A fisherman’s account of his experiences in pursuit of the elusive bonefish is presented. Bonefish are a difficult catch because they cleverly avoid boats and are very sensitive to the noises made by fishermen. Information on where and when to go bonefishing in the Florida Keys is also included.
I am in Islamorada, on Lower Matecumbe Key, bonefishing capital of the universe as we know i I wake every morning at 4:00 sharp, my bonefish drill ringing in my head, though I know that drill chants do not work on the noble bone, Basically, nothing works except for enormous skill and great good luck out on the flats. I don’t have these things, so I need the two hours of dark meditation to prepare for the game. Of course, an hour of that is the Wide World of Sports slo-mo replay of my angling crimes of the day before. There are a lot of crimes possible against this fish. I commit most of them.
At 6:00 I have to be at the palm-thatched Lor-e-lei dock, where the hawkeyed Captain Tim Klein will be hovering with his coffee and his Skoal near his skiff, poised in the break of day. For the record, then, here is my bonefish drill, phonetically rendered. I hum it each morning for the 20 minutes it takes me to march from Cheeca Lodge to the dock:
BuHOWN! Bu-HOWN! Bu-HOWN-Bhown-BHOWN!
Ahh-LEFT! Ahh-LEFT! Ahh-LEFT-Right-LEFT!
I’m not too proud to admit that it’s a war cry with plenty of hurt in it. But I need every bit of morale-building santeria I can muster, for the bones are punishing me with amazing casual cruelty–as in no strikes, not a single one in days. They are like girls in a fancy bar running from the ugly boy. Of course, instead of using the flyrod to present these animals with what they might think was something good to eat, I use it as a sort of stick to beat the fish away from the boat. Let’s just say that, at best, my cast is unorthodox.
In fact, I don’t know if I’ll ever land a It could occur at some glorious the future, you around the same at I get Michelle Pfeifrer pregnant Of course, Michelle and I have been thinking about babies for some time now…
This is precisely my point: Mortals cannot rd to be cavalier about fishing for bones on a fly, and mortals who have fished for bones on a fly–in vain, as I have done–must be especially rigorous. Thinking about landing one of these fish is almost pornographic.
My entire nautical life to this point had been of another stripe. My father had a succession of blue-water boats in the upper reaches of the Gull. I spent quite a few summers 60 and 70 miles out, fighting Spanish and king mackerel, bonito, marlin and wahoo. Then I grew up and away and didn’t make the chance for myself to fish salt water for 20 years, until that fateful morning when Captain Tim stops the boat off Plantation Key, sides one of his many elegant Sage rods out of its little rack under the gunwales, shoots some line out of the boat, and offers it to me.
“Okay,” he says brightly, “let’s see what you can do.”
In one respect, poised before the first flycast from a flats boat in my life, I feel sorry for what I’m about to do to Captain Tim. He’s such a nice guy. And he knows so much about nature! Did I mention that there were some bones tailing off in the distance? We are officially ignoring the fish. I console myself with the fact that I’ve told Captain Tim about 50 times that I’m no good. I’m sure he believes me. Instantaneously, as if the blinding quickness of it would hurt him less, I wrap the line around Captain Tim, the boat and myself.
“Whoooa,” he says appreciatively, stepping delicately out of the taper in which his legs are entwined. “I think we wanna see each other pretty much every day.”
It’s a generous response. He knows he’s going to have to be the cast doctor in addition to being the fish doctor–and he’s taking on the massive project. It is going to require everything we’ve both got. Even that may not be enough.
Bonefish can sense the push of a boat as it displaces the water on the flat where they are feeding; they can hear you walking in the boat; they can smell the sunscreen residue on your fly if you handle it too much; they can hear you talk. They can talk. They have sheathed eyes, which can pierce the muddiest water; deeply forked tails, which give them pinpoint control and bursts of speed in excess of 25 miles an hour; and a lateral line of neuromasts fitted along each side of their bodies, a fancy radar system that helps them detect and react to obstacles within fractions of a second. The lateral lines are how the bones know, at 25 miles an hour in eight inches of water, the route out of a flat.
