Fishing for bonefish

BONEFISH: The bonefish is by far the most popular character in the lineup of flats species. Its outstanding attributes include a great eagerness to take both flies and lures, but they are best known for their astonishing strength and reel-stressing runs. Bonefish are the, most numerous game fish at Belize.

Why they're on the flats- Bonefish inhabit the shallow-water flats for two reasons. First, they hold a great variety of crabs, shrimp, worms, and mollusks which make up the bulk of a bonefish's diet. Second, the flats offer bonefish relative protection from larger predator species. Sharks, barracuda, and jacks find bonefish flesh particularly delicious. So, self preservation is a bone's primary concern.

Bonefish have been thoughtfully designed by nature and will blend into their environment more than any other fish on the flats. Their eyesight is exceptionally good, and the slightest hint of danger will send them bolting off into the deep blue yonder. Because bonefish seem to be at the top of everybody's dinner list, evolution has designed them to be exceedingly wary (paranoid is a better word) - this makes delicate presentation a key factor in the success of the angler.

Bonefish Behavior: Bonefish have three basic modes of behavior which are likely to be encountered. The angler's presentation will be determined accordingly.

1. "Tailing" - While feeding with their snouts buried in the bottom substrate, bonefish will often stick their wavering tails out of the water. As this occurs, the angler can usually throw a fly or lure almost directly on top of them without spooking them. Whenever bones are tailing, you can be sure that they are feeding and thus highly absorbed in what they are doing.

2. "Mudding" - On the deeper parts of the flat, individual or groups of bonefish will often stir up the bottom detritus as they grub for food. This cloud of mud or "marl" tends to make the bones feel quite secure and often the angler can catch one bone after another without spooking the school.

3. "Cruising"-Are generally the most difficult fish to present a fly or lure to because they aren't necessarily interested in feeding. When bones are cruising, they are much more aware of their surroundings and therefore extreme c are should be taken in presentation. When casting to cruising fish, remember to place your offering well ahead of the fish and let it settle until the fish is right on top of it. If the fly or lure is placed too close to a cruising fish, it will immediately bolt for safer waters.

Larger bonefish are usually found in small, solitary groups away from the larger schools of smaller fish. If you're after a trophy, concentrate on the edge of the flats where the bottom drops off into deeper water. Big bones are less concerned with the previously mentioned predators and feel more secure in the deeper water. They will usually drift onto the flat only for short feeding sprees and then quickly return to the deep water.
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From the angler's perspective (especially the novice), spotting these elusive creatures can be somewhat of a problem. A good pair of polarized sunglasses and a long billed hat (with a dark underside) will be essential for spotting fish. Things to look for include the flash of an exposed tail, "nervous water," or the shadow of a cruising fish. With time, you'll be able to spot bones with less and less effort.

FLY FISHING FOR BONEFISH: The fly fisherman has an advantage over the-spin fisherman due to the delicacy of the fly presentation and a more diverse selection of patterns.

Fly Selection, some general guidelines: The two most important things that dictate proper fly selection in Belize are bottom coloration and type. Concerning the former, it is important to match the fly's overall color with that of the grass or sand/ detritus you're fishing over; the food items that bones prefer are also experts in camouflage and will match to their surroundings perfectly. In many parts of Belize, aquatic grasses and corals will snag many types of flies before the fish can actually grab them. In all the excitement, it becomes hard to distinguish between a striking fish and a bunch of turtle grass, so it is wise to use flies tied without large eyes or down-riding hooks.

Size: Belizian bones seem to prefer slightly smaller pattems than those found elsewhere in the Caribbean. The standard sizeseems to be #6, but don't hesitate to use as small as #10. The general rule: the shallower the water, the smaller the fly. When the fish are mudding, #4 flies can be used to attract attention.

Sink Rate: You will need flies with three sink rates: unweighted, slightly weighted, and heavy. Normally, unweighted, eyeless patterns are used in the shallow turtle grass, intermediate/small eyed flies are used in 1 - to 2-foot water, and heavy flies in 4- to 6-foot water when the fish are mudding.

