Fishing for Bones

Posted by tpmoorhead
On June 26, 2017

After 45 years of flyfishing, I finally struck out to see what all the fuss was about regarding the pursuit of bonefish. Now I’ve caught bigger fish, and I’ve caught prettier fish, and I’ve caught better fish for the dinner plate, so in my mind, this was an opportunity for just enjoying the essence of the sport. Or was this just a sport that benefited from being in tropical locales? I set out to find out by first fishing for three days in Turneffe Flats in Belize and then, 2 months later, in fishing for a half-day in Abaco Bahamas with the sole focus of understanding the sport of flyfishing for bonefish. I read a couple books on the subject, tied a box full of fly patterns that I gleaned from my internet studies, practiced my cast, and worked on my lines and leaders. I even went so far as getting the first fly-casting lesson of my life, which was a humbling experience, completely eroding my confidence as to whether I was ready for this “Varsity” sport. 

While I did manage to catch bonefish in both locations, I choose to elaborate here on my second trip due to its more recent place in my recollection. My earlier travel to Turneffe Flats Belize was illuminating but only partially prepared me for the conditions faced in Abaco, specifically the tides in Cherokee Sound. 

My Guide Dee Albury, was an older gent, a white Bahamian with an evidently long ancestry based in Abaco. He had a heavy local accent that was reminiscent of the watermen near my current home in Southern Maryland. At times this accent and his choice of unique wording confounded my understanding of the rapidly changing situations with the fish. He was freckled and tanned with significant skin damage that results from the confluence of having a fair-skinned lineage and a life in the unforgiving sun of the Bahamas. He lived in Cherokee all his life, and so we fished his childhood backyard. 

Cherokee is a small village on the southeastern point of Great Abaco Island consisting of 20 to 30 brightly painted homes tightly grouped together on the water of the sound that lies just inside the reef. Its’ small harbor, with several docks, accommodates a host of fishing and working boats, mostly small boats with outboard motors resting on their transoms. The homes are all small single-story structures that are reasonably well maintained. Many of them had doors wide open in the 90-degree heat of the day along with their window shutters propped-open from below by a board, arguing that the cost of air-conditioning was beyond most person’s means here. This is a community obviously wed to the harder water-life. Supposedly 180 individuals are living here, but I would have guessed half that on initial inspection. I wonder at what has kept a man such as Dee here for his full life. 

As prelude to the challenges that follow, I must first describe the differences between the Bahamas and Belize in the context of flyfishing for Bones. In Belize, the tidal variation is measured in inches while the tide changes in the Bahamas were many feet, perhaps 4-5 ft difference between low tide and high tide. In Belize, I could spend much of the day on the shallow coral flats behind the fringing reef of the Atoll, where water depth changed from 6 inches to 18 inches in a tide cycle. The Bones there were always clinging to the safety of the flat to avoid the Barracuda and shark that were waiting in the slightly deeper water. In Cherokee Sound, it was a different story. At the start, we poled the Hells Bay skiff into 2 to 3 foot of water amongst the mangrove on the high tide. Upon seeing the first bonefish resting on the bottom, I wonder how in the devil, we are going to keep tied to a large fish that takes the fly so close to the shelter of tangling roots. I rotate the knurled knob on the side of my reel to increase the drag tension while thinking about trying to turn a big fish in the narrow mangrove channel we are fishing. This same channel will be dry in a few hours. 

The winds, in the Bahamas, like Belize, are ever-present and continually confound your efforts to get any distance out of your cast and to see fish in the first place. Without the aid of the bones tailing or mudding, the winds and cloud over the deeper water of the Bahamian high tide put you at a distinct disadvantage. The fish often see you first, and you find yourself casting to a bone at an oblique angle outbound. Never a good percentage shot when your fly, that is supposed to represent some bait that they feed on, seems overly aggressive and comes at them instead of fleeing from them.

