Bonefish are a bucketlist fish for anglers from all over the globe, but what is it that’s made them so popular in the flyfishing world?
First up, they put up one heck of a fight. Despite their small size, bonefish are one of the fastest 10 saltwater fish of all time, alongside much larger fish such as the mighty Marlin, Wahoo, and Swordfish. This speed not only helps them evade predators, but it also makes them super challenging to catch on the fly – but there’s no fun in an easy win, right?
Another reason why catching bonefish on the fly is so popular is that it’s based entirely on sight fishing. Although it can be frustrating to see your fly being ignored by cruising Bonefish time and time again, it’s definitely worth it for those incredibly satisfying moments when you spot one take your carefully positioned fly.
Finally, let’s not forget that a flyfishing trip to catch bonefish will take you to some of the most beautiful places on earth, with some of the best-known bonefish hotspots being the Bahamas, Belize, Florida Keys, and Seychelles.
So, decided to go catch yourself some bonefish?
To help your trip go that bit smoother, here are our top 10 tips for catching bonefish on the fly.
1. Invest in Polarized Sunglasses
Let’s start with the basics. With any kind of sight fishing, you need to be able to see what’s going on in the water.
What’s more, bonefish are excellently camouflaged against the various terrains in which they feed. In fact, they hide so well that they’ve earned themselves the nickname of ‘ghosts of the flats’, so spotting them in the first place is a tricky task.
Polarized sunglasses filter out the harsh glare of the sun on the water surface and let you see what’s happening beneath more clearly. They might not be the cheapest bit of gear you’ll ever buy, but they’ll make all the difference to your sight fishing adventures – especially when you’re hunting these ghostly fish.
2. Get the Right Rod and Line
Although some people like to use a 9-weight fly rod to catch larger bonefish, this means using a heavier line, which is more likely to spook the fish when it lands. That’s why some people go for a 6-weight rod instead, but you’ll struggle with larger fish and suffer more when the wind picks up.
A decent 8-weight fly rod and fly line combo (your line should always match your rod’s weight) gets the balance just right and avoids both of these problems. Even a good budget rod would do, but ideally, you want a saltwater line that floats on the water with a weight-forward taper (the RIO Elite Flats Pro is excellent if you need some inspiration).
3. Be Sneaky
In some places, like the Bahamas and Florida Keys, bonefish are known for spooking easily.
To avoid this, use a tapered leader that will turn over your fly nicely. Fluorocarbon ones are best as they’re barely visible to the fish, and you can add a bit of length to your leader if the fish are spooking easily (so that the fly is even further away from the rest of your potentially spooky gear).
Similarly, you want a 12–16-pound tippet that’s nice and thin to reduce its visibility yet still has the power you need.
4. Know Your Flies
Bonefish feed primarily on crustaceans, so the best flies resemble small crabs or shrimp. These little critters are usually found on the seabed, so you need to make sure that your fly is heavy enough to sink to the bottom of the water you’re fishing in.
Make sure you don’t add too much weight, though, as this will create a noisy landing that will spook the fish (ideally, your fly should take 3–5 seconds to sink). You also want an upward-pointing hook that won’t catch on any obstacles.
The fly’s color depends on where you’ll be fishing as you want it to match the bottom – go for tan if you’ll be fishing on sand flats of green if there’s a lot of turtle grass around.
5. Use the Sun
When you’re fishing, keep the sun behind you as much as possible, so that it lights up the water directly in front of you. This makes it easier to spot bonefish as they cruise past and, as you’ll generally be casting at least 25 ft away, your shadow shouldn’t stretch far enough to spook the fish either.
Also, bonefish like things hot but not too hot, so another top tip is to head out nice and early in the summer months before the water gets too toasty.
6. Stalk Wisely
When you’re out on the prowl looking for bonefish, stick to the shallows, as this is where they love to feed (mangroves and sandbanks are usually hotspots).
Make sure you take things nice and slow. These fish are hard to spot, and you need to take your time and study the water properly. When you’re on the move, make sure you tread lightly to avoid spooking the fish (and to avoid damaging any marine life underfoot).
7. Look for Sandy Patches
One thing I’ve learned from experience is that it pays to keep your eyes peeled for clouds of sand in the shallows. Bonefish will stir up the seabed while they’re feeding or, if they’re having trouble finding food themselves, they’ll hang around and hoover up the remains of a ray’s dinner (rays also disturb the sand when they feed).
These sandy patches are a lot easy to spot than bonefish themselves, so it’s definitely worth checking them out.
8. Cast Ahead
How far you should lead your bonefish fly comes down to a whole bunch of factors but, as a rule of thumb, you should cast 3–5 ft in front of the fish, depending on how fast it’s moving (shorter for slower fish and longer for faster ones), and strip when the fish is 2 ft away from the fly.
You might notice that the bonefish does an odd little maneuver when it takes the fly – sometimes they bob down on their sides and push one side upwards. Whatever you do, don’t let this put you off. Keep stripping until you feel the tension, then let it run (and boy will it run).
9. Line Management
If you’re anything like I was when I caught my first bonefish, you’ll be so excited that line management is the last thing on your mind… but it really is something to be aware of if you don’t want to end up losing a fish or leaving one out there with a hook in its mouth.
Keep your rod lifted when fighting, don’t stand on the line, and make sure your line doesn’t wrap around the rod… it’s a lot easier if you stay calm and remember to breathe!
10. Release Carefully
It’s easy to get sloppy with the release, still high off the buzz of your catch, but you should always try to follow the Keep Fish Wet principles to avoid damaging the fish in the long term.
If you want to take a quick picture, then make it snappy (no pun intended) to minimize the amount of time you spend handling your fish. Keep it in the water as much as possible and remember that bonefish hearts are located close to the pectoral fin, so you need to hold them gently to avoid putting pressure on the heart of an already very stressed-out fish.
Take pliers with you for hook removal, too (and always use barbless hooks). It’s the safest way to get it out (for you and the fish).