Retrieve: Always pull your fly away from a fish - never toward it. If the bonefish are in turtle grass, don't allow the fly to settle to the bottom and begin your retrieve soon after the fly touches the water, keeping the fly just above the grass. If you are fishing over sandy bottom, which is usually the case, allow the fly to settle and then strip it off the bottom in little spurts. If the fish don't seem interested, try varying your retrieve until the fish respond. The most popular retrieve is a series of short, slow strips. Another productive technique is a fast strip followed by a dead stop. If the fish sees the fly, he will pick it up from a dead stop. The fish will usually pop its tail up as it takes the fly and the hook should be set immediately after this occurs; you will actually see many fish pickup the fly before you feel them. Many people miss fish because they don't set the hook in time - the fish has picked up the fly but hasn't been felt and drops it again.

Island Guides

When setting the hook, apply a moderate pressure to the fly line with your stripping hand and raise the rod at an angle, so if you miss the fish, the fly will still be in its vicinity. Don't jerk many bonefish turn violently at the moment they feel the hook and that, combined with too hard a hook set, will usually snap the leader. As soon as the fish begins to run, it is very important to clear the line you have stripped in to avoid line tangles and to get the fish "on the reel." Occasionally the fish will run toward you, in which case you will have to quickly strip in more line to maintain pressure.Then the fish will change directions and you can clear the line. Bonefish have tough mouths and having very sharp hooks is important. Resharpen hooks with a hook hone after every three or four fish. Vary your retrieval technique if you have refusals and, of course, change flies following two or three refusals in a row.

Try to keep false casts to a minimum, and once you have a hookup, hold your rod as high as you can. Larger bonefish can develop great bellies of line and backing on long runs and can easily break your leader, or even the backing, on pieces of coral. If you're on a clean flat without coral, you don't have to worry as much about break-offs.

The typical fly box for Belize should include a selection of the following bonefish pattems: Crazy Charlie - eyeless or w/ small bead eyes, lime green "crystal flash" body and wing, brown calf tail or buck tail wing w/gold body, white w/silver body, and pink w/pink monofilament body; Horror - tan chenille body with brown wing, and yellow chenille body with white wing; Gold and Brown Shrimp, Snapping Shrimp, Baited Breath, Ghostbuster, Chico's Yucatan Special.

Note: Subtle changes in fly sparseness and coloration can sometimes make a big difference in the number of actual takes.

Recommended Rods and Reels: The ideal size rod for Belize bones is a stiff, fast action, 8 weight. This line size will effectively handle most conditions and have the power to punch out a line in a fairly stiff breeze. If you're planning to fish in an area that holds bonefish and permit, it would be wise to use a 9 wt rod that can handle the larger heavier permit flies. The new high modular graphite rods are the rage among saltwater anglers. With a very stiff butt section and ultra-fast tip speed, they enable the fisherman to punch heavy saltwater tapers into head wind. Fly rods that are 9 feet and over are recommended because they help keep lines up off the water while casting to and playing fish. Keep in mind that 4-piece rods are much more convenient than 2-piece rods and can be carried with you on commercial flights - alleviating any worries about lost or damaged rods.

Note: We recommend bringing at least two bonefish rods, one heavier and one lighter. Some examples:

L.L. Bean Saltwater SPT 9 ft for 8 wt line, 4-pc.
   9 ft for 9 wt line. 4-pc.
  Double L SW 9 ft. for 6 wt line 4-pc
Sage Graphite III RPL, 9 ft for 8 wt 4-pc
 Graphite III RPLX, 9 ft for 9 wt. 3-pc
Loomis IMX, 9-1/2 ft for 8 wt 4-pc
 IMX, 9 ft for 9 wt line. 4-pc

Reels: Should be anodized, corrosion-resistant saltwater models that will hold a full fly line, plus approx. 200 yards of 20-lb backing, Reels with a high quality, smooth, drag are essential to prevent break-offs from the blistering runs of hooked fish. A few examples: L.L. Bean TideMaster #1 and #2, Scientific Anglers System Two 8/9, or Billy Pate Bonefish model.