Today, I am partnered with my long-time fishing buddy and friend Dennis, who, although an accomplished and practiced fisherman, is new to the sport of flyfishing. We each take turns stepping up on the bow of the skiff while Dee poles from his platform in the back of the boat. His height advantage of no more than 4 feet above us more than outweighs his disadvantage of being farther away from the fish. With his practiced eye, Dee always spots the fish before we do. He also demonstrates that he has grown used to controlling his frustration in dealing with the unpracticed eyes of his customers, often giving us clock position and distance references, with a description of the fish’s movement. “30 feet 10 o’clock moving left to right away from you.” Even with such succinct guidance, I am often casting blind and only see the fish after they bolt from my “lining” them with my leader. I find myself pointing the rod to confirm his directions and ask for corrections on that, as you would with calling artillery. The nickname of “grey ghost” suits these fish. They are ephemeral tints of the bottom colors, shadows, or merely a riffling of water different from the wind waves. They are incredibly hard to see, but I have quickly realized you have to see them first to be successful in catching them. 

Dennis is first up, and manages to affect a quick hookup with a shrimp fly pattern in the form of a silly legged #4 tan Gotcha. He immediately breaks off the fish on the take with a telltale curl at the break-point of the 10 lb leader tippet. I feel bad since I was the guy who tied it on with a simple clinch knot. While he is re-tying and re-grouping, I step up to the foredeck and make a couple of quick false casts and take a shot at the same group of fish he was targeting. These fish are huge in comparison to the bones I was after in Belize, likely twice the size. My first cast misses the mark, short. Dee is calling for me to shift my focus left, but I think I still have the target to the front. I begrudgingly oblige and cast to my 10 o’clock, without positive Identification of the fish. The bottom there comes alive as a couple of them spook at the splash of line and fly. I push my attention back to the front, and this time Dee calls the cast where I’ve been looking. The fly doesn’t spook them this time, and he calls for the strip. I feel the line tighten and make a strip strike to set the hook firmly in the bone’s jaw with the rod pointing straight down the line. I hold on a second too long without raising the rod, and suddenly the line goes slack. I’ve broken off that quickly, and Dee wonders at the actual test strength of our tippets or the integrity of my knots. On inspection, the line parted at the tippet to leader connection, where I secured it with what I thought was a suitable double surgeon’s knot. I retreat to my seat while Dennis now assumes the position on the foredeck. All of this has happened in the first 15 minutes of poling. This is going to be some kinda day. 

I now take extra precautions in inspecting my tippet and tying my knots, using an improved clinch knot for the fly attachment, and wetting the line with my lips to ensure the knot slides smoothly into place without friction damaging the knots. I delve back into my fly-box, which both Dennis and I are using, and realize that the fly that the fish were so eager to take is no longer represented. I use a larger #2 version, while Dennis has switched up to a straight #4 tan gotcha, sans silly legs. We both go for better than an hour with fish turning away from our fly presentations.

We move on to a spot to the right of some mangrove edges and soon realize that the fish are now in 3 ft deep water 30 foot out to the right of the boat. For right-handers, like us, this requires back-casts away from the mangroves instead of forward-casts toward them. Our precision in the presentation of the fly is degraded considerably, and the bones are not impressed. After a couple of different spots, we end up next to an island of mangrove that tails off into water that appears to be 8 or so foot deep. Dee has stationed us just outside a single mangrove tree on the point with the boat oriented crosswise to the bottom profiles. The broken clouds and the winds that are now above 10 mph, make sight-fishing incredibly tricky, but the bones seem to be prowling this drop and moving into us. As the fish collide with our stationary position, we are challenged with close-in shots at them inside 30 feet. I might explain here that short distance casts are sometimes trickier than longer casts for me in that the forward weighted fly-line head is partly inside the rod guides of my 8 weight flyrod, and I find myself casting an unwieldy 10 ft leader with only 20 foot of the 40 foot head of the fly-line. This is often done quickly with perhaps one false cast and can feel awkward in the extreme. 

