F&S Classic: Dem Dry Bones
My last fish of the day was a sunset loner who came tail-wagging across the sand like a hound dog...
My last fish of the day was a sunset loner who came tail-wagging across the sand like a hound dog looking for a long-buried bone. The water was little more than ankle deep. Staring into the smoky blue and gold reflections, waiting for him to come into range, I had that old squirrels-in-the-stomach feeling, wondering whether he would turn, trying to guess when he would be most vulnerable.
No fish is more humbling than a big tailer who ventures into glass-calm shallows–a mere presence that dares you to make the first move. I’ve forgotten how many myotomes, those explosive elastic bands of muscle, are contained in that torpedo-shaped body, but once spooked, an old forktail can take off like a Ferrari Testarossa from a standing start.
Although the fish was zigzagging, when he was about 40 feet away I got down on my knees and began working out the line, then dropped the fly–a dry Salmon Irresistible–on his incoming path. The fish stopped to poke his head in the sand, about 5 feet short of the fly. The squirrels pounded in my rib cage. When he resumed swimming I gave the Irresistible a twitch, and 9 ½ pounds of bonefish dashed at it in a splashy rise. He streaked away with that stunning acceleration that throws spray from a disappearing fly line, and was down in the backing before I even got on my feet.
Until 1982, I didn’t realize that bonefish could be caught on dry flies. Over the years I had hooked a few fish on the surface with a bucktail wing wet pattern that didn’t immediately sink, and even a few on topwater plugs intended for barracuda. But I was conditioned to the belief that bonefish are strictly bottom feeders and I couldn’t think of a logical reason for them to deviate from that behavior. As every student knows, most of their food consists of benthic or burrowing mollusks and crustaceans, prey probably located by “hearing” and “smell-tasting,” senses that must be highly developed in the albulids. The fish literally stand on their heads as they root in the bottom with tails waving seductively in the air. But bonefish also enjoy a bounty of alpheid and penaeid shrimps, crabs, and other mobile food forms that are flushed in panicky flight, and the tailing activity you see then is in quick, jerky movements as the food is pursued visually.
The most productive way to use the dry fly is on tailing fish. Exactly what a floating pattern represents, I have no idea, but presumably when twitched on the surface, it suggests a crustacean of some kind, such as the snapping shrimp or the miniature pitho, ornate, or spider crabs that will, in mere inches of water, pop to the top when disturbed. Although the vast majority of anglers pursue their quarry from a skiff, going after them on foot with the floater is a totally different adrenaline-pumping game–both a physical and a mental exercise.
For my part, stalking bonefish by wading is the ultimate method. It can’t be done everywhere in bonefish country because it requires flats with a fairly solid substrate–preferably sand or firm marl with a minimum of grass. This is far more common to the Bahamas than Florida, where soft marl bottoms are dominant, especially on the bay side of the Keys. When wading soft bottoms in Florida, our resourceful Saltwater Fishing Editor, Bob Stearns, wears his boat sneakers bolted to a pair of plastic snowshoes, taking big fish in water so shallow that they jet off the flat in a contrail of mud.
According to Stearns, snowshoes slide easily through water. However, in the Bahamas there are places like Ambergris Cay, the Joulters, Deadman’s Cay, Santa Maria Point, French Wells, and the many excellent locations near Deep Water Cay such as Big Mangrove, Little Harbour, the Bird Bar, Brush Cay, and East End Creek, which offer miles of easy wading.
Sight-fishing from a poled skiff is often more productive of numbers, as you can cover a greater area and find more targets. But when there’s visible feeding activity, it’s more exciting to go after bonefish on foot. The advantage of wading, and indeed the real thrill, is that you can get much closer to the fish and also take them in the shallowest water, where a skiff would go aground. Tailing incomers will sometimes swim within 10 feet before spooking, provided you get down on your knees when casting. In a sense, it is comparable to the matador’s classic pase de rodillas (literally a pass at the bull while kneeling) as the fish almost blindly charge the fly.
The polite position of simply bending at the waist or crouching is little better than standing upright like a scarecrow in a berry patch with eyeball to eyeball encounters. And there’s a vast difference between an angler standing on a bow platform looming 8 or 9 feet above the surface in the bonefish’s cone of vision, and the kneeling caster with his derriere flat against his heels. I have squatted perfectly motionless without casting and had tailing bonefish come so close that I could almost reach out and touch them; when the school exploded, it was like taking a shower bath. In the 30- to 35-foot range, I can sometimes make as many as a dozen dry fly presentations before hooking, or spooking, a tailer. Bear in mind, the floating fly doesn’t make a splash, and you’re not throwing yards of fish-frightening taper across the sky.