Albulae vulpes are not found in many places in the world. They can be fished on the remote tidal flats of the Bahamas, off Bilize, in Mexico’s Ascension Bay, in the Florida Keys and in the South Pacific around Christmas Island. I’ve heard that the bones in the Keys are the least forgiving of all of them–I don’t know if this is true, but it makes sense, because the Keys are more accessible and the bones get fished harder.
When you ask a Keys guide where you will be fishing, he will say, laconically, “Out back,” short for backcountry, by which he means Florida Bay. It is legally and ecologically a part of the Everglades, an aquatic desert of intense beauty and fragility. Every fish you land–permit, tarpon, bone, mangrove snapper–you will put back. If you land a fish, of course.
After my first few days fishing here, I realize that I am in bonefish boot camp. Each day is filled with military instruction from Captain Tim and from the bones themselves. Sometimes the instruction is about what I am supposed to do, and sometimes it’s about what I am supposed to see: the way their tails stiffen slightly as they try to get leverage while squirting the water out their mouths to uncover the bottom-dwelling shrimp; the right moment to place a fly at the lead fish in a pod quartering toward the boat; what bonefish muds look like when they are fresh and when they are old; how to fight the wind with your taper; how lazy and doglike the disturbances of the water are when made by a shark; how beautifully electric and muscular the water looks when the bones are feeding under it.
As the days roll by, I don’t stop making mistakes, but my mistakes get more complex. This is considered to be a good thing. The first problem is getting enough line out of the boat. You simply cannot cast to Keys bonefish unless you can rather precisely place 60 or 70 feet of line, The next level of difficulty is presenting the fly to the right fish in a grazing pod, and throughout it all you have to remember that you are essentially shooting at a moving target (the bone) from a moving platform (the poled boat). Poled flats boats move deceptively fast, and bones, even grazing ones, move East away from them. You have to think about it the way you think about pulling through a bird before you pull the trigger–if you don’t instinctively factor in the time it takes to get the line out, you will be putting the food in the place where the bones were, not where they will be.
Captain Tim’s staggering knowledge of the fish and the territory are my best weapons–he’s a big former football player, but he thinks at godly, warp speeds, like a bone. It’s as if he knows their names and where they live.
One of the most important lessons of bone boot camp is to stay cool under the great stress of stalking this fish. The angler has got to be able to execute his job quietly. You should be a man of no words and little movement. if you flail about in the boat or talk loudly, the bones will get a make on you. In this sense bonefishing is a little like war–there are long, debilitating periods of inaction punctuated by moments of blistering violence.
On our last two days, the tides are good, but the wind, averaging about 20 knots, makes casting and spotting the fish harder. I think it’s good to have the wind to fight–it makes you a better fisherman–but it is an abiding irony of this trip that the fish and the weather were right in front of me in the early going, when I was not ready. Now that two weeks of boot camp has toughened me up, the fish and the good weather have disappeared.
We have been finding some bones off Twin Keys, and Tim knows a bank of some repute up past the hilariously named Dildo Key Tim knows all the banks of repute–he can run them in the black of night. It is the last morning of our fishing, somewhat melancholy because we have spent a lot of time together and worked hard. Tim has had to exercise Job-like patience.
By 10:30 we’ve hit four or five spots on the way up to this bank without seeing much game. Tim rates the water on it as a little big, so we bum up to a channel a few miles away, fish that for a while with no luck and then come back down. The water is just right. We get quiet. We watch. Nothing happens.
“Sometimes,” Tim says, “when the tides are like this they’ll come over this bank just about here.”
This is all he says. Five minutes later four schools of bones march over the bank as if they’ve been let out of a cage by Neptune himself. Tim turns the boat slightly. We’ll have a shot at maybe two of the schools, if we’re lucky.
