DIY Bonefishing – It’s All About The Short Game

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Rod Hamilton

“I have seen more than one FFF Certified Casting Instructor brought to tears after his tenth blown shot at under forty feet”

Whether you are wading in eighteen inches of water, weaving through the mangroves or doing the Flamingo Slide over a mucky flat, there is no such thing as a seventy-foot cast.  For DIY fisherman, it’s all about the Short Game.

Photo Rod Hamilton

Photo Rod Hamilton

Leave your driver, fairway woods and long irons in the bag. DIY success is about accuracy with your wedges and putter.  It calls for short precise shots, minimal false casting and one chance to make a pinpoint presentation.  There are no Gimmies at thirty feet.

I have had the good fortune to fish with some great anglers and casters this year.  I’m still awestruck by the elegance of them laying out an eighty-foot line.  But I’ve come to realize that the skills required to be successful from the front of a skiff don’t necessarily translate to being successful in the “hand to hand” combat experienced by the DIY guy.

I’m talking about soft presentations at 20 – 40 feet in 25 m.p.h. winds with one false cast. Then dropping the fly not in a Hula Hoop, but on a Frisbee.

Let me tell you I have seen more than one FFF Certified Casting Instructor brought to tears after his tenth blown shot at under forty feet. It’s the difference between being a great driver of a golf ball and a great putter, both are wonderful skills to posses, but different.

Setting the stage for a DIY day; you just got out of your car or off your bicycle.  The fish you will be encountering have seen a “Charlie” before; in fact they probably bolted from one yesterday.  And the direction you walk has more to do with “where can I go” then the sun, wind and tide.

And, 90% of your casts will be forty feet or less.

Skills required for the Short Game:

Rod hamilton

Rod hamilton

Spotting fish: Might as well say it, the number one skill is (drum roll please), spotting a fish before it spots you.  There’s no buddy on a raised platform to help, you are now all alone immersed in “Mr. Bones” world.  Most wading anglers Personal Spotting Zone is between 30 – 50 feet.  This comes as a shock to those who are used to a guided boat experience, but it means that the majority of the fish you see are less than 50 feet away.

Casting: The second most important skill is casting.  Being able to get the fly close enough to the fish so that it sees the fly without spooking.  Chances are he is coming right toward you and dropping the fly on a dinner plate in a 25 m.p.h. cross wind is a whole lot harder than it sounds.  You get one shot and the adrenaline is off the charts. This is where it all goes to pot, and even the best long casters get flustered.  I mean who practices a side arm thirty-foot cast to a dinner plate in a crossing wind?  Welcome to the Short Game, no matter the situation or conditions the fly needs to be placed on the “pointy” end of the fish, quietly with one false cast.  Period.

Walking: I could write an entire book on this.  How fast do you really think you should walk when your Personal Spotting Zone is 40 feet? I’m here to tell you it is about 1/4 the speed you currently think.  Walk slow and sliiiiiiiide your feet (the Flamingo Slide).  If you can see like a guide, fine you can walk at a guide’s speed, but really, can you see like a guide? In the Short Game you are not walking leisurely down the fairway but rather stalking a ten-foot putt, barely moving and aware of every little deviation and nuance in front of you.

Photo Rod Hamilton

Photo Rod Hamilton

Line management: I wish I had talked to “me” twenty years ago when my line management techniques mirrored what I saw in all the books and magazines.  Fifty-feet of line, delicately gliding behind me, resting comfortably on the waters surface, in a perfect loop ready to cast to the school of bonefish, clearly visible seventy feet away.  Well let me tell you that picture of the beautifully trailing fly line on a expansive white flat happens about as often as Kate Upton knocking on my front door to see if she can use my phone.  After tangling my feet in the line 7,000,000 times I decided to forget everything I had read and develop my own line management techniques for the Short Game. The basic concept couldn’t be simpler; outside the tip of the rod are ten feet of leader and ten feet of fly line.  Dangling below the reel is a five-foot loop (total of ten feet).  This setup gives me thirty feet of line ready to go and if the fish is forty feet away I take the three seconds required to strip off another ten feet.  Trust me on this one.  It’s always faster to strip off line then unwrap it from around your feet.

