Raising the Ghosts
May 20, 2019
Surface Flies for Bonefish
As we swapped stories of big fish, far-off destinations, and the inevitable “big one that got away,” eventually the conversation turned to one of my favorite topics—catching fish using unorthodox flies and techniques. I shared stories of friends who had caught more than a dozen bonefish one day using a size 8 Beadhead Pheasant Tail, guests who would fish the flats only with bamboo rods, and others who had great luck with worm flies that more closely resembled San Juan Worms than traditional bonefish patterns.
“Oh, you need to try one of these, then,” one of the guests replied, reaching into his fly box. “A dry fly, for bonefish.” With his elbow resting on the table, he held the fly up to the moonlight, rotating it back and forth in his fingers. A foam-bodied, bunny-tail creation, the fly was loosely suggestive of some sort of crab or shrimp-like thing.
He told us about a fishery elsewhere in the Caribbean where bonefish are known for keying in on tiny crabs that have an unfortunate tendency to fall from overhanging mangrove shoots. In an attempt to target these upward-looking bonefish, he reached out to a commercial fly tier with his ideas for a floating bonefish pattern, and the resulting fly had earned a place in his box ever since.
“You should see if they’ll eat it here,” he said as he slid the fly across the table. “You never know.”
Most of us fly fishers have our own notions of the Holy Grail. For some, it is landing a particular species that has earned the reputation for being difficult to catch on fly tackle. For others, it is discovering untouched fisheries. I have always had an infatuation with targeting popular species with flies and techniques that contradict the most productive or traditional methods. I think that is part of the allure of fly fishing—the opportunity not just to catch fish, but to catch fish in the way that speaks most to you. You decide how you want your story to unfold. It adds meaning that no quantity, no length or weight, and no predetermined “record” can provide, and I believe this is the direction in which fly fishing is moving as a whole. Catching a bonefish on a dry fly became part of my story that evening. It just needed to be written.
The next morning, I awoke through a fog of one too many beers, and rose to a clear sky with hardly a breath of wind (rare on South Andros). With the tides in our favor, fellow staff member Jason Whiting and I saw our guests off for the day and quickly made our way to one of our favorite flats to fish on foot.
As we stepped onto the flat, I dropped the fly into the water to ensure that despite a waterlogged rabbit strip, it would actually float. It did, and after stripping ample line off the reel, I struck off through the ankle-deep water with the fly in hand.
It didn’t take long to spot the first fish. Less than 50 yards from where we began, four healthy tails cut through the surface of the water. As I moved within casting range, they continued to dance without purpose or pattern—a strong indicator of happy fish.
Underestimating a virtually weightless fly (and an arguably unhealthy level of adrenaline) I overshot the target, the entire 10-foot leader landing directly in the middle of the pod of bonefish. That is “game over” in most instances (especially when delivering weighted flies), but much to my surprise, the fish reacted as if nothing happened, their eyes still fixed on the bottom, tails still high in the air. I began to move the fly with a slow strip, and two of the four tails immediately changed direction toward the fly. The second strip didn’t pan out quite as favorably, as it created a loud “pop” in the water that sent all the fish running.
“At least they looked at it, right?” I thought to myself. “That’s gotta count for something.” Clearly the floating flies offered at least two advantages—they were easy to cast and less likely to spook fish.
I continued across the flat, pondering what went wrong during the first attempt, but there wasn’t much time to reflect, as just around the corner, the bright flashes of a large school of tailing fish caught my eye. I lobbed a cast to the perimeter of the school and avoided my previous mistake by using long, slow strips. Not three full strips in, several hungry bones rushed toward the fly, their backs rolling through the surface of the water over one another. My heart rate shot up as a heap of frothy water consumed the fly. I stripped hard, and the line came tight.
The fish took off in typical bonefish fashion, peeling line from the reel at an impressive rate as I yelled four-letter words of triumph best suited for the forgetful ears of the flats. With my rod tip high in the air, I kicked the surface of the water out of excitement, and just as I did, the fish came unbuttoned. Humility is an inevitable part of fly fishing.
We kept walking, taking a wide berth to intercept the same school of fish. The next cast resulted in much the same: a slow drag of a strip, a follow, a surge of water falling over the top of the fly, and the ever-satisfying feeling of the line drawing tight. This time, the fish came to my hand with the foam-bodied fly pinned securely in his upper lip. This was a smaller fish than the one before, but one I’ll never forget.
By the end of our outing, which only lasted a few hours, we managed to hook a total of seven bonefish, bringing two to hand (numbers I made sure to remember in hopes of retelling such a ridiculous story). As we made our way back to the lodge, we reflected on every detail of the day, concluding that a single bonefish on a dry fly might be a fluke, but seven? We might be on to something.
Out of the Deep End
That night, the morning played over and over in my head, as great fishing days often do. As I recalled the take from each fish, it occurred to me that I never actually saw a bonefish take the fly from the surface. The disturbance created by the feeding frenzy had masked the strike, and doubt started to set in. “Did the fish really eat the fly from the surface?” I wondered, “or was the fly actually dragging just under the surface when I stripped it?” I wasn’t entirely positive, so I went back to the drawing board.
