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Bonefishing 101: Pursuing Wintertime Bonefish
Capt. Barry Hoffman
As the balmy summertime weather fades in the Keys and is replaced by cooler and windier days, your tactics and strategies for bonefish should change as well. These changes in weather promote the bonefish to alter the areas they inhabit and promote them to spawn in large schools. However with a bit of local knowledge, you can keep right in the action throughout the winter months.
As December makes its way upon us, we begin to experience the effects of the cold fronts that make their way through the Keys every one to two weeks. The flats that may have produced back in October and early November, may become noticeably void of life as the water temperature begins to drop. During this time of the year, bonefish have a comfort zone which they prefer (not unlike myself this time of year) . Although I have caught bonefish in water as cold as 62 degrees, once the flats reach about 68, it gets a bit too cool for them up there. Focusing on finding warmer water will be the most important aspect of your wintertime bonefishing.
As these fronts pass through the Keys, they bring with them cooler temperaturesand brisk winds from the North. These seasonal changes combine and will drive the bonefish from their usual flats in the backcountry and Islamorada. The wind cools the shallow waters of Florida Bay first and are then transported oceanside by way of the many channels that slice through the Keys. These chilled waters wash over the neighboring flats as the water falls from the backcountry. As these flats cool, the bonefish search for warmer areas. The oceanside flats north of Islamorada, provide the perfect habitat to search for wintertime bonefish. These northern-most reaches of the Florida Keys are without the major waterflows emptying from Florida Bay. Therefore the water temperatures remain consistently higher due to the fact the water has a better chance to warm up without the cold water bay influence. During a prolonged cold front, finding areas that are able to warm up at mid-day, is the key to wintertime bonefishing. The fish will seek out these typically quiet areas in an attempt to get warm and feed. There are many secluded bays and coves that offer protection from the strong winds that frequent the Keys this time of year. The best time to fish these areas is during the higher stages of the tide when the fish can slip high onto the flats and stay throughout the slack tidal period while the sunlight warms the shallower flat. If the water is still low and falling, concentrate on finding edges that the warm water is falling into. Chances are the bonefish will be taking advantage of it.
The winter time weather has another effect on bonefish. It is during this time of the year bonefish can be found in schools of fifty to over two hundred as they migrate along the shorelines of the upper Keys. The larger numbers of fish may be due to the cold water driving bonefish out of Florida Bay northward as well as the bonefish of Biscayne Bay southward. There are generally two "schools" of thought as to why they do this. One, it is simply a migratory pattern the fish get into to find a more tolerable water temperature. The second is that it is part of a spawning ritual. Although very little is known about the spawning habits of Albula vulpes, it is believed these large schools may spawn offshore aswell as inshore while on the flats. While on the move in these rolling masses, the release of the roe from a female, encourages the males to fertilize them while swimming alongside. This is known as broadcast fertilization. Occasionally while releasing a bonefish, these large, prespawning fish will release their milt. The initial stages of the life of a bonefish begin as the eggs are fertilized. The fertilized eggs hatch into an eel-like and transparent larva. These larva spend several months drifting in the offshore ocean currents where they reach a length of about two inches. At that time a unique process occurs. The bonefish larva shrinks to about three-quarters of an inch, then begin to form tiny fins. The bonefish will also change from its previous transparent color to silver. The bonefish will then begin to grow again. At this point the larva looks much like a miniature bonefish. Once they reach about an inch in length, they seek the safety of the mangrove roots where they'll begin their life upon the shallow flats.
Back to the fishing. One important aspect to consider while fishing these huge moving schools is to find a point that the bonefish will have to navigate around while traversing the shoreline. As the fish make their way up and down the edges of the oceanside flats, there are shallower points they will invariably have to swim around. Find one of these points, and stay on it. The bonefish will usually reveal themselves by asurface wake as they move in mass. They can be tough for a novice to detect. They are simply a pattern of waves that doesn't match the conditions of the wind. Usually the larger schools will "push" a large section of water as they move erratically across a flat. These "pushes" of water can be seen from three hundred feet or more on a calm day. While fishing in these huge schools you may be able to cast over and over again right into the moving fish. However, some days the fish are moving quickly and without want of anything placed in their path. Other days the fish are less hurried and more apt to take a fly or bait.
One of the best ways to catch bonefish is on light tackle with live shrimp. I'll use a seven foot fast action rod. Attached to it, a spinning reel with a line capacity of about 200 yards of ten pound test. The last twenty inches of line is doubled with a Bimini Twist. To this end a 2/0 hook is tied. I suggest using a Mustad freshwater hook #33637B. It's a thin wire hook that will rust out quickly in the salt should you loose a bonefish to the bottom. The drag should be a very smooth one. These fish are capable of a long sustained run. The drag must be up to the task. When using live shrimp as a bait for bonefish, it is important to remove the tail before placement of the hook. In hooking the shrimp I'll enter the openarea where the tail was removed. Then I'll thread the shrimp on the hook about the length of the shank. This is the point where I'll come out of the bottom of the shrimp, pull the hook out until the hook eye is just inside the shrimp. Then I'll turn the hook over and replace it up into the shrimp so that the point just sticks out of the top of the body of the shrimp. At this point I'll crush the head. There are two reasons for rigging the shrimp this way. The first reason is to prevent the shrimp from spinning in the water upon retrieving it. Most times it will be important to manipulate the shrimp in order to get it in front of the moving school of bonefish. Having the tail attached would cause the shrimp to spin while retrieving line. This would put unnecessary twist in your line making it tougher to cast. You've already got enough to worry about with these fish! In addition sometimes it is necessary to hopthe shrimp a bit to get their attention should the fish change its direction. With the tail removed the shrimp could move naturally (backwards) as though it's trying to escape. Another plus to removing the tail of the shrimp and squeezing the head, it provides the addition of scent through the open wound. Many times it is the smell that will turn the head of a bonefish to track its prey upcurrent.
