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Spotting Bonefish On The Flats

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On: Mon, Oct 11, 2010 at 5:08PM | By: Capt Gregg McKee

Fall is bonefish season in the Florida Keys. There is no better time of year to find cooperative tides and weather in the southernmost part of the state. Booking a guide is a surefire way to get on these fabled fish but it can also be done on your own. Volumes have been written about where and when to hunt them, but I want to address something that might seem a lot easier, but really isn’t:  how to see them. 

For a beginner, the simple act of spotting a bonefish on the flats is the biggest hurdle on the way to actually catching one. They’re nicknamed grey ghosts for a very good reason. Bonefish are perfectly camouflaged for their environment and nearly invisible under the best of circumstances. They can literally appear and disappear in the blink of an eye, just like a ghost.

The first step in spotting the bonefish is having the proper eyewear. Good sunglasses are essential but even the most expensive frames are worthless without polarized lenses. My personal favorites are the Fathoms by Costa del Mar. These are in the upper price range for quality fishing glasses, but they also come with a great warranty. There are several lens colors available, but amber is the by far the best for shallow water. If $180 is too steep there are less costly alternatives, but this is one piece of flats fishing equipment that is absolutely essential. You don’t want to hit the flats with a third-rate pair of sunglasses.

Knowing a bonefish when you see one is a big challenge, especially if you’re fishing on your own without having used a guide before. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had anglers catch bonefish without seeing first seeing them. They simply followed my direction from up on the poling platform. If you’re on your own, you shouldn’t count on finding tailing fish like you see on the TV shows. Tailing is caused by several factors, especially a low incoming tide and calm winds. Find these conditions, which are fortunately not uncommon during October in the Keys, and you’ve got a nice chance of spotting tails. The good news is that tailing fish are actively feeding, so you know you’re looking at hungry bones.

More commonly you’ll be looking for cruising fish in water at least a foot deep. Add a good twenty knot breeze to the mix and you’ll really need to have your eyes and brain working together to spot the bones. Movement is always a big giveaway. The trick is to simply pick a spot on the flat and stand totally still for at least fifteen minutes. Open your eyes wide and take in all that’s in front of you; don’t just stare at the downwind spot where you hope to cast. Once you get a fix on the terrain of the flat, such as the rocks, the sand patches, the sponges, and everything else that’s stationary, a moving object will jump right out at you.

On grassy flats, like those in the Keys, bonefish can look surprisingly dark. Their backs are striped deep olive which makes them appear dark brown or even black from above. On the bright sand flats of the Bahamas they’re exceptionally light blue-grey or even pure silver. Again, movement is always the giveaway. However, wind and currents can create a tremendous optical illusion in the water. Throw in a lot of anticipation and after a while everything starts looking like a bonefish. Stay in one spot too long and you’ll eventually be casting at rocks and sea fans. These are what guides call the dreaded “Wish Fish.”

Your final step before you cast is to positively identify your target as a bonefish. All good flats are home to a host of other species that can look very “bonefishy” from a distance. Barracuda, boxfish, and small sharks are the three most common imposters. One thing to remember is that bonefish are almost never stationary, except when they briefly stop to feed. At that point you’ll see them either tailing or kicking up puffs of mud on the bottom.

This brings us to our final giveaway. Any patch of muddy or milky water on an otherwise clear flat is usually something feeding. This could be caused by mullet, a large stingray, or a school of bonefish. Whenever I see a basketball-sized or larger puff of mud, I cast into it immediately. Let the fly or bait drop to the bottom and begin a slow retrieve. If the mud is caused by bones you’ll get a quick hookup since you’ve found hungry fish that aren’t paying attention to anything else.

There are a lot of other factors that go into catching bonefish on your own. But when you can finally see and positively identify them, even if they’re running in terror from your clumsy cast, you’ll be a whole lot closer to actually landing one.


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