Living in inshore tropical waters, moving onto shallow mudflats to feed with the incoming tide, and retreating to deeper water as the tide ebbs, Bonefish (Albula vulpes) are constant opportunistic feeders.
Saltwater fly fishing for bonefish is one of the more exciting angling experiences you can have. Bonefish will feed on some small fish (gulf toadfish ) crabs, shrimp, worms, snails, and small mollusks, which they crush and grind with their powerful pharyngeal teeth. Their eyesight is exceptionally good and they prefer water temperatures of 70 degrees F.
What is bonefishing?
Fly fishing for bonefish is one of the most exciting saltwater fly fishing experiences you can have. Whether you’re an experienced or inexperienced angler it is recommended to fish with a guide in the Bahamas or the Florida Keys.
Why you may ask? Bonefish are some of the most elusive fish in the water. Fishing for Bonefish is difficult since they are easily spooked and incredibly fast, which makes a successful catch that much more rewarding. Taking the time to experience the Florida Keys and get a taste for fly fishing is incredibly enjoyable with the sun and the water and a great guide. He knows everything there is to know about locating and catching premium Bonefish.
Bonefish are caught by wading hard sand and flats or being poled along in flats boats. They can easily spook if you ‘line’ them or drop a fly on their heads, so accurate casting is the first lesson you will learn.
When You hook up on a bonefish it is like attaching your line to a bottle rocket. It’s not so much the hookup (which can be subtle) but the long-distance run that will get your heart pumping.
Anglers get addicted to catching bonefish and some devote their lives to catching and releasing the gray ghost. Bonefish are almost always moving and feeding – I know it’s not always on the bonefish flies you’re casting to them, but they feed at every opportunity.
See also our full Best Bonefish Flies post so you can have the best flies to catch bonefish.
For that matter Bonefish are a favorite food of sharks and barracudas – if they can catch one. In the Ocean it’s eat or be eaten.
What is a bonefish?
Bonefish are Florida’s premier game fish are commonly found in intertidal flats, mangrove areas, and deeper adjacent waters. They are also abundant in the Bahamas.
The Bonefish life cycle and behavior are poorly understood.
The spawn lasts from November through May or June, and each female can produce from 400,000 to 1.7 million eggs. Sexual maturity is reached after three to four years (17-18 inches total length), they may live longer than 23 years, and they can grow to be three feet long and 20 pounds. In the Florida Keys, bonefish spawn in deep water.
Bonefish may reach top speeds of 40 mph when escaping from prey or when attached to your fly. It is an awesome site to see your fly line rooster tail as it rips across a flat.
In shallow water, their sharp fins stick out of the water. This spectacular sight is what we anglers call tailing. If we see tailing fish this is one of your best opportunities to hook up. Tailing fish are more spooky and are actively feeding.
In deeper water or when the light is poor, we’ll be looking for muddy areas of water or plumes of mud stirred up by these bottom-feeding fish.
You may also look for “nervous water” which is usually caused by a cruising school of Bonefish on the move – cast in front of the school and strip the fly away from the fish – you may get very lucky.
What does a bonefish look like?
The gray ghost has shiny silver sides and darker often olive green backs which fade into the silver. They often have slightly shaded scales which appear like soft lines that run up the side of the fish from the gills to the tail.
Their pectoral fins are often yellow at the base. A larger saltwater fish, bonefish can resemble a salmon with a slightly elongated snout.
Can you eat bonefish?
They aren’t called bonefish by accident. With a large number of tiny bones, they are difficult to eat and most fly fishing the gray ghost don’t bother to clean and cook the fish. The joy is in the challenge of catching them, so catch and release is the way to go. See our post on catch and release fly fishing for more tips.
How to Catch Bonefish?
Fly fishing for these guys can become really complicated, however, I will work with you to teach you the skills you need to master this species. Though it has been considered by many as the most exciting fish of all, very few people are consistently successful in catching bonefish due to their finicky nature.
Though these fish are incredibly elusive and are often referred to as the gray ghosts of the Florida Keys, locating the fish is an easy enough task for your guide. There are multiple places in the Keys they like to hang out to eat, since eating is what they do most of the time. Your guide will take you to the intertidal flats, and deeper adjacent waters and mangrove areas where the bonefish can be found. In shallow waters, the bonefish’s spiky fins will stick out of the water as they feed. In deeper waters, plumes of mud will help you locate the fish as they dig through the silt on the bottom.
