What happens as a bonefish approaches your fly?
This was the question I was trying to answer over the past week as I took every free morning or afternoon I had to take my new fly rod out to the flats in search of bonefish. The first morning I got my fly in front of a few fish without scaring them. Two actually showed some interest by changing direction towards my fly momentarily before swimming away. The second morning I put my fly in front of a bunch of fish. They would cruise right at my little pink shrimp imitation as it dropped through the water column, but the smallest twitch sent them scurrying away. At the end of my third session the 20+ MPH winds died to a breeze and the afternoon sun was bright and strong. The tide was going out and the fishing was bonkers – lots of big fish feeding happily in super skinny water. This time I swear a couple of fish actually ate my fly – I actually felt a little tap as one picked up my fly and spit it back out. I wondered, what accounted for the difference? I was using the same fly and the same presentation: lead the fish as little as possible with my cast. If they didn’t notice it right away then let it sink all the way to the bottom and give it a little twitch or two to get their attention. When they moved towards it I let it sink again, like a shrimping hiding on the bottom. If the fish stopped suddenly or made any indication it may have grabbed my fly I would make a long, slow pull to take out slack and see if there was tension on the line. (I had a moment of premature excitement when a big fish did just this and I felt a pull on my line only to realize a baby papio had snuck in and stolen the fly from right under the bonefish’s nose.)
I thought about my problem a lot and watched countless videos of bonefish hookups to see if I was doing something wrong. (Incidentally, I came across a pretty awesome bonefishing video – to be linked to soon.) I determined that the difference between my near successes and my failures lay in the fishing conditions. The better the conditions, the closer I came to hooking fish. Were calm winds allowing me to make more accurate or more delicate casts? Was good visibility helping me read and respond better to the fish? Probably both, but fly fishing has, literally, a lot of moving parts and I had a feeling that my fly was the key. I like to cast close to fish. It’s a habit from carp fishing where the fly often needs to be served up within a dinner plates radius of their head. In order not to scare the bonefish with the splash of the fly I tied on a small fly with bead chain eyes. I theorized that the windier conditions were pushing my fly line and causing my light fly to drift unnaturally instead of falling quickly back to the bottom like a real shrimp. The calmer conditions allowed my fly to hop more naturally as I twitched it. This natural presentation held the fish’s interest longer and was making the difference between them trying to eat and turning away at the last second.
Yesterday morning I stopped by the fly shop and picked up some similar patterns with slightly heavier eyes. I ran some errands and got out on the water in the afternoon. The conditions were not good. Strong, gusty trade winds and big, dark, rain clouds obscuring the sun. I could spot fish but it was tough to make out any detail through the choppy water. It didn’t matter. The fish didn’t just cruise towards my new fly, they pounced on it. I had back-to-back hook-ups and two more fish that definitely ate but I didn’t hook. The new rod and reel performed well and I can’t wait to get back out and catch some more!