Casting to a bone is an exercise in focus. I’m a left-handed cast, so Tim’s got to angle the bow of the boat away from the bones a tad to give me a good broadside shot. The bones are moving toward us at a good clip. I get the line in the air, feel the rod pull as it loads, and let it go. I know it is going to be a good cast the second the line starts to shoot through my right hand. My presentation is, for once, nice and soft and direct.
“Strip it, strip it,” says Tim. I can tell he wants to let his heart into it, but doesn’t trust the moment yet. it’s all come down to this. The fish are perhaps a second, maybe two, from seeing my little steel-eyed shrimp when there is a strike. I wait a beat, then raise my rod and hit the fish, and I’ve got him–but something is wrong. The bones are pushing away at a strange leisurely pace. A shimmering bonefish is not exploding in my hands.
Tim says, “Dammit. Dammit dammit dammit DAMMIT THAT DAMNED LITTLE FISH!”
Tim cares about his anglers.
“What do I have?”
“‘Cuda,” he says. “Lying in front of the bones.”
I bring the tip of the rod over to him, an yanks the line out, the baby barracuda juddering. He throws it back without even looking at it.
There are more bones on the way. I cast short of the next school, and then deliver what feels like a fair cast to the third, busy on the bottom sucking up their shrimp. A tiny mangrove snapper takes the fly. It is a fishing moment and we must believe it–under the heading of paying one’s dues.
The fishing is over, and I have been royally skunked. But since bones are now part of my life, as they must be in order for me to even the score, I’m still up every morning wading and practicing my cast in front of Cheeca. I pick out four bits of turtle grass that stick up in a line about 60 feet out. It’s a little game of focus and precision.
On my last morning in the Keys, one of the grounds crew stops his golf cart on the beach above me. I can hear his little two-cylinder engine putting. That would be irritating, I think, if I were actually fishing.
“You know,” he says casually, “I don’t do much fishing, but I think that’s a bonefish right behind you.”
I turn around. Forty feet off the back of my right knee is a tailing bone. I move slowly around. I get the line up in the air. It’s amazing, I think, who’s responsible for this? Neptune? Ted Williams? And I was guided to it by a man in a golf cart who left his engine running.
My line looks quite lovely as it shoots out; I’ve got the distance right, everything is beautiful. As it begins to settle I realize, in the nanosecond before the leader hits the water, that I’m about two to three feet to the left of where I should be. In fact, I’m going to be wayyy too close with this fly. The leader lands on the bone’s dorsal fin. I can see it glistening up out of the water.
It looks ridiculous.
The bone, digging, feels something on his back. The air has been sucked off the beach. Before I can even put a period on that thought, he’s gone
RELATED ARTICLE: So You Wanna Be A Bonehead?
Don’t Leave Home Without…
Captain Tim Klein used a wide variety of rods, but one of his favorites was an 8-weight Sage. For a reel, I had a Scientific Anglers System 2 (1-800/525-6290), which worked great (even though I didn’t get to rest it on a bone). You should also have polarized glasses, a long-billed hat, Dick Brown’s Flyfishing for Bonefish (Lyons & Burford). Leave your shoes–and your ego–at home.
The Right Time And Place
You can catch bonefish all year round in the Keys, but the best time is usually December to Aprol. Call Captain Tim Klein (305/664-9666) to set up a trip, but be forewarned–he’s usually fishing. You will learn more in eight hours than you could in years by yourself. I stayed at the extra-deluxe Cheeca Lodge (305/664-4651), but the Islander (305/664-2031) is a very comfortable, and very reasonable, alternative.
Imagine Joe Montana and Troy Aikman starting a quarterback school. Not likely–but that’s exactly what Sandy Moret started for saltwater flyfishers eight yers ago. His Florida Keys Flyfishing School provides two full days of intense instruction from the superstarts of the sport–including Steve Rajeff, who holds the world record for distance in flycasting (306 feet), and is a rod designer for G. Loomis. For more information, contact Sandy Moret at 305/664-5423.