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Bad Weather Bones
Part of the Fishing the Florida Keys Series
Non-traditional tactics can work wonders on bonefish during unfavorable winter weather conditions in the Florida Keys.

Florida Keys bonefishing "Well, I guess this front is going to ruin our bonefishing today," said my chagrined angler, as we stood together on the dock staring into the windswept expanse of Florida Bay.   His disappointment was well founded; he had traveled a pretty fair distance from the extreme northern portion of the world (Wisconsin or New York or someplace) down to the tropical climes of the Florida Keys in order to escape...you guessed it...cold windy weather.

A January cold front had torn through the Keys the day before, and the high pressure system that had built in behind it was pummeling us with a twenty knot (and gusting) wind. Furthermore, temperatures had dropped from the mid seventies down to the upper fifties (which is bonechilling if you live here year 'round).

However, it was not the air temperature that concerned us, but rather the corresponding drop in water temperature on the flats. Although this was to be his first trip with me, my prospective angler was no slouch when it came to knowing his quarry, or the conditions under which they are normally caught.  Not only had he been catching bonefish for years in both the Keys and the Bahamas, but he had also devoured just about every piece of literature ever written on the subject.  So when I suggested that conditions were just right for great winter-time bonefishing, the look on his face bordered somewhere between shock and suspicion.  I'm sure he thought he was about to get "hustled."

The Norm

If you were to ask a handful of dedicated bonefishermen to briefly describe the sport they so dearly love, they would probably create a scenario similar to the following:

Picture yourself standing on the casting platform of a shallow-draft "battle-ready" skiff that was specifically designed to take an angler into extremely shallow water where bonefish are found.  Having already run forty five minutes from the dock you are now located on some remote backcountry flat gazing ahead into a mirrored sea and sky that seem to meet together as one.  You are surrounded by a peacefulness and tranquillity that the early morning hours of the Florida Keys backcountry seem to regularly produce.

The waters before you are anything but tranquil though, as the transparent shallows are teeming with life.  Schools of glass minnows scurry about trying to avoid predators of all types, while horseshoe crabs ramble across the bottom in their own business-like manner. Several majestic white herons wade the shallows up ahead, while an occasional tern or gull swoops and dips for a meal on the surface.   Every few minutes a large stingray or small shark swims past the boat on an agenda all its own.  Yet, as wonderously synchronized as the environment is, you refuse to allow yourself to be distracted, choosing instead to focus on the task at hand...locating some bonefish.  The level of anticipation and excitement building within you over the prospect of meeting with the legendary "gray ghost" of the flats is just indescribable.

At the other end of the skiff perched upon his poling platform is your guide, deeply tanned from his many years of fishing out on these sun-soaked flats.  He is a picture of concentration and proficiency, silently poling his skiff while intensely searching the broad expanse of flats before him for telltale signs that might give away the presence of a bonefish. Some of those "clues" might come in the form of "nervous water" (small ripples on the surface that are out of sync with the ripples from the wind), as well as a noticeable wake (caused by a single moving fish) or a "push" (a moving bulge in the water caused by a school of moving fish).  Small patches of discolored water can also give away a school of feeding bonefish as they stir up bottom sediments.  But the one sign that both angler and guide long to see is what could arguably qualify as the prettiest sight in all of flats fishing...the exposed waving silver tail of a bonefish as it roots out crustaceans from the shallow grass flat.

Finding a bonefish is only the first of many challenges you will face.  These fish must be approached with the utmost of stealth, or they will "spook."  Bonefish are very much aware of their own vulnerability when they enter the shallow confines of a flat to feed.  Once the fish is within range, you'll then called upon to make nothing less than a perfect cast; too close and the fish will bolt for the safety of deep water...not close enough and it'll never see the bait.  If you're lucky enough to hook up, you're tackle will then be subjected to what is perhaps the fastest, most powerful run by any fish in shallow water.   A bonefish's first dash for freedom may cover over 100 yards, and its second run nearly rivals that of the first. Large bonefish are tough, cagey fighters, and possess a level of endurance that would make the Energizer Bunny look like a slug.

