Bonefish On The Brain

Bonefish On The Brain

Your guide to the best bonefishing on the planet.

  • By: Jim Klug
  • and Ian Davis
  • Photography by: Jim Klug
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You can chase bonefish in lots of killer locations, but the Bahamas say “bonefish” more than any other place in the world, because of both the size and numbers of fish there, and because they are found throughout a network of flats that weaves around more than 700 productive islands.

In addition, Bahamians understand that the resource is much more valuable swimming the flats than being sold for pennies at a fish market, and they protect those bones accordingly. To put it in clear perspective, here in the U.S. we put pictures of dead presidents on our currency; in the Bahamas it’s bonefish.

The Commonwealth of the Bahamas encompasses a 5,382-square-mile archipelago. The northern islands act like an upstream island on a trout stream, diverting the Atlantic Ocean’s hard currents while creating softer water below—banks, tongues, creeks and shallow, calm flats. Each island to the south harbors bones that range from two to 15 pounds or more. Typically anglers catch those smaller fish, but every old-time guide has seen 20-pound bonefish and knows how to focus on large fish if that’s what their client desires. Combined, the Bahamas’ aquatic topography creates ideal habit for bones, reef fish, permit, some tarpon, and even bluewater species.

In many places throughout the country you can fish bones on isolated flats where you’re unlikely to see another angler for days. Even in areas that are frequented by anglers, you can still find impressive numbers of what local guides call “suicidal bonefish”—fish that literally attack a well-placed fly. When fishing the Bahamas, the chances are good that you’ll hook and land a bonefish on your first day, whether you’ve fished for them before or not.

Perhaps the main reason the Bahamas is so attractive to traveling anglers is because it’s ridiculously close to the eastern United States. Get yourself to any number of major U.S. cities (including Miami, Atlanta, Charlotte, Ft. Lauderdale, Baltimore, New York, West Palm and several others) and you can grab a direct flight to the islands on dozens of different airlines. Leave home in the morning and just after lunch you’re there, throwing at bones, wading in water as warm as a swimming pool, and sucking down rum drinks.

When it comes to choosing the fishery and specific island or destination in the Bahamas that is right for you (something that can be difficult given the large number of choices) it can be helpful to make a list of the “ingredients” that are priorities when envisioning the ultimate fishing trip. First off, give some thought to accommodations, amenities and infrastructure. Are you looking for a high-end bonefishing lodge; a full-service, large-scale resort; or a low-budget, rustic guesthouse where you can simply store your luggage and lay your head after a long day on the water? Next, ask how important ease of access is. If you’re planning a week or more, then an additional connection or two and the extra effort it takes to reach the remote and isolated islands may be worth it. If you’re looking for a quick weekend escape, however, fast and direct access that minimizes travel and maximizes fishing should be your focus. Finally, ask yourself that age-old question: “Does size really matter?” Are you someone who couldn’t care less about the size of bonefish you’re catching as long as the shots and hooks-up are consistent and there’s a constant bend in your rod, or would you rather sacrifice this type of non-stop action for the chance to hook and land a seriously large bonefish? The cool thing about the Bahamas is that large fish are found on almost any flat on any given day. And if you’re someone who wants it all—numbers and size—a good guide can pole a flat and look for trophy fish in the deeper water or along the edges while still scanning the skinny water for the smaller, schooling fish.

If you’re looking for pure size—
that Jurassic bonefish that visits your dreams and runs from eight and 12 pounds—you may want to focus on Grand Bahama, the bights of Andros Island, Long Island, Bimini, Mayaguana, and Moore’s Island (off of Abaco’s west coast). And while hunting for trophy bones in the Bahamas always begins with selecting the right location, fishing with the right guide is every bit as important. Most bonefish guides can put you on fish, but there are handfuls of “big-fish” guides who are legendary for finding their clients massive, doubt-digit bones on a regular basis. Although there are probably too many of these to list in a single article, some of these well-known professionals include Charlie Neymour, Andy Smith, Marvin Miller, Prescott Smith and Benry Smith of Andros; James “Docky” Smith and Sammy Knowles of Long Island; Clint Kemp, Paul Pinder and Ricardo Burrows of Abaco; and Cecil Leadon, Jason Franklin and Ishmael McIntosh of Grand Bahama Island.

While you can catch Bahamian bonefish 365 days a year, the big fish are most often seen during cooler months, specifically between November and March. The downfall during this winter season is that big winds and passing cold fronts can be factors, although these hardships are quickly forgotten when you tie into a 10-pound bonefish that melts your backing unlike anything else you have ever hooked. Although it can be difficult to cast in high winds, a big fish’s guard might be down during tough conditions when the water is choppy and visibility is challenging; they often take a fly within a few feet of your rod tip.

As a general rule, most of the larger bones are found on flats adjacent to deeper water, such as creeks, cuts and the open ocean. That means you often cast from the bow of a boat as the guide polls through deeper water and along the edges of flats.