If you're more of a flyfishing masochist, like myself (the wind is a constant companion this time of year), here are a few suggestions for flies to throw. Capt.Bob Rodgers- a Tavernier based guide- uses a Chernobyl shrimp pattern for the majority of his wintertime bonefishing. The larger profile of this Tim Borski fly sinks slower and may more closely imitate a shrimp. I'll use a bonefish slider pattern with an epoxied head. Theprofiles of these flies are at about two to two and a half inches in length. Give 'em something to find and to feed on. When the fish are moving at a more brisk pace, it's time to get your stripping hand in high gear and keep up with them. Often, they'll over-run the fly. Keep ahead of the fish or at least even with them. A fly sitting on the bottom will be quickly overlooked.
Don't let the winter time weather stop you from pursuing these tremendous gamefish. Bundle up and get out on the water. The bones have migrated north for the Winter, but they've had a layover in the Upper Keys.
Tying the Marabou Crazy Charlie I use a bit of marabou in almost all of my flies. The marabou has a terrific breathing action on its own. The marabou needs only the slightest current passing to impart action to the fly. The bonefish find this fly very appealing in a tailing and mudding situation.
Tying the Marabou Crazy Charlie
1. I'll use a #2 or #4 Mustad 34007 stainless hook to start.
2. Start a base wrap with a brown tying thread.
3. Tie in 1/50th oz lead eyes behind the hook eye. Leave a bit of room between the hookeye and the lead eyes to accommodate the marabou.
4. Tie in 10 - 12 strands of gold flashabou that extend 3/4 inch behind the bend of the hook.
5. Tie in a tan chenille. Use a fine diameter. Starting from a point inside the hook point wrap forward along the shank overwrapping the lead eyes and finishing at the eye of the hook.
6. Fasten the marabou to the top of the chenille at the point between the lead eyes and the eye of the hook. Try to maintain an angle with the marabou so that it covers the hook point. This is important so that when the fly is stripped during the presentation, the water forces the marabou down and the quill of the feather springs it back up when the stripping hand stops.
7. Tie in two small grizzly hackles to either side of the marabou, maintaining the same angle as the marabou. (antenna)
8. Whip finish head, apply head cement, (I use super glue) bend down hook point and sharpen.
9. With a bright yellow paint, dab the side of the lead eyes. You can use a paper clip or the end of a golf tee to apply the small drop.
10. When all is dry, use a black permanent marker to make a pupil in the middle of the yellow eye.
11. Apply cement to head again and cover eyes to protect paint finish.
This fly can be tied with varying colors. I've had success with white and tan maribou aswell. Use a brighter combination on an overcast day. Stay with the natural colors on the brighter days.
Bonefishing on the Flats: the Presentation
When on the flats, it's important to properly choose the weight of your fly. The fly must get down to the level of the fish before they pass over it. Or, it may be too shallow and a heavily weighted fly may foul deeply in the turtle grass. Also, with any strong tidal currents, it may get swept away from their feeding path. It is very important to pay attention to the direction of the water flow upon the flat. Look at the direction the seagrass is bending or stir up some mud with your push pole.
Bonefish almost always will feed at some direction into the current. So position your skiff accordingly. Also, the presentation of the fly or bait, should be above, or upcurrent of the feeding fish. I usually have my clients cast above and beyond the moving fish. This way they can always be on the fish on the first cast, which is usually the most important. They can then strip in the fly fast until it is in the strike zone at which time they can manipulate it in a more accurate manner. The spin fisherman should hold the rod high and reel the bait on the top of the water. When he approaches the strike zone, slow down and let the shrimp sink ahead of the fish.
The fish move fast under these conditions, so be prepared to water haul the flyline or recast that live shrimp. By the way a split shot above the hook on those live shrimp probably isn't a bad idea if the shrimp are on the small side.
Tan those toes and other ways to deal with wind on the water. One of the most common obstacles to overcome while flyfishing in salt water is the wind. If you find yourself having trouble with line management on those windy days on the flats, try taking off those boat shoes. The longer casts needed on the flats commonly result in many coils of fly line at ones feet as they wait for the fish to arrive. Removing your shoes allows you to feel the line underfoot before you make your cast.
Try swiping your spouse's laundry basket. I haven't found those stripping baskets that are worn around the waist to be very comfortable. They restrict my movement while casting and just feel so cumbersome. If they work for you fine, but if not, try a large laundry basket left on the deck in front of you. Their large opening makes it easier to strip line into while trying to keep your eyes on the fish coming at you.
The guide should have the boat positioned so that you've got a downwind cast. There are modifications that should be made to your cast to take advantage of the wind. First, keep your backcast low to the water. The water creates friction and can actually slow the velocity of the wind. I'll usually sweep the rodtip back low and parallel to the surface of the water. The higher above the surface you get, the stronger the wind feels. Keeping this in mind, make your final cast high and overhead, while opening up your loop just a bit. This open loop will help to catch the wind and "sail" it downwind to your target.
Last, step back a foot or two and strip the line into the cockpit behind you. Be sure the area is clear to prevent snags on any gearbag buckles, shoes or cooler handles. If it's really cranking, it might be helpful to stand in the cockpit until the guide spots the fish for you.
Try these methods and don't forget to use sunscreen on those toes, or ya might end up looking like an old seasoned Islamorada guide!
Good Luck Fishing, Barry
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