In the distance, I see several flashes. The warm, slick water bathes my ankles. I work my way toward the tails, which gracefully slice through the water’s surface with no particular cadence or consistency. There must be 40, 50 of them. In my mind I ask the questions, “where do I place the fly and how should I position myself?” My heart races faster, as the fish move toward me and I shuffle in their direction.
The showdown has begun. I stop, inspect my fly and make certain that my line isn’t wrapped around my foot or looped over my hip pack. The fish are moving closer; their mouths digging and tails wagging. When they are within casting range, I crouch down and deliver my fly two feet in front of the lead fish with a sneaky, side arm cast. The fly sinks, one bump and the fish charges. My reel whirs through the humid air, as the silver sided bullet sends a rooster tail across the sandy flat. This is skinny water bonefishing.
Stalking bonefish on calm days in ultra shallow water is challenging, but extremely rewarding. These conditions demand light tackle, stealthy presentations and occasionally, longer cast and leads. Windy conditions, deep water and overcast skies give bonefish a sense of security enabling the angler to fish aggressively and sometimes sloppily. Although an 8-weight may be the ideal rod for fishing in deep water and throwing heavier flies into a 15 knot wind to double digit bonefish, a 6- or even a 5-weight rod will present a little fly to smaller fish much more delicately and subtly. Couple a powerful 5-weight with RIO’s Bonefish Taper, and believe me, it doesn’t get much more fun than this.
When choosing a fly for ultra skinny water, avoid lead or large bead chain eyes. These heavy flies will scare wary bonefish faster than you can say, “did I spook ‘em?” Instead, opt for small bead chain or plastic eyes. Because a bonefish’s prey is typically on or in the mud or sandy bottom, it is important that the fly sinks and behaves like a benthic worm or crustacean, which dive to the bottom for safety. When a fly is tied sparsely, the hook usually provides enough weight to sink the fly in shallow water. If additional weight is necessary, lead wire may be wrapped along the hook’s shank to achieve a faster sink rate while still retaining a stealthy shape. Weed guards are mandatory in grassy areas or if the fly does not swim in an inverted manner. A slow sinking fly requires a longer lead to get down to where the bonefish are feeding. Also, a small fly does not swim well on a stiff, heavy leader. Choose RIO’s Fluoroflex or light RIOMax Plus nylon to sink the fly and swim it naturally.
The fly should be presented lightly – rain dropesque. Loops should be tight and efficient and false casts kept to a minimum. A side arm cast helps tremendously, especially when the sun is throwing long shadows. Avoid waving the rod tip high and using multiple false casts. Bonefish are typically easier to spot in shallow water, because they push wakes, tail or make subtle surface disturbances; so it is not always necessary to work the water with optimal sight fishing light. It is much more important to get in the best position to make the shot. A longer cast may be necessary in ultra bright, calm conditions, but do not try to cast longer than you can comfortably throw. Your chances are better if you wait and make your first cast count. Try to be smooth and sly. If you are fishing from a boat that can get you close enough to the fish, avoid rocking back and forth while you cast or stomping around the deck. When wading, position yourself so the fish come to you. Try to keep any and all wakes to a minimum.
Large schools of bonefish can be difficult, because if one fish is spooked, sometimes they all go haywire. Pick one fish out and focus on feeding that fish. Anglers often get nervous and blow a cast into a large school because of the sheer size of it. When a bonefish is mudding, he is usually pretty unaware of his surroundings. Be bold in this situation and drop the fly pretty close to his noggin. Chances are, the fish will grab the fly instantly and instinctively, because he is searching his mud for food. If the fish are moving rapidly, be sure to give them enough lead and allow the fly to sink. Aggressive bonefish will eat the fly as it sinks, but cautious fish require more convincing.
After you have presented the fly, use smooth bumps and strips. Jerky movements are somewhat unnatural and may freak out the fish. If the fish are coming toward you, stay connected to your fly and if you think the fish has eaten your offering, make a long, smooth strip. If the fish bit it, you will come tight. If it didn’t, it likely will get more excited and pounce on it.
A bonefish, small or large, will take off fast. Watch for mangrove roots, sea fans, coral and other debris that might break a fish off. Keep the tip of your rod high to avoid getting wrapped around something. There are often a lot of snags in skinny water. If the fish gets wrapped around a mangrove, move toward the tree, loosen the drag and try to unwind the fish. It is tough to steer a bonefish, but with enough pressure an average sized fish can be persuaded into following directions.
Unless you’re getting a photo, release the fish without excessive handling and keep him in the water. A dehooker works well if the barb has been pinched down.
Landing a bonefish of any size in calm, skinny water is a prize. Lighten up and catch more fish. If you haven’t tried it, it’s about time you join the revolution!