And once that magical moment finally comes, and you finally catch and release that bonefish (whether it's the first or fiftieth), there comes an inexplicable flood of satisfaction in knowing you've just experienced one of those "defining moments" in the life of an angler.  The term "sport" doesn't seem to do this experience justice...what you've just witnessed is more along the lines of a spiritual encounter.  And if perchance the catch and release process has involved a fly rod, then the intensity of the moment seems magnified tenfold.

This is classical bonefishing at its best, a game of absolute precision and to many, the epitome of catch and release angling. Yet, not all bonefishing is done in this manner.  Conditions such as high winds, heavy cloud cover, or higher stages of the tide warrant a change in tactics.  Or perhaps an angler's casting skills aren't up to snuff for sight casting to spooky "tailers."  Florida Keys guides have perfected a method whereby the boat is anchored or staked out on a section of flat along which bonefish are known to travel.    A handful of diced-up shrimp is then tossed behind the boat.  Once the smell of the shrimp wafts down current from the boat, any bonefish swimming through the "chumline" almost always will follow the scent to its source.  Then an angler can make an easy downwind cast to the fish (if he didn't already have the bait laying in the chumline in the first place).  Countless anglers have caught their first bonefish using this method.

                         A Break with Tradition

Both of these styles of bonefishing are based on the presumption that there will be bonefish on the flat. However, when water temperatures dip below a certain point (about 70 degrees for the Keys), bonefish will leave the flats for the sanctuary of deeper, warmer water.  And although everything you've ever read about the subject states that blustery winter cold fronts are not synonymous with good bonefishing, there is, in fact, a very good chance of catching bonefish provided you're willing to make a radical departure from normal tactics.  Savvy Keys' guides have been using this method for years to find fish for their winter clients.

Make no mistake...fishing for bonefish in cold water is not to be confused with normal sight casting on a flat.  First of all, you are fishing "blind," casting not at a particular target, but rather into a general area.  Secondly, you are not even up on a flat per Se; instead, the water you are fishing ranges from about four to six feet deep.  And finally, rather than spending the day charging around the backcountry of Florida Bay, efforts are concentrated just off the ocean-side flats from Key Biscayne all the way down to Key West.  These flats provide bonefish with quick access to deeper warmer water during a cold snap. And because the ocean side is basically a lee shore during the northerly winds of a cold front, anglers reap the benefit of relatively comfortable fishing conditions in even a twenty knot wind.

Locating the Fish

The first order of business when it comes to finding cold water bones is to locate a "mud."  Muds are a discoloration in the water caused by sediments being stirred up by fish rooting around on the bottom for food.  The mud may be the size of a flats skiff, or it may be as large as a house.   I'll often spend a good deal of time hunting for a mud before we ever wet a line.   And sometimes it's possible to get fooled; what looks like a good bonefish mud may turn out (after fishing it) to be a patch of muddied water created by a deep draft boat that chose this spot to jump up on a plane twenty minutes before. Even a stingray can churn up a sizable area of bottom, making you think you've found a hot mud.  I'll invest about twenty minutes on a mud...if we haven't hooked a bone by then I'm usually out of there.

Some days the fish will lay right off the edge of the flat and the muds will be in four to six feet of water.  During times of extreme cold, you may have to work them in water as deep as 8-10 feet! Bonefish are more likely to mud on deep-water grass than on large expanses of white sand.  The grass not only holds crustaceans better, but some feel the darker grass absorbs some heat from the sun, making dining all the more comfortable for the bones.  Our most productive fishing has usually come between the hours of 11AM and 3 PM, no doubt due to the warming effects of the sun on the water.

Fishing a Mud

Once a mud is located, care must be taken not to disturb the bonefish in it.  The general rule is to cut the engine 75 to 100 yards upwind of the mud, and then pole or drift in toward it.  The boat is then staked out with the push pole, or if it's fairly deep, the anchor is quietly slipped over the side.

Having the boat positioned several boat lengths upwind of the mud, the next order of business is to chum.  I'll typically dice up about a dozen shrimp and toss them out behind the boat to help concentrate the fish in one area, adding more shrimp tidbits as needed.  When things get busy and we're hooking up regularly, we really go through some shrimp in the course of a trip, so I like to carry 15-20 dozen for a day's fishing.

