Over the last couple of decades, researchers have conducted a number of studies on the feeding habits of Florida Keys bonefish, confirming what local guides have known for years—big bones are partial to big prey. But while this new research—like several studies before it—revealed that Florida's bonefish prefer larger prey like crabs and shrimp, one research finding was especially surprising: The Gulf toadfish, Opsanus beta, which appeared infrequently in earlier research, was among the most desirable prey targeted by the Keys' big bones.
A voracious bottom feeder, Opsanus beta conceals itself with a camouflaged tan and gray-olive mottled body and barred dorsal and caudal fins. Shaped like a sculpin, this toothy, large-mouthed killing machine hides in turtle grass beds and on cobble bottoms waiting to ambush small fish like gobies and blennies, and gobble up small crustaceans such as tiny shrimp and crabs.
A few skiff guides, tournament anglers, and flats veterans have taken advantage of the bonefish's predilection for toads, creating flies with big meaty profiles to suggest the plump toadfish body. Here are three you may want to add to your box—and not just for Florida's flats. I've found smaller toadfish flies effective at other destinations, especially in the Bahamas.
Three Top Toads
One of the first toadfish patterns—and still one of the best—is the Tasty Toad, created by guide Harry Spear, one of the legends of Florida Keys flats fishing and fly tying. Spear's toad adopts the basic tying technique used to construct crab patterns like Del Brown's classic Merkin—you attach strands of yarn or similar material, with figure-eight wraps of thread, perpendicular to the hook shank to form a wide body. Spear animates his fly with a fluffy marabou tail, which flares to suggest the mud puffs left by a darting toad, and he flanks the tail with grizzly hackle to suggest the barred caudal fin of the natural. Spear also dabs the body with an olive/tan permanent marker to suggest its mottled coloring.
Tournament angler Patrick Dorsy created his simple but deadly Toad Fly—in a tier's tribute to the Tasty Toad—by re-fitting Spear's pattern with a lively rabbit-strip tail to improve both profile and action.
The Slinky Toad is a derivative design, evolved from a long-bodied fly that I've fished in the Bahamas for over 20 years to suggest gobies.
After discovering the importance of the toadfish as a diet staple in Florida, I fattened the body with barred rabbit, and increased the head profile. The Slinky Toad has proven an effective toad emulator in both Florida and the Bahamas.
Toadfish live and hunt primarily on the very bottoms of flats, where they lie—camouflaged and waiting—ready to ambush prey. The bulky bodies of most toadfish patterns require moderate weighting with barbell eyes in sizes X-small, small, and medium (1/50, 1/36, and 1/24 oz.) to get them down into the zone where naturals are normally found.
When bonefish are tailing, however, they blow prey up into the water column as they excavate targets from the substrate, so tying some toads with lighter eyes like 1/8" bead chain or just a heavy hook for weight is wise.
Since the Gulf toadfish ambushes prey by making small darting lunges as it attacks, you should use a retrieving rhythm that intersperses irregular short strips with sporadic stops to suggest the natural's movements. Then pause the fly when the fish turns on it and watch for the take.
Dick Brown, who lives on the Massachusetts coast north of Boston, is author of Fly Fishing for Bonefish (Lyons Press, 2008) and more recently Bonefish Fly Patterns (Lyons Press, 2011) which profiles 197 fly patterns from tiers around the world.