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This angler’s guide on fly fishing for bonefish will show you everything you need to know when it comes to targeting bonefish. I’ve spent countless hours persuing these fish in many different scenarios. I’ve also had the privilege of guiding many clients onto bonefish, which taught me what many anglers struggle and need help with.
The bonefish is an honest fish, which means that if you do a couple of key things right, they’ll mostly repay you with an eat.
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What is Bonefish Fishing?
Bonefish fishing, or bonefishing as it’s also referred to, is the process of targeting bonefish on fly. This is, by far, the world’s most popular saltwater fly fishing quarry, and with good reason.
Bonefish is the ultimate fly fishing species for several reasons. Mostly, they can be targeted in shallow water. This makes it possible to exclusively sight cast to these fish. They’re also constantly on the lookout for food which means they readily eat flies.
The best of all? Hook into a bonefish, even a relatively small specimen, and your reel will be screaming. Bonefish are incredibly fast and have surprising stamina. The result is a quality fight.
Best Bonefish Flies
Here’s a list of some of my favorite bonefish flies. If you open my bonefish fly box, you’ll always find these flies in a range of sizes and weights. For a more comprehensive list of bonefish flies, please see our post on Bonefish Flies: 15 Best Patterns & When to Use Them.
The Taylor’s Delight flies I use for bonefish are understated and small. I only make use of lightweight flies tied on size 8 and 6 hooks. This is my go-to fly when the bonefish are picky and very leader shy.
Fly Fishing for Bonefish with a Taylor’s Delight
The small rabbit fur wing (made from zonker cut from the hide) gives the fly ample movement, even when stationary. Cast the fly and position it in the fish’ feeding lane. When the fish are close, the fly should remain still allowing the fish to discover the shrimp on its own.
Pay very close attention to the body language of the fish. If you see the gills flare and/or the pectoral fins paddling back, set the hook. In very clean water and close-quarter situations, you’ll see the fish suck in the fly.
This is the bonefish fly I always start out with. Doesn’t matter where you are in the world, chances are the bonefish are going to eat it. I prefer the version with two or four rubber legs. If you see that they don’t respond well to the legs, just remove them with your nippers.
I recommend stocking up your fly box with sizes from 6 to 2 in light and heavily weighted versions. The larger flies work well on big, single cruising bonefish. It’s also a good fly to make a quick shot on a passing permit.
Fly Fishing for Bonefish with a Gotcha
As with all fishing, it’s important to lead the fish out. Cast the fly one or two rod lengths in front of the fish. The actual distance will be determined by the depth of water, the sink rate of your fly, current, and the fish’s awareness.
When the fly is about a yard in front of the fish, give one long slow strip. The speed will be determined by where you’re fishing and the reaction it evokes. You’ll immediately see if there’s a reaction or not.
The Pillow Talk is a Crazy Charlie variation developed in Seychelles by the Alphonse Fishing Company Guides. It started out as a small chartreuse and white Clowser Minnow but evolved in a specialized fish catching machine.
It has caught all of the most popular flats species on St. Francois atoll. These include indo-pacific permit, giant and bluefin trevally, and triggerfish. On my first day ever on this atoll, I even hooked into a large milkfish with this fly. That story ends in tears almost 2 hours later as the fish was about to go into the net.
What the Pillow Talk does best is catch bonefish. I have never seen a fly do what this one does. It results in, on some days, hundreds of bonefish caught. The fly fishes best in relatively light variations (using small and medium bathroom chain beads) and hook sizes between 4 and 6.
Fly Fishing for Bonefish with a Pillow Talk
The Pillow Talk can be fished exactly the same as the Gotcha. Remember, always listen to what the guide says. If you’re not fishing with a guide, really zone in on the body language of the fish. They will let you know if you can fish them aggressively or need to be more subtle.
During some tides, bonefish prefer foraging over turtle grass. In this case, most heavy flies will get you snagged up. This can be very frustrating.
The Bonefish Bitters is one of my favorite flies to use in this scenario. The fly has a wide epoxy head formed around the dumbbell eyes. It also includes a spun deer hair upper body, which acts as a natural weed guard.
These two features allow the fly to sit on top of the turtle grass, preventing snags and making them more visible to the incoming bonefish.