If you want to catch as many fish as possible, regardless of how big (or small) they may be, fish any time of year and focus on dependable locations, such as the east side of Andros Island, South Andros, Exuma, Abaco, Acklins Island and Crooked Island—areas known for amazing numbers of bonefish that average two to four pounds. These are ideal fisheries for novice saltwater anglers, offering great action and impressive numbers on a very consistent basis. When you focus on numbers, you’re likely to fish skinnier water and shallower flats, the best conditions for tailing bones on foot.

In all of these locations, it’s not like you don’t stand a chance of catching some big bones as well. You may be chasing schools of small bonefish for hours, catching three-pound bone after three-pound bone, only to look over your shoulder and see a massive shadow coming your way. What you assume is a good-size barracuda actually turns out to be a double-digit bonefish that has decided to join the party. These larger bones—usually found as singles or pairs—follow big schools of smaller fish as the tide floods the flats.

In recent years, many Bahamian guides have targeted permit and tarpon along with the ubiquitous bonefish. Permit fishing, in particular, is becoming popular as anglers discover that the Bahamas has great numbers of permit, and large ones. These fish, as a whole, see little angling pressure, and often prove eager to eat a well-placed fly. Grand Bahama, Crooked Island, and the Joulter cays (off the northern tip of Andros) are all home to impressive numbers of permit, with April and May, and October and November, providing the best conditions.

Tarpon are not as numerous or as dependable, although strong numbers are found in places like the west side of Andros. These tarpon cling to Andros due to the massive amount of fresh water that continuously seeps from this, the largest island in the Bahamas. Numerous inland blue holes pump thousands of gallons of fresh water a day into the inland lagoons and lakes, creating prime habitat for juvenile tarpon (as well as fish of up to 80 pounds). While you can chase Andros tarpon any time of year, the warmer months of April through September are prime, as they lure tarpon to the shallow, white flats of the west side.

There’s more to a fishing vacation than simply catching fish, right? Well, maybe not for some of us. But at least we can lie about it if it means sneaking in a little flats fishing during the family vacation. The fact is, many anglers are caught between the desire for great saltwater fishing and the necessity of putting together a legitimate family or couples vacation. The great thing about the Bahamas is that some operations are very good at accommodating couples, families, children and non-fishing spouses. And while the typical Bahamian lodges (with the exception of Nassau and a few resorts on the west end of Grand Bahama) are a far cry from the mega-resorts of Cancun and Hawaii, there are plenty of lodges and hotels that offer beautifully appointed rooms, gourmet food, spa services and babysitting, and side trips for non-anglers. Some of the top couples-friendly destinations include Andros’ Kamalame Cay Resort and Tiamo Resort, Grand Bahamas’ Deep Water Cay Club, Long Island’s Cape Santa Maria, Crooked Island Lodge and the Bimini Big Game Club. Top family destinations include H2O-Pelican Bay Bonefishing on Grand Bahama, Stella Maris Resort on Long Island, Swain’s Cay Lodge on Andros, and Crooked Island Lodge.

Many of these operations have flats right out your door for “non-guided fishing days.” This means you can briefly sneak away from the family for a quick lap of the flats, or disappear when your significant other is napping at the pool, to stalk tails on the home water.

If you can deal with a little less comfort, you may want to focus on the more remote Bahamian lodges and out-island “do-it-yourself” options. If you want super-isolated fishing, bring a tent and a camp stove and set up on the beaches of Mayaguana, Eleuthera or Cat Island, or one of the hundreds of tiny islands scattered throughout the Joulter Cays. Keep in mind, however, that these remote locations generally have very little access to everyday goods, which means that, aside from fresh fish and whatever else you can gather, finding supplies and “the basics” (i.e. cold beer, ice, Pop Tarts and Pringles) is a challenge. If you want isolation but need a little help enjoying it, you might consider a visit to Andros’ Mount Pleasant Lodge, where you get a great room, a decent shower, plenty of fresh seafood, and direct, private access to miles of uncrowded, white sand flats that you can wade on your own until you just can’t take it any more.

As a general rule, the farther you get from Nassau and the East Coast of the U.S., the more rustic, remote and off-the-grid the Bahamas becomes. While Bahamian cities such as Freeport and Nassau do a great job of catering to all types of tourists with their famous beaches, casinos, nightclubs, shopping and well-developed resort infrastructure, the out-islands remain mostly untouched and rustic, and as laid-back as any place on earth.

So now it’s time to break out the calendar and start planning for that next big fishing adventure. In the words of Brian O’Keefe, one of the best saltwater anglers in the world—who’s equally adept with a camera—you can’t go wrong by heading to the Bahamas.

“My appreciation of the Bahamas is hard to sum up in a few sentences,” O’Keefe told us recently. “No matter who you are, it is easy to like the beautiful flats, the plentiful and large bonefish, the nice lodges and the great guides. All of these things are a no-brainer. What is harder to explain, however, is that feeling of wading a pristine flat in perfect weather and saying to yourself, ‘I am one lucky guy.’ Every trip to the Bahamas starts when you step off the plane and that soft, warm saltwater air hits you. If you don’t immediately smile and feel lucky, you should probably stick to ice fishing.”

