What is it about the bonefish?


via flylifemagazine.com

Ahh, the bonefish–perhaps the most sought-after fish on the flats.   Ask 5 fly fishers why they adore the bonefish and you might well get 5 different answers.  The drag-screaming runs they incite are the stuff of our wildest dreams.  Photos of their homes adorn the covers of vacation brochures and most of the pages inside.  The challenge they present is unmatched.  The thrill of spotting a silver tail as it emerges from the crystal water is heart-stopping.  Landing a perfect cast gingerly just ahead of a cruiser is perhaps the greatest accomplishment in all of fly fishing.   Spooking the fish of a lifetime provides just the slice of humble pie an arrogant angler needs.  Whatever it is that you’re searching for, chances are you can find it with the bonefish.

Are you hyped? So am I!  Ready to go?  You bet!  So what flies should we bring along? STOP.

For the bonefish, perhaps more than for any other fish, this is simply not the way to dive in.  Proper gear, approach, spotting, casting, and other things are far more important.  Anyone who has fished for these silver bullets can attest to that fact.

Nevertheless, I’ve promised a primer on slimming your fly box.  Besides, despite all that we know to be true, as fly fishers, we can’t help but think first of what we’re going to cast to our targets.  The how inevitably comes later.  So that’s what we’re here today to discuss.

As with most of our pieces, we preach simplicity.  The acronym K.I.S.S. stands for “keep it simple, stupid” and we believe that this mantra couldn’t hold truer anywhere else than with fly selection for the bonefish.  Let’s dive in.

 Bonefish: What do they eat?

bonefish mouth via smallhopecom
Take one look at the bonefish and the first thing you'll notice is its downward-aimed inferior mouth.  (Contrast this with a superior mouth--think tarpon--and terminal mouth--like most other game fish). It leaves little doubt about where the bonefish harvests its food: on the bottom.

This is important.  It tells us that it makes the most sense to target them just there: on the bottom.  This means weighted flies, but more on that a little later.  For now, it makes more sense to focus on exactly what they eat.  After all, when deciding what fly to throw, it’s imperative to understand what we’re trying to imitate.  This isn’t a novel idea; several studies have been conducted aiming to figure out that very fact.

As it turns out, bonefish are quite the opportunists.  The results of the aforementioned studies have determined that bonefish eat any number of things they come across.  Numerous species of shrimp, crabs, snails, clams and other bivalves, worms, and even starfish and baitfish have been found in the bellies of study targets.  To confound this, bonefish in different regions have been documented to have wildly varying staples in their diet.  For example, bonefish in the Carribean islands have been found to feast mainly on bivalves like clams, while their Florida cousins seem to hone in on shrimp or crabs.   What’s a fly fisher to do?

Fortunately, we are able to narrow it down considerably.  As it is painfully obvious to note, bivalves who spend their lives buried in the sand don’ t lend themselves to being imitated by fly fishers.   Hence, we can focus our efforts elsewhere.

The baitfish that bonefish target, while occasionally encompassing those who reside mid-column, generally make their living rooting around in the sand just like the bonefish.  Add to this that crabs and shrimp scuttle along the bottom.  We’re left focusing on imitations that we can drag or hop through the substrate.

Bonefish Flies

Well, well, well.  As Drake so eloquently puts it, “We started at the bottom now we here.”  Except, as I alluded earlier, we’re going to stick to the bottom.  Assuming that bonefish generally stay near the bottom, the real question then becomes:  how deep is the bottom?  On a given flat, bonefish can be found in water as shallow as a few inches outward to as deep as 5 feet or more.  Like most things in fly fishing, there’s a tradeoff.

While at first it may seem advisable to use as much weight as we can stand so we can get the fly on the bottom as quickly as possible, that weight comes with a price.  Particularly, a loud, splashy price. Unfortunately for us, the bonefish is a spooky critter.  Drop a tungstun-weighted fly in front of a tailer in 10 inches of water and you’ll see just how fast they can swim.  Alternatively, spot one cruising in five feet of water and toss a bead-chain weighted fly in front of it.  You’ll only be able to cry as you watch your quarry glide innocently under your fly before it has a chance to hit the bottom.

This leads me to an important point, perhaps the most important point to be made in this post today: no matter what patterns you have along, have them in varying weights.  If you’re sneaking through knee-deep water on look-out for a tail, select a fly with bead-chain eyes.  If you’re push-poling a skiff in four-feet while scanning for darting shadows, tie on a tungsten-weighted version.

When it comes to selecting a pattern, note also that most every bonefish pattern is designed to ride hook-point-up.  This accomplishes a couple of things.  Most obviously, it keeps the hook from dredging up seaweed and other undesirables out of the sand.  It also allows us to tie a pattern that protrudes upward out of the sand. This feature is extremely desirable for capaturing the attention of a bonefish with a severe case of ADD.

A word on size: bonefish flies are almost universally tied in size 2-10, with 6 being the most common.  Unless faced with a situation where the fish are absolutely keyed on a certain food source, an unlikely state of affairs with the bonefish, a size 6 is a good all around choice.

Without any more delay, the patterns:

Crazy Charlie
Bonefish Crazy Charlie

via orvis.com

Probably the most famous bonefish pattern of all time, the Crazy Charlie is a do-everything fly.  Able to be tied lightly weighted and sparse for skinny, clear water, or more bushy and heavy for deeper, murkier waters, it’s an absolute go-to.  Choose any color you like from white to brown, pink to chartreuse, orange to olive and go catch those bonefish!

Bonefish Puff
Bonefish Puff

via intheriffle.com

A fly that I first discovered while perusing the pages of http://www.intheriffle.com/, the bonefish puff is a dynamite pattern.  This is especially the case when targeting very spooky bonefish in shallow water.  It effectively imitates small “whatevers” on the ocean floor, and does well to mimic an aquatic worm protruding off the bottom as well. Like other patterns, the weight can be altered to match the depth.

Merkin Crab
Merkin Crab Bonefish Fly

via orvis.com

To quote http://www.orvis.com/, the Merkin Crab is “the Deceiver of crab patterns.”  Put another way, when you need a reliable, standby crab pattern to deploy for bonefish, the Merkin is it.   There’s not a lot more to say about this one.  Find bonefish keyed in on crabs?  Throw ’em a Merkin!

Bonefish Wrap up

That’s all we’ve got for now.    As we noted earlier, catching bonefish is about so much more than fly selection.  With so much to keep in mind, hopefully we’ve cleared the otherwise murky waters of at least that aspect.

Until next time, tight lines!

Did you miss our first features on slimming fly boxes?  We had our primer on slimming bloated fly boxes here: Fly Box Bloat: How did we end up here? We also had a feature on selecting flies for smallmouth bass: The Smallmouth Bass: Flies to fool them right away.

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Bonefish: 5 Go-To Flies
Bonefish are some of the most highly sought-after fish by fly fishers, but anglers are often left wondering what to cast to them. We offer flies to get you out and catching bonefish right away!