“OK man – fish, 11 o’clock, 30 yards – cast now.”
This was the voice of Captain Perry – our guide for the day. Perry was perched on his raised platform towards the back of the skiff. Watching how much line I had in the air, he prompted, “Drop it – now, don’t shoot”. Even though I couldn’t see the fish myself, I was listening to Perry’s every word. “Wait. Okay – start stripping – strip! Keeping stripping…. stop. Strip – speed it up…”. At this point my line tightened, and keeping my rod low, I secured the hook with one last positive pull – I was into my first Bonefish in the Bahamas.
I was one of over thirty anglers fishing Grand Bahama Island. The trip was organised by Hardy Grey representatives, Andy Petherick (former TFF editor) and Howard Croston; in conjunction with the Bahamian Tourist Board. It was a competition, split into three teams over four days fishing. Some anglers were hardened ‘Bone Junkies’ – attending a forth trip of the year – while others (like myself) were virgins. Team captains arranged the fishing rotas and ‘team briefings’ were held each night. Pairs of anglers fished two locations throughout the week.
Preparing for a first ‘Bone’ trip can be expensive. A standard setup comprises of a saltwater proof 9ft, 8–9wt rod, along with a large arbour reel. I treated myself to a Hardy Zane rod and reel combo, and I must admit, I was very impressed with the outfit – especially the reel. That first run off a Bone is breathtaking – and a reliable reel with a competent drag is vital. It’s also important to invest in a saltwater fly line – specifically designed for tropical fishing. Your normal floating fly lines simply aren’t up to the job – the heat causes them to become tacky and coil up. You’ll also need to load your reel with at least 200 yards of backing – I used the ultra thin gel-spun variety.
The key to success is to keep things simple. Your casts need to be accurate, which can be difficult at times – especially into a wind. Keep your leaders relatively short – between 9–10 ft. Tapered leaders are popular, but I created my own by stepping down three, 3ft lengths of fluorocarbon from 25lb, 15lb to a 12 point. Bone flies are generally quite large and heavy (due to dumb bell or bead chain eyes), so a short, stiff leader will aid turnover. For a distinct advantage, practice your double hauls, as this technique will help you achieve distance quickly. Also, speak to the boys who have done it all before. I interrogated the experts for most of the week – you can learn so much from other people’s experiences.
Of course, be prepared for the sun. Each morning (preferably following a shower), cover yourself from head to toe with a high factor sun cream. Ensure you pay particular attention to the back of your neck, ears, and hands and even up your nose! Polarised sunglasses are essential to protect your eyes and spot fish – it’s worth investing in a good pair. Most anglers wear lightweight shirts and trousers, along with a large peaked cap. A neckerchief known as a ‘Buff’ will protect your face and neck – and they look quite cool too! My flats wading boots proved invaluable. They were comfortable to wade in and provided excellent grip on the skiff. Depending on the time of year you fish, you will encounter rain – and when it rains, it rains. With this in mind, it’s a good idea to carry a lightweight waterproof jacket. Also, you can get quite wet motoring around – those eighty-five horse engines are powerful!
Bones inhabit the shallow water flats for two reasons. They hold a variety of food and the flats offer some protection from larger predator species such as Sharks, Barracuda and Jacks. Bones are bottom feeders – hence the shape of their months. Their main diet comprises of crabs, shrimps, clams and a variety of baitfish. Popular flies such as the ‘Gotcher’ and ‘Crazy Charlie’ are designed to imitate shrimps. Successful patterns contain pastel shades and as a general ‘rule of thumb’, try to match the fly to the colour of the bottom. I noticed that patterns with rubber legs seemed to work well – I assume the Bones liked the added movement.
When a Bone feeds in shallow or ‘skinny’ water, their tails stick out of the water – this is known as ‘tailing’ – a very welcome sight! Their snouts are buried in the bottom substrate which means a fly can usually be cast right on top of fish, without them being spooked. In bright sun, their tails catch the light like diamonds – which helps to spot fish from a distance. In such skinny water, it’s best to fish smaller, lighter flies to avoid being spooking fish and snagging the bottom. You will see a lot of ‘cruising fish’ – but these are generally more difficult to catch, as they are not necessarily feeding fish. When casting, remember to give the fish ‘a lead’ – that is, ensure your fly lands in front, not behind the fish. Wait for your fly to sink and strip it back when you think the fish has seen the fly. Try not to show the fish your fly line or splash the fly on the surface. Limit your false casts, as your shiny rod will catch the sun and before you know it your fish will flee into the deep blue yonder.
Shoals or ‘Pods’ of fish sometime perform a feeding frenzy, which causes a patch of murky or ‘muddy’ water. This is known as a ‘Mud’ – when literally hundreds of feeding fish churn up the bottom searching for food. Due to the poor visibility, the Bones feel safe from predators and tend to be so preoccupied that the angler can take fish after fish – something I’ve yet to experience!
