Thought I would share this trip I did last month. No it is not tenkara and although these fish were in tenkara range, there would be no way in hell to land them. My buddy compared their rear forked tail to a propeller. Once hooked they put on the afterburners and ran 200 feet. Often they would have 3 runs. Wow!
Bahamas Bonefishing 2023
I wanted to write about my recent experience of bonefishing and how it relates to my arc as a fisherman. I suspect the bonefish and those who passionately pursue them may share similar paths.
I have been fishing since I was five. It all started with some classic youngster bluegill fishing. To this day I still enjoy engaging a variety of sunfish on small wet flies.
Over time I have dabbled with a number of species and techniques on the east and west coasts. I classify myself as a dedicated fisherman rather than one marked as obsessed. Mostly curious, with fun being the main objective.
The trophy for me is the fulfillment of the hunt and the aesthetics of the fish. I find the shape, color, and unique markings so enjoyable. Each fish is its own work of art to enjoy. I am not a size or number of fish guy. I find those details to be low value.
These days my main entertainment is the striped bass fishery followed by trout. Targeting wild fish in natural wild habitat is the largest priority for me. Pristine and healthy ecosystems are also a high motivating preference that I pursue. I enjoy watching the forage and other predators as much as I do hunting the target.
Several years back a good friend and angling mentor described his passion for stalking bonefish and how he thought I would also enjoy it. At the time, the only flyfishing I did was for trout with a tenkara rod. I did not fish with a fly rod and reel. So after three years of prodding I finally ordered an outfit to move ahead with a bonefishing trip. As luck would have it, covid hit and put a two and a half year raincheck on our plan.
This gave me two full seasons to try to learn some fly fishing mechanics. Although I tried to connect with a casting instructor, professional instruction has eluded me. This year I will try to correct that.
Recently we finally hit the Bahamas to target bonefish. I did not know what to expect and my only hope was to convert one and bring it to hand.
First Trip impressions: I would classify bonefishing as an unusual angling venture. Unlike other sportfish, these fish are not ambush predators, they are more like grazing animals like deer. The anglers objective is to target them during a lower water tide window and intercept them during their micro migrations between the flats and the mangroves. In short, knee deep water and below is the angler’s hunting ground. The strategy really limits the peak fishable hours. Without intimate knowledge on a region and how it is affected by tides and conditions an angler is really handicapped without a guide. Seems to me the exposure interval may hinder our learning curve. One or two weeks a season is really not enough time to properly learn much about an ecosystem
I am still absorbing the week and trying to get a handle on what bonefishing is and how it relates to me as an angler.
I will say this. The flats we fished were probably some of the most wild and healthy ecosystems I have ever experienced. Green turtles, stingray along with several other ray varieties, several shark species, pufferfish, varieties of baitfish, mollusks, crabs, barracuda, heron and egret…etc. Just beautiful and so much to digest. Definitely felt like frontier angling and was right up my ally even if I caught nothing.
This is not my photo:
Over the trip I saw probably a couple dozen of these green sea turtles. When startled, they have bursts of speed up to 22mph and they have a zig zag pattern that cracked me up each time I saw it. It is unreal and so unexpected of a turtle to haul so fast and erratic. It looked like someone hit the fast forward button on a cartoon turtle. We did run into 3 smaller ones that seemed ok with our presence and we got quite close to them.
In terms of angling challenge with a fly rod. I would consider it humbling and my skill inadequate. To be fair this is a foreign fishery/technique but also demands a level of precision casting that I just do not possess. All that said on our first day I sighted and hooked my first bonefish 100% on my own. I also dropped it within 5 seconds. That day i saw an 8 lb class fish within our first hour and it swam within feet of me. Total fish spotted may have been 25 but in only 5 groups. Most groups of 1-5 and one mega group of 15.
Three of the days were guided. The first guided day I botched a number of opportunities. Polling around, I hooked a bonefish that ran to the stern but it broke off the fish because I was standing on my line.
