Fly Fishing for Coastal Gamefish
I’ll admit it right up front, I’m biased. When I create, tie, or select flies for fishing, I typically start by thinking about the habitat(s)
I’ll be fishing. Closely intertwined with habitat, but usually a close second, is the species I’ll be pursuing. When tying flies for bonefish
and redfish, for example, it’s habitat first, species second. Many of my bonefish flies I also use for redfish – sometimes the exact same
version, other times with a slight revision to reflect nuances in habitat characteristics (tan vs brown body, rootbeer vs gold flash, for example).
Even if I’m tying flies for a particular species, tarpon for example, I tie flies specific to the different habitats I will be fishing. I use this same approach when selecting a fly from the fly box – I select a fly that imitates a prey that will likely occur in that habitat. This seems pretty straightforward to me, but I think it’s probably not a very common approach.
Step one when creating, tying, or selecting a fly while fishing is to consider the habitat. In each habitat, a gamefish will have a group of prey from which to select. Some prey will be found in multiple habitats, so one pattern will be useful in many locations. Other prey will be specific to one habitat, so some patterns may be successful only under limited conditions. Casting a big mantis shrimp pattern to bonefish in a backcountry lagoon, for example, probably won’t get you very much. But a small shrimp, crab, or worm pattern should get their attention.
The first order of business is to get an idea of what prey are available in what habitats. This may seem a daunting task for saltwater anglers, especially those new to the game, but it’s really not. For example, it’s now pretty much assumed that competent trout anglers will know what prey are eaten by trout in different streams and seasons, but that knowledge didn’t come overnight (and that knowledge base is still growing). The world of trout anglers has just has been at it longer.
Nowadays there are numerous books available that introduce saltwater anglers to the world of gamefish prey. Take a page from the trout world playbook and buy some of the books that present flies in the context of habitats. I will, of course, tout my own book Fly Fisherman’s Guide to Saltwater Prey, as a good book that provides a photo collection of gamefish prey with details on habitats and regions in which they occur. My other book, Fisherman’s Coast, has few photos, but covers habitat characteristics and prey in plenty of detail. Fly-Fishing for Bonefish (by Chico Fernandez), contains information on bonefish prey. Other books also cover prey and flies, but address the habitat aspect is considerably less detail.
Once you have an idea of the prey you want to imitate, the next step is to consider color. In general, tie flies that are similar in color to the habitat they inhabit. Some prey species are exactly the color of the habitat in which they live – some crabs that live on light bottom, for example, so closely match the bottom that they are difficult to see when you are staring right at them. For these species, I typically tie flies in colors that are just a bit off from the natural color so that the flies contrast a bit with the bottom and are easier to see (for me and the fish). On white sand flats, for example, I usually use a medium to dark tan for crab and shrimp flies. For a slightly darker bottom, I pull out the light tan or dark brown flies.
Most other prey species, however, are similar in tone to their surroundings rather than exact color matches. So a good general strategy is to match dark bottoms, whether seagrass or algae, with darker flies and light bottoms with light colored flies. The same goes for flash, if you use it – use pearl, pink, silver, and even rootbeer in flies you tie for light bottoms, and copper, gold, and green for darker flies.
Once you have the fly in hand, then comes the challenge of how to present the fly. Habitat should be an important factor in presentation, but you also need to consider what prey you are imitating. Crabs, shrimp, gobies, and worms, for example, all have different movement patterns and use the habitats in different ways. And they will behave differently in different habitats. Seagrass, for example, provides plenty of hiding places and even prey swimming above the grass will dive down among the grass blades to escape predators. In contrast, open sand provides scant refuge; some prey quickly burrow into the bottom, others dive into holes, and others try to outrun or outmaneuver the predator in the open water.
As a way to explain how I create, tie, select, and/or present flies for bonefish, I will use four of my favorite flies as examples. In each example you will find habitat and prey characteristics that explain the flies and their presentation.
I created the Big Ugly prior to a research trip to Andros, The Bahamas. I was part of a group that was conducting a biological survey of a large portion of the west side of north Andros, and I was tasked with getting a handle on the bonefish populations. I knew that the west side had extensive open mud flats with a lot of mantis shrimp and ghost shrimp, so I created the Big Ugly to represent these bonefish prey.
Mantis shrimp give away their presence by their burrows – perfectly round, dime- to half-dollar size holes in the bottom. They are primarily nocturnal feeders, but venture out enough during the day for bonefish (and permit) to be on the look out for them.
Mantis shrimp have rather powerful front appendages - either clubs or slicers. They use these to capture prey. The punchers are powerful enough that mantis shrimp can break aquarium glass. They use the punchers to knockout or otherwise disable prey. The slicers are very sharp, and a quick swipe with a slicer can quickly disable prey. Given their active demeanor, I am sure that mantis shrimp also use these appendages defensively when bonefish, permit, or other predators try to eat them.
This leads to some rather aggressive behavior when a bonefish takes a Big Ugly. I assume that the bonefish is trying to grab the shrimp and crush it with the boney plates on the roof and tongue of its mouth before the shrimp can slice or punch. In any case, it can be difficult to strip fast enough to come tight on the fish, and a fish may eat the fly a few times before being hooked.
