What is a Bonefish

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Albula vulpes

Pieter Bleeker, 1859

“Bonefish fight so hard that they almost deserve to get away.”
– Pete Perinchief, former Director of Bermuda’s

Fishing Information Bureau, 1964

The bonefish has been called the “silver bullet of the flats” and rightfully so. This member of the Elopiformes order and close relative of the tarpon possesses lightning quickness and race car speed. In open water these fish have been clocked at nearly 23 miles per hour. This astounding physical ability has helped the bonefish survive 125 million years of evolution, solidifying its place among the earth’s most ancientspecies. The bonefish is also clever and cunning, its name, Albula vulpes, literally means “white fox.”

The bonefish was first discovered and named by famed Dutch ichthyologist, Pieter Bleeker, in 1859. Bleeker’s contribution to the study of fish was more than prolific during his 18 year stint as a
medical officer in the Dutch East Indian Army from 1842 to 1860; his famous treatise Atlas Ichthyologique provides a laboriously detailed account of his work in Indonesia and includes notes on the bonefish.

Bleeker’s bonefish are incredibly nimble and skittish creatures. Native to saltwater flats environments, bonefish can be found in nearly every tropical body of water on the globe. The recorded range of the bonefish is 45°N – 31°s, 159°w – 35°w. Yet, despite their common occurrence and widely distributed range, bonefish remain a difficult set of silvery fins to catch, owing to their selective feeding, nearly perfect camouflage, 360-degree eyesight, and flat out speed in open water. The unique sporting challenge offered by bonefish has brought a host of eager fly anglers to the tropics in search of adventure and the chance to catch a silver bullet.

Bonefish are a curiously primitive looking species. Masters of illusion, bonefish sport a highly reflective set of scales that function as an array of tiny mirrors, reflecting quite accurately the fish’s ever-changing environment. The narrow and muscular bonefish is also built with a tapered nose, leading to an extremely powerful mouth. The species uses this mouth to root for its food in the coral and on the sandy bottom of the saltwater flats it calls home, crushing prey with its hard palate.

Emerging on the skinny water of the saltwater flats during periods of tidal flux, bonefish dine on a rich diet of clams, shrimp, and crabs, and they will rarely pass up the opportunity to snare even smaller critters such as saltwater worms, snails, and baitfish. Locally, bonefish will vary their feeding habits, sometimes turning into the tide to sniff out their prey and at other times following prey into the tidal direction. Fly anglers should be sure to understand their local quarry prior to stalking bonefish – a local fly shop or guide service can be invaluable in the pursuit of these mirrored torpedoes.

Tropical saltwater flats are often only a few inches deep and don’t offer feeding bonefish much protection or cover. When digging for their meals, bonefish are often forced to expose a good portion of their tail above the water. Subsequently, bonefish will often be found “tailing” either in pairs or in larger schools. To spot a tailing bonefish or group of bonefish, look for their deeply forked tails just above the waterline, flashing brilliantly in the sunlight. Saltwater fly anglers will tell you that there is nothing more exciting than crouching near a thick patch of turtle grass in the middle of an expansive tropical flat and spotting the glittering flash of a school of tailing bonefish!

Despite the classic tailing give-away, merely spotting a bonefish can present quite a frustrating challenge to a fly angler. Many saltwater flats have sandy bottoms, but others are composed of the mottled browns, greens, and gold of thick turtle grass, making it very difficult to glimpse a well-camouflaged fish. Saltwater fly anglers also look for “cruising” or “mudding” bonefish. When looking for a cruising fish or school, watch for quick flashes and shadows along the bottom of the flat. Mudding bonefish will produce clouds and wide plumes of gray sand as they hunt and dig for their prey. Looking for such a mud spot will often yield good results.

A good pair of polarized sunglasses with copper or yellow photochromatic lenses will ease the strain of this challenge. (Experience in spotting bonefish, or a guide perched atop the polling platform of a specialized flats boat will also help!)

Bonefish are particularly aware of the perils of the thin water in which they feed. Such heightened awareness renders these fish extremely skittish at the slightest sign of danger. Fly anglers must take extreme care not to frighten feeding bonefish. This means maintaining a low profile, keeping rod tips on the water, and being prepared to make long, directed, and accurate casts in a number of challenging conditions.

