Anyone who’s pursued bonefish in the Florida Keys long enough has great stories to tell of these extraordinary fish, famous for their size and the extreme challenge they present. All of these anecdotes are amazing and as exaggerated as some may seem (I was skeptical when I first heard them, anyway), after nearly 20 years of fishing there I’ve come to believe just about anything I hear of these fabled creatures. As the late Billy Pate noted, “The bonefish here are big, and they all have names.”
The Keys do have a healthy bonefish population, however, there are fewer fish here than in other destinations, such as the Bahamas or the Yucatan. Veteran Keys anglers are far more preoccupied with size rather than numbers of fish caught – these seasoned bonefishermen do not seek the schools of fish commonly found in other destinations; instead, they carefully stalk large and difficult singles and doubles (fish commonly in double-digit territory), calibrating their expectations to perhaps just six or eight encounters per day. Managing a few fish over a week’s wading the hard oceanside flats is an admirable accomplishment.
Nearly every bonefish I’ve taken in these hallowed waters has been while fishing on foot. Pursuing them from a poled skiff is, however, the best and most productive approach, especially when accompanied by a native guide who knows this fascinating archipelago. But despite the challenges, I savor wading for them.
Big Keys fish are sometimes found tailing in thin water, particularly early or late in the day when wind, tide and temperature conditions conducive to that behavior prevail, but most of my success has by far come while working deeper grass flats. As with permit fishing, the combination of added depth and darker bottom demand stronger light in order to see fish at a reasonable range for presentation. I’ve spent lots of time stalking these fish in water above the knee to perhaps high-thigh in depth, but every so often I stumble upon a big one in very shallow water commonly associated with smaller two- to four-pound fish. These fish are ultra-challenging . . . they demand your “A-Game”.
I typically wade out to a strategic position ahead of fishable light. As visibility increases with the rising sun, I intermittently wade down-sun very slowly, frequently remaining motionless (posting-up) for long periods to allow encroaching fish to swim silently into view. The approach is similar to what whitetail deer hunters refer to as “still hunting”. A typical Keys’ day winds down around 1:00 PM as shoreline waters approach 90F and become simply too warm for bonefish activity. To save valuable time, repositioning is accomplished out of the water, enabling brisk, stealthy moves to alternate sites on the flat, or a rerun of a juicy stretch without alarming any fish in the area. A second round of activity may unfold with a rising late-day tide and the sun off the water as sunset approaches.
Toward the end of the morning’s fishing on a hot day on Ohio Key, I egressed the water to reposition for one last run down the flat. Hustling to get back to deep water with what little time was left, I wasn’t paying much attention to the pock-marked coral bottom that bordered the flat along the water’s edge when I was stopped dead in my tracks by a golf ball-sized burst of marl that caught the corner of my eye.
The ensuing adrenaline wave that flushed through me sharpened every sense – I looked hard, but saw nothing more . . .
A minute later a second puff appeared – about ten feet uptide of the first – but still I could not decipher a bonefish. The white coral was dusted with bright marl that filled the coarsely pock-marked bottom like confectioner’s sugar creating a numbing reflection off the bottom in the blazing mid-day sun. Not so much as the tip of a tail scratched the surface. I hunched low and cautiously moved up the shoreline to stay abreast of this phantom fish. Finally, about 30 feet uptide of the marl that initially captured my attention, a vapid ghost materialized as it worked its way like molasses over a patch of sparse brown grass. It was a very long bonefish.
Crouched low at the water’s edge, I quickly changed to a tiny, pale, unweighted fly to make the most of this opportunity and not spook this fish. I was fishing a 12-foot straight shot of 10-pound-test fluorocarbon and an eight-weight floating line.
Cat-like, I continued up the shoreline, keeping my profile below the mixed-up vegetation immediately behind me and gingerly reentered the water well ahead of the big bone. With my focus riveted on this barely visible fish, I dropped to my knees about twenty feet off the beach and maneuvered from that position over jagged coral to get my shot – it was nasty.
Head-on distances can be difficult to judge from such a low position – instead, I waited for a close crossing-shot that allowed me a better feel for where my fly was positioned in the intense shimmer and my best view of the fish’s response to my presentation. When it closed to within three rod lengths, I rolled out with a choked-up hold of the rod ahead of the grip, flicked a quick backcast and with a wide-open delivery I gently lobbed the tiny crab silently into the water about ten feet in front of the fish and a foot inside its path.
The ensuing moments demand firm mental effort to remain calm and responsive . . . regardless how many big bonefish one has taken. My heart pounded with adrenaline as this fish approached. When it was a foot from where I sensed my fly had settled on the coral, I scarcely inched the crab with a single delicate nudge. With no change in speed, the bonefish veered ever so slightly in my direction and paused . . . but not so much as a tap nor twitch of that long gray body.
This is a dicey moment with sophisticated bonefish and it was now my move. Rather than risking a brisk strip-strike that would surely send this fish to Cuba if it hadn’t eaten, I opted for a slow, careful draw . . . and we were tight.
Hooking up with powerful fish at such short range often ends with a broken tippet the instant it begins, as fly tackle has little inherent “stretch”. A bonefish’s explosive response ignites far too quickly for human reflex; anglers must anticipate and maintain presence of mind to ensure quick, soft hands prevail that allow the fish to make it to the reel. I was prepared for a “Category 5” response from this fish.
The bonefish’ reaction was immediately strange – a few headshakes followed by a short, tempered run that got it onto the reel . . . then a few more minor league shakes. A second modest run drew just forty feet of fly line from a light drag (I fish bones loose at the start and gradually tighten-up as the fish burns out). At the end of that run, it shook its head some more and simply held its ground, much like a spring-run striper. Then – much to my surprise – it suddenly turned and swam right to me, as if surrendering without a battle. The bonefish casually circled in front of me before submitting to my legs on its side, mouth agape. Without removing the fish from the water, I cradled him upside-down, wiggled the fly loose and set this strange fish on its way.
He lunged ten feet and then resumed casually feeding . . . I was bewildered.
This was a very old bonefish – its shrunken lower tail lobe, worn ventral fins and reddened belly made that clear. But even old bonefish are capable of fireworks when hooked. Its behavior was baffling – almost as though this wizened fish knew the routine, perhaps having been hooked, landed and released many times during its tenure on that oceanside flat. Though this hefty bone never showed me my backing, it’s one of the most intriguing fish I’ve ever encountered . . . a fascinating interlude with a very old specimen of an ancient species.