I like two basic rigs when fishing deep-water bones.  The first is a whole shrimp, Texas rigged on a 2/0 sliced shank hook with a split shot just above the knot.  The other is a 1/4 oz pink jig sweetened with a thumbnail size piece of shrimp.  I'll have my clients cast into the mud just beyond the point where the chum was tossed in.    Then they'll slowly twitch and retrieve their offering so it hops along the bottom.

For tackle, a light seven foot spinning outfit holding at least 175 yards of 10 pound mono is about right.  It goes without saying that drags must be silky smooth to weather the long, powerful runs of a hooked bonefish.

Flyfishing for these deep water bonefish can also be quite productive.  Although many would balk at the idea of trying to sling a flyline around in a twenty knot wind, it's really not as bad as it sounds, as all of the casts will be made to a point that is only about one and a half boat lengths directly downwind.  A 9 or 10 weight outfit is appropriate for these conditions, and although an angler might get away with a floating line with a long leader and weighted fly, a much more effective presentation can be made with an intermediate flyline (the slow sinking mono core lines are an excellent choice).    My most effective patterns have been the McVay Gotcha and a chartreuse and white Clouser Deep Minnow, both with heavy lead eyes on a #1 34007 Mustad hook.

The retrieve (once the fly has been allowed to sink) should be in quick four to six inch ticks. The fly should be fished deep enough so that an angler occasionally feels it hang momentarily in the turtle grass.

                              Two Common Problems

Boat traffic along the edge of the flat can occasionally be a real source of frustration especially on weekends.  Most people have no idea how many fish they are blowing out of muds as they roar by in their boat along the edge of the flat.  They either don't see the mud or else don't equate the mud with fish.  Mostly it's from boaters that just don't realize what the guides are trying to do out off the edge of the flat.

Hooking a large bonefish while staked out on a productive mud presents another problem (albeit a pleasant one).  Because of the deeper water and the howling wind, trying to pole the boat in pursuit of a "reel screamer" isn't very effective, and starting the motor would spook the rest of the fish in the mud.  Sometimes I just have to cross my fingers and hope my angler can turn the fish before running out of line. When there's over 100 yards of 8 or 10 lb test out there attached to a large fast-moving bonefish, plenty can go wrong.  Seafans, lobster trap lines, and floating seaweed, are just some of the things the line can get hung up on during an extended battle with a bone.

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Just what kind of action can you expect from winter bonefishing?  Frankly, it's possible to post some pretty impressive numbers considering the conditions.  Several local guides reported days with 15 to 20 bonefish landed on 8 hour trips last winter, and my best day to date is landing 14 out of 16 bonefish hooked.  Although we're talking extremes here, it does demonstrate what kind of potential is out there off the edge of the flat during those cold fronts.  For a figure that might be more representative of an average day, regular catches are made of a half dozen bonefish or more per trip. The bonefish themselves average about three to five pounds, although 8 to 10 lb fish are not uncommon while fishing blind in a mud.  Double headers are frequent when you find a hot mud, and the furious action, though usually short-lived, reminds me of bailing schoolie dolphin on a weed line, what baiting jigs, dicing and tossing chum, and netting and releasing fish.

From time to time, those winter muds will also produce some "surprise guests," the most welcome of which is the feisty permit.  Though they are loners at this time of the year and not of the size that will be around in the spring, these 10 - 15 lb. permit do have a way of livening things up for an angler. Other "bonus" catches include small tarpon, pompano, mutton and mangrove snapper, jack crevelle, big blue runners, and sharks.

Conclusion

Interestingly enough, not everybody enjoys fishing "blind" for bonefish in deep water.  No doubt some anglers, being addicted to the thrill of the hunt, will never be happy targeting bonefish by any other means than shallow water stalking and sight casting.  Some purists might even carry it one step further, feeling that catching a bonefish without first seeing and stalking it somehow dishonors the fish and the sport (like catching an Atlantic Salmon on an earthworm suspended under a bobber).  The purpose of this article is not to quibble over preferences, but rather to demonstrate that a viable fishery exists in the Keys for bonefish even during the cold fronts that often make up a good portion of the weather in December, January and February.  Far from being the death knell of productive bonefishing, winter cold snaps can provide fast and fairly consistent action for those willing to vary their tactics to suit the demands of the existing weather conditions.

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