I would classify the first guide as impatient with my skill level. My assessment with this type of fishing is that guides can make or break a trip as much as your personal skill or the weather/conditions. That day we had wind to 25mph, but we were fishing sheltered areas that may have cut the wind in half. Just the same, all fish spotted/shots were tight within 30 feet in 1-4’ of water. My technique and speed at that range was clumsy. Many factors were my handicap. I have never targeted bonefish, used a fly fishing guide, or fished a fly rod from a boat. It was a bit of a challenge complicated by some negative comments from the guide. He was more frustrated than I was. His behavior definitely got in my head. Chemistry matters.
The other two guided days were with another guide and were immediately fruitful, because we had better conditions, the new guide was extremely patient, and also worked with my skill level. The total of the two outings with the second guide for me was 13 fish hooked. 3 broke off, 4 dropped with poor hookset, and 6 to hand. Mission accomplished. All fish were roughly in the 3.5 to 4 lb class.
Moving Targets and sight casting…. So most of my striped bass fishing is at night or targeting structure. Swinging flies or stripping over structure. Bonefishing is all about accuracy and timing. The temporal aspect of it is incredibly difficult especially under pressure. I would consider myself pretty relaxed and not really affected by converting fish, but this type of fishing has more of an edge, because of the journey and investment to arrive at a shot. If you are the type that will helicopter a golf club into the woods when you crack under pressure. This fishing is not for you. If you are like me and will laugh at a humbling moment, and get zen on opportunity, then this type of fishing may be up your alley.
I am still absorbing the fighting technique. Using a drag on a fly reel is something novel to me. I have been just handlining/ stripping in striped bass to 32" and have not engaged a drag. With trout and tenkara there is no drag or need for it. When I tried handlining with the bonefish they just broke me off and our guide and my fishing partner quickly corrected my thinking.
The above fish was within 20 feet.
When I asked my guide about his sighting skill, he noted he can spot fish 300 feet out. Even with fish tailing or I was at a glareless angle, I was lucky if I could see some fish that he was pointing out that were within 50 feet. There were a few instances, fishing on my own, I spooked fish within 25 feet. Just did not see them. Not seeing all the fish was a real handicap. Several times my fly line head landed over fish I didn’t see… when presenting to fish I could see. All one has to do is spook one fish and the whole school is gone or corrupted/nervous. When fishing on my own, I did spot fish but my ability and range slowed my progress across an area. I had a lot of false positives. Trick of the water/light definitely had me paused and casting to mirage fish.
There was a phenomenon that I did notice, but not sure if there is any merit to it. Angler presence seems to be magnetic with the bonefish. Sometimes seeming to attract fish and sometimes to repel them. On more than one occasion in intercepting fish I found them to change course and head directly to me but holding a radius of 30-60 feet. I wonder if the sense of angler bottom activity and cautiously drift closer to investigate.
Overall the experience and fishery is intriguing and challenging. The biggest con is its accessibility. Cost and fishing interval are the real factors into the practicality of engagement. Targeting bonefish requires some humility and patience. In terms of DIY, it is feasible but I feel most of my errors were related to technical ability…excessive false casts, slow reaction time, and lack of accuracy in a wide range of conditions.
Wow. I dig it, but I did feel like a stranger in a strange land. The environment was like being on a frontier. The Locals were all nice but I did feel like an intruder and/or a tolerated guest at times.
The wildlife was awesome. I saw several barracuda, numerous baitfish, pufferfish, and a ton of needlefish.
I caught a few needles, which was fun. I also tossed a small peanut bunker fly of the edge of a reef and as I stripped line off my reel to cast, I came tight to a full adult barracuda. The more I think about it the more I think it was a 5-6 footer. Hahahahaha. Broke me off instantly but wow….that thing coiled up and took off like a lightning bolt once it felt the hook.
One of the guides allowed us to troll with our fly rods for blue runners(jacks). We collected a few and fried them up for one of our dinners. They were delicious. Our last day I had a couple hours to kill and caught one from the shore. What a beautiful and tasty fish.
Great trip, great fishing partner. Looking forward to the next one. I just need to work on my fly casting techniques and speed.