I LOVE BONEFISH. They eat with tenacity, fight with the pugnacious tilt of a barroom boxer, and live in seductive locales rivaling the fictional beauty of Shangri-la. The hunt, the environment, and the thrill of casting at those silver silhouettes borders on the edge of transcendence. Currently, we are booking our annual trips to Ascension Bay and Christmas Island. Get schooled up and spooled up and come with us.
I initially penned this midway through my fourth trip to Ascension Bay which arguably stakes its claim as the most diverse flats fishing in the world. Since, I have been to Ascension Bay (10) times! Initially, what brought me here was the idea of catching Tarpon, Snook, Permit, Barracuda, and lastly Bonefish. I’ve been lucky enough to check each one of those boxes. But what keeps pulling me back again and again? Bonefish. Straight up.
But What Is So Special About Bonefish?
There is glory in coming home with that picture of a musclebound Tarpon, even the juveniles can tilt the scale at 20 pounds. And it’s because of this that I chuckle when phrases like “baby tarpon” are deployed. This is often thrown around while I'm at the shop, daydreaming about the flats with the crew, and it’s almost always uttered by someone whose never had a “baby” explode their 8-weight into graphite toothpicks. A better term is “Mangrove Tarpon.” That said, 100-pound Tarpon in the Lagoons of Ascension are not uncommon. And then there is the fabled Palometa, the white ghost, the game fish sure to bring one to their knees: Permit. I’m often asked if these fish are “over-hyped,” if they’re “really that hard to catch,” and to put it bluntly: I've seen grown men add salt to margaritas by way of frustrated tears. And therein lies the magic of Permit, they are an animal, an opponent, which has no piscatorial equal (at least for some). For many, landing one is a Heisman Trophy on the fireplace mantle, a reference point to justify a life spent angling. And while searching for Permit is a semi-aimless quest for the unattainable, Snook are simply condition specific. The tides and weather must be just so for killer Snook fishing. All in all, though, Bonefish are the heart of flats fishing.
It is hard to put a finger on the exact appeal of Bonefish. Initially one assumes it’s because they’re a plentiful species offering an abundance of opportunities. And while this is true, there’s an equally dense population of other saltwater species available. On any given day, local guides can take out an angler, direct them to blind cast off of a ledge, and they’ll catch Jacks until their arm grows weary with fatigue. .
But for me, the romance of Bonefish lies in “fair chase.” It’s the one dependable species in both its availability and behavior. Anglers see almost every fish before they strip-set into a heavy jolt of weight and electricity; it’s in the frequency of these moments which equate to the ultimate shallow-water-sight-fishing experience—an act parallel to hunting big game. And every day In Ascension Bay, guides assist in this hunt as they provide endless targets of Bonefish tailing in shallow water. From that point, it’s all on the angler, it’s all on you. The trained, bird-of-prey vision of local guides will summon various opportunities, but the angler must fall in line with quiet footsteps followed by an accurate, yet soft, delivery of the correct fly. If done correctly, success is inevitable. Done wrong, well, adios. The fish are gone. Fast. The chaos conjures images of a cartoon desert, a plume of animated dust, and Wile E. Coyote’s confused gaze as a forever-gone Roadrunner vanishes into the watercolor horizon. Heavy feet and sloppy casts turn anglers into coyote caricatures, Elmer Fudds unable to discern a carrot from a rifle--inept and hungry. I think this is best summed up when today a fellow angler told me that “Bonefish are touchy.” I like that description. Yeah, they’re touchy. Simple as that.
But What Makes A Great Bonefish Angler?
A good Bonefish angler relishes the challenge of flat, spooky water—conditions which necessitate near perfect presentations. We wait for these conditions. For those who haven’t been on a Bonefishing trip, I’ll attempt to describe it: imagine a weather-worn Rainbow sitting in 8 inches of calm water adjoining an eddy; he’s feeding with methodic regularity; the fly needs placed within 36 inches of his immense head, and once there, if he doesn’t somehow spook, the line requires a deft strip to place it in the feeding lane. Trout fishermen embrace such brief windows of tension due to their infrequency, but on the Ascension flats, these euphoric moments happen daily.
The lure, perhaps the dream of anglers is mastery—to become deadly with a fly rod. This feels to be an almost instinctive, maybe even primitive, motivating factor: the universal calling to hunt with a hook. With Bonefish, these instincts are called upon in way of hunting the flats. The light leaders, rods, and delicate casts seem to reflect the stealth we all associate with fly fishing. Not to take anything away from Tarpon, Snook, or Cuda but 60-pound shock tippet and wire leader isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when we think of fly fishing. Couple this with the fact that Bonefish are ubiquitous throughout most of Central America, and you have the one of the most sought-after species on earth.
Now, if you’re discouraged, or you think “Man, this sounds a bit too technical for my skillset,” that’s likely untrue. These fish circulate while feeding, as such you’ll need to judge their direction, pattern, and allow that quick study of behavior to dictate your cast. And to be clear, casts don’t always need to be long--only smart and clean. Yes, casting ability is a significant bonus, but don’t be put off by flats fishing if you aren’t experienced. Red’s hosts countless intermediate level anglers with great success. We’ll teach you what you need to know. The Bonefish game is fair. If you do the right things, and with our help, you’ll have success.
Hopefully you can join us on one of our hosted trips to Ascension Bay, Christmas Island, Cuba, or Belize and experience the thrill in casting to tailing Bonefish. Our guide team hosts many weeks each winter, and we would love to host you or your group. We even do a few that are "University Oriented" and designed to take a first time saltwater angler under our wing on their first trip. So if you are new to flats fishing you will especially appreciate our hosted trips because we travel and fish alongside you. Our friendly staff is there to prepare you and teach you, in good English, how to properly flats fish and have a successful trip.