I’ve been fishing with my old friend Gilbert Drake for twenty-five years. Our system is to park the skiff at the edge of a flat, then go our separate ways, keeping about a 50-yard interval. Depending on the sun’s glare, I can often spot fish working in Gil’s direction and signal him, or vice versa. Starting our stalk on the downtide side of the flat, if ebbing or flooding, and wading toward the flow, we sometimes meet a constant parade of incoming pods and singles. Even when no tails are showing, there are some flats that invariably hold feeding fish, and we follow the same routine–watching for surface disturbances and bottom sign. The bottom sign, incidentally, is a visible trail of excavated sand or marl. These bluish-gray holes in a marl substrate, individually somewhat triangular in shape, are fresh “digs” made by the bonefish’s pointy snout. They will disappear with the next tide. If there are any marl in suspension, and a dig looks like it holds a little puff of smoke, you are within casting distance of a fish–or about to step on one.
Inevitably, there are many frustrations in this kind of angling, especially when you follow a big bonefish swimming uptide in the “wrong” direction for about 200 yards, tailing but staying just at the outer limits of a cast, only to have him spooked by the shadow of a gull passing overhead. I have followed individual fish for a half hour before finally getting close enough for a cast. Bob Stearns stalked one for 40 minutes on his plastic snowshoes and finally nailed it–a 10-pounder. This kind of fishing doesn’t add up to large scores at the end of the day, but there’s a tremendous satisfaction in a one-on-one contest. Those are the parameters of our game.
To me, topwater strikes are always much more exciting, whether I’m casting for trout, salmon, bass, or any other gamefish. Under the right conditions, ladyfish, baby tarpon, and even small creek snook can be taken on dry flies. But there are three distinct advantages to the dry fly method on bonefish. First, you always know where the fly is in relation to the fish–a critical factor on tailers who often move randomly, slowly changing direction a few feet left or right. With a sunken fly, it’s easy to misjudge exactly where the feathers are, or when to give the fly some action. Secondly, a floating pattern won’t hang in the bottom. Even reverse wing and keel hook wet patterns will get stuck in turtle grass or pick up weeds when cast in what is often little more than ankle-deep water. The third advantage is that the fish has a much better chance of seeing a dry fly when you are casting over humpy bottoms. Bonefish will often feed in places where patches of substrate are almost emergent on a falling tide; they literally squirm from hole to hole, and often a wet fly will sink out of sight on the opposite side of a slope.
I took one fish of about 8 pounds recently on a turtle grass flat bordering a channel near Jacob’s Cay. Even when the tide has almost fully ebbed, individual bonefish will often linger until what seems like the last drop of water, as long as a safe deep channel is nearby. When I spotted this bonefish, his back was out of water and he was rooting like a hog in lush pasture, slowly finning from one pocket to another. By the time I waded into casting distance, he was about to ease over another slope, so I dropped the fly in the next hole. There was no hesitation. I twitched the Irresistible and he swam directly for it, poking his head half out of the water at the take. In the same situation with a wet fly, I almost invariably get hung in the bottom, or the fish doesn’t see the fly at all.
The ideal outfit for bonefish on the dry fly is an 8- or 8 ½-foot graphite rod calibrated for a No. 6 line. When fishing from a skiff on windy days, I prefer a 9-foot rod with a No. 9 line, and regardless of calm morning weather conditions I bring along both, as sight-fishing while wading becomes impossible when the wind rises. For lines, I prefer a standard weight-forward, or triangle-taper; I find saltwater tapers with the more terminal, heavy belly section much too splashy for spooky fish. A 9-foot leader tapered to an 8-pound-test tippet is standard for bonefish and provides enough rigidity to turn over No. 4 and No. 6 dry flies, which have more air resistance than wet patterns.
So far, I’ve had my best results with the Irresistible, the Bomber, the White Wulff, the Gray Wulff, and a dry Muddler. I don’t think pattern is too important in a surface fly–giving it a few slight twitches is usually what triggers the strikes. Although I spray the fly with a floatant, saltwater is more dense than freshwater and thus helps flotation. On the negative side, saltwater also rusts lightweight, bronzed wire dry fly hooks, so washing them in freshwater at the end of the day is essential.
How effective is the dry fly on bonefish? Well, my neighbor, Ed Reddy, whom I now count as a pioneer in this new dimension (I haven’t met anybody else who throws dry patterns on the flats), took eight consecutive bonefish with a floater before getting a refusal while fishing with Captain Sammy Collins at Bush Cay north of Deep Water Cay. That would be hard to duplicate even with live shrimp. I haven’t done half as well as Ed, because I always manage to spook a few between takes, for one reason or another. I still get an awful case of buck fever when fish are working all around me, and my casting goes to hell. And so far, I haven’t found the dry fly very effective on cruising fish in water much over knee depth, especially when they are traveling in compact schools, “window shopping” rather than actively feeding. The wet fly is still the ticket for deeper water.
After almost four decades of emptying conch shell out of my wading shoes, I’ve learned that making positive statements about Albula vulpes is fatuous. Like Winston Churchill’s classic description of Russia, the bonefish remains “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” But I see no reason why the largest fish will not surface-feed in shallow water. The problem is, of course, that we don’t meet trophy fish every day, and as in all new angling methods, we will learn from collective experience.