Fly Fishing for Coastal Gamefish
I lived on St. Croix in the mid-1990s, and worked for the local government as a fish biologist. With a couple exceptions, I’d rate St. Croix as relatively fished out. My understanding is that St. Croix used to be one of the best bonefish fisheries in the world – this rating came from none other than Ted Williams. When I lived on St. Croix, one of my friends and co-workers (Teddy), who had lived on St. Croix his entire long life, told me stories about when he had guided Ted Williams back in the 1960s. Teddy said the bonefish fishing was excellent back then, and that Ted Williams said it was among the best he’d experienced. When I related this account to the late Bonefish Bob at his Islamorada store, he nodded in agreement. He’d heard the same reports.
Unfortunately, St. Croix’s bonefish got hit hard from two directions – a huge mangrove lagoon on the south shore was filled in and made into the Western Hemisphere’s largest single oil refinery (in the 1960s), and the intensive use of nets for fishing wiped out schools of bonefish at a time (1980s). The word is that people didn’t even really eat the bonefish – they just threw them up on shore when they caught them to get them out of the way. The bonefish still have not come back. Every once in a while you hear about someone seeing a good size school of bonefish, but otherwise it’s one here, one there. Although it’s supposed to be illegal, to the best of my knowledge, netting still occurs on St. Croix.
St. Croix does have some good permit fishing, but it is in small pockets and requires some local knowledge to get to the right spots. The permit fishing is mostly along the backreef flats, which are a mix of coral rubble and seagrass. The permit either swim around the reef and come up onto the flat to feed, or ride the surf over the reef. A number of times I watched permit surf a wave over and through the reef. Unfortunately, they often left the same way when hooked. I lost a number of fly lines to the reef, and had many lines part when fishing with spinning gear. With spinning gear, the number one bait was small sea urchins, but small blue crabs and hermit crabs worked well, too. For fly fishing, sea urchin, crab, and mantis shrimp patterns were good. In the last year or so I lived on St. Croix, I did a bit of wade guiding. I had a number of people tell me that the permit fishing there was among the most challenging they’d done, but that the permit, on average, were also the biggest. One morning I saw a permit tail that stopped me in my tracks – the base of the tail was as big around as the fat end of a baseball bat. I didn’t even think about casting to that fish.
Casting chartreuse and white clousers along shorelines or while wading on grass flats will get you into some barjacks (and other species of jacks), small barracuda, and snappers. Tarpon are also there, but are sporadic in their movements – I never figured them out well enough to target them during my time there – so I was just lucky to run across them some times. For the most part, the tarpon I saw on St. Croix maxed out at 75 pounds, and most were smaller. I never worried about fancy flies for tarpon. When we found them, they were usually feeding on sprat (a type of herring) or on silversides (aka glass minnows). A deceiver (I liked white with a blue back) or chartreuse-and-white clouser worked fine in these circumstances. There were occasional landlocked tarpon in a efw small ponds, and these fish responded best to Keys-style flies in natural grizzly. My best guess is the grizzly matched the coloration of the small tilapia that were present in a lot of these ponds.
I can’t tell you much about the shore fishing on St. Thomas. I never spent much time there – I didn’t care for the crowdedness and noise of the island, so only used St. Thomas as a pass-through on my way to St. John or the British Virgin Islands.
Much of the island of St. John is a National Park, and although it’s fish populations aren’t what they once were, the fishing there can be pretty good. St. John doesn’t have a net fishery, and no industry to speak of, so habitats and coastal gamefish populations are in good shape.
St. John was where I caught my first bonefish on fly, on one butt-ugly fly, one of my early ones. There are numerous spots to find (tailing) bonefish, and to a lesser extent permit. Since it is a small island, the bonefish do see fishermen on a regular basis, especially in the winter when tourists are there in abundance. I understand there are a couple guides there now, too. Because the bonefish in many locations see anglers regularly, they can be spooky and picky eaters. I found small brown flies (try Fernandez Snapping Shrimp), and small flies that imitate grass shrimp do well. Overall, I found tailing action to be best in the early morning and late evening, and this was when there were no other anglers out there. Some of the bonefish spots are close to road access, others require a hike on a park trail. All of the flats I fished were seagrass.
Blind casting off beaches can get you a variety of fish, including barracuda, jacks, snapper, bonefish, and palometa, among others. By far the best fly was a number 2 chartreuse-and-white clouser minnow. Small deceivers worked well, too.
The British Virgin Islands have a variety of fishing opportunities similar to those on St. John, but with the advantage that the BVI fish don’t see nearly as many anglers. There are seagrass flats and backreef rubble flats spread throughout the BVI, all of which can hold bonefish or permit at the right times. Islands I’ve fished are Tortola, Beef Island (near the airport), and Anegada. (Side note – because of the fill used to make long enough runways on many Caribbean islands, there are often good flats near the airports). The cut between Beef Island and Tortola has some small but very good flats, especially on rising tides, and the channel can hold tarpon at times.
Anegada is only accessible by boat or plane, and doesn’t have much there except beaches and fishing, so it’s probably not a good family spot. But the bonefish fishing on the flats on the south side of the island is very good (Gotchas, craft fur clousers, and small light-colored crabs did the trick most of the time), and some permit (small crab flies) can be found. Tarpon come and go – mostly along the western end of the island. The north side has no real flats, but the beaches can yield a good variety of fish, and even some bonefish. If you go, stay at Neptune’s Treasure – nice people, nice spot.
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.