I’ve now gone to a completely different crab fly pattern, the Pop’s Bonefish Bitter, which served me so well in Belize. After a couple of tries at the bones prowling the drop-off, I’m ready to reluctantly give up my turn on the foredeck to Dennis and reassess my fly selection. I just offer to rotate with Dennis when Dee calls out a Bone to our 9 o’clock coming our way. I’m not yet willing to vacate my perch and instead turn and cast to the greenish torpedo shape that is nose-on to us, and somehow miraculously, I find myself connected to a bonefish. Even more miraculously, I manage to clear the 15 or so foot of line at my feet and put him on the reel. The rate at which bonefish can takeout line, after feeling the sting of the hook, is astounding. The searing runs can require some dexterity from the angler in guiding the loops of fly-line at his feet up and through his hand and then through the rod guides without finding some hesitation that will instantly snap the 10 lb tippet. In my first several hookups in Belize, the coils of fly-line had seemed to have a mind of their own seeking out and grabbing onto my feet, rod butt, fingers, and even the zippered pocket of my trousers, all resulting in snapped tippets. As the fish begins to strip line off the reel, I realize that the drag is set higher than I like, from earlier when I was worried about having to maneuver the fish from the mangroves. A non-optimal rod angle, violent head-shake from the fish, or any other form of increased friction down the line could use up any margin I have with the 10 lb tippet. I endeavor to be extremely careful in the fighting of this fish. That cautiousness has to go by the side, as the fish takes out 120 ft of line quickly and then turns and heads back toward us and the mangrove to the rear of the boat. I crank the reel handle as fast as I can to take the slack out and get some control over this juggernaut, but by the time I’m really putting pressure on him, he’s only 25 feet away, toward the back of the boat. Dee instructs me to pull him out to the port-side and not let him get behind us. Sure enough, he gets there anyway, with me having to raise my rod high while Dee, who has wedged his pole into the small mangrove tree as our anchor, tries to maneuver the pole below my rod tip. He does so with great effort, but not after I let the fish bury himself on the far side of the mangrove tree at the stern of the boat. Dee somehow manages to push the fly-line outward by reaching over the small tree, and the fish squirts back out to our port-side to allow me to finally get the better of him. As the bone muscles in a couple last short runs, Dee asks if I need help landing him. I decline, grab the leader and bend down, wet my hands in the 85-degree water, and reach under the silver-sided fish and invert him with white belly up. He is spent and submits quickly. A photo with him up out of the water and I go to set him back in the water but unintentionally let the exhausted fish slip out of my hand, nose-first into the water. Dee remarks, “Belly up, that’s not good.” An exhausted fish like this can become easy prey to the Lemon Sharks and Barracuda that ply the shallows. Without pretext, I jump barefooted into the eelgrass to correct my mistake and properly resuscitate the fish with a couple of figure-eights in the water. He swims out of my loose grip seconds later. I am elated. I feel even more connected with the whole of the hunt while standing there, waist-deep in his domain. 

Our guide now chooses to stay put and wait for fish to continue to prowl the ledge and bump into us. Increasing wind and still variable clouds frustrate our efforts to spot fish while the fish appear to now be fewer and farther between, rapidly eating up the rest of the day. I comment on how hard it is to spot the fish in these conditions, especially when there is no tailing. Now the tide is down considerably, so Dee picks up on our frustration and offers to set us up for wading. Selfishly, I recognize this as an opportunity for both Dennis and myself to fish simultaneously, instead of having to alternate turns on the foredeck. I also know that I genuinely enjoy the stalking that you can do on the flats as I did in Belize, especially with tailing fish. There is something elemental in stalking fish on the flats, teasing the instinctual within the hunter, which makes this aspect of the sport so engrossing. 

I don my wading boots while Dennis borrows the guide’s shoes for the wade, a pair of brown crocs. This means we are wading without the aid of the guide. We receive mixed instructions on how to work the flats, with Dee gesturing across the expanse of mottled tan and white that turns to an aquamarine green on the far side about a 1/3 mile away. We understand that he wants us to work toward the edge of the flats where it drops into the deeper channel, but not over that brown area over there, representing solid eelgrass. We are somewhat confused but eager to attack the situation and jump in spreading out to the right and left. Later we find that this puts me on the fish and leaves Dennis in dead water. While we wade, Dee maneuvers the skiff in a long arc to the opposite side of the flat, at the terminus of that aquamarine band that represents a channel deep enough to accommodate the boat. The area I’m wading consists of submerged hillocks of sand with grass mixed in and depressions that will drop you a foot and a half. Overall I find it an irksome task of moving forward while trying to avoid a big splash that would result from a misstep in this undulating terrain. This isn’t like the coral flats of Belize. I find myself slowly stalking forward and then stepping up on one of these little hillocks to where I’m only in 6 inches of water. The foot in height gained by this has a pronounced effect on how well I see the flat. I see two small bones on a grass edge of a 30 ft wide white depression to my front, take a shot, and watch them disappear into the camouflage of the grass-bed beyond. I turn toward the boat, now parked on the channel edge, and see my first school of tailing bonefish in the Bahamas. They are moving quickly to my right. I strive to deliberately overtake them by wading swiftly, but smoothly, over the uneven bottom in a path parallel to theirs, about 80 feet offset, so I can get in front of them and have a downwind cast and a better presentation position. The fly needs to be retrieved away rather than toward the fish to look natural. While I’m moving in this fashion, I remember our guide’s instruction to “stay put and let the fish come to you.” I don’t heed it and wade right into the middle of another large group of massive sized fish that are to my front. They bolt in all directions, some caroming into the fish I was stalking and pushing them into full flight. I find another hillock now and sit tight and wait. A new target group comes into range. I drop the fly on their noses, and they bolt. As I look around for a new target, I realize that I’m surrounded by tailing fish now.

