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Ghost Busting in The Bahamas

By Jon B. Cave

Any shallow-water angler who has ever flown over The Bahamas can’t help but notice the seemingly infinite number of saltwater flats dispersed throughout the archipelago. On cloudless days, the mixture of brilliant white sand, cobalt depths, clear shallows, bright sky, and tropical vegetation produce a spectrum of colors that is mesmerizing. I always dreamily scout each island from the air in hopes of finding some untrammeled flat where there are eager bonefish as long as my leg. Fly Fishing for BonefishSuch possibilities still exist despite the island chain’s ever increasing popularity with anglers. So while some anglers travel far and wide in search of secret bonefish hot spots, when it comes to targeting the gray ghost, I’ll take The Bahamas.

Although fly-fishing for bonefish had its genesis in The Florida Keys, The Bahamas has long enjoyed a reputation as a premier bonefishery as well. As a matter of fact, a 13-pound, 12-ounce fish caught around Bimini by B. F. Peek in 1919 was the reigning all-tackle world record for almost 30 years. Beginning around 1950 pioneering saltwater flyfishers, including the legendary Joe Brooks, were looking for destinations outside of Florida to pursue the gray ghost and The Bahamas, with its prolific fishery and proximity to the Sunshine State, made it a natural choice. By 1965, the bonefish’s popularity as a gamefish led Stanley M. Babson to publish his classic book Bonefishing which contains a large portion of text devoted to his fly fishing escapades with guide Bonefish Joe in The Bahamas. Today the island nation is probably the most popular bonefishing destination in the world and the fish’s status is readily apparent by its prominent display on the country’s 10-cent piece.

The Bahamas are unsurpassed when it comes to both size and numbers of fish. Schools with hundreds of fish in them are not uncommon and, while the average size varies somewhat from island to island, 3- to 4-pounders are the norm. Trophy-sized bones over 10 pounds are caught with some degree of regularity and the islands have had more than their share of world records including a 15 pound fly-caught monster taken in Bimini on 4-pound tippet.

Along with the enormous growth of Bahamas bonefishing, there has been a proportionate increase in fishing lodges. It seems that almost every mom-and-pop establishment with rooms for rent is now a bonefish lodge and, in order to keep up with the demand, the number of fly-fishing guides has risen rapidly as well. There are now many Fly Fishing for Bonefishexcellent lodges and outstanding guides in The Bahamas, but along with rapid growth, a few poorly run operations and surly or unreliable guides have also become established. To help avoid problems, select a guide or lodge only after talking to another angler, preferably a close friend, who has had first-hand experience with either one (that holds true no matter where you’re going fishing). While a fat wallet can buy a nice piece of fly-fishing Shangri-la, it’s no guarantee that your bonefishing experience will be a pleasant or quality one unless you do a little homework. Several years ago, an acquaintance paid $4,500 for four days of fly-fishing at a well-known chi-chi bonefish lodge only to be inexcusably insulted and belittled by guides on a daily basis. On the other hand, another buddy spent about half that amount for a week’s fly-fishing out of more modest digs where the very accommodating guides treated him like an old friend.

My favorite way to go bonefishing in The Bahamas is on a do-it-yourself trip. Although I may not have the mobility or intimate local knowledge to find as many fish as when I’m with a guide in a skiff, the satisfaction derived from spotting and stalking bones on my own more than compensates for any shortcomings . Furthermore the solitude of wading or paddling alone on a beautiful flat is exhilarating.Fly fishing for bonefish
You don’t need deep pockets to put together a do-it-yourself adventure - - only the time to do a little investigation. I know many individuals who venture off on their own to some of the best bonefishing The Bahamas has to offer. Dave Olson, a friend of mine who manages The Fly Fisherman shop in Orlando, takes an occasional low-budget bonefish trip to Treasure Cay in The Abacos. To keep costs at a minimum, he flies directly to the island on a small local airline, rents a car to drive to various flats, and stays at a clean, inexpensive motel that serves tasty local dishes. Dave can make several trips to The Bahamas for the cost of a week’s stay at a pricey lodge.

But going it alone is certainly not for everyone. You should have an adventurous spirit and possess a basic knowledge of bonefish and their habits along with the ability to make a skillful presentation under circumstances that are often difficult. Such knowledge and skill can take years to acquire on your own, but that time-line can be reduced significantly by talking to other knowledgeable flyfishers, by reading books and articles, or by attending a hands-on bonefish workshop like those listed on this web site.

Casting and Presentation

The importance that casting and presentation play in successful bonefishing can’t be overemphasized. While bonefish in The Bahamas may see fewer anglers and therefore may be more eager than the often highly selective fish in The Florida Keys, they are still extremely spooky and an errant cast or noisy presentation will send them packing. Here are some tips to help make your trip a success regardless of whether you’re fishing with a guide or striking out on your own.

If your cast needs help, begin working on it long before the trip. As a minimum, you should be able to easily and accurately put a fly into a hoop at a distance of around 50 - 60 feet with three or fewer false casts. I often hear anglers say that they catch all of their fish within 30 feet and don’t need to cast any farther. That’s usually because that distance is the maximum they can achieve with any degree of efficiency. Consequently, they are missing opportunities that require throwing a longer line. Flyfishers who struggle to reach 60 feet often have just as much trouble at half that distance.