Jim Klug and Ian Davis are co-founders of YellowDog FlyFishing Adventures, in Bozeman, Montana where they constantly test the patience of families while pursing exotic gamefish around the globe. Check out some of the action at www.confluencefilms.tv

With keen eyesight and the speed for reel-burning runs, the bonefish is one of the best flyrod fish on the planet, and there may be no better place to pursue them than in the Bahamas.

Author Jim Klug and a guide with a large permit, a fish that is becoming a viable target in the Bahamas.

Everything You Need to Know

Flies and equipment

If you were to take only one bonefish pattern to the Bahamas, it should be the Gotcha, a fly that has caught more bonefish than all others combined—if you arrive with a box loaded with Gotchas and general Gotcha variations, you’ll do fine on pretty much any flat in the Bahamas. Other proven Bahamian bonefish patterns include Crazy Charlies (named for Andros’ legendary guide Charlie Smith), Gotcha Clousers, SimRams, and different styles of Puffs. By far the most important ingredient when tying your patterns or choosing the right bonefish flies for the Bahamas is weight and sink rate. This factor is huge, and you’ll need flies with at least three different sink rates: unweighted, slightly weighted and heavy. The unweighted flies are tied as light as possible, usually without eyes or with plastic bead-chain eyes. Fish these patterns in extremely shallow water (generally, less than a foot deep) or over flats where the turtlegrass is thick. For slightly weighted flies, use standard bead-chain eyes or micro-barbell eyes. These flies are designed for water that is one to two feet deep, where turtlegrass and coral may or may not be an issue. Finally, you need heavy flies, effective in water that is more than three feet deep. Be sure that the heavy category includes smaller hook sizes as well as larger patterns. Regardless of the size of the heavy fly you are fishing, lead eyes will get it to the bottom in a hurry. If you are tying your own bonefish patterns, remember that sparsely tied flies sink faster than heavily dressed patterns.

Other key equipment includes a fast-action bonefish rod that is capable of casting into and across heavy winds, quickly and accurately. The most popular line weight is an 8, although 7 and 9 work well, too. Be sure to cast a floating tropical line that is capable of handling the heat. If you bring a coldwater or standard saltwater fly line instead of a tropical line, you’ll feel like you’re casting a piece of overcooked spaghetti. Leaders for most bonefishing situations should be nine to 12 feet, with 10- to 15-pound-test tippets. Throw short leaders in windy conditions and long leaders on calm days, as fish are spookier when the water turns glassy. Many anglers prefer fluorocarbon in the crystal-clear waters because it sinks faster, does not reflect light and is more abrasion-resistant. Round out your packing list with quality polarizing sunglasses, comfortable wading boots, waterproof sunscreen, bug spray, and lightweight tropical clothing and headgear.

Getting there

If you’re fishing Grand Bahama, Abaco, Bimini or Andros, there are a number of flights that offer direct travel from the U.S. on a daily basis. Ft. Lauderdale, West Palm and Miami are all major Bahamas access points for commercial flights and charter flights. If you’re fishing the out-islands or more remote destinations, you’ll likely stop in Nassau, and often an overnight stay is required. If you’re overnighting in Nassau, plan on hitting the town and checking out some of the great nightlife. Check out the conch stands and nightly fish fry between Cable Beach and downtown Nassau. You may also want to visit the Atlantis mega-resort to see the world’s largest aquarium and the massive, double-digit bonefish that swim around the man-made flats.

Eat this

One of the most popular foods in the Bahamas is conch (“konk”), which is a large ocean mollusk that is easily found and collected in the shallow waters and flats surrounding every island in the country. Fresh, uncooked conch is thinly sliced with a knife, and lime juice and spices are then squeezed over the meat, “searing” or “scorching” the meat with citrus juice. Conch can also be deep-fried (called “cracked conch”), steamed, added to soups and stews, made into conch chowder, or fried into wildly popular conch fritters. Other seafood delicacies include Bahamian rock lobster (a spiny Caribbean lobster without claws that is served broiled, in salads or in ceviche), boiled or baked land crabs, and all types of fresh fish.

Drink that

When it comes to Bahamian drink options, every bar—from the flashy nightclubs of Freeport to the tiny beach joints of the out-islands—takes pride in unique concoctions of rum punch and colorful frozen drinks. (Just for the record, the Bahamas is one of few places on earth where tough-guy anglers are regularly spotted with giant blue or orange boat drinks adorned with umbrellas, plastic swizzle-sticks and all types of fruity garnish.) The most recognizable beverage, however, is Kalik, the official beer of the Bahamas. There is nothing on the entire planet that tastes as good as a frosty Kalik pulled from the bottom of an icy cooler at the end of a great fishing day (or, for that matter, at 9:00 a.m., when you’ve just released the largest bonefish of your life).