Friday, April 6, 2012

Tails Of The Flats: Bonefish On The Fly

Flats Bonefish
The thing about a bonefish is that it takes a while before you can catch one. A while might mean years. Actually, it took me a couple of years' practice just to be able to recognize a bonefish in the pale green waters of the Bahamian "flats," the shallows near the shore, where these clever gamefish feed, usually on incoming or outgoing tides. At times, bonefish will lean down to feed or "tail," exposing their tails like periscopes; most of the time, they look like the shadow in the water in this photo.

Some early springs on Saint James, the weather is so perfect, 80-85 with a few well-dispersed clouds and a light breeze from the east at the ocean or from west across the bay, that a beach-nik will have to choose the beach over walking the flats for boneys, especially if, honestly speaking, you haven't managed to land your first one even after a few years of trying.

Our friend, Herman, was eighty-two this season and has been fishing the local deep water and flats for nearly all of those years. Herman knows fish like Buffet knows tax loopholes; and, both take as many as possible, because they're there and because, well, from their expert points of view, what else would you do with them?

I had not been out bottom fishing with Herman for some years and never without other family members, including our professional fishing guide son, who has pretty much and somewhat annoyingly at times been family "high-hook" since he was four years old.

I get the daily tide reports and other valuable local "sip-sip" from Herman each morning when he passes by the porch, and this year it just seemed like the right time to renew our angling relationship. I caught two fish in about fifteen minutes from his boat in twelve feet of water at the outer edge of the bay, where smaller fish hide in the coral reefs. Then, it took another hour and a half to catch another. The afternoon haul was five fish, just enough filets to feed three for dinner; but, pan-fried these always taste as good as any $40 grouper or mahi-mahi at The Landing, the best restaurant for dinner in town. My fish came in at about $100 per pound, but an afternoon on the water with Herman benefits one behind the mere cost of three dinners.

Next morning, on one of his strolls past our house, which sits about a shortstop's flip to second base away from the bay, Herman told me to get my flyrod right away; he'd just seen a boney by the short dock at a nearby house called Blue Dolphin.

I did as commanded. Luckily, I had carefully rigged my rod days before, using the Orvis guide I keep in the house to remind me about the intricacies of proper knot-tying and the most effective casting technique. I was able to wade into about two feet of water directly across from the house within minutes. I passed up the Blue Dolphin dock in favor of a closer crumbling cement one, figuring that the bonefish already sighted were well on their way towards another dining experience.

I saw the first one within ten minutes, about thirty feet to the north in front of me and to the right; it cruised by, not ten feet away and I held very still waiting to see which way it would go so that I could make a relatively short 20-25 foot cast out in front of what I imagined the course to be.

"Saint James" flats
My inexperienced and rusty cast did not land the tippet line holding the fly softly enough upon the water and it spooked the fish just enough to send it off on another course; I retrieved, waited to see him again, making another, better try, but the bonefish would not follow or take the"fly" (actually in this case a very small brownish shrimp-like character). This was not discouraging in the least, but was, in fact, the closest I'd ever come to landing a bonefish.

In a short while I saw two more swimming together to share a morning repast in the warm water. I let both pass about twenty-feet away, and then casted ahead of their path, then slowly retrieved the flyline and fly with my left hand, the heavier yellow part of the line falling into a pile atop the water by my left leg. I continued to focus all attention on the spot where I could still see one of the fish, who are the Guide Michelin reporters of the fishy set; they are very choosy, one might even say a bit snooty, about when, where and on what they dine. This, naturally, makes certain of us want them even more.

Since this all occurred on our next to last day, I was watching the clock, so that we could get to the beach, and it came down to one last bonefish, who soon meandered into sight thirty feet away, with the browned coast of Eleuthera in the background.

Flats Weather
I bent low toward the water and took two slow quiet steps forward, careful not to make noise or displace much sand. I cannot say that I was exactly stalking this fish, but successful bonefishers do need to place attention and energy on particular fish. Bonefishing is not a casual affair; at least not if you actually want to land one of these illusive swimmers, who, once on a line are entertaining fighters or so I still imagine them to be, for this last one also eluded me.

I headed to the beach, one more boneless season under my belt. But, this one was decidedly different. My knots were more secure, my casts were more efficient and shorter, I had learned to wait for the fish to come by and to focus on getting the fly out ahead and retrieving it into the fish's course. All of these details had given me a chance, as the great angling writer Thomas McGuane calls it, "An Outside Chance."

I've turned a corner on bonefish; now I know that it's only a matter of time, and one more season in the flats of Saint James.

Ed Note: Curious "anglers" looking to find "Saint James" in the Bahamian waters will search maps and charts in vain, as it is a fictitious island with only a coincidental passing resemblance to certain other islands you might have heard about. I highly, highly recommend Thomas McGuane's An Outside Chance, one of my top ten books of all time: or, better yet, go to: and use the amazon link at bottom on right for an automatic donation to NY's finest radio station.

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