This species of sport fish is not only wise but it can easily differentiate between food and the fly. Even a well placed fly that lands quietly, right in front of the bonefish, does not necessarily mean he will eat it. So, it’s always better to become a wise angler if you really want to catch bonefish. Listen to what the experts suggest if you really want to improve your odds. There are some great fly fishing books on Bonefish, one by Chico Fernandez comes right to mind.
Two important tricks:
- If you really want to catch bonefish, then you should pay attention to its reaction to your presence and your fly. If you can understand the bonefish’s body language, then you will be able to do what is needed at the right time. Do not cast your fly at fish swimming away from you. Your fly in the water will normally imitate a shrimp or small crab. Bait does NOT swim towards the fish.
- If you are not stripping the fly correctly, a bonefish may reject your presentation as unnatural. Vary the speed and movement with short strips; mix it up with 4 to 6-inch strips and slightly increase the speed as the fish approaches. It’s the right time to start acting like a shrimp in fear of your life!
Even if the fly lands in the right place and the small shrimp pattern floats at the right level, the bonefish may never even notice your fly. Begin with the small strips as if the tiny shrimp has yet to spot the predator. Again as the bonefish shows interest, increase your speed. If you have caught his eye and everything looks natural, odds are he will inhale your fly. If not, he will turn away like he never even noticed it. There is so much more to learn but the best advice I can give you is to pay attention, practice, and have fun.
Bonefish are slender fish with silvery scales and thin spikey fins; they can blend perfectly into the water and ocean floor when you look at them from above. Bonefish are also incredibly fast. Their bodies are shaped with the aerodynamics of a bullet; they can take off in an instant and jet through the water as fast as 40 MPH!
Bonefish are also suspicious fish and are spooked easily. It takes nothing more than dropping a fly in front of their heads to send them zipping off into the water. This means that not only are they difficult to find, but they’re difficult to catch, period. These are some of the many reasons why these fish are called the “gray ghosts”.
Bonefish Fly Fishing Gear
We generally fly fish with 7-9 wt rods and 200 yards of backing. If you want to bring your own gear it’s fine but we have loaner spinning tackle and fly fishing gear available. Don’t worry about flies we tie our own and love to share them with you. We try not to stress the fish or our guests too much and you will learn we are all about catch and release and having some serious fun.
- Bring rain gear – camera or GoPro! – binoculars (if you like birding) Sunscreen
- Fly gear or light spinning gear (but we can provide as well)
- Hats & Polarized sunglasses (a MUST) these fish are hard to see
- Bring lots of water or your favourite drinks (sun and alcohol don’t mix well but are great at the end of the day).
See also our post here on the Best GoPro for Fishing.
Please bring a good attitude – we are all about having a good time and can be as serious about the sport as your skills allow. In fishing some days are better than others, but no matter what we will work very hard to put you on fish.
Best Bonefishing Flies
The best bone fishing flies are the ones that mimic their natural prey, While the most effective flies for bonefishing vary by destination, a saltwater fly is a must. For the Florida Keys or Bahamas, stick to Shrimp patterns — like the Missing Link, Peterson’s, Super Sim Ram and Spawning Shrimp, These are basic patterns everyone fishing for bonefish should carry.
To catch bonefish, you really need a professional who knows not only how to locate the fish in their favorite eating spots but also how to drop your line and fly in the perfect place to get a bite.They know where these fish like to feed and will deliver you right to them. They will also point out exactly where you should cast to reel in one of these fish that can be as big as 16lbs. With a registered guide, the priority is helping you to catch as many as possible for a really fulfilling and fun day of fishing.
In the Florida Keys, the joy of bonefishing in warm waters is available year-round. Whether you’re looking for a winter getaway or a summer vacation, consider fly fishing for bonefish and all the fun to be had in Islamorada!
Our top priority is to make sure that you’re having fun bonefishing, whether that’s with mastering the skills of casting or learning all about them as you catch them all day long. The waters of Islamorada are a wonderful place to learn to fly fish, and the best part is that they’re warm and fishable all year long. So come out and try your hand at fly fishing for the bonefish of the Florida Keys.