Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Miami’s Backyard Bonefish
By Pat Ford

My first serious exposure to flats fishing was in Key West back in 1971. I was stationed in the Navy and had a small center-console boat that wasn’t really designed for the flats, but it was too small to do much else. So I took it out on the flats and learned a lot about the movements of bonefish and permit.

That’s a face only a mother could love . . . unless you love fishing the flats for big bonefish. Miami’s Biscayne Bay used to provide the motherlode of big bones; today it offers only a few big bones and they are hard to find. Fortunately, the Bay’s permit fishing is very good.

              For example, I figured out that good numbers of bonefish would move onto the flats outside of the Barracuda Keys at the start of an incoming tide. I also learned that dead low at the Barracuda Keys occurred at the same time as dead high tide in Key West harbor. Bonefish were hard to come by in the Lower Keys, but afternoons found me wading the Barracuda flats as the tide began to trickle in. As the water level inched up, fins and tails would appear. There were some deeper gullies on those flats and the bones would push through ultra-shallow sections until they hit them. They’d swim down a gully till it ended, then hop back up into the shallow stuff. If you knew where to stand, it was like fishing a trout stream.

              Fast forward a few years and I was in Miami, a member of the Miami Beach Rod & Reel Club, and still pursuing bonefish on the flats. In the late 1970s and 1980s Biscayne Bay was one of the best places in the world to catch big bonefish. I had friends with flats boats and we would often go to the outside of Sands Key at dead low tide and wade along the shoreline, much like I did in Key West. The first thing I noticed was that the Miami bonefish were much larger than the Key West versions . . . they averaged eight pounds and a 10-pounder was not that uncommon. I really don’t recall ever catching one under five pounds. Captain Bill Curtis was my idol and mentor back in those days and we became lifelong friends.

If you’re looking for a big permit that’s willing to eat, Biscayne is the place to be. Local guides hunt these permit in channels leading into the flats.

             Curtis was fishing out of Key Biscayne and we would meet at Crandon Park Marina and run south till we hit Stiltsville. Curtis was not adverse to chumming with live shrimp because many of his customers were novices and/or wanted to catch their first bonefish on a fly. Curtis would find a white spot, anchor about 40 feet up-current, throw out a handful of chopped up fresh shrimp and wait. If a bonefish didn’t appear within 20 minutes, he moved. Curtis and I never did much chumming, but he always put me on bonefish. In fact, one day in the mid ‘80s I caught nine bonefish and three permit with Curtis . . . most of the bones were caught on fly gear, but the permit were on bait. We were into huge schools the entire day and never went south of Soldier Key. Back then the Bay was alive.

            Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992 and things changed. Suddenly there were very few bonefish from south of Stiltsville to just past Soldier Key. Nothing appeared to have changed on the flats; the bonefish just weren’t using them anymore. There were still big fish to be found, but not as many as there used to be, and they were elusive.

Heather Smith scored this nice bone in Biscayne Bay. This is an average size fish, certainly not the size that anglers recall from the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s.

            Even so, in December 1997, while fishing with captain Rick Murphy, I caught a 15-pound bonefish on eight-pound spin gear and a 14-pound monster on a fly. Also that month, while fishing on my own boat, I landed a 27-pound permit on a fly. Naturally, that month used up all my flats mojo for the next few decades.

            And the Bay continued to change. We’d grown accustomed to seeing massive schools of bonefish during winter, but there were reports all along the coast of commercial fishermen mistaking those bones for mackerel and killing thousands at a time. There was no market for bonefish so the carcasses were simply dumped back in the water. A noted decrease in bonefish numbers was instant and appalling. Around 2000, captain Bob Branham told me that all the flats around Stiltsville were empty. Up until that time it was one of his “go to” spots. Now, only “secret” spots produced with any regularity, and he started seeing bones in deeper water than usual, mostly singles or doubles. A big school was now a pod of six-to 10 fish.

            By 2005, the huge bonefish schools on the oceanside of Elliot Key were gone. We wondered if those schools, which numbered between 100 and 500 fish, were a pre-spawn aggregation like you might see in the Bahamas. Netters couldn’t have killed them all, and netting had been quickly banned. But, still, you suddenly couldn’t find a school of 20 fish and those big schools still remain absent today.

Every angler’s dream—a happy Biscayne permit cruising for crabs.

             Shrimping in the Bay was also a concern. There was no commercial shrimping because most of the catch was too small to be profitable but recreational fishers used wingnets, aka surface trawls, to catch shrimp. This catch was so extensive that the Florida Wildlife Commission imposed a bunch of regulations, none of which did much good. By the time Curtis retired around 2000, he said the Bay’s remaining bonefish represented just 20 percent of the numbers he’d seen in the 1970s.

             On top of this, in 2010 south Florida experienced 10 days of temperatures in the low 40s. There were massive fish kills, especially snook, everywhere. There were reports of bonefish kills, too, especially on the west side of Biscayne Bay. I think that the bonefish close to the ocean simply moved out to deeper water as the temperature dropped, but the ones along the mainland coast couldn’t make it out in time. Branham said those bonefish didn’t come back to the west side of the Bay until 2019.

