tactics can work wonders on bonefish during unfavorable winter weather conditions in the
"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.
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
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
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
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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