Had by the bone

Flats anglers love to hate bonefish because whatever can go wrong will go wrong, and at the worst possible time.

Conditions can be ideal, the cast will be perfect and the bonefish won't see the bait or lure. Or worse yet, a different species will grab the bait, which is what happened to me on an oceanside flat near Islamorada in the Florida Keys.

A bonefish tail had popped up near shore, where the water was too shallow for the flats boat I was in, so the guide suggested I get out and wade. I made a careful stalk, getting just ahead of the bonefish, then waited for its tail to appear again as it fed on the bottom.

When the tail showed, I made a surprisingly good cast and the fish ate the shrimp immediately. Unfortunately, the fish was a bonnethead shark.

What I thought was a bonefish tail had been the shark's tail. While I fought the shark, the bonefish continued feeding and tailing down the flat.

Another time, a friend and I had three bonefish tails pop up on the edge of a flat as the fish rooted in the grassy bottom for shrimp and crabs.

Our guide positioned the skiff so that the bonefish would swim toward the bow, giving my buddy a perfect shot with his fly rod. If the bonefish swam to the left or right, there was a chance one of them would encounter the fly line and spook.

My friend's cast was on target, the chartreuse-and-white Clouser minnow plopping just in front of the trio. As one of the fish swam over, my buddy made a couple of short strips of the fly line to make the fly come alive. The bonefish nailed the Clouser, my friend set the hook and fish streaked away.

Just as suddenly, the battle was over. When my friend reeled in the slack line, we discovered that the loop knot connecting the fly to the leader had broken.

The frustration inherent in fishing for bonefish is why actually catching the silver ghosts of the flats is so rewarding.

Unlike other fish such as largemouth bass, rainbow trout or tarpon, you have to make your first cast count to a bonefish because chances are you won't get a second cast.

Ideally, you want the wind at your back, which makes casting easier, as well as the sun as your back, which makes seeing a bonefish easier. Your cast, whether with a live shrimp, fly or jig, must be close enough for the bonefish to see your offering, but not so close that it spooks the bonefish.
You also have to consider the effect of other bonefish. I can recall several outings when a perfect cast was presented to the intended bonefish, but a second bonefish got spooked by the cast. That, in turn, spooked the fish that was headed toward the bait.

When everything goes right and a bonefish eats, it typically zips across the flat, the line slicing through the water, which is the moment that bonefish anglers live for. When the bonefish stops its run, which can easily peel 150 yards of line off the reel, the work of getting the fish to the boat so it can be released begins.

To land a bonefish, you must avoid breaking the line on channel markers and rocks. You must also avoid snagging the line on mangroves and weeds, which can put enough slack in the line to allow the hook to come loose.

Your knots have to be well-tied and your tackle must be in good condition, unlike the battered spinning outfit a guide once gave me to use. Soon after I hooked a bonefish, the reel froze. Turning the reel handle was like cranking a coffee grinder and it took so long to gain back line, the fish eventually worked the hook free.

Steve Waters is the outdoors writer for the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Read more of his stories online at sunsentinel.com/outdoors.