Fly Fishing for Coastal Gamefish
The allure of catching big bonefish has been the cause of angler travels to destinations far and wide. A true double-digit fish (10 pounds or more) is the holy grail for many bonefish anglers. Some anglers go a lifetime without achieving this mark, while others seem to have the market cornered on big bones. What are the most important factors for catching your career bonefish? Being in the right location is a big part of catching a double digit bonefish – no sense going to a place that has only small bonefish. A good guide, the right tides, and the right weather are also important. Being a good caster increases your odds tremendously. But perhaps most important is the fly – do you have the fly that a big bonefish will want to eat?
Research has shown that bonefish diet changes with bonefish size. Smaller bonefish feed mostly on worms, clams, snails, and some crabs and shrimp. Large bonefish eat larger crabs, shrimp, and fish. So you can use that size 6 gotcha to catch small bonefish all day – after days of eating worms and crabs, a fly that imitates a small shrimp probably looks like a feast – but throwing that same fly at a big bonefish will be pointless. If you want to catch large bonefish you need to use a fly that imitates what large bonefish want to eat.
Knowing what bonefish eat, and the effects of bonefish size, habitat, tide, and other important factors is key to catching large bonefish. I talk a lot about these factors in my two books Fisherman’s Coast and Fly Fisherman’s Guide to Saltwater Prey. This approach is too detailed to summarize here, but suffice it to say that this is what helped me to invent the Big Ugly, which has become my go-to fly for big bonefish.
The Big Ugly was designed specifically as a fly for large bonefish. Its profile, coloration, and size imitate two things that big bonefish like to eat – mantis shrimp and bottom dwelling fish like gobies and toadfish. Based on the aggressive way that large bonefish attack this fly, they certainly think it is a good meal.
I originally tied this pattern in preparation for a trip to the west side of Andros, where there are many mantis shrimp living on the sand flats. I was there for two weeks as part of a biological sampling group working to determine the ecological health of the west side of Andros. The first time the guide I was working with, Phillip Rolle, saw the fly, he laughed and said ‘that is one big, ugly fly’, thus the name. But by the end of the trip he was using it too. It’s that effective.
The Big Ugly imitates mantis shrimp, which can be abundant on sand flats frequented by bonefish. Holes of adult mantis shrimp are easy to see – they are the perfectly round holes about the size of a quarter that can be scattered or can really pock-mark a sand flat, depending on the abundance of these shrimp. The holes of smaller mantis shrimp are harder to see, and may be mistaken for holes made by other animals, but where there are adults there are smaller mantis shrimp. Mantis shrimp typically feed at night, but are out enough during the day for bonefish to be on the lookout for them.
Mantis shrimp have rather powerful front appendages – either clubs or slicers. They use these to capture prey. The club-like appendages are powerful enough that mantis shrimp can break aquarium glass. The slicer appendages are sharp enough to slice the hand of an angler who carelessly picks one up. I assume that they also use these defensively when bonefish, permit, or other predators try to eat them. This is probably why, when bonefish eat this fly, they do so very aggressively. It can be difficult to strip fast enough to come tight on the fish. I think that a bonefish that decides to eat a mantis shrimp tries to do so quickly enough that it can suck in, crush with its crusher plates, and swallow the mantis shrimp before the shrimp has a chance to strike back.
Also in these habitats are bottom dwelling fish like gobies, blennies, and toadfish. They often have their own burrows, or live under clumps of algae or share a burrow with a shrimp or crab. They are territorial, so stay in a relatively small area. They don’t travel long distances or try to out-swim bonefish. Instead, they protect territories from other small fishes, and dart quickly for shelter if chased by a bonefish. I think this is why bonefish attack these small fish (and the Big Ugly) so voraciously – they get one chance before the potential meal reaches a hiding place.
I typically fish this fly on or near the bottom, and use short, rapid strips until the fish sees the fly and starts to move toward it. I then use a long, slow strip, skidding the fly across the bottom, as the fish eats the fly. Frequently, bonefish attack this fly with such aggressiveness that it can be difficult to strip the fly fast enough to keep up with the charging fish. But the good thing is that most of the time the fish will take the fly more than once, giving you multiple chances to come tight on the fish of a lifetime.
Hook - Grip barbless size 2 or 4 (Grip model 21711NSL-BL)
Tail - tan craft fur, barred with brown sharpee
Body - rootbeer cactus chenille
Wing - tan craft fur
Weight - stainless steel beachchain or lead eyes, size and weight depending on hook size and desired sink rate
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.