Southwest Fly Fishing Magazine | Article and photo by Jack Samson
Bonefish weighing in the double digits are hard to find and hard to catch but that's what makes the fish so special.
We were several miles west of the small southern Yucatan fishing village of Xcalak, and on the bonefish and permit flats it was hotter than the hinges of Hades. A broiling May sun beat down on the four of us: me, West Coast fly fisher Will Bauer, and our two guides, Nato and Jorge. We had been fishing all morning and had caught more than a dozen small bonefish and two permit of about four or five pounds each. It was fun, even though the mangrove islands cut off any breeze from the sea to our east, which left us feeling distinctly parboiled. "Ever see any big bonefish here, Nato?" Will asked the head guide. Nato grinned.
"Si, "he said softly. 'Muy grande. " "Here?" Will asked, indicating with a sweep of his hand the lagoon in which we were fishing.
"Oh no," Nato said. "Not here. Mostly all small bonefish here, but way back in the mangroves .... " He pointed west, toward the vast expanse of Chetumal Bay. Will looked at me, eyebrows raised.
"Think we can find any?" Will persisted. Nato shrugged. "Maybe," he said, "but is long walk. Long, hard walk back into the mangroves and hidden lagoons."
"How big are they?" "Big," Nato said, leaning the push pole against one shoulder and spreading his hands apart. "like this." "Kee-ripesl" Will said. "What do you say, Jackson? You want to take a look?"
"You know me," I answered. "I'll go anywhere for bonefish that size." Nato was right ... about the walk. It was a long, punishing trek through thick brush, ankle-deep mud, biting flies, and searing heat. After nearly 45 minutes, we came to the edge of a shallow lagoon that appeared to be about 100 yards wide and several miles long.
"They in this lagoon?" I asked, still short of breath from the walk.
"Si," Nato answered. "This one and a few others. Not many fish though. These big, old, smart bonefish are always alone-never with others."
"You ever catch one?" Will asked. "Never me," Nato said. "But one other fly fisherman two years ago. He caught one. Grande."
"Well," I said hopefully, "let's take a look." Nato nodded and we stepped into the shallow water. I immediately sank into the soft bottom. The mud was about knee-deep; it was going to be tough wading. "Not so bad out a-ways," Nato said encouragingly. "Bottom gets harder." Again, he was right: the bottom was soon hard limestone.
Nato walked ahead of me, and Will and Jorge walked about 50 yards to our right. "Big barracuda here, too," Nato said as we slogged ahead.
We had been walking for about 15 minutes when Nato crouched down and slowly waved me forward. As I came up to him he turned, put a finger to his lips, and pointed ahead. I saw a long, black shape moving toward us in the shallow water.
"Barracuda." I whispered, "Big one." "No, no!" Nato said, "Macabi grande-big bonefish! Cast!" My heart began to hammer my chest. I had seen big bonefish before, but nothing this size. The fish was swimming slowly, angling off slightly to our right. I had on a green Mantis Shrimp fly that had worked well on big bonefish in the past.
I made a hasty back cast and dropped the fly a dozen feet ahead of the monster bonefish, then gave the pattern a few tentative strips. The fish swam directly over the fly, ignoring it completely. Nato let out his breath in a long whistle.
"Cast again," he whispered.
I did, with the same result, then cast once more as the huge bonefish swam out of range. Nato whistled and pointed to the fish that was now moving toward Jorge and Will. Spotting the black shape, Jorge waved back.
Will began to cast to the huge fish. He made at least four long casts, then reeled in to change his fly. It seemed like an hour before he looked up and began to strip out line. Jorge was still pointing at the big fish.
"It didn't spook," I said to Nato. "No. Too big-he worry about nothing, I guess." After his third cast, Will struck. Jorge shrieked and began to dance in the shallow water, waving his arms wildly. "Got him!" Will yelled, backing up, holding his rod high above his head. The line cut the surface as the fish streaked north. "What did he take?" I asked. "My green permit crab fly," Will said, his face set. "I tried a Crazy Charlie at first, but he wouldn't look at it. I figured he was so big he wouldn't eat anything but a big offering. He tipped up on it on the third try."
Twenty minutes later Will had the big fish nearly to his feet; it swam in lazy circles close to us. Nato tried several times to grab the bonefish by the tail, but it was too slippery. Finally, he put both hands under the fish's bulging belly and cradled it in his arms. Will hung the fish on a small, rusting digital scale, and it registered 14 pounds, on the mark.
