Appearance of the Bonefish

by Fly Fisherman

The appearance of the bonefish soon becomes familiar and you quickly get hep to their tailing as they feed on the bottom and tilt their bodies so that their tails break the surface. Before long it is quite easy to spot the “mud,” too, in water too deep for the tail to show. The mud is a puff of sand or mud sent up by the bonefish as Ile searches the bottom for food. Anglers and guides call this “smoking” because of the likeness of the up-drifting mud to the puff a smoker makes as he exhales.
When working on a mudding fish, the angler must remember that the fish moves faster than the smoke—in other words, the feeder is always ahead of the last puff of mud that has come up, and the cast should therefore go a couple of yards in front of that last puff.
Timing is all-important when fish are in shallow water, either tailing or swimming along. The first cast must be right because there is seldom a second chance. This is the time that it pays to wait, to carefully judge the cast. The stories one hears about too-foot casts are all wet. The average cast to a bonefish is from 45 to 55 feet. Usually casts of 50, go or too feet are wasted because they offer so many chances for misplay. It’s difficult to set the hook when the lure is out so far. By the time the strike gets to the fish, he may even have spit the fly out. And at that distance it is difficult to see either fly or fish very clearly, well enough to judge how the bonefish is reacting to the retrieve. And lure play is very important with bonefish.

I use the strip method of retrieve. With that method I can strip three feet of line, or an inch. I can make a fast retrieve or a slow one, so slow that line and fly are barely moving. I can stop the fly altogether, and let it sit still while a fish moves up on it, and if I have a hit, I always have a tight line.
When the fly is played that way, it’s like pulling a string with the fish on the end of it. On the Key Largo flats one day, I watched George Phillips cast to a bonefish that was cruising slowly along the shore in 12-inch water, some 5o feet away. He threw too far and the fly hit the water a foot beyond the fish so that the leader lay only six inches in front of him. George knew that if he didn’t get it out of there fast, the fish would run into the tippet and flush. He gave the fly a quick jerk. It shot past the bonefish’s nose and stopped two feet our side of him. The fish turned fast, swam to the fly, and seemed to nuzzle it. But he didn’t take. George gave the line a slow, foot-long pull and the fish stayed right in back of the fly. Then he seemed to lose interest and turned away. But George gave the line another pull. Back came the hone, right behind the fly.
“Get him, George,” I said.
He gave the fly a quick, six-inch jerk, so that it shot forward like a shrimp trying to get away. That was too much for old Mr. Bonefish. He pounced on it. George waited until he felt him, then set the hook, and as the fish turned and started seaward, he set it again and again for good measure.
Once a bonefish is hooked in shallow water, the angler holds the rod up, arms as high as they will go, while the fish runs. There are so many things that the line can wrap around, or the leader catch on. Above all, he must keep his hands away from
the reel, for the leader most certainly will snap if he tries to clamp down while the fish is making that first phenomenal run. Always wait until that first run is over before even touching the reel handle, and starting to reel.
If the line wraps around coral or sponge on the bottom, or becomes enmeshed with seaweed, the best way to free it is to wade or pole the boat over to the obstruction, keeping a fairly tight line meanwhile, free the line, then reel up the slack. A haul pull or jerk on the rod when the fish has the line tied up like that will almost always result in a cut leader.

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