Fly Line: Floating fly lines are all that are necessary. We recommend L.L. Bean, Scientific Anglers Ultra 2 or Mastery Series lines (in the bright colors for a visual aid) or something with a similar taper construction. Note: Carry at least one extra spool/line in case a fish breaks you off on coral.

Leader/Tippet Suggestions: A tapered leader of nine feet or longer is recommended. The most simple solution is to buy the pre-tied bonefish leaders by L.L. Bean or Climax and then separate spools of 8 (3X), 10 (2X), and 12 (1X) pound tippet for added length. If the fish are leader shy, try using slightly smaller tippet material. If the fish are spooking when the fly line hits the water, try using a longer tippet section.

SPIN FISHING FOR BONEFISH: Spin fishing for bonefish can be very effective when done correctly. The most important thing to remember is that the presentation with a spinning rod is not as delicate as that of a fly rod. Great care must be taken to avoid spooking the fish.

Presentation: When fish are spotted, it will be important to determine what the fish is doing (cruising, tailing or mudding). If the fish are mudding in deeper water, you don't need to worry about spooking them - simply cast your offering within the "marl" and retrieve it.

Tailing fish are more wary so care should be taken to avoid spooking them. When presenting your lure, it's best to cast beyond the fish (over 10 feet with the line almost directly on top of the fish); then retrieve the lure directly toward it. When the lure reaches the vicinity of where the bone is feeding, slow the lure down and bounce it through its line of vision. If it doesn't respond, repeat the process until the fish spots your offering.

Cruising fish are the most difficult to catch due to their extremely wary condition. Once fish are spotted, you must be able to quickly and accurately place your offering well in front of its path (over 25 feet is safest). If the fish are continually spooking, try using a slightly lighter leader or a different lure.

Recommended Lures: Various lead head jigs, Spin Charlies, and live bait are the preferred choices.

Lures/Jigs: The most popular jigs are 1/8 oz. bucktail Gaines Phillips Wiggle Jigs. Spin Charlies in pink, white/brown, and sand/brown are probably the most productive bonefish lure. Saltwater lead head 1/8 oz. jigs attached to 2-1/4" soft plastic Mister Twister type "grubs" are also a good choice. Grub colors: white, yellow, chartreuse, pink, smoke glitter, hot pink and yellow pearl.

Live Bait: At times, when artificial lures are not producing, live small crabs make excellent bait. If this is the case, your guide will have a supply of bait on the boat. A 1/8 oz. slip sinker, small swivel, and a Mustad 9174 O'Shaughnessy #4 bait hook or 1/8 oz. wiggle jig are generally used.

Rods: Should be light to medium-action and long enough to keep running fish from breaking off on coral and other obstacles. High modular rods will greatly increase rod sensitivity. A few examples are:

Loomis IM6 Spinning, 7 ft. 2-pc. for lure wt 1/16 to 5/16 oz. Penn Power Graph 6 1/2 ft. for lure wt 1/4 to 5/8 oz.

Abu-Garcia IM6 Graphite, 7 ft. 2-pc. for lure wt 1/4 to 5/8 oz. Fenwick HMG, Spinning, 7 ft. 2-pc. for lure wt 1/8 to 3/8 oz.

Reels: Reels should be able to hold at least 200 yards of 6-lb. test. A smooth drag is essential to avoid breaking off fish. Here are a few examples:

  • Diawa - Whisker Tournament SS 1600
  • Shimano - Any of the Aero Series, BA 6- 10 model Tycoon/Fin-Nor AHAB model 8A
  • Penn - Spinfisher 430SS
Line: A limp monofilament such as Abu-Garcia's Ultra Cast or DuPont MagnaThin. If you're fishing in and around mangroves, 8-lb test is recommended but 6-lb is ideal under most conditions.

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