I prefer them tied on small hooks (between 10 and 6) in olive, rusty brown, and tan.
Fly Fishing for Bonefish with a Bonefish Bitters
Lead the fish out, as with the other flies. When the fly lands, ensure that you have contact with the fly. Once the fish are close to the fly, it can be twitched or retrieved to encourage a take.
Fishing on shallow coralline beds and in the surf zone isn’t naturally associated with bonefish. Let me tell you, this can be some of the most rewarding bonefishing areas of all.
Yes, the numbers aren’t the same as on the sand flats, but the size and attitude of these fish are something else. A small Alphlexo crab tied on hook sizes 6 and 4 is perfect for this application.
The color of the fly should match that of the bottom. It also helps to have a fluorocarbon weed guard on the fly.
Fly Fishing for Bonefish with an Alphlexo Crab
Fishing an Alphlexo Crab to a bonefish can be seriously fun. The reaction from the fish to the fly, however, might vary. I would start off by presenting the fly to the fish as with the Gotcha or Pillow Talk.
If this doesn’t result in an eat, I’ll fish it relatively fast. Fish in the surf zone don’t have much time to make a decision between eating or not. Often, they just do it.
Best Gear for Bonefish Fly Fishing
Bonefish aren’t as hard on gear like many other saltwater species, such as the Giant Trevally. However, there are some important gear selection aspects to keep in mind to ensure pleasant and consistent results.
If you’re looking for a dedicated bonefish rod, I recommend getting an 8-weight. Sure, a 6 or 7 might be able to do the trick, but they lack in two departments. Firstly, dealing with wind is harder on a 6 or 7-weight rod compared to a good 8-weight.
Secondly, strain is placed on the fish due to a lack of pulling power. Now, if you’re catching 3lb bonefish the entire day, those rods will be fine. Hook into a 12lb fish, and you’ll have your hands full.
A 9-weight would be my first choice, as this means I can use the rod for more species. I feel comfortable catching triggerfish, permit, and even small trevally on a 9-weight.
For more information on this topic, head over to our 5 Best Saltwater Fly Rod article, where I cover basic considerations when selecting a saltwater stick.
Some of the best 8-weight rods on the market today include (in no particular order):
- G Loomis NRX+
- Sage Salt HD
- Scott Sector
- Thomas and Thomas Exocett
- Hardy Zephrus
- Thomas & Thomas Zone
Don’t miss our hands-on Thomas & Thomas Zone Review if you’re interested in this rod.
The drag for a bonefish reel does not need the most stopping power in the world. If you set your drag too tight for these fish, they will pop your leaders on a regular basis. We catch them on sand flats and there’s really nothing that can break you off. So, let them run if they want to run.
The most important thing for a reel is to have as smooth drag as possible. It should also maintain this smoothness throughout its life and condition of use.
For more information on selecting the best saltwater fly reel, please read our Top 5 Best Saltwater Fly Reels article. In it, I share some of the features and considerations you should keep in mind when buying a saltwater reel.
My favorite bonefish reels are (in no particular order):
The backing can have a breaking strain of 20 or 30lb. In most cases, you’re fishing tippet sizes less than this. I recommend having at least 150 yards of backing on your reel, these fish really make long runs.
Make sure that the material doesn’t rot in saltwater. Also, the backing must be wound onto the spool very tightly. Loose winds tend to cause knots and will lose you fish.
The specific fly line you choose to use on your rig is a personal preference. Many anglers swear by this brand other others by that. It’s hard to say what is best and what is not. Especially when budgets and stock availability come into play.
For most of your bonefishing, weight-forward floating fly line matched to the recommended weight of your rod is perfect. With this line, you should be able to cast accurately up to 60 feet. The welded loops can be kept for the purpose of bonefish and also make setting up your fly reel much easier.
My favorite bonefishing line, from each major manufacturer, is:
- Scientific Anglers Amplitude Bonefish
- Rio DirecCore Bonefish
- Airflo Tropical Super Dri Bonefish
- Cortland Bonefish or their All Purpose Taper is good as well
Bonefish leader shyness can vary greatly between destinations. In some destinations in the Bahamas, fishing with long 10lb fluorocarbon leaders is required. On St. Francois atoll, we used 20lb and the fish still ate. We did this to prevent leaders from popping when a wind-knot is present.
