- By: Chico Fernandez
IF YOU’RE A FRESHWATER FLY fisher and have never caught a bonefish on a fly rod, my recommendation would be to take a trip abroad to the Bahamas, Belize or Mexico’s Yucatan for a chance to see quantities of bonefish in shallow water, from schools to single fish. You’ll get plenty of shots, probably take a few fish that first week and in doing so sharpen your sight-casting skills. Later, on subsequent trips, you’ll start to use lighter fly rods (even a 6-weight), further improving your saltwater skills. And on average, when you look back at a few of these trips, you’ll find that you have taken many bonefish between one and four pounds, and maybe a few bigger ones that some guides call 10-pounders but if put on a scale they may go six or seven pounds. Still a very nice bonefish, particularly if taken on a light fly rod.
However, sooner or later, you’re going to start thinking about big bonefish. A double-figure fish. Dreaming about the hunt, how big the fish will look on the shallow flats, the long and nerve-racking first run…and maybe holding it for a photograph before a quick release. When that time comes, I know the place you need to go. I’ve been fishing here for more than 50 years and during that time I’ve fished with the best guides and anglers in the bonefish game. There are more large bonefish in the shallow waters of the Florida Keys and Biscayne Bay in Miami than any other place I know. And the records of catches, including world records, throughout the years prove it.
If you find a good guide and have developed the proper casting skills, especially casting through the wind, you have an excellent chance of taking a double-figure bonefish almost any day of the year. Countless bones in the 10- to 12-pound range are caught daily in these areas. And every year a few are taken in the 14-pound and larger class. These fish are several times bigger than the average bonefish anywhere else. It’s crazy. Let’s learn something about the area and Mr. Big Bonefish so we can plan a trip.
The “golden area” is mainly from the Lower Keys to Biscayne Bay right along the Miami coast. Any farther south, like Key West, and you’ll find permit and tarpon but not as many bonefish. And any farther north of Miami and you run out of flats. So where should you go on your first big-bone adventure? Actually, I don’t think you can go wrong anywhere within the golden area.
The Lower Keys gets much less publicity than the rest of the golden area; but there are lots of bones over 10 pounds, certainly as many as any area to the north, and it’s often fished less. Capt. Steve Huff, a friend of 40 years, is probably as well known as any guide that ever poled these flats, and this is one of his preferred areas. “A low incoming tide on the Gulf side of the Lower Keys can produce great bonefishing, with plenty of tailing fish, especially in the fall,” he told me. He particularly likes the area of the Content Keys. So do I—this spot is beautiful.
The Middle Keys and especially the Upper Keys in the Islamorada area are the best bets for big bones, both on the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf sides. But there’s some pretty active angling pressure here, mainly around Islamorada.
Biscayne Bay in Miami offers some great bonefishing, from the softer flats inside the bay to the rock-hard bottom of the outside flats. Large bones are taken there on flies all the time. Capt. Bob Branham, who is one of the best guides ever to fish Biscayne Bay for bones, tells me he sees much less pressure in this area because there are fewer guides working. “You can catch a double-figure fish here at any time of the year, but probably have an even better chance in fall and spring,” he says.
Sandy Moret, who owns Florida Keys Outfitters in Islamorada, is in my mind as good at sight-casting on the flats as anyone I’ve ever met. With more than 20 years experience in the area, Sandy gave me a great overview of angler traffic in the Keys.
“Guided-angler traffic starts to build up around February and by May and June it’s at its peak, but by mid-July they start to clear out. August and September you often can fish a flat all by yourself; only the locals are fishing. Late October it starts to pick up slowly, a little slack around Thanksgiving, and by February it starts to pick up again. But do avoid Labor Day weekend, the Fourth of July weekend and the two-day lobster season that usually takes place around the end of July. Avoid these dates at all costs!”
Consequently, booking a guide in the fall, when fishing is very good, is much easier than in spring or summer (when the guides get booked up quickly), and room rates in South Florida and the Keys are usually lower. But be aware than some restaurants close after the summer and others close early in the evening. So if you fished late, don’t go to the hotel to shower and change. Best to go straight to the restaurant first!
If you come in late winter and early spring, when most of the bonefish are spawning, you’ll probably have one of your best chances at a truly large fish. The bones will be fatter and heavier than other times of the year—a 10-pounder from summer may be a 12-pounder now. Some fish get so heavy that their bodies are fat almost all the way back to the fork of the tail (a pretty interesting look for such a streamlined fish).
South Florida marine-biologist Aaron Adams tells me that at that time of year an angler may get a shot at large bones that don’t come onto the flats otherwise—and in the cooler water they fight hard, producing some long runs. If water temperatures are cold, you may have your better fishing through the middle of the day when it warms up. But it’s a little risky, too, because if there’s a cold front, bones may stay in deep water till the weather warms. Fishing is always a gamble.
Spring is the traditional time to be fly-fishing in the Keys. Tarpon season is in full swing and guides have been booked often a year ahead. And while most anglers have tarpon on their minds, bonefishing is great. And the usual windy days of April and May help you hide a little while approaching an old, wise bonefish. But you need to be able to cast in the wind to seize the advantage.
Personally, for big bonefish, give me a windy day—the fish are not as aware of the boat and angler, and they seem to move better on the flats. I prefer a windy, sunny day with good visibility. But Capt. Dave Denkert not only likes a windy day, but also wants low visibility for real big bones. “It’s hard to see them in those conditions, but it’s hard for them to see you, and my anglers have taken some of my biggest bones on windy, dreary days.”
In summer and early fall, water temperatures are the 90s and often too hot for bonefish to come onto the flats. The best fishing then is early and late in the day. Many guides in the Keys offer a split day, during which they take you fishing at dawn till 11 a.m. and come back to the dock, have lunch and a nap, and go back out again at 4 p.m. till dark. It makes for a long day, especially for the guide, but it’s a great way to fish prime-time. One of the guides I’ve fished with who specializes in these summer split days is Capt. Andy Thompson, who arrives at the flat at daybreak and then returns for the second session fishing for tailing bones at sunset. It’s quite an experience, and the advantage is that you’re out of the heat during midday.
In Miami, where there are stronger currents passing through small, narrow flats, the water temperature is often not as hot as it is in the Keys, and Capt. Bob Branham tells me it’s not unusual in the Biscayne Bay area to fish all day for bones in the summer, and for tailing fish in the middle of the day, if the weather is a bit cloudy. Different areas fish differently.
The fall may also bring some spawning fish. Capt. Dave Denkert, who has won many bonefish tournaments in the Keys, prefers the fall for the real big bonefish because the lack of anglers makes the bones more relaxed and of course the weather is more consistent, with a bit less wind than you’d encounter in the spring. Also, this is the time of year when you find many flat-calm days, which are pretty but make the bonefish very spooky. Long leaders are a must at this time, and I often go to a 7-weight outfit for a quiet presentation.
For more of Chico’s advice on catching big bonefish, and a list of guides in South Florida and the Keys, go to flyrodreel.com Skills section.