I waive to Dennis to come over. He’s in dead water, not casting but just looking, still a reasonable distance off. Multiple targets are around me. Numerous tries are made at big fish, which then rip through the water all around me. Some are close upwind, so close that I can see their big black eyes, but my efforts to push the fly straight into the wind results in a slap of the line on the water and the fish bugging out in all directions. I just have to laugh out loud at my ineptitude and consider that I’ve busted my opportunity. What a wild time! No fish in sight now, but I’m grinning ear to ear as I step off my perch and begin to make my way back to the skiff. While traversing the distance back to the boat about 200 ft away, I see that Dee is purposefully gesturing and pointing at me, or is he indicating toward something between us? Then I see it, a big swirl of sand disruption in the water, with tails and dorsal fins coming out of it. A “mud” of “happy” fish as they say. I throw the bonefish bitter with a concise 60 ft cast to almost the full extent of the line that I’ve pulled off of the reel. This is significantly helped by the wind to my back. A fish emerges from the swirl of sand, hesitates momentarily in the area that I estimate my fly is, and then moves quickly off to the right.

As I tension the line with my left hand into a strip set, there is almost no line to clear, so he’s immediately on the reel. He pulls the 100 ft of fly-line out and then 50 yards more of bright yellow-green Dacron backing. I’m surprised that he’s taken so much line out with the drag still being set high. Frankly, I’ve mistakenly forgotten to reset the drag, considering we’re on the flats now and not near the mangrove. I gingerly fight him with that in mind, keeping the spring of the flyrod always working for me. I work the fish for several minutes as I close the gap with the boat to land him within camera distance. It requires two hands to hold this fish for the picture. When I finally release him, I get the ultimate compliment from a guide, “that’s a big bonefish, nice job.” I feel like a kid who just won the Spelling Bee in grade-school.  

We’ve run out of time on the flats, our half-day is up, and we have wives back on our sailboat wondering where we are, so Dennis and I call it a day. Unfortunately, Dennis has blanked but now knows some of what it takes to catch these fish. This isn’t like any other flyfishing we’ve done. This requires technical skill, that comes from experience, on so many levels. In my mind, there are five components that you have to bring to the game to make this happen; seeing the fish, the cast, the strip strike, the clearing of line, and then the fight. Each of these elements is technically challenging in fishing for bones, and that’s what makes it so alluring. Each of these elements took me hours to figure out, over three days, in Belize, where I was fishing with a guide all to myself. It took me the first full day to simply get through the first three elements and get a good hook set. The second day I lost multiple fish while I learned how to keep the outgoing line clear of snags. Then I had to contend with numerous lost fish due to entanglements with coral and mangrove. The half-day session that Dennis and I shared definitely was too short for my friend to move through all of these lessons, so I feel for him in this regard.

So what did I take away from this fishing? Namely, that this is one of those areas in fishing where the luck factor of fishing is not so significant in proportion to other types of fishing, demanding a razor-sharp focus on technical skills. This, in combination with the intensity of the hunt, are what makes this fishing so attractive. I’m hung-up on this bonefishing. These fish are so hard to find, so hard to hook, so hard to fight, that I can’t get these few victories out of my head. Vivid memories of the hunt haunt me. I want to improve all aspects of my game and go back and try to best my first two outings. Or… maybe I’ll go after Permit?