When going to any new destination, I recommend carrying an array of tapered leaders ranging from 10lb to 20lb. Then, also carry with you spools of fluorocarbon ranging from 8 to 20lb. This selection will cover most of your bases for bonefishing.
The backing is attached to the spool of the reel by using a uni-knot or arbor knot. This not should just prevent the backing from coming undone. As I always say, if the fish has taken you down to your backing knot you’ve already lost the battle.
On the other side of the backing, a large single Bimini twist loop will do the trick. We create a large enough loop for the reel to pass through. This loop will allow you to quickly change over in the event of a damaged fly line.
The fly line is attached to the backing loop by making a cat’s paw, or loop to loop connection.
The one side of the leader, the thick end if you’re using a tapered leader, is finished off with a loop. You can use any loop knot here, just make sure it’s one you’re comfortable with and one you trust. I recommend a Bimini twist or a perfection loop.
The fly is attached to the other end of the leader by using a uni knot or perfection loop.
Bonefish Fly Fishing Conditions
When you’re fishing in the tropics, the weather and conditions can change rapidly, and this will most definitely effect the catch-rate and approach of you as the angler. Some of the most rewarding and effective bonefishing conditions are:
Fly Fishing Bonefish in Wading Knee-Deep Water
If you’re fishing on foot, I would say this is the most common scenario. The flats have enough water on to hold fish and you’re able to spot the fish with relative ease.
Usually, the fish will move in slight depressions or channels. Positioning yourself next to one of these channels can prove to be very successful. The fly needs to be presented a little further in front of this fish, allowing enough time to sink to the bottom.
A slightly heavier fly may be used which will let the fly sink faster.
Fly Fishing Bonefish in Wading Shallow Water
This is my favorite way to catch bonefish. During a dropping tide, when nearly all of the water has drained off the flat. In some depressions and channels, you’ll sometimes find large bonefishing tailing or with their backs out of the water.
These are by far, in my opinion, the hardest bonefish to catch. In this shallow water, they are incredibly aware, and they spot the angler easier.
This scenario calls for small and very light flies. My favorite fly for this situation is a small Taylor’s Delight.
As the water is very shallow, the fish tend to run like mad once hooked. You can liken shallow water bonefish to dry fly fishing.
Fly Fishing Bonefish over a Drop Off
When the water has dropped off a sand flat, the fish move into deeper water. Here, they’ll congregate in large schools. Although this may not be the most exhilarating way to catch bonefish, it can prove to be very successful.
A size 4 fly with a small tungsten dumbbell eye is perfect in this situation. If the water is really deep, hanging to a 12 or 15-foot leader may increase your catch rate as well.
Most of the time, the fish won’t be visible in this scenario. Cast out as far as possible in likely fish-holding areas. Make a long strip to take up the slack, then allow the fly to sink. Very similar to fishing for trout in a lake. Once the fly is at the bottom, slowly retrieve.
Fly Fishing Bonefish from a Skiff
If you’re heading out with a guide for a day to do some bonefishing, the chances are that you’ll be fishing off the bow of a skiff. The guide will stand on the back, on a poling platform. The poling platform is situated on top of the outboard motor, giving the guide an extended field of vision.
All over the world, clock hours are used as a reference for the guide to tell the angler where to cast. The angler is standing with his back to the guide, and the quickest and most efficient way to communicate the casting direction is using this method.
The bow of the skiff marks 12 o’clock. If the guide tells you: “make a shot 12 o’clock 40 feet” this means that is where the fly should land. To the port side, (left) of 12 o’clock will be 11, 10, and 9 o’clock. To the starboard side (right) will be 1, 2, and 3 o’clock.
Best Time for Fly Fishing for Bonefish
Bonefish eat most of their lives. The best times, therefore, isn’t necessarily influenced by the fish’s eating behavior, but rather when they’re easiest to target.
Bonefish are notoriously hard fish to spot. Their mirror-like sides reflect the color from the bottom, allowing them to blend in completely with their surroundings. No wonder they’re called ghosts of the flats.
They’re easiest to spot with clear skies and the sun coming from an angle. This will allow you to identify the fish using their shadows instead of the fish themselves. In contrast, they may be incredibly hard to spot on overcast days.
