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Stalking Shallow Bonefish  at Cabela's

Stalking Shallow Bonefish

Author: David A. Brown

Masters of illusion - and, thereby, elusion - these fish can pull the now-you-see-me-now-you-don't routine like no other. Granted, it's hard to imagine staring right at a pod of approaching fish only to have them simply drop off of your radar screen. But it happens. Problem: In what is largely a sight casting arena, how can you catch what you can't see?

When bonefish are extremely skittish, the light presentation of a crab or shrimp-immitating fly often draws a strike.

So, you don't believe in ghosts, huh? Well, just look around the inshore shallows of subtropical and tropical regions like South Florida and the Bahamas where briny specters abound. From Miami's Biscayne Bay to the expansive flats of Islamorada to the pristine beaches along Grand Bahamas' southern shore, bonefish routinely prompt anglers of all skill levels to rub their eyes, scratch their heads and utter all manner of unrepeatables.

Masters of illusion - and, thereby, elusion - these fish can pull the now-you-see-me-now-you-don't routine like no other. Granted, it's hard to imagine staring right at a pod of approaching fish only to have them simply drop off of your radar screen. But it happens. Problem: In what is largely a sight casting arena, how can you catch what you can't see?

Now, those who have not yet tossed this fishery into the "forget it" file, can take heart. This is truly a doable challenge, the success of which more than justifies all effort invested in its attainment. Often frustrating, always nerve-racking, the hunt for the shallow-running speedster known as the "gray ghost" is one of angling's most addictive vexations.

First step in the process is to realize that bonefish do not actually disappear. Barring any of that metaphysical mumbo jumbo, a living, breathing creature cannot simply vanish. A smart one, however, can employ its natural assets and leverage its surroundings to make you think the impossible has occurred.

A bonefish's scales are like little mirrors that reflect its surroundings. Couple this with light brown bars across its back and you have the makings of finned chameleon that can simply adjust its position in the water, distort its profile and fool your eyes. Bones that spend a lot of their time in backwater bays and creeks often take on a darker hue, but in the classic open water scenario, the benefit of reflection allows frightened bonefish to slip off the edge of a flat an into a deeper, more secure area.

Shallow draft skiffs propelled by push pole are optimal for hunting bonefish in their shallow, clear environments.

Proximity also factors here. Rule number one of bonefishing is stealth. A school of bones on the move might literally run within a rod length of a drifting boat. Normally, though, these hyper-cautious fish simply won't tolerate noise, shadows or anything that resembles potential danger. Drop a rod, slam a hatch, sneeze and the fish will literally boil the shallows as they blast out of town.

The only way to avoid this is to stay back and stay quiet. Plan on a lot of straining and squinting just to locate a group of fish and monitor their course. It's this less-than-perfect vision that bonefish often exploit.

Nevertheless, if you can overcome the camouflage thing and minimize your noise, you'll have a pretty good shot at connecting with one of the sea's most spectacular fighters. Here are a few tips on how to make the magic connection.

Bonefish feed mostly over shallow grass beds skirting shorelines and mangrove islands. Seeking crustaceans, baitfish and invertebrates, the fish run their bullet-shaped heads along the bottom until they spot or smell a meal. As they turn headfirst to root out the food, their tails break the surface, waving briefly as awkward stabilizers. "Tailing" means feeding and this visual cue leads many anglers to their prize.

Bones like to stick close to deeper edges for quick getaways, but when the tide is high enough to support them, the fish will move up into the skinniest of water on the "crown" (high point) of a flat or into shallow beach troughs. In extreme heat, look for bonefish in deeper, cooler water.

Tides, too, can work in your favor. In or out, moving water means feeding fish, as the current pulls forage across the flats. Bones will be leaving the shallows as the tide drops. But slack low tide offers a telling perspective of the various ridges, gullies and tidal furrows through which the fish move.

An incoming tide brings brisk, oxygenated water onto the flats, perking up all therein. Optimal is a morning incoming tide because the water has cooled through the night. Flood tide impedes sight fishing, as maximum depth conceals the fish.

