This post is an attempt to answer an important question that was posed in the comments on an earlier post. The question was about how to spot bonefish while wading. When I mentioned this to Tara she replied that the best way to learn is to have someone point the fish out to you. That’s probably true, but we don’t always have someone to fish with, or sometimes the other person is relying on us to help them find fish! Bonefish are fast and elusive, but spotting them is what sight fishing is all about. In this post I have tried to collect enough thoughts about finding and seeing bonefish that a relative newcomer to the flats of Hawaii will stand a decent chance of spotting some.
WHEN TO GO
Sunlight is the most important factor in sight fishing. Bright, overhead light is ideal. The usual advice is to fish between 10 am and 2 pm when the angle of the sun is highest. Here in Hawaii the prevailing trade winds usually mean that the visibility is better during the first half of that period. Bright light means a clear, blue sky. Even if it is clear overhead, clouds sitting over the island, or on the horizon out to sea, can create a subtle glare that reduces visibility.
My first move is usually to wade out from shore until I get to an area with a depth range of between 12 and 24 inches. For most of us, this means between mid-calf and just over the knee. This is not necessarily the best depth to fish at, but rather the best depth to find and see fish.
WHICH WAY TO LOOK
Once on the flat take a look all around and notice where the best visibilty is. In perfect conditions every direction will look the same, so you can face any damn way you want, but usually there are one or two directions that offer the best visibility. Sean over at Nervous Waters Fly Fishers once used “windows and hallways” to describe these directions of superior visibility, which I think is very appropriate. Often you will find that these hallways open up when you are standing with the sun or wind at your back.
Don’t try too hard to look where you cannot see. Ed used to scold me for doing this. When the visibility was limited I would still squint and tilt my head this way and that way and stare into the distance, hoping for a miracle. “Just look where you can see” Ed would tell me. If that is only 15 feet, don’t waste your energy trying to look further.
If at all possible, walk in the direction you can best see, or as close to it as possible. This will help prevent scaring fish before you spot them, and also help you see where you are stepping. However slow you are walking, it is probably too fast. Take your time. Stop and look around often – like every third step. Shaolin Wading, which I cover in my carp fishing book, is perfect for any kind of wade fishing. Although is is presented in a bit of a cheeky manner, it is a legitimate technique and I have been wading that way for years. Wading slowly is actually very difficult. It requires patience and discipline, but it will result in seeing and catching more fish.
THE FIRST FISH
When I wade a flat I often consider the first fish I see to be my warm up. Although I may try to hook it, that fish is more a way of gathering information that will make the rest of the session more successful. It gives me an idea about where the fish are on the flat and shows me how they are presenting that day. After finding that first fish, the next ones are usually easier to spot.
Bonefish, like so many aquatic critters, have some ability to change their coloration. For example, bonefish fresh from a fight will often show dark bars along their back:
Usually though, this ability seems to manifest in a more practical way. Bonefish tend to subtly alter their color in response to the color of the bottom they are swimming over. Although it isn’t as obvious as the camouflage of a flounder or an octopus, I do think this color change in bonefish is a method of blending better into their surroundings. In my experience, bonefish swimming over white sand will appear bluish. As the bottom becomes darker, the fish appear more green. The image below illustrates this, although in reality the colors will be far less bold, especially if the water is dirty or the sun is not very bright. Also, everyone will see colors a little bit differently depending on their eyes and the sunglasses they are using.
WHERE TO LOOK
A topic that I have been thinking about for a while is fishing “edges”, which is an idea that contains a lot more than just underwater topography. I won’t try to unpack the whole mess here, but I will extract a piece that I think applies directly to spotting fish. One type of edge that I like to fish is the boundary between different bottom types, like hard reef, white sand, soft mud, or weed beds. These boundaries give us an advantage because it takes fish time to adjust their coloration when passing from one bottom type to another. When a bright blue bonefish first swims from a light colored sandy channel onto a darker reef it will stand out and be easier to see. Whenever you notice a color change on the bottom, take some time to scan the area for fish.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
When you notice an aquamarine shape out of the corner of your eye, how do you know if it is a fish? Shape and size are important but one fish can look very different depending on the angle it is seen from, side-on, head-on, tail up or down. Movement is the best way to determine fish versus rock or weed or green sand. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done because the water itself is moving, which creates the illusion that everything underwater is moving too! Try to ignore the water and watch the shape in relation to a stationary object like a sand patch, a mangrove or something on shore. You can even hold your rod tip out and use it as a point of reference. Pause a beat because a bonefish may take a minute to root something out of the weeds and then gobble it down before moving on. Even with a fixed point of reference, things will still look like they might be moving, but a bonefish will actually, definitively move.
Some sources say to look for the shadow of a fish. If you see a fish-like shape in the water that is casting a shadow on the bottom, it is definitely something! I have spotted bonefish by their shadows, but the conditions must be just right for this to happen. It is something that can occur but not something you will likely see very often.
I think fish watching is a habit that develops naturally over time but newcomers to the bonefish thing are often too excited to pass up an opportunity, even a bad opportunity, to try and catch a fish. If you can ever resist the temptation to cast, I recommend just watching bonefish without disturbing them. Look at the shape and color of the fish. Watch how it moves and where it goes. Notice the change in it’s body language if it eats something, or if it gets nervous when it sees you.
A good time to practice fish watching is when you see a bonefish so close by that any movement of your rod will likely scare it. If you stand perfectly still the fish may not even notice you, and even if it does I may only be mildly alarmed. Another time is when a caught bonefish is freshly released. You won’t witness any normal behavior, like hunting or eating, but it gives a good chance to imprint shape, size, and movement.
I also highly recommend reading one of Sean’s old blog posts: Tips for Spotting Bonefish. He always has super practical advice, which I have successfully relied upon many times over the years. Naturally, there is some overlap in our thoughts, but repetition will help make the point, and I’m sure there are a few important things that I missed.
MAHALO FOR THE QUESTION!
I really appreciate any questions from readers who, I am always pleasantly surprised to discover, actually exist! I did not realize how much I had thought about the topic of spotting bonefish until the question came along and inspired me to write this. Feel free to ask questions any time in the comments section, or email me at email@example.com.