Bonefish 101: On and Off the Water

By Lefty Kreh 

I have been fortunate to fish throughout much of the planet, and have caught more than 100 species on a fly rod. And my favorite remains the bonefish.

There is much to like about bone fishing. You use rather lightweight tackle, small flies and once hooked if you are lucky you land one in minutes unlike many of the more glamour species. When wading or being polled across the shallows, you see an ever-changing landscape. A barracuda lay motionless ready to swiftly grasp its prey. Different types of rays swim by and the bottom slowly reveals some mysteries as you move over it.

I think one of the things that fascinates me about bone fishing is the angler can do nearly everything right, only make one small miscue and the game is over.

In freshwater, brown trout are considered one of the most difficult species to fool and are quickly alerted to the presence of an angler. But, the eyes on a bonefish are twice as sharp and can spot something unfamiliar from great distances.

I caught my first bonefish in 1969 and have learned much along the way.

If limited to one rod a nine foot, 8-weight rod will be sufficient.

A large arbor reel that will hold 150-yards of backing will also be more than enough for skinny water fish. The claim that you need more than 200 yards of backing is an overstatement. On rare occasions a bonefish may run 60 to-100-yards, but, having caught hundreds of bonefish in various regions, I have never had one run that far.

Fly selection should correspond to the color of the flat.

For example, in the Bahamas most flats are a light-tan coral and so most patterns should be pale brown, pale pink or an off-white color.

Variations of olive colors usually produce best when ocean bottom has turtle grass, or other similarly colored vegetation.

Hook size is governed by the average size of fish encountered.

Keeping a low profile while fishing from a skiff, or wading can help keep from alerting fish to your presence.
©Brandon Powers, Temple Fork Outfitters.

Where most bones are one to five pounds, a size-four hook is best. Many anglers dress patterns on smaller size-six hooks, but big bones are more likely to take patterns dressed on larger flies. A size 2 is the smallest and often a size 1 or even 1/0 is more effective.

Bonefish flats often have sharp coral, so flats wading boots are recommended. Black colored ones are to be avoided as they can absorb sunlight and cause feet to get too hot.

All boots worn while wading will gather grit, sand and abrasive material. To avoid this wearing gaiters (designed to be used with stocking foot waders), can prevent these coarse materials from getting in boots. Socks and long pants should be worn at all times while on the flats.

DO NOT put the pant legs in the boots. Allow the boots to be inside the legs. Now place the wading gaiters over the pant legs and secure them. Any grit that enters the gaiters will flow down along the legs and out the bottom.

A common mistake made when fishing for all flats species, is to look at the fish when casting the fly. The human mind wants the fly to be cast where the angler is looking, which all too often causes the fly to fall too close to the fish. It’s important to concentrate on the target area. The fish is visible in the peripheral vision, but the fly lands well in front of the fish.

There is no ready-made formula, but there are loose guidelines.

When the water is rippled by the wind, a fly cast just a few feet in front of a fish will usually be taken. But, on a calm day the fly may have to be presented anywhere from eight to 15-feet ahead of a cruising fish. Where bonefish are pressured by angler, and the surface is calm it is sometimes better to cast 20 or more feet ahead allowing the fly to sink completely to the bottom.

Leader length is important too.

On windy days a 9 or ten-foot leader should be used. On a flat calm surface, a leader of 12 to-16 feet is advised. Most bone fishermen start with a leader of 11 to-12-feet and adjust according to circumstances.

The butt section of the leader should be heavy and flexible and half the length of the leader, so the fly can turn over. For a 7 through 9-weight line, a 50-pound butt section is recommended.

The final key to a successful bonefish trip is to study the tides.

Some traditionally productive sites produce poorly on the wrong tides. Local guides and the lodge usually are honest about this. Or, poll a list of people who have fished the area and query them about the tidal phases.

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Hiring A Guide

By Lefty Kreh 

Hiring a guide can benefit anglers of all skill levels.

You can learn about the different forage and entomology of a certain body of water. You can also spend valuable time getting casting, and fishing advice.

However this can present opportunities of failed expectations and disappointment.

Consider some reasons why would you hire a guide, especially if you are an accomplished angler.

A guide will know when and where peak hatches occur and how best to imitate them. They can also be a valuable resource to refine casting and fishing technique.
©Nicholas J. Conklin

If you are fishing an unfamiliar area, a guide can be invaluable when seeking a particular species. They can also advise you on the best season to fish a specific body of water.

Are you an angler in search of quantity of fish? Or quality? Do you want to further develop approaches such as nymphing, dries or streamers? Are you wishing to improve conventional techniques?

The guide will know when hatches occur or what insects are prevalent. They will know where to search for bait and where and when those schools will likely show up.

When selecting a guide, honesty is the best policy.

It is best to lay out what skills you are confident in and which may be shaky. It may be tough to admit that your double haul needs work, or that you need practice pitching baits or casting lures. But, that will all come out while on the water, so it is best to have that conversation beforehand.

By indicating your skill level and the skills that need to be refined, your guide can put you in the best possible position to not only land fish, but also improve technique.

Topics as simple as explaining how you want to fish can also greatly improve your guided time. Do you prefer to wade or fish from a boat? Are you physically able to navigate fast water and make long hikes? Age and physical condition are vital considerations. In New Zealand some of the top lodges helicopter you into a remote area to fish. It is not uncommon to hike and fish several miles on your way to the next extraction point.

A guided trip—even near home can be expensive.

Add on travel, motels, etc. for those trips away from home, and the costs can quickly multiply.

Unfortunately, there are both high quality and poor quality guides. Some guides with bright personalities and other more reserved, introverted types.

When hiring a guide, ask for references. Previous clients can provide some insight into a guides personality and guiding style. A rule of thumb is to try to contact four people. It will help separate ‘buddies’ of the guide, from those with a neutral, unbiased point-of-view.

What about fees and charges?

A guide can be a vital tool in the process of locating and landing fish. 
©Jim Shulin, Temple Fork Outfitters

What does a guide charge for things such as fuel, bait and tackle? Consider the hidden costs that may arise. Will a guide charge for transporting a boat to and from the water? Is there a fee for lost or damaged tackle? Is there a fee for providing lunch and/or beverages? Does the guide furnish all tackle? If you need flies or lures are they available and are they free? Or will you have to pay for them –and how much?

Also consider asking about some of the non-fishing related concerns? What type of boat does the guide operate? What about life saving gear, life jackets, radio, and a first-aid kit? Are there inclement weather policies in place?

The quickest way for a guided fishing trip to turn sour is to not have done proper research before selecting a guide. Choosing the right guide will give you the greatest opportunity to expand your fishing knowledge and get a shot at a trophy fish.