Fly Fishing for Coastal Gamefish
The water that had drained off the mangrove flat with the ebb had left the uneven, algae-covered bottom exposed to air. Even as the tide turned to flood, small rivulets continued to drain the depths of the mangrove-covered, limestone flat. The soft light of early morning combined with an overcast sky to cast a cloak of grey. The strong winds that had been rising with the sun each day were light enough in the early morning that the short mangroves cast a wind shadow over the leeward shoreline.
Small crabs scurried in the shallowest of water, quickly grabbing their own meals before the water deepened enough to allow hungry bonefish to enter. Small fish darted back and forth in the tiny, isolated pools of water that they called home during low tide, searching frantically for shelter that didn’t exist, finally diving into the sand bottom as I stepped over the pool.
The slick water surface was soon broken by a fin, and then a tail of a bonefish eager to move onto the flat with the rising tide. The bonefish crawled through a shallow trough, only an inch or two deeper than the surrounding flat, a stealthy invader. When it reached a shallow knoll, and could somehow sense deep water beyond, the bonefish wriggled itself over almost dry ground, body exposed for an instant, before settling into a new pool of deeper water. The occasional splash of the tail and body shudder revealed another meal consumed.
The fish’s approach put me in a tough position – I would have to cast across a stiffening breeze that pushed onto my right shoulder. My casting shoulder. With my first sidearm false cast, I could hear the small crab fly whip past my right ear, but I forced myself to concentrate on the fish and on where to place the fly. A second false cast, and the line shot toward the tailing fish. The air filled with confused fly line as a loud THWACK brought it all to a halt.
The bonefish found a slough, and started to cruise toward me along the shoreline.
I reached to the side of my hat to grab the fly and ready for another cast, but could not find the fly. Grabbing the leader, I followed it to the fly. It took me a few seconds to figure out the situation – the loud thwack had not been from the fly hitting my hat, but was the hook completely piercing the cartilage at the top of my ear.
Moving my fingers around the fly and my ear, finding the hook point, I was able to figure out the fly’s orientation. I felt the hook, hoping that I was fishing barbless, and with relief found that I was. I usually do. With a quick motion I backed the hook out.
The bonefish was still approaching, now only 20 feet away. I dropped to one knee, stripped in fly line as quickly as I could, and cast a short line at the fish. The hungry bonefish charged the fly as it settled to the bottom, and quickly reversed course as it felt the hook.
Once fly line was cleared and on the reel, I reached up with my right hand to make a quick assessment of any damage. There was no tear, the hook had pierced cleanly. A small trickle of blood helped to clean the wound.
I couldn’t help but laugh aloud as I brought the fish to hand. I’d pierced myself and caught the fish.
I’ve whacked myself with a fly before, but this was my first piercing. I tell myself that if the fly had been barbed, I would have used my pliers to pinch the barb and remove the fly. That would have been a bit of a challenge, since it would have been entirely by feel. And it certainly would have taken too long to still have a shot at the fish.
That’s certainly a bonefish catch I will remember for some time.
I try to remind myself to de-barb the hook as I place it in the vise to tie a fly, but when I am tying in production mode I often forget. Since I fish barbless hooks for bonefish on all occasions, and most of the time for other species, I’m glad that saltwater hooks are now available in barbless models, which helps to save me from my forgetful self. My hooks of choice these days are Grip Hooks, sold by Scientificfly. I realize there remains an argument against barbless hooks because more fish are lost, but I don’t buy it. I don’t detect a difference in catch rates in barbed vs barbless, and the benefits – less handling time of the fish, ease of extraction from you or another angler – are obvious. Plus, it’s catch and release fishing, anyway, how many grip & grin photos do we need?
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.