I typically fish this fly on or near the bottom, and with short, rapid strips. Mantis shrimp walk across the bottom on their many legs, but when chased will snap the paddle-shaped end of their tail to dart backward. This is the action I like to imitate when presenting the fly to the fish.
Ghost shrimp and their relatives make those ski-mogul type mounds on sand and mud flats. They generally don't emerge from their burrows much, but when they do they can make a tasty meal for a bonefish. I’ve also noticed bonefish feeding holes in the sides of these mounds, and imagine that when a bonefish senses that a shrimp is near the top of the mound it tries to grab a meal. I believe ghost shrimp are slow movers, so those out in the open are probably an easy meal for bonefish.
Legless Merkin (aka Merkwan)
This is, by far, my favorite fly for tailing bonefish, especially when they are tailing along or within mangroves. Based on how bonefish behave in these situations, the abundance of small crabs in many shallow habitats, and stomach content analysis from bonefish studies, crabs are very high on the menu of tailing bonefish. Crabs are also usually active in the shallows near low tide as they forage. I've used this fly to catch bonefish in every location I've tried it, including Belize, The Bahamas, Florida Keys, Cayman Islands, and Virgin Islands.
This fly is an impressionistic version of a swimming crab, and emulates the most basic form of a swimming crab on the move. When swimming sideways – either to travel or avoid a predator – a crab tucks its upstream claw and legs close to its body, and allows the downstream claw and legs to trail behind. This provides a more hydrodynamically efficient shape. The essence of this fly is the body and trailing legs. I’ve seen other versions of this type of crab fly, so know that others also understand this behavior.
The fly can be used in either open bottom or seagrass habitat, but performs best on open bottom near mangroves or along shorelines where small crabs tend to be abundant. When lightly weighted or unweighted, this fly lands lightly, so can be cast very near the fish. Once the fly lands, allow it to drop to the bottom. I find that long, slow strips work best. You will often see bonefish 'snake' on the fly prior to eating it, which I think is common when they are eating crabs that might pinch them. ('Snaking' is what I call the sinuous back and forth movement of bonefish as they closely stalk a fly or prey.)
In more than one instance, I’ve watched bonefish attack a large crab by circling it and darting in to pick off a leg, then another, eventually disabling the crab and making the body an easy meal. For smaller crabs like those imitated by this fly, I think the bonefish are just making sure they avoid being grabbed by one of the claws.
This impressionistic crab pattern came to me via a fishing buddy in the U.S. Virgin Islands – Norman Salesky. It mimics one of the many species of small walking crabs (mud crabs, reef crabs, spider crabs) that inhabit shallow coastal habitats. In different colors, I’ve used this fly on white sand flats, seagrass and algae bottom, and coral rubble flats. The tan version is great for sandy bottoms. Add a weedguard for darker (brown or green) patterns that will be used on seagrass, algae bottoms, or rubble bottoms.
Walking crabs don’t have the paddle-like rear legs possessed by swimming crabs (blue crabs and their relatives), so are limited to walking across the bottom or on structure. Some species, like green reef crabs, are quick movers, able to scurry under coral rubble when approached, but most are slower movers. This means that when you present a fly imitating a walking crab, minimal movement of the fly is essential. It’s also essential that the fly rests on the bottom.
The great thing about this fly pattern’s design is that the materials move on their own with no assistance from the angler. The rabbit fur waves with just the slightest water movement or movement of the fly, as do the Sili Legs. This is perfect for imitating crabs that are relatively sedentary on the bottom.
I especially like this fly for cruising fish. I cast a few feet in front of the fish and let the fly sink to the bottom. As the fish comes onto the fly, I might give the fly a slight twitch, which is typically all that is needed.
Gobies (and to a lesser extent blennies) are much more abundant in shallow coastal habitats than most anglers are aware. In soft or open bottom, they typically live in burrows. In rocky bottom they inhabit small holes or overhangs. They tend to be territorial, and don’t stray far from home. They rest on the bottom, propped up by their pelvic fins, and dart around in small spurts. Typically, when chased, they’ll dart around and dive into their burrow or another hole that provides safety. This is an important behavior to remember when fishing a goby pattern.
Gobies are usually colored to match their habitat – brown, perhaps green, usually mottled in dark habitats like seagrass, algae, and rubble. They are tan or even almost clear on sand flats. Usually, if you find a piece of rubble, old conch shell, or patch of coral on a flat, it will have at least one resident goby. Most of my goby patterns, including this one, are slender in shape and mottled in color.
The key with goby patterns is that they sink to the bottom, and are stripped to give the fly a darting motion. When fished properly, bonefish usually jump on these flies because they know that gobies are masters of the quick getaway.
Given the essential role habitat plays in the daily survival of gamefish and their prey, more fly tiers are integrating the interaction of habitat and prey into their fly designs. Each of the examples above provides a look into how you can create, tie, select, and present flies to your advantage on your next bonefish outing.
The Fisherman's Coast approach focuses on how coastal gamefish interact with their habitats and prey. The more you know about the gamefish you pursue with a fly rod, the more often you'll be in the right place at the right time with the right fly making the right presentation. It's about catching more fish.
Our sister site Tribal Bonefish is all about conservation through responsible fishing. Tribal Bonefish shows you how to become a better steward of our coasts to protect our fisheries today, and ensure future generations get a chance to experience these fisheries.