multiple fish appear randomly and provide plenty of exciting opportunities. And don’t think just because you see fish that it means you are going to actually get a clean shot at them. They don’t call them “grey ghosts” for nothing. Bonefish literally have the supernatural ability to be appear; only to disappear just as fast.
Next, it’s all about proper presentation. Traditionally spin-fishermen and fly-fishing artists alike must be as vigilant as possible to make sure the bait, jig or fly lands in the precise spot at the precise moment. Too close, and the fish will blow out quicker than you can say, “Holy !&#)!”
Even when all of the pieces to the puzzle do fit together, the outcome doesn’t always go as expected. Bonefish are super smart and super fast. Not to mention they are perfectly equipped with fantastic eyesight, a keen sense of smell, extremely receptive sensory organs capable of picking up the smallest unnatural movement from great distances, and a demeanor like no other skinny water predator I’ve ever pursued.
In my opinion, stalking bonefish is a personal experience between angler and fish. The guide is just that; a guide. Going one-on-one against this mystical creature means combating Mother Nature and all her elements. Cloud cover, wind, cold fronts, all can have a detrimental effect on the outcome of the pursuit. I guess that is why I find bonefishing to be one of, if not the most testing fisheries that I have ever experienced- more so than even fishing for broadbill swordfish. Now, if the fact that I would rather chase a three pound fish rather than a three-hundred pound fish strikes you as odd, remember that it is all relative, and it is only because you have never experienced the exhilarating moment when a chunky Florida Keys bone races off toward the horizon as ultra-thin line screams off your reel. You, like the unsuspecting bonefish in the beginning of this tale, are oblivious. If I could only leave you with one bit of advice, it would be to book a bonefish trip. It is an angling experience like no other, and one that you will soon not forget. Until then, practice your casting, and when you can land a shrimp in a 5-gallon bucket from 50 ft. away five times in a row, you’re ready!
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