From South Florida to the Bahamas, bonefish offer a thrilling light tackle challenge.

Spring and fall offer the most productive conditions throughout the day. From June through September, early mornings and late afternoons are best for beating the heat. Summer thunderstorms will chase you off the water, but quickly lower air and surface temperatures. Once hazardous conditions clear, fishing can pick up dramatically. Winter fishing is better during midday, as the sun warms the chilly shallows.

When looking for bonefish, watch for "nervous water" - wakes caused by bones on the move. Normally, you'll see a V-shaped push or an isolated patch of water jiggling a little more than its surroundings. Watch closely, and you'll often see the silver blade of a tailing fish pierce the surface. If you spot a disturbance, no matter how faint, maintain your focus. Glance away and you lose your bearings. Polarized sunglasses with side panels and a wide-brim hat to cut overhead glare will greatly improve your vision.

Hands down, the favorite natural offering is live shrimp. Pinch off the tip of the tail to minimize wind resistance and run a No. 1 or 1/0 hook into the opening, out the first segment and back into the tail. Arranged like a Texas-rigged bass worm, you can easily retrieve the weedless shrimp through the grass.

If the shrimp are small, affix a medium split shot to the leader just above the hook knot. Another option is running the hook the length of its shank into the shrimp's tail, bringing it back out, and hanging a second shrimp on the point. Run the hook midway into the second shrimp's tail.

Because bonefish feed mostly by smell, keeping your bait as fresh as possible is intrinsic. When easing across the flats, hold your rod tip low so the shrimp remains submerged. Just keep it up out of the grass. There's nothing worse than missing a shot because you're fiddling with a tangled shrimp. Change baits frequently, but if you're conserving a low supply, slack out your line and dangle a hooked shrimp in the livewell between moves.

With sharks and barracuda on the lookout for weak bonefish, always revive your fish before releasing.

Casting to bonefish is a classic catch-22. Put the bait too far away and you quarry might meander past without detecting it. Too close, the school spooks and it's back to the hunt. Best bet is to closely track the fish's movement and try to lay the bait about 10 feet ahead of their course. The toughest shot is on approaching fish, because inadvertent overcasting puts the bait right on their heads and that's bad form.

The least risky cast is on crossing fish. Simply pick an intercept point, cast and reel closer if necessary. Casting from behind is a losing proposition, because even if you drop the bait an acceptable distance in front of the fish, the instant the line touches a fin, it's game-over.

Casting opinions vary. Some say an overhand cast affords maximum power and range for reaching distant fish. Others argue for the underhanded, sidearm cast, which produces less entry splash with no high-flying bait for the fish to spot. Bones won't run far from their course, so all agree putting the bait in front of the fish is the primary objective. Exercise situational discretion.

Helpful is a 7- to 71/2-foot spinning outfit with a flexible tip and a reel holding at least 200 yards of 8-pound monofilament. The flexibility plus the light line will help maximize casting range. Fly rodding with sinking tip line and a weighted crab, shrimp or Clouser minnow pattern can be effective.

If casting accuracy is a problem, or if the fish are in an area you can't reach, try coaxing them into range by chumming with bits of freshly cut shrimp. Secure the boat uptide from the target area by anchoring, or "staking out" with the push pole sunk a couple feet into the bottom and tied off to the poling platform or a cleat. Spread a broad field of freebies 20-30 feet in front of the boat and lay a hooked bait amid the appetizers.

(Be careful not to overdo it with the freebies. Sharks and rays are far less inhibited than bonefish and the shallow water vacuum cleaners will crash your party in a hurry.)

With a fleshy mouth and no teeth, a hooked bone usually remains so. No jumps, no fancy moves. Just lots of speed. Keep the rod tip high and let the fish make several successively shorter runs. Bonefish will fight to near exhaustion, so take a few minutes to revive your fish before release. Hold the fish gently by the tail and push it through the water until he gets his wind and swims off unassisted.

Granted, not every bonefish outing ends with a triumphant release. But the basics stem from common sense rules of cause and effect. Break these rules and your ghost disappears.

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