I took to the vise with the goal of creating a fly that was so buoyant it couldn’t be drowned, no matter how quickly it was stripped. That way, should we get another eat, we could confidently confirm that the fly was being sucked from the surface, not straddling the gray area of the “surface film.” Drawing from a few popular bonefish flies, tarpon patterns, and redfish poppers, I came up with a pattern somewhere along the lines of a Peterson’s Spawning Shrimp and Jack Gartside’s famous Gartside Gurgler.
Armed with several prototypes, we took to the flats with a plan. The weather and conditions were very similar to the previous outing: an ideal tide, low winds, blue sky, and plenty of tailing bonefish. We hooked several fish on the new flies (again landing fewer than we hooked), but due to the disturbance created by charging fish in skinny water, it was still difficult to say for certain that they were taking the fly directly off the surface. It wasn’t until the last fish of the day that the doubt started to melt away.
While wading along a narrow flat adjacent to a deep channel, I spotted several bonefish huddled close to the bottom in chest-deep water. Despite the depth, I cast the floating fly slightly ahead and atop the lead fish and began dragging the fly across the surface. To my astonishment, the lead fish rose quickly toward the offering. It rolled over the top of the fly like a porpoise once, then twice, before taking the fly on the third try with a violent kick of his tail. One thing was certain, a bonefish had risen from the depths for a dry fly.
During the next several outings, I fished surface flies exclusively. I found it hard to stop. When you witness a trout inhale a mouse pattern, it’s hard to go back to nymph fishing. Each outing resulted in hook-ups, but we lost far too many bones, a phenomenon we attributed to a fish with a stubby lower jaw roughly half the length of its upper jaw attempting to eat a fly from below. Considering the number of takes, it was hard to ignore the possibility that floating flies could actually be used as a practical method for catching bonefish.
A couple of weeks later, on a sunny but blustery day, we saw that practicality firsthand. While wading across only inches of water on an incoming tide, I spotted a chubby bonefish weaving his way through coral heads and sand dunes in an attempt to find a path to deeper water.
I started my cast, and while I was lengthening line, the fish turned toward me, sliding between two exposed coral heads and wiggling through water only a few inches deep. While false casting, I remember thinking, “If there was ever a time to use a floating fly, this is it.” A traditional bonefish fly would have certainly snagged the bottom. The fly landed in front of the fish, and after a few slow strips, the bonefish attacked, grabbing the fly while splashing violently in an attempt to pick up speed in water hardly deep enough to cover his gills.
I’m convinced that particular fish would not have been landed with a traditional sinking fly. By skating across the surface, the fly floated over the shallow, algae-covered coral in which we had so often buried our flies in the past. Up to that point, we had lost many good fish because of it, and the floating fly actually provided an unexpected solution to the problem.
Despite our success catching bonefish on floating flies, the lack of a visual—the mental snapshot of a bonefish’s mouth actually breaking the surface of the water—continued to haunt me. We caught fish on flies that floated. We caught fish on flies we couldn’t sink if we tried. We saw bonefish ascend several feet to chase and consume a fly skating across the surface. But still, through the chaos of each take, I hadn’t witnessed what I was truly after. I needed to see a bonefish take a dry fly, not a glorified version of a drowned hopper.
A few outings later, we returned to the same flat where we had first tossed a floating fly. It was a particularly windy day, but the light was good. I made my way through a narrow cut in hopes of finding happy fish on the leeward side of a small island and was pleased to find a small patch of glassy calm water protected from the wind. A pod of five or six bonefish floated into view, traveling side by side like a posse of outlaws rolling into town. They closed in on my position quickly, and with less than 25 feet to spare, I crouched low to make a cast. Lowering my rod to the side in an attempt to avoid spooking the fish with my rod tip, I made a sidearm cast to the fish on the right. However, a little too much energy on the forward stroke caused the leader to hook to the left, laying the leader directly in front of the entire fan of bonefish with my fly in front of the fish on the far left.
I began moving the fly a few inches at a time using short, quick strips. One by one, bonefish peeled off, uninterested, as the fly passed in front of them—all of them except the last one. The bonefish followed, just under the surface, examining each strip of the fly. Hell-bent on witnessing the take, I fixated on the fish’s nose as it crept behind, following with each strip of my line hand. I held my breath. At last his nose broke the surface of the water, and his mouth made a quick sucking motion, gills flaring in the process, just like a trout. His mouth closed. He ate it.
The fish settled toward the bottom as I stood frozen in disbelief for a split second. I set the hook, and the fish came to hand a few short minutes later. Bonefish. Dry fly. Believe it.
Create Your Own Story
Obviously, topwater fishing for bonefish is not the most productive method. Quite the contrary. I quickly found out that using floating flies for bonefish turns an otherwise willing and aggressive fish into something more challenging and interesting, more like a capricious permit.
I wouldn’t recommend this level of frustration and overwhelming obsession to anyone, but there is an upside. In my pursuit to catch bonefish on the surface, I developed a deeper appreciation for every bonefish I was fortunate enough to bring to hand. Regardless of size, each one was special. Each had a story. I sincerely wish that same level of appreciation for every fly fisher. Whether you prefer to target steelhead exclusively with swung flies, catch sheepshead on flies, chase roosterfish solely from the beach, or fish dry flies for bottom-feeding fish, go for it. Fish for your story, whatever that means to you.
Kyle Shea is the former head guide at Alaska West and Andros South and a longtime blogger for Deneki Outdoors. Currently he is overseeing branding efforts for Bristol Adventures.