“OK man – fish, 11 o’clock, 30 yards… cast now.”
This was the voice of Captain Perry, our guide for the day at the famous Pelican Bay, Grand Bahamas island. Perry was perched, bare foot on his raised platform at the back of the skiff. Watching how much line I had in the air, he prompted, “Drop it now, don’t shoot”. I couldn’t see the fish myself, but I was hung on his every word. “Wait. Okay – start stripping – strip! Keeping stripping…. stop. Strip – speed it up…”. My line tightened and I secured the hook with one last positive pull – I was into my first Bahamas bonefish.
I was one of over thirty anglers fishing the 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’ on their fourth trip of the year, while others (like me) were complete newbies. Team captains arranged the fishing rotas and team briefings took place each night, with pairs of anglers fishing two locations throughout the week.
Preparing for a first bone fishing trip can be expensive and I treated myself to a top of the range Hardy Zane 9ft, 8wt rod and accompanying large arbour Zane reel. That first run off a bone is breath-taking 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 ultra-thin gel-spun backing to fit it onto my reel.
As ever, the key to success is to keep things simple. Your casts need to be accurate which can prove difficult at times, especially into a wind. Keep your leaders 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 12lb point. Bone flies are generally quite large and heavy due to dumb bell or bead chain eyes, so a short stiff leader aids turnover. You’ll need to be a competent caster to maximise your chances of success and double hauling will help you achieve distance, quickly – often into a wind. Learn from the experts around you – I interrogated my fishing companions for most of the week and learnt so much from their experiences.
Of course, be prepared for the sun. Each morning, cover yourself from head to toe with a high factor sun cream and ensure you pay particular attention to the back of your neck, ears, hands and even up your nose! A baseball cap is essential or preferably a large-brimmed hat to keep the sun off your face. Polarised sunglasses are also a must to protect your eyes and of course spot fish – it’s worth investing in a good pair too. Most anglers wear lightweight UV protected shirts and trousers and a neckerchief known as a ‘Buff’ – these look quite cool too! My Simms flats wading boots proved invaluable. They were comfortable to wade in and provided excellent grip on the skiff. Be prepared for rain and when it rains, it rains. It’s a good idea to carry a lightweight waterproof jacket – you can get quite wet motoring around as those eighty-five horse engines are powerful!
Bones inhabit the shallow water flats for two reasons. They hold a variety of food and offer some protection from predators 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. Many patterns contain pastel shades, and as a rule of thumb try to match the fly to the colour of the bottom. I noticed patterns with rubber legs seemed to work well – I assume the movement was an added attraction.
When bones feed (heads down) in shallow or ‘skinny’ water, their tails stick out of the water. This is known as ‘tailing’ and in bright sun their tails catch the light like diamonds which helps spot fish from a distance. With snouts buried in the bottom substrate, their visibility is restricted which allows you to cast on top of fish, without them being spooked. In such skinny water, it’s best to fish smaller lighter flies to avoid spooking fish or snagging the bottom. You will see cruising fish, but these are generally more difficult to catch, as they are not necessarily feeding fish. When casting to a fish, remember to give ‘a lead’ – ensuring your fly lands in front not behind the fish. Wait for your fly to sink and begin stripping it back if you think the fish has seen the fly – your guide will often prompt you. Bones are spooked easily, try not to show the fish your fly line or splash the fly on the surface. Limit false casts as your shiny rod will catch the light and spook fish. 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 huge shoals 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 newbies loose fish due to the strike. Through habit, they ‘lift’ into fish but you must learn to strip strike, by keeping the rod low and setting the hook with a long positive strip or pull. Once hooked, the rod is kept high as the fish charges off like a train. It’s vital to ensure your fly line is snag free – parts of the skiff, reel handles, rod butts and of course tangles can all lose you fish. Some anglers prefer to fish barefoot when fishing from a skiff, to feel fly line under their feet. Don’t try and hold onto the fish during that first run, just let them go. Your guide will usually set you drag for you. It may seem too tight but believe you me, it’s better to have it 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 in. Be prepared, as bones also tend to run straight towards you. 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 make two or three runs, the first being the strongest by far. As they tire, your guide will be keen to get it to hand quickly, take a photograph and return it with the minimum of fuss. Bones are covered in a white, sticky protective slime so beware; your clothes tend to get covered in it. Remember to handle these fish with great care, all guides are very protective of them and quite rightly so, it is after all their livelihood.
It will take you a while to start spotting fish successfully and the ever-changing light can make such a difference. A still, bright day with the sun high in the sky is ideal. Cloudy, windy days make for difficult fish spotting because it’s hard to see fish from any distance, but your guide will advise on your best approach depending on the conditions. Your guide will have always spot fish before you, usually with years of experience chasing these silver ghosts. Wading the flats is usually the preferred way to catch bones – there’s something special about being knee deep in the crystal-clear water amongst such dramatic landscapes. Depending on tides, huge pods of fish can be spotted from a fair distance. 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’ll pick up on a distressed, venerable fish and home in for an easy meal. Many anglers’ lose fish to sharks 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’ll see barracuda’s or ‘cuda’s’ but it’s pointless targeting them without a wire trace – their huge teeth will simply bite through your fluorocarbon no matter what strength you are using.
Fishing will often take place will the help of a local guide. Fish can be caught either wading the flats or from a skiff – either way, a guide will need to motor you to known hotspots, 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 mangroves to spot pods of fish and whenever possible, will switch the engine off and ‘punt’ you into the position to cover fish.
A guide is your eyes for the day and it’s paramount to always listen to them They want you to catch fish and at some time during the day, you will have opportunities – no matter how bad things may seem. Local guides are real characters and have been roaming the flats for years chasing fish – you have aid for their services, so listen to them. As with any type of fishing, just enjoy the day and take in the experience. 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 preferred wading the flats to casting from a skiff. Wading feels more natural, and you are free roam to your hearts content. Fishing from a skiff is restrictive. You are more dependent on your guide and of course you must take in turns to fish with your partner. The general etiquette is to work a system of ‘one opportunity at a time’ – in other words, once you’ve cast to 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 the even more desirable permit and tarpon. Experienced anglers search for the ‘Grand Slam’, catching a bonefish, permit and tarpon on the same day – the stuff dreams are made of! Destination fishing is expensive, these fish reside in warm climates but if trips are well planned, they are not out of reach of the average fly fisher.
I caught ten bones in four days fishing – not bad for an amateur! I would have caught twice that amount if I’d listened more to my guide and kept calm, I did tend to panic and miss a lot of opportunities. Some anglers in my group caught over 30 fish being lucky to come across some huge pods of fish. My team came joint third (last!) but nevertheless, it was a fantastic experience and 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’ll all be back in search of these fantastic fish!