None of us wanted to kill the old fighter, so we moved the fish back and forth in the shallows until it regained its strength, then watched it swim away. This grand bonefish was caught out of Costa de Cocos at Xcalak in Mexico. There are more of these monsters there, plus plenty of permit and tarpon in the spring.
Frankly, there are not many places in the world that consistently produce really large bonefish, such as that fish caught by will Bauer. Most of Mexico's Yucatan lodges have plenty of 3- to 4-pound bonefish, with a few fish in the 8- to 9--pound category. Still, I've seen several bonefish caught from Casa Blanca on Ascension Bay that were in the 10- to 12-pound class. In Espiritu Santo Bay north of Chetumal Bay, fishing out of Tom Woodward's Paradise Lodge, I've seen big bonefish--plus 100-pound tarpon and lots of permit and snook way back on the remote western flats of the big bay.
In Belize, just south of the Yucatan, a few resorts have access to flats with large bonefish. Fishing with Will Bauer and guide Dubs Westby from Turneffe Island Lodge in Belize several years ago, I caught several bonefish that were in the 9- to 10pound category. We saw a couple on the edges of some deep tarpon channels that were really big fish, probably in the 13- to 14-pound class.
The truth is, I can recall almost every giant bonefish I have ever seen. I remember fly fishing at the Andros Island Bonefish Club with Harry Tennison one year, being guided by owner Rupert Leadon, when we saw two separate fish on the flats of the middle bight that had to weigh at least 14 to 15 pounds each. They were traveling alone and were as spooky as big bonefish could get. We never had a shot at either one. The flats at Bimini in the Bahamas hold a number of huge bonefish, but they are pounded by hordes of fly fishermen and spinning-rod anglers, and are wise old fish. Of course, great saltwater fly fishermen like Jim Orthwein learned years ago how to take these fish on flies; Orthwein has caught two world records there: a 15-pound fish on 4-pound tippet in 1983, and a 12-pound bonefish on a 2-pound tippet in 1989. I was with the late, great A. J. McClane, fishing editor of Field & Stream, in the 1970s when he took a 12-pound bonefish on a fly from the flats of Treasure Key in the Bahamas. That was one of the first· really big bonefish I had seen caught.
Though I've landed hundreds of bonefish in the Florida Keys over the last four decades, there are only a few spots where I can count on seeing big ones. Some of the biggest bonefish I have seen anywhere are close to Shell Key at Islamorada. The trouble is, they know every fly ever tied.
The other great spot in the Keys is where my fishing friend Dr. Gordie Hill caught his world-record 15-pound. +Ounce monster bonefish on a fly on June 19, 1997. That fish was taken at one of the loveliest spots 1.'1 the region: the Content Keys west of Big Pine Key. There are also some big bonefish in Biscayne Bay. Just south of Miami, but the boat traffic an he murder and it takes a veteran guide to find them.
In Honduras, on the island of Guanaja a friend and I were fishing with veteran guide Robert Hyde when we saw a school of bonefish spawning in a "daisy chain" formation in one of the big, mangrove sheltered lagoons on the northwest side of the island. Not a single fish in the 20- to- 30-fish school was smaller than 10 pounds, and some looked to be more than 12.
When you take up the search for big bonefish, an 8-weight fly rod and a reel with at least 250 yards of 20pound-test braided backing will serve you well. On the other hand, I'm not one to go undergunned for big bones. A 9- or 10-weight rod and leaders up to 20-pound test would not be too heavy for these fish. There are lots of obstacles out on the bonefish flats, and any leader less than 10 pound test would be far too light for 12- to 15-pound bonefish. I consider a big bone to be in the same category as permit, and use nothing less than a 16-pound-test leader, myself.
It may take you some time to distinguish large silver bullets from barracudas or small tarpon. One clue 'is that a bonefish doesn't move its tail while resting, while a barracuda flutters its. Also, tarpon have distinctive heads, clearly different from the sleek heads of bonefish.
Finally, if there is one bit of advice I can give when it comes to fighting big bonefish on a fly rod, it is this: get the fish on the reel as quickly as possible. I have seen plenty of big bonefish break leaders because the anglers held the fly line just a second too long as the fish ran. And while it always hurts to lose a nice fish, breaking off the bonefish of a lifetime is a sure prescription for many sleepless nights.
Jack Samson is a special correspondent for Southwest Fly Fishing Magazine