Bonefish on the Fly Albula vulpes
Albula vulpes is one of about 15 different species of bonefish found in the world, but is the most prolific in the Caribbean and surrounding Atlantic. The information here can be applied to nearly every species.
The members of the Albulidae family of fishes, or Bonfish, as they are more commonly known, are one of, if not the most sought after species on the flats with a fly rod. The silver torpedo shaped fish with variably colored vertical stripes ranges in size from 2-19 pounds, with the average fish caught being between 3 and 16 pounds (depending on location).
While some Northeastern US anglers might debate the point, bonefish are probably the most sought-after of all saltwater fish. There are a bunch or reasons for this, key among them, bonefish eat. Bonefish eat flies and therefore are generally fished for, in clear, shallow, warm water. Fishing for bonefish is normally a hunt for specific targets, you are not blind-casting into likely looking water for unseen fish. This is sight fishing for moving fish, which makes for very exciting fishing.
They can weight up to 19 pounds (8.6 kg), which happens to be the current IGFA all tackle record. The giants are probably most common in Hawaii & the most remote Bahamas destinations but some huge bones have been caught in Miami and Cuba as well. Most bonefish caught in the fly fishing world are in the 2-14 lb range (1-6 kg) range but a 6-9 lb (3-5 kg) fish is considered a very nice catch. Bonefish are silver in color with green/black vertical stripes almost clear fins. The bases of the pectoral fins are yellowish while the tip of the nose has a black spot or in certain Bahama destinations a blue nose. They primarily form schools until they are large solitary hunters. Some of the larger individuals travel solo, in pairs or in schools more rarely. The bonefish, has many names the “flats phantom” or “gray ghost”, and is pound for pound one of the strongest and fastest salt-water fish. Bonefishing is a shallow-water pursuit done in depths ranging from 8 inches to several feet of water. Flyfishbonehead has seen big bonefish beach themselves chasing food. They move too fast for their own good sometimes. Bonefish may follow stingrays, much like the Giant Trevally will follow seals & sharks to ambush small prey flushed out & disturbed by the rays. Bonefish are best pursued with light tackle & their prey is generally small shrimp, crabs, worms, small baitfish, which means that heavy-caliber tackle is not only unnecessary but actually counterproductive. Fishing for bonefish can be the model of simplicity; a box of flies and a spool of tippet, some clippers if you need to change flies, a pair of good polarized sunglasses and a hat are all that’s necessary in many bonefishing locales.
This is maybe the least-obvious of the above-mentioned points, but if you’ve spent any time fishing for permit, which will often flare away in horror at a seemingly perfect-looking crab imitation, or for tarpon, which may turn down a black Toad fly for a purple one (or may just refuse to eat at all), it’s a welcome relief. In most locales, if you get a reasonable shrimp or crab imitation in front of the fish (and that latter part presentation is the absolute key), the bone will eat it. And here’s the part that initially entices most anglers; once a bonefish eats and is solidly hooked, it just absolutely tears away from you. In its shallow-water environment, the fish has nothing to do but to move away from any threat fast. No jumping, no possibility of sounding, just long scorching runs. OK, so bonefishing is appealing, but really you just want the where and how-to. We’ll explore those topics in great depth in other areas. But for this brief monograph, the focus is pretty simple.
For anglers on the American continent, go to South Florida and the Florida Keys; the Bahamas; islands off Cuba if you’re lucky enough to get permission to fish them; Los Roques (off Venezuela’s east coast); Christmas Island (about 1200 miles from Hawaii by airplane); and of course the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and the Belizean waters to the south. Harder to reach for anglers in the Americas are the Seychelles, off the east coast of Africa, north of Madagascar but the Seychelles’ reputation for big fish, and lots of them, is stellar. There is also Reunion & Mauritius to the east of Madagascar which is less known and just are hard to get to. Keep in mind that bonefish are extremely widely distributed; huge ones have been reported from deep waters off of Hawaii and the west coast of Africa, among other places. But for a fly angler’s purposes, the key is to find food-rich, warm, shallow waters that are conducive to sight-fishing for these fish. And the places mentioned above are among the best of all known bonefish waters.
Listen to your guide. It’s often been said that the very best bonefish guides are in South Florida and the Florida Keys, and to some extent that’s true; there are outstanding guides in those areas. That’s the place where bonefishing as we know it was born. But there are fantastic guides in all the great bonefish locales, and we’ll do our best to match you up with them. Keep in mind, too, that a guide who knows a set of flats as well as he does his own living room won’t necessarily be the best guide for you; how you interact with and mesh with a guide will have a lot to do with how successful you are. As for flies and tackle, again, listen to your guide. Contact him before you pack your rods, ask what leader length and strength is appropriate, and get a handle on what flies he prefers. If you can’t contact him before your trip, bring an 8-weight floating line; for sure take a 9-weight if you’re just fishing the Keys, or a 6- or 7-weight for the Yucatan and Belize.
Your line has to be a tropical one; bonefish-specific tapers are best. Don’t bring your general freshwater line unless you want to spend most of your trip cursing it. Those lines are too limp to work in the bonefish’s tropical/sub-tropical world. Leaders should be about 10 feet, tapering from a heavy butt of about .025 inches to 10-15 pound test, again depending on where you’re going.
Recommending specific flies for an unknown locale is a fool’s errand, but we’re not afraid of such tasks, so here goes: We would never be without some spawning shrimp patterns; crabs; and Clouser Deep Minnows tied in Gotcha colors (pink thread, white underwing, pearl Krystal Flash or Polar Flash in the middle, a tan over-wing, and lead eyes).
Each of these flies should be tied in a variety of weights; sink rate is generally more critical than actual pattern. Some caveats for the first-time angler: you have to be able to cast relatively quickly (no 8-false-cast trout-style stuff here), accurately, and often at a distance of 60-plus feet. And keep in mind that bonefish flats seem always to be windy. You have to do your quick, accurate and long casting in the wind if you’re going to be consistently successful. So get a good casting book or video; or better yet, hire an instructor; and practice before you go.
Final tip for the angler who’s willing to do his homework….Read!. The two books we recommend are Dick Brown’s “Fly Fishing for Bonefish” and Chico Fernandez’s “Fly-Fishing for Bonefish.” Both are fantastic.
Find specific bonefish flies in the Library of HD saltwater fly tying videos.
You can search by fly name (like “Borski’s bonefish slider”) or by imitation (“crab”, “shrimp”, or “crustacean”)
Whether you are bonefishing for the first time or you are a seasoned veteran, you never stop learning.
RECAP OF WHAT’S NEEDED TO GO BONEFISHING
(See the world map for location & species specific rod reel, line & leader information for bonefish and all of the other species) Bonefish can be caught on a 6-8 weight. Most commonly used an 8 weight because many anglers have an 8 for various uses. Some prefer a 6 weight because its more fun to use little tackle in general, some prefer a 9 because they can cast it better. You can use any rods from a 6 weight to a 9 weight effectively.
Use a floating line with at least 200 yards of backing on your reel. Leaders should be 9-15 feet with at least a 10 lb tippet. Our go to set up is an 8 weight with floating line and a 12 foot leader with 12 lb fluorocarbon tippet. We like the gel spun backing for the smaller reels because it allow you to add 300 yards of backing which you actually do use sometimes use.
learn to tie the flies pictured below and hundreds more in our library of saltwater fly tying videos