Saltwater flats fishing requires a confident cast, tight attention to fly presentations, and a good working knowledge of local water and tidal conditions. Bonefishing requires all of these along with a heavy dose of concentration. Fly anglers chasing bonefish will most often be sight casting for their quarry. When sight casting for bonefish it is extremely important to understand the delicate mix of water and wind conditions and distance to the fish. If the wind is high, an angler may need to use a shorter leader and a heavier 9 weight rod and line to turn over the fly and lay down a sixty foot cast. If conditions are calm and the saltwater flat is glassy, a 14 or 15 foot leader and a lighter 7 weight rod may be necessary to avoid spooking the fish during presentation of the fly. However, if you were to choose just one fly rod to tackle all conditions, it should be a 9′ #8 fly rod.  Our favorite bonefish fly rod is the Loop Cross S1 Flatsman 890-4…controlled distance, accuracy and strength.

Because bonefish are so wary, it is important to understand how the fish is moving and where to place a cast. Saltwater flats anglers will often lead a feeding bonefish by a generous 15 feet or more. The key to presenting a fly to a bonefish is to make the fly appear to be moving away from the fish. This may sound difficult, but can easily be achieved with a simple hook cast or reach cast – both well-practiced casts in the arsenal of trout and freshwater anglers.

Stripping line after such a cast is also important. Experiment with longer and shorter strips with different pacing; pause and give the fly a slight jerk and then strip in more line. Local guides will have a favored technique and will tell you just what to do when you’ve spotted a fish and placed that perfect cast.

Hooksetting should also not be overlooked. Be sure to set the hook firmly with a confident strip set as soon as you feel the subtle tug of a bonefish at the end of the line. Freshwater anglers making the transition to salt commonly make the mistake of lifting the rod tip vertically to set the hook. This technique may work on Montana’s great and storied Madison for big browns, but it won’t hook a bonefish. (Too many anglers have bought their guides rounds of drinks back at the lodge for lifting the tip instead of using a solid strip set. Don’t be a statistic!)

For efficient fly delivery and better hook sets, the proper fly line is very important when bonefishing.  The Airflo Ridge Bonefish fly line is the best fly line on the market today for saltwater flats fishing. With a patented coating of polyurethane, which is impervious to bug repellant and sunscreen, this particular fly line will last many hard seasons. All other fly lines are constructed of PVC material and don’t react well to the likes of bug spray and sun screen. The low-stretch core of the Airflo Bonefish line provides more efficient casts. And, when “strip-setting” on a bonefish, this low-stretch core makes for solid hook sets.

Bonefish will readily take a well-presented fly, and will make several long runs, usually taking a fly angler 150 yards deep into the backing. Generally a bonefish will make about as many long, straight runs as its weight in pounds. A 2-pound fish will make 2 long runs and a 4-pounder will take you and your reel for a spin about 4 times. This is not by any means a hard and fast rule, but something to keep in mind when it’s time to strip set the hook and play that fish!

A raft of creative fly patterns has arrived on the tails of the bonefish craze. Synthetics, foam, and flashy materials offer fly tiers a new world of possible creations to toss into the salt. Crazy Charlies and Bonefish Candy are effective patterns from Christmas Island to Los Roques. One of the hottest and most productive bonefish flies around is Bonefish Bitters, a modern epoxy-headed crustacean imitation developed by Craig Matthews in the 1980s. Classics like the Gotcha and the Bonefish Scampi as well as myriad crab patterns will also yield good results on the saltwater flats.

Bonefish have provided fly anglers of all stripes and backgrounds with a new and salty world of mystery, information, and excitement. Freshwater anglers have enjoyed the challenge of learning new rigging, casting techniques, and traveling to warmer more tropical destinations. Saltwater anglers have enjoyed advancing the sport of fooling bonefish with a fly and pushing the limits of saltwater flats fishing. Bonefish are special creatures, and according to fly fishing legend, Lefty Kreh, if left with only one choice, the bonefish would be his target. That’s quite a bold marketing pitch, and one we’re hard-pressed to disagree with.

– Evan P. LeBon