Bonefish flats always seem to be windy. While it may not be possible under all circumstances, try to position yourself ahead of time so that you won’t be casting directly into the teeth of strong headwind. If the situation is unavoidable, direct your loop slightly downward so that it travels at an angle beneath the horizontal air current. In addition, try to avoid having the rod on your windward side where a gust might send the fly and/or line crashing into you or the tip. Again, if the situation is unavoidable, Fly Fishing for Bonefishmake a simple modification to the basic casting stroke by holding the rod off to the side at about a 45-degree angle in order to keep the line on the windward side during the pick-up and backcast. Then, while the line straightens out behind you, tilt the rod tip just slightly past vertical to the downwind side so that the line and fly pass safely to leeward during the forward stroke. As an alternative, you can also turn around 180 degrees so that your rod hand is repositioned on the leeward side of your body and then use a backcast to make the presentation.

For increased accuracy in a crosswind, cast relatively low and close to the water sidearm style so that the wind doesn’t have much chance to blow the line off course. Likewise, keep the cast low in situations where the movement and shadow of a passing fly line might fall within a bone’s field of vision. Furthermore, avoid false casting over bonefish, be aware of the sun’s angle, and use a low sidearm or curve cast when required.
Regardless of the situation, make bonefish come to the fly. Don’t try to spoon-feed one by bringing the fly right to the fish. A fly that doesn’t act like natural prey will usually send the fish scurrying away. Retrieve the fly slowly until the bonefish locates it. Then increase the speed slightly using short strips to skip the fly along the bottom. The fish will quiver with excitement just before devouring your fly. Use a strip-strike to set the hook, then lift the rod, and clear the line.

A tailing bone feeds so intently that it may not notice a fly more than a few short feet away; so any presentation must settle within that range without being obtrusive. Begin manipulating the fly after the fish has temporarily stopped tailing and resumed its search for food. Use a lightweight or unweighted pattern with a dense wing for a soft landing. Such Fly Fishing for bonefishpatterns are also less likely to hangup in thick cover.
A cruising fish requires a slightly different strategy. The speed of a bonefish gliding across a flat can be deceptively fast. Many anglers don’t judge that rate of movement adequately and end up scaring the fish by presenting the fly too closely. If there isn’t much turtle grass, coral, or some other surrounding structure to interrupt a cruiser’s line of vision, I prefer to cast the fly way out in front of the fish and then use a long strip to move the fly slowly along the bottom. Once the bonefish sees it, I speed the fly up using short, quick strips. By leading the bonefish a considerable distance, sometimes as much as 15 feet, there is not much chance that line shadows or the fly landing on the water will spook them. That’s especially true on calm days when the water surface is flat. With its keen vision, a cruising bone usually has no trouble locating the small, counterfeit prey. Of course, bottoms that have dense cover require a closer presentation.

In The Bahamas, bonefish are frequently found moving across the flats in large schools. While fishing with guide Ezzard Cartwright out of Great Inagua, a remote island at the southernmost end of the island chain, we awaited countless numbers of bones, hundreds to be sure, that we could see anticipating the tidal change at the edge of an impenetrable creek thick with mangrove shoots. When the school started moving out into open water, I had to make sure that my cast didn’t get too close to the fish or it would scatter the entire bunch. Fortunately, my presentation landed on the outside edge of the school and I only had to take one long strip before a fish peeled away from the main group and ate the fly.
Bonefish often create “muds” as they stir up sand and mud while plowing the bottom for food. These appear on the surface as opaque white clouds of silt. In the Bahamas, huge schools of fish frequently produce muds that cover a considerable area. In shallow water the freshest plumes have the appearance of small mushroom clouds as if they were left by miniature nuclear bombs, and casts should be directed around the edges where the mud is brightest. Also watch for fish moving in and out of the plume. Dropping a fly into the middle of a foray can frighten the entire bunch and should be avoided unless the edges prove unproductive. Contrastingly, fish mudding in deep water are far less nervous and casting a fast-sinking pattern into the center of them usually doesn’t cause a disturbance.


An 8-weight rod is a good all-around choice for bonefishing in The Bahamas. A 7-weight is a second option, but even a 6-weight can come in handy for small bones or when there’s no wind and the water is calm. An appropriate reel should hold 150 to 200 yards of 20# dacron backing plus fly line. An array of leaders between 10 and 14 feet in length will handle any set of circumstances you’ll encounter. I use 12-footers in the majority of situations, but opt for a longer leader when its calm and/or the fish are nervous, and save the Fly Fishing for bonefishshorter versions for when the wind kicks up. I like 10 and 12 pound tippets, not because that much strength is needed to land a bone, but more to ensure the line turns over even in a strong breeze. Floating lines should be the first choice in almost all situations, but on those occasions when bones are mudding in deep water, they are most effectively fished with an intermediate line.

A number of bonefish patterns are effective in The Bahamas, but any selection should include Gotcha’s, Puffs, and Bonefish Clouser’s. I have a few favorite patterns of my own that I rely on as well. I strongly favor flies tied on size #4 hooks and even use an occasional pattern on a size #2, but rarely fish with anything smaller than a size #6. It’s also a good idea to take along a few Merkins in case permit are in the area as they often are in The Bahamas. Besides, bonefish love the little crab pattern, too.

With popular destinations like Andros, The Abacos, Grand Bahama, and The Exumas offering world-class fly-fishing for bonefish, it’s easy to overlook the island chain’s more obscure islands. Nevertheless, a little investigation can reveal an almost infinite number of other outstanding waters, most of which receive very little, if any, fishing pressure. With so many extraordinary opportunities from which to choose, you could spend a lifetime in The Bahamas and never sample all of them. But I intend to try.