Most ‘Bone virgins’ loose fish because of the way they strike. Habit and natural reaction causes the inexperienced angler to ‘lift’ into a fish – just as you would for Trout. However, to successfully hook Bones, you need to ‘strip strike’. This involves setting the hook with a long positive strip or pull – without lifting the rod. Once everything tightens up, the rod is lifted and after a second or two, the fish finally realises it’s hooked and charges off like a train towards the horizon. At this stage, it’s vital to ensure your fly line is free to run and nothing will get in its way. This includes parts of the skiff, your reel handle, rod butt and of course the dreaded tangles. Some anglers prefer to take their shoes off when fishing from a skiff to help ‘feel’ the fly line under their feet. Don’t be too rough with the fish and just let them go. Your guide will have checked your drag before hand. It may seem too tight – but believe you me, it’s better to have your drag set a little tight then too light – to avoid an overrunning reel. You will see that backing connection fly through the rings, but don’t panic – just keep your rod high and hold on. Of course, the fish will eventually stop – so be ready for some frantic reeling. Bones also tend to run straight towards you – so be prepared. If you are wading, you can simply walk backwards to counteract this – but when in a skiff, it’s all down to how fast you can strip or reel in! Bones will generally perform two or three runs – the first of course being the strongest. As the fish tires, your guide will be keen to get it to hand quickly – take some photographs and return it with the minimum of fuss. Bones are covered in a white, sticky slime, so beware; your clothes tend to get covered! Remember to handle your fish gently – all guides are very protective of their fish – and quite rightly so, it is after all their lively-hood.
Bone fishing is very visual. It will take you a while to start spotting fish successfully, and the light can make such a difference. A really warm, bright day with the sun high in the sky is ideal. Cloudy, windy days make for difficult fishing because it hard to see fish from a distance – but they are still there of course and your guide will adapt depending on the conditions. You will be amazed what your guide sees (that you’ve missed) – this is where their experience shows through.
When wading (often the preferred way to catch Bones), depending on how the tides are, huge pods of fish can be spotted from a fair distance. When you see this, listen to your guide and only cast when they tell you to do so. Seeing individual fish is a good sign, as these tend to be the larger ones.
Stingrays are another welcome sight. They churn up the bottom dislodging food for the Bones, so keep an eye behind their path. Where there’s Bones, there’s Sharks, and these are serious hunting machines. They will pick up on a distressed, venerable fish and home in for an easy meal. Many anglers lose fish to Sharks during the fight, but your guide will do their best to scare off such predators by splashing the water or even hitting them over the head with their pole! You will see Barracuda’s or ‘Cudda’s’, but to be honest, it’s pointless even casting to them without a wire trace – their huge teeth will simply bite through your fluorocarbon – no matter what strength you are using.
Nearly all Bone fishing is done through a guide. Fish can be caught wading the flats or stalking from a skiff – either way, a local will need to motor you to various ‘hotspots’ around the nearby flats – depending on tide levels. During high tides, fish tend to escape to the security of the mangroves – which makes for difficult casting and playing of fish. Guides will often hug the mangroves to spot the odd pod of fish, and whenever possible, will sometimes ‘punt’ you into the mangroves to cover fish.
A guide is your ‘eyes’ for the day. It’s paramount to listen to them at all times. They want you to catch fish – and at some time during the day, you will have opportunities – no matter how bad things may seem. Of course, you may be unlucky to be lumped with an in-experienced guide – but generally, these boys are real characters and have been roaming the flats for years, so listen to them. As with any type of fishing, just enjoy the day and take in the experience. After all, there are not many places where you’ll be fly-fishing in crystal clear waters, in the bright sunshine amongst Sharks, huge Stingrays and other weird and wonderful species.
I must admit; I preferred to wade for fish. It feels more natural and you are free roam the flats to your hearts content. Fishing from the skiff is restrictive. You are more dependent on your guide and of course you have to take in turns with your partner. The general etiquette is to work a system of ‘one opportunity at a time’ – in other words, once you’ve cast at a fish (whether you hook it or not), you sit back down and let your mate takeover!
Finally; I warn you. Bone fishing is seriously addictive stuff – the whole experience simply blows you away. Bones fight like no other fish, and once you’ve experienced that first mad run, you’ll be hooked for life. Then (I’ve been reliably informed) you move onto Permit and Tarpon – so there’s no hope really! Experienced anglers search for what’s known as the ‘Grand Slam’ –when you catch a Bonefish, Permit and Tarpon on the same day! Money is the only thing that holds you back. Unfortunately; these fish only reside in very warm climates and the average trip will set you back between 2–3k. Such ‘Destination fishing’ is expensive, but if trips are well planned, they are not out of reach for the ‘average’ fly fisher.
I caught ten Bones in four days fishing – not bad for an amateur. I should have taken twice that amount, if I’d listened more to my guide and kept calm – I did tend to panic and fluff up a lot of opportunities. Some anglers caught over 30 fish, I suppose they where lucky to come across some huge pods of willing fish! My team came joint third (last!), but nevertheless, it was a fantastic experience – one I will never forget. I spent a week with a great group of people, from all walks of life – all with one thing in common. We will all be back in search of Bones!
Fact file on Pelican Bay, Grand Bahama
The easiest way to get to the Bahamas is to fly from London Heathrow Airport to Nassau and take a connecting flight to Freeport on Grand Bahama island. Flights will set you back around £600 – depending on the time of year (accommodation and fishing is extra). The average cost for a guided days fishing (from a skiff) is 420 dollars (£210). This is usually spilt between two anglers. You could of course arrange a ‘package deal’, for further information visit www.pelicanbaybonefishing.com