              Captain Carl Ball fishes the Bay on a daily basis. He too has noticed declines and said the areas that still produce bonefish on a regular basis are being hit so hard that they are beginning to feel the pressure—fewer fish and they’re getting harder to catch. Ball also points out that the turtle grass is dying at a rapid rate and being smothered or replaced by some form of algae that clings to the bottom. This has been especially apparent on the west side of the Bay. Back in the day, he recalls catching three-to four hefty bonefish a day. Now a guide feels triumphant if he gets his angler three-to four shots a day.

Captain Rick Murphy holding the author’s 14-pound bonefish, landed in Biscayne Bay in 1997.

            Basically, over the past three decades we’ve seen the numbers of bonefish decline steadily in an area that was once the most prolific big bonefish grounds in the world. The average size went from seven-to eight pounds, to five-to six pounds, to three-to four pounds, with periods when even getting a shot at a bonefish of any size became a big deal.

            But there are reasons to be very optimistic. After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the numbers of bonefish decreased dramatically in Biscayne Bay. After Katrina and Wilma hit the Middle Keys, the bonefish numbers there dropped significantly. Then between 2008 and 2011, they simply disappeared. From that point on more and more anglers targeted Key West for bones and, fortunately, about five years ago people started finding them in numbers never seen before.

            In addition, today, bones are definitely coming back to the Islamorada area. Anglers are seeing large schools of smallish bones, which is very encouraging. The record-size bones that used to frequent areas like Shell Key are still few and far between, but the numbers of small bonefish are definitely on the rise.

            Will we see that same trend in Biscayne Bay? We can only hope that we’re just a few years behind Islamorada.

            While bonefishing in Biscayne has declined, its permit fishing is as good as it’s ever been. I fish regularly with Ball, the permit master. He has his “secret” spots where the permit always show up. They are huge and it’s pretty easy to get one on a crab. Most shots occur near the channels, meaning deeper water, and the fish eat. You’ll get more shots at permit on the fly down in Key West, but even there, you have to find one in “jack” mode, rather than permit mode, to get an eat.

            Biscayne Bay is still a world-class fishing destination for bonefish, permit and tarpon, and it’s worth a traveling angler’s effort any time they are in or near Miami. A trip with Branham last July sorta proves my point.

            It was cloudy and windy, far from ideal flats fishing weather, and it didn’t take long for us to figure out that spotting a bonefish was going to be next to impossible. So we moved on to Branham’s permit spots.

Biscayne Bay doesn’t hold many fish like this anymore. But, you know, fishing is fishing—on any given cast you could end up with the fish of a lifetime, like Eric Herstedt is holding here.

            We were checking the edges of channels that snaked into the Bay from the ocean and eventually spotted a school of about a dozen permit. I flipped out a crab and it was immediately swallowed. Unfortunately, 20-knot winds put such a belly in the line that the permit spit the hook before I could come tight. When the clouds completely took over, we couldn’t see a thing. We found one more school of permit, but I blew the cast and they disappeared.

             Eventually, we moved onto Featherbed Bank to catch the incoming tide. The best permit fishing spots are all tide dependent and the trick is to know where to be on a specific tide. It wasn’t too long before Branham spotted a school of permit hovering around a white spot. I actually managed to see this bunch and sent a wind aided cast their way. The crab landed a bit behind them as they milled, but I felt a tug and hooked up. The fish didn’t look all that big, but its first run was impressive. I only had 10-pound leader so I could only hang on until it slowed down.

             We had been seeing a lot of sharks on Featherbed that day and I wanted to land this fish as quickly as possible. I worked it within 30 feet of the boat before we even got a look at it. My first impression was this: it didn’t have a black tail and it was long . . . maybe a barracuda. A few seconds later Branham said it was a huge bonefish. He jumped off the poling platform and frantically began digging his net out of the front hatch.

              I could see that it was a really big bonefish, and there were two seven-foot long lemon sharks hot on its tail. Branham got the net, and I horsed the bonefish over to it . . . about 10 feet ahead of the first shark. Branham scooped up the bone and the shark just about rammed the boat. Then a very strange thing happened—the sharks didn’t leave. They circled the boat, obviously waiting for us to release the bone. Branham dipped the fish-filled net back in the water to give the bone a drink and one of the sharks raced for the fish. Branham raised the net and the shark’s dorsal brushed the mesh as it passed. These sharks seemed programed to capitalize on an easy meal.

             There was no way this trophy bonefish was going to survive if we put it back in the water. Most flats skiffs now have extra large live wells, so Branham filled his and put the bonefish in it. These bait wells are like aquariums and very well oxygenated—our bonefish did just fine while we ran it a mile away onto a “sharkless” flat next to a channel leading to the ocean. We managed to snap a few photos before returning this magnificent creature to the water. Branham and I both agreed this guy was in the 12-pound-plus range . . . the biggest bonefish either of us had seen in many years. We hoped this was a sign of things to come.

Like everywhere, Biscayne Bay is not the same as it was 20 years ago. But the Bay remains an exceptional fishing destination. Tarpon are plentiful from February through July; permit are available year round; and the bonefish are coming back. If Biscayne Bay follows the same pattern as the Middle Keys, the bonefishing should improve each year. It’s still a pretty good backyard fishery for Miami anglers and guides, and it’s definitely worth hitting when you’re in town, whether looking for permit or possibly getting a shot at a really big bone.