My favorite part of the tidal cycle to target bonefish is in the last couple of hours on the drop. The drop is when the tide moves from high to low tide.
During the last hours, you have less water, concentrating the fish. These fish mostly follow the same channels and routes. Standing next to one of these channels is like standing next to a conveyor belt in a bonefish factory. They just keep coming.
Bonefish Fly Fishing Tips & Tricks
If you’re planning on going bonefishing for the first time, I have made a list of tips and tricks that may help you catch a little more fish. This information isn’t rocket science, and you’ll even think to yourself: “Pierre, that’s common sense!”
Let me tell you, everything that can go wrong, will. Regularly reminding yourself of these tricks will help you in the end.
Practice Your Casting
I wanted to call this section: “Fish don’t eat with their butts” but decided against it. The thing that costs clients more fish than anything else, is lack of casting practice. An angler that has prepared well and has spent time practicing his/her casts catches much more fish than the unprepared.
Lead the Fish
Lead the fish, initially, by more than you think. 2 to 3 rod-lengths is sufficient. If you see the bones aren’t that spooky, sure, lay it down nice and close. But in most cases give the fish some “breathing” space. Allow it to do what it does best – find food.
Check Your Leader
Make a habit of regularly checking your leader. Once the knots are made and you’re happy with them, you don’t have to test the leader. All you have to do is quickly run the entire leader through your hand, looking for any wind knots. If there’s a wind knot, replace the leader.
I’ll mention this tip in every saltwater species article. If you see or feel the fish eating the fly, strip set. That is, hold the rod down and give a solid tug o your stripping line. Now, obviously, on 20lb fishing for bonefish, the strip set will be more subtle than on 130lb with a 120cm giant trevally.
Do not lift your rod to set the hook.
Once you’ve landed the bonefish, you’ll notice it likes to wiggle and kick around. The best solution for this is to hold the fish upside down. They’re dead calm when held in this way. In this way, you also won’t put unnecessary strain on its vital organs.
Please remember to keep the fish wet at all times. Take a quick photograph if you have to, but send her on her way as quickly as possible
Best Destinations for Bonefish Fishing
Bonefish frequent many tropical saltwater flats around the globe. There are many great bonefisheries, but here are some of my favorite:
Alphonse Island (Including St. Francois Atoll)
This is the place where I caught my first bonefish. Alphonse atoll is located about 250 miles South-West of the Seychelles capital. It’s probably the world’s greatest bonefishery. The well-managed fishing program means that every year, more and more bonefish are caught.
I’ve had days where clients cast to schools of bonefish further than the eye can see. Not schools of hundreds but thousand upon thousands. It’s not uncommon for a complete novice to catch 20+ bonefish in a day.
St. Brandon’s Atoll
St. Brandon’s archipelago is located approximately 260 miles North-East of Mauritius. This atoll is well known for incredibly large bonefish. Fish above 12lb are often caught and fish exceeding 14lb seen every day.
Fly Castaway runs a great operation there with fishing windows between September and December and again from April to June.
If St. Brandon’s and Alphonse is too much traveling, why not go to Abaco? Abaco is located in the northern Bahamas, 180 miles off the Florida coast. Unfortunately, this island was hard hit by hurricane Dorian, which means many of the lodges are still being rebuilt.
One of my favorite lodges is Abaco Lodge. They have excellent guides and great management.
Los Roques is an archipelago located 80 miles into the Caribbean from mainland Venezuela. It’s a great bonefish destination with good numbers and large specimens around.
Christmas Island offers exceptional value for money when it comes to accommodation and food. Getting there might be slightly difficult as there’s only one flight in and out per week.
The bonefishing is excellent with the ever-present chance of catching triggerfish and stumbling across giant trevally.
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Table of Contents
That’s How to Fly Fish for Bonefish
The information given here is from my own experiences. I hope that it speeds up the learning process when you’re out targeting bonefish. Unfortunately, there’s no substitute for experience and some small things you’ll have to figure out for yourself.
Use this information as a starting point, and build on it using your own experiences. Your favorite flies of fishing methods might be completely different than mine.
I hope that you enjoyed this angler’s guide. Please share it with your fishing mates. Leave any comments and questions at the bottom of the page. I would love to hear your thoughts.
Until next time.
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