I stood in a panga straining my eyes to see a school of bonefish my guide had spotted. They looked more like apparitions than fish, fleeting little flashes that swam an erratic path only they seemed to understand.
“Don’t cast unless you can see them, then pick one out and drop the fly in front of it,” my guide instructed.
This was on my first trip to Belize, many years ago. My wife and I stashed enough money for a “real vacation” that included out-of-country flights, a condo on the beach and some fancy meals. I rat-holed enough extra cash to splurge on a guide. I figured it was my once-in-a-lifetime chance to experience flats fishing first hand.
I was a rank novice trying to translate my trout and steelhead fishing skills to bonefish. I could deliver a cast, but my double haul was geared toward dropping a steelhead fly two-thirds of the way across a broad river, or casting to a trout rhythmically rising in one spot in a flowing river.
This was a different game, trying to land a fly in front of a cruising fish that seemed to blend to the bottom like a ghost in the fog, while changing directions like a halfback through the secondary.
I anxiously cast toward where I thought a fish was heading, but as my fly landed, the school exploded like a sunburst. I felt the deflation of defeat and figured I had blown my only chance of hooking a bonefish on my outing.
I had spent hours upon hours standing in cold rivers casting for steelhead and considered a fish or two a banner day, and on many days of steelheading, I went with out a bump on the end of the line. I understood that with some fish, you simply put in your time, pay your dues and hope for the best. While disappointed in spooking the school, I was stoic and thankful for the opportunity to cast to a bonefish.
“Don’t worry, we will find some more,” my guide said.
He was more optimistic than I, but later in the day, he spotted a plume of mud, which my eye easily distinguished against the turquoise water.
“Cast to the edge and strip,” he said.
I delivered the cast, and pulled short, quick strips. I felt resistance, not like a trout tapping, more like a gentle pull, so I yanked a strip strike and felt line slipping though my fingers as the fish rocketed away.
My 7-weight steelhead rod bowed into a perfect arc, but rather than a thrashing, sea-run trout on the end of the line, it was like a turbo trout ripping line from my whizzing spool and beelining toward deep water.
This was the fish I heard and read so much about, and it was living up to its reputation for speed and power. I was quickly into my backing, which rarely occurs when I hook a trout and slightly more often with steelhead. I like to keep pressure on a fish during its initial run and quickly turn it back in my direction, but this fish didn’t care about my game plan. It had one if its own, and I was in no position to change it.
I eventually turned it, regained my backing and most of my line before it turned and gave me a repeat performance of its first run. All I could do was watch it go and hope my drag didn’t fail.
After several reel-singing runs, I landed my first bonefish, and to be honest, I expected it to be bigger. It was slightly longer than your average Idaho trout, but with a tuna tail, gleaming silver sides, a cream belly, and a body as dense as a block of sharp cheddar.
I don’t want to get all melodramatic and say that fish changed my life. . . .
But that fish changed my life.
It wasn’t a flashing epiphany, or a solemn vow to the gods that from that day on I would devote my life to bonfishing. It was something unpoetic like “damn, that shit was fun.”
But during that moment, I decided this wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime fish. There was no reason I couldn’t catch more. And I did, on that trip and nearly every one since.
Bonefish are a gateway drug to the flats because they’re accessible and approachable. That’s not to say they’re push overs, and the ones I catch are typically modest in size, unlike the brutes in the Bahamas that are nearly salmon-sized.
Bonefish can be wicked tough to spot, spooky as a tax cheat in an auditor’s office, and streak like a silver bullet when hooked.
But they’re also plentiful on the flats and often run in schools, which means there’s competition for food, and if an individual fish doesn’t eat something that looks like food, another is likely to grab it.
And all those things combined mean that on any given day of flats fishing, you’re likely to get several chances at them, and be able to learn from your mistakes and climb the learning curve at a fairly rapid pace.
Bonefish are fantastic game fish, and you may never tire of catching them. The skills you develop catching them will directly translate to other flats fish, such as permit and tarpon.
Bonefish are also accessible by spot-and-stalk fishing from shore, or wading in the flats, so once you know the basics, you can give it shot on your own, or as a team with your fishing buddies.
For those reasons and more, I will never get tired of chasing bones, which I’ve now done in Belize and across the Yucatan Peninsula, and I look forward to eventually going after those big, silver slabs in the Bahamas.