Bonefish 101 // How to Catch a Bonefish
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Time to Go Catch Some Bonefish
Let's assume you will be on a guided trip for Bonefish. While there are anglers and destinations that you can DIY explore, between tides, access, and general productivity - most of us will be using guides. Plus the cost isn't horrendous and you'll learn something about the area, fish, and make a new friend in the process. Guides are great and a wealth of knowledge.
Before you embark on this new journey however, you should know a bit about Bonefish! The more you know prior to your adventure the more enriching it will be. Don't go in blind. Bonefish range in size from 10" - 10 pounds with a 3-4 lb. fish being a quality specimen. Over 5 lbs. is a darn nice fish, and you get to around 7-8 lbs. and that is the fish of a lifetime for most anglers. Certainly there are variances to these averages based on where you go, but that should give you a rough outline. My personal best is about 7-8 pounds from Christmas Island.
Bonefish are typically fished in tropical shallow water flats most often 2' or less. It's most often sight casting and the thrill of targeting a big single cruiser is among my favorite moments in fly fishing! Period. Bonefish are incredible. They live in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans but most of us will be in the Atlantic. Belize, Mexico, Cuba, the Bahamas are all hot spots. On the Pacific side, anglers will hope to hit the jumbo models in Hawaii or head south to Christmas Island (or other nearby atolls) to experience what is said to be the best Bonefish destination in the world. If you enjoy long plane rides and expensive trips, head for the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean.
What Do Bonefish Eat?
The primary food source of a Bonefish is going to be shrimp and small crabs, but they will prey on worms and minnows when available. Bonefish feed on or near the bottom, and often feed by pushing their heads down into the sand rooting out their food.
Flies for Bonefish
Anglers should have a good variety of flies in various weights, colors, and sizes. The most important elements however are good quality saltwater hooks and the weight. A calm day with fish in 6" of water will require a completely unweighted fly! Try and target them with anything heavy and you'll be scattering fish everywhere. Inversely, if you have strong tide currents, winds, and fish running 2' - 3' deep you'll need heavy flies so that your offering gets to the bottom and doesn't wash away in the current. On average however, a #6 fly with bead chain eyes will catch fish anywhere if presented correctly.
Leaders and Tippets for Bonefish
Bonefish don't have teeth, in fact they crush their food after ingesting it. Because of this, they can be fished for without "shock" tippet like Tarpon. Leaders should be at least 9' long and start at 12# test. I personally like a 9-10' 16# test leader to start, and if the fish prove to be selective I will add some 10-12# tippet. Leaders longer than 10' can be handy, but you'll lose accuracy. A pure fluorocarbon leader is good for spooky fish or deeper water, but most anglers prefer to buy and use traditional mono/nylon for Bonefish and when making repairs will use fluorocarbon tippet.
You really only need one knot. On tippet less than 30# test a "non slip mono loop" is used to tie the fly onto your leader. Your leader will typically be attached with a "loop to loop" connection to the fly line. If you need to mend your tapered leader, the use of a Triple Surgeon's or Blood Knot can be used but it could be qualified as "non essential". Many anglers simply carry 6 tapered leaders and put a new one on after the tippet becomes damaged.
Additional Tips and Advice for Bonefish
The #1 piece of advice I can give you is... stick to Bonefish. There are many other species that are tempting in Bonefish habitat. Depending on your destination, it is far too easy to dilute your time chasing Permit, Snook, Tarpon, and other fish. In Christmas Island I have watched anglers nearly squander an entire trip waiting for Giant Trevally... which is fine if you've done LOTS of Bonefish trips. These same anglers leave grouchy and depressed when their expectations don't align with reality. Bonefish are willing to take a good presentation, and to be called an "excellent Bonefish angler" is among the highest of compliments. I become extremely irritable when a new saltwater angler becomes a self proclaimed "Bonefish Master" after 3 days in the saltwater simply because their guide put them on some easy fish. A good Bonefish angler can single out the biggest fish in a school, wait for the shot, and peel that single fish off. It requires an excellence in angling possessed by few.
Don't sabotage your own trip by diluting your time. Focus most of your time on walking and wade fishing for Bonefish. You'll learn to see fish, make perfect casts, time your shots, and become a much better saltwater angler than your pals standing helplessly on the bow of a Permit boat. If flats fishing is new to you, focus on Bonefish and get good at it.