Bonefish, (Albula Vulpes). Also called, the gray ghost, ghost of the flats, bones.
Average: 2-4 pounds
Trophy: 10-12 pounds or more
Bahamas, Christmas Island.
– Lightening fast runs.
– Willingness to take a fly.
– Disappearing in plain sight.
– The “perfect” flats species.
– Great fish for first-time salt anglers.
Bonefish are, without a doubt, the most commonly targeted species by saltwater fly-fishers. They are a torpedo-shaped, silvery fish, blessed with a large, deeply forked tail, and built for speed. A bonefish’s pointed nose is covered with sensory glands embedded in a layer of thick cartilage, with its mouth positioned on the underside of the head.
Bonefish live on the flats and dig into sandy bottoms to root up prey, which is crushed in the fish’s powerful pharyngeal teeth, located in the back of their mouths. Some bonefish develop black bars across their backs depending on the environment they inhabit. These bars break up the fish’s profile making them difficult to spot from above. That is why they are often called, “ghost of the flats.” While a nice sized bonefish in most locations may weigh between five and 10 pounds, records show they are capable of growing to over 20 pounds and nearly a meter long.
Why not is the question—bonefish are perfect quarry for a saltwater fly-fisher. They are found in some of the most beautiful places on the planet. They are an aggressive, yet wary predator. And, a calm bonefish rarely turns down a well presented fly. Once hooked, however, even small bonefish are capable of putting you a hundred yards into your backing within seconds. Bonefish are targeted on shallow flats where they are often seen with tails sticking out of the water. Bonefishing is a sight-fishing game, where the angler and guide work as a team. Excellent communication is essential for success. The angler stands at the bow of the boat as the guide scans the water from an elevated poling platform, while poling the boat across a flat. Once a fish is spotted, the guide helps the angler find the fish and directs the angler’s cast, using the hours of a clock as a direction tool. The fly must land close to the fish, so they can see it, yet far enough away that the landing doesn’t spook the fish. If the bonefish doesn’t see the fly right away, a couple short strips often garners its attention. If all goes well, an angler watches the bonefish hunt down the fly and pin it to the bottom. When the bonefish is right on the fly, a long, slow strip eliminates slack and allows an angler to feel an “eat.” Once an angler senses weight at the end of the line, a firm strip-set buries the hook in the bonefish’s mouth, causing it to take off across the flat in an exhilarating and powerful run—the bonefish’s signature trait.
Bonefish are found throughout the warm, shallow waters surrounding the equator. They are ubiquitous in Florida, the Bahamas, Cuba, Kiribati, Hawaii, the Cook Islands, Mauritius and the Seychelles, among other locales.
Bonefish hunt the intertidal flats, mangroves, and creeks. They may congregate in schools consisting of hundreds of fish, though larger bonefish tend to travel in twos and threes. Giant bones, ranging between 10 and 15 pounds or more, often hunt solo.
Finding a productive bonefish flat is not difficult, but tidal movement is key in determining when and where the bonefish will be. Creatures of habit, bonefish generally venture onto a flat as the tide rises to a level that is high enough to cover their backs. On a falling tide, bonefish do the opposite, appearing on the flats as the tide drops to around knee-deep. They exit the flats just before they run out of water. The best bonefishing tides really depend on where in the world you fish: Most Caribbean guides prefer the start of the rising tide, while many South Pacific guides prefer the last quarter of a falling tide.
Bonefish tolerate oxygen-depleted water by inhaling air into a lung-like bladder. They are a bottom dwelling fish that mainly feeds by gulping sand and sifting through it for polychaete worms, mollusks, and small invertebrates. Mature bones hunt down shrimp, gobies and small crabs, using their pointed noses to dislodge prey from burrows and coral heads. Instead of conventional teeth, bonefish have a calcified, solid pallet. They use it, in conjunction with their tongues, to crush hard-shelled prey.
While little is known about the spawning habits of bonefish, scientists believe spawning occurs in deep water during full moons. Like many saltwater fish, once hatched, larval bonefish drift with the ocean currents until they settle in shallow water. Here, they morph from planktonic larvae into miniature versions of adult bonefish. We know little of what happens after this. However, biologists expect that bonefish spend their juvenile years in deep water. Once juvenile bonefish reach about 12 inches long they transition into the sub-adult phase. Sub-adult bonefish generally inhabit protected waters in estuaries, and deeper channels near the flats. As they grow, they become emboldened, feeding in increasingly shallow water.
The standard bonefishing outfit consists of an 8-weight rod matched with a large arbor reel. That reel offers a smooth drag, holds 150 yards or more of backing and an 8 or 9-weight floating line. Most anglers prefer full floating lines when fishing bones. However, more aggressive tapers are advantageous in windy conditions. Leader length should be adjusted to conditions, but a 10-foot leader with a butt section of 40-60-pound test, tapered down to 10-20-pound test, is a solid choice. Tippet choice varies based on water clarity, fishing pressure, and size of the fish. Ten-to 12-pound test is common when targeting average sized fish. Don’t be afraid to use 15-20-pound tippet when targeting the big boys. Fluorocarbon is not necessary, but it’s a wise choice—it gets the fly down to the fish faster than standard mono, and is recommended for leader and tippet.
Fly selection is based on location. The most important factor when choosing a fly is weight and sink rate. You must select a fly based on the depth of the water. If fishing shallow water you’ll need a fly that lands softly, or the fish may spook. On the other hand, if a fly doesn’t sink fast enough, a bonefish may swim by without seeing it. Ideally, a fly should hit the bottom in three to four seconds. Popular bonefish flies include the Gotcha Clouser in sizes 4-2; Gotchas in sizes 6-4; Squimps in sizes 6-2; CXI Specials in sizes 8-4; the EP Spawning Shrimp in sizes 8-4; and Bonefish Bitters in sizes 8-4.