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Bonefish (Albula vulpes)
Bonefish are considered to be a holy grail of flats fishing, especially on the fly. These fish use their hydrodynamic constitution to achieve speeds of 40mph, which help them escape their many predators, but also make hundreds of miles of your line strip away within seconds.
Bones are most often found in sandy or grassy flats as shallow as 6'', which they can tolerate on account of having lung-like air bladders. Being very sensitive to noise, they require a subtle approach, which will usually require either wading through the flats or poling on a flat-bottom skiff. Smaller ones are often found in 100+ fish schools, while larger ones will also group up, but with fewer fish.
This species doesn't grow too large, but that doesn't cloud the fact that it's one of the toughest saltwater fighters, pound for pound. In Florida and the Bahamas they will average at 4-6lbs, while down south in the West Indies they'll be about twice that size. In South African and Hawaiian waters they are said to grow up to 20lbs, even though the official world record stands at 16lbs. They live relatively long lives of about 19 years and mature quickly, at 3-4.
When & Where
Bonefish can be found in tropical and subtropical waters worldwide. The highest concentrations are in the western Atlantic, from Nova Scotia to Brazil, including Bermuda, Turks and Caicos Islands and the Caribbean Sea, and excluding the Gulf of Mexico. Additionally, they are commonly found off South Africa, Hawaii and in the eastern Pacific from the SF Bay Area down to Peru, mainly in the San Diego Bay.
The hottest spots include:
- Florida Keys, especially Key West, but also the Biscayne Bay flats
- Andros Island in the Bahamas (but really the entire archipelago)
- Belize, especially Ambergris Caye and Turneffe Atoll
Bonefish can be targeted year-round, but a general rule of thumb will be that larger fish move to deeper waters during hotter months. Due to this, ideal months will be March through May and then again in October, with their return. Moving tides are a prerequisite, but each fishery has their own best times throughout the tides, which can be learned either with experience, or from a knowledgeable guide.
A double hook up is possible if you don't scare the school away. Caught aboard Done Deal in Miami, FL
How to catch
Bonefishing is something of an art form that, if mastered, will contribute immensely to your light tackle skills.
Bones are often spotted trailing or mudding in the crystal clear waters of the flats (polarised sunglasses will be really helpful with this task). If they're busy foraging like this, close casts will be optimal. If they're swimming freely, you should cast at least 6ft away, and make that 10ft if they're schooling. You should never cast over the fish as it might spook them and casting from the side rather than with the rod up is also advised for this reason.
As for bait, live shrimp is the most reliable, but small crabs will sometimes work as well. Shrimp, crab or cut conch are highly recommended to chum with, as it will give the fish something to make them busy while you approach. If no chum is used, either wade the flats or pole the boat, as any motor noise will make them disperse. Natural bait should be retrieved rapidly across the surface as soon as they hit the water and then allowed to sink.
Artificial options include small flatheaded skimmer jigs, various plugs and flies (also aided by chum). Lures should be repeatedly retrieved once they drop in order to create sand puffs in the water.
Good to eat?
As their name says, way too many tiny and large bones on the inside. Due to this and excellent fighting qualities for which the fish is revered, the practice of catch and release is not questioned.
Thank the fish for gracing your hook and release it with a smile. This is how it's done with Skins and Fins in Islamorada, FL
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