Fly selection: The simplest rule of all for the Short Game is use smaller, lighter, wiggly flies.  The water is shallow, the fish are close, and it’s not their first rodeo.   This is not the place for your “guide boat” box stuffed with heavily weighted, large profile #0’s, #2’s & #4″s.  The DIY box is filled with #4’s, #6’s & #8’s lightly weighted with just a little flash, lots of wiggly parts and a small profile.  I now carry fifty-eight flies, including Greg Flats Fly’s, Bonefish Junk Light, Ververka’s Mantis Shrimp, Tailer Beware , Pops Bitter and a small Raghead crab.  Add to those a row of un-weighted flies for tailers and three with weed guards. I’ve tied flies for forty-eight years, own thousands, tied all the newest and greatest and travelled with bags full and now am down to fifty-eight flies when I’m fishing.

So there you go, DIY bonefishing is all about being a master of the Short Game.  Forget about the long ball, concentrate on sticking your wedges close and making the short putts.

Rod’s new book “Do It Yourself Bonefishing” is spectacular! You can read a review HERE.



Or order your copy HERE

Rod Hamilton
Gink & Gasoline
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12 thoughts on “DIY Bonefishing – It’s All About The Short Game

  1. Good article and I agree with your comments.

    I’m new to Bonefishing. A little over five years ago I decided I would go to Kiritimati for the Bones. It was also when I started tying flies. It was a baptism of fire, or so it seemed at the time. A mate of mine who had been to Kiritimati a couple of times put me onto a good guide and suggested I get down to the park as much as possible especially on windy days and practice my short casting into the wind.

    I’m glad I did as by the time I got out onto the flats the first day I was half competent. My guide was very patient giving me many hints on how I should cast to get the fly where it was needed. If I did not understand what he was saying I would give him the outfit so I could watch him closely to note all of the subtleties he was applying with both of his hands. In those seven days of my first trip I learnt a lot and improved my skills by 200%. I also caught 84 Bones plus five other species.

    The windiest day all you had to do was feed the line off the tip to the length you anticipated for the next cast, hold the rod up in the wind and the wind would keep the rod loaded with the line flying horizontally from the tip. Come in low with a sharp haul to lay the line out on the water without shooting line.

    The other thing which helped was running 9wt SA Redfish Tropicore floaters on both of the 8wt rods. Now don’t laugh, one of the rods I fished that trip was a Sage Bass Bluegill and it performed very well in the winding conditions. The SA Redfish has similar specs to those of the matching Sage line.

    I’ve been back for two more trips to Kirimati and yes I practice in the wind prior to all of my trips and have caught a few Bones. 345, but who’s counting.

    Another trick I always use is tie a small nail knot at 30ft from the tip of the line so that you know you have 40ft between you and the fly when that knot is in your left hand.

  2. Lee Wulff recommended making a permanent mark on the line at 30′, two hash marks at 40′ and so on to 60′. If you use a Sharpie, wait a long time for your marks to dry or else you’re going to have a couple of fly lines with black specs and streaks on them!

    If I didn’t have the marks in view somewhere in the guides, my estimate of distance to fish (or casting distance) would be absolutely terrible instead of just poor.

  3. so why not use a stripping basket? I know they can be their own pain when trying to get out a long cast, but when making short cast w/small amounts of line in the basket they’d work well IMO.

    • The stripping basket is a good tool for a first cast. If you need to recast they get in the way, in my experience. Bonefish flats are different than striped bass flats and the dynamics are very different. I live around striped bass and the baskets are needed for that.

      I typically leave more line out that Rod suggests but before casing I pull trailing line up to my self so that its casting from my feet and not from behind me. My technique requires paying attention to the line at every turn of me or the tide. The line pulling takes 3-5 seconds to accomplish.

  4. Great article, casting is a fine art. Like most fine art forms it takes years just to master the simplest style, this is a good example of why not everyone is cut out for fly fishing. It is also what makes it so exciting because it is a lifelong pursuit where you are constantly learning and honing a skill. Thanks for the words.

    • Well put Luke. Too many people are disappointed because they are not the best. Life is about doing your best.

      Over the years I’ve followed a program to be continually focused on the 3Es, the 3Ps, the 3Ts and the 7Ps.

      That is:
      3Es = find the most Efficient, Effective, Economic method of doing everything;

      3Ps = Practice, Practice & Practice

      3Ts = Training, Training, & Training (as in educational training)

      7Ps = Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance

      It will take me years to attain my goal. I know I have not gotten there yet. It is the eternal search for excellence.

      But most importantly one must enjoy the journey and attempt to learn something new every day.

      Another one to include as a fly fisher is the 3Ls, Loop Size, Line Speed, Line Plane.

      Currently I’m working on getting up to speed on “Constant Tension” casting.

  5. Rod,

    Great article! Thanks to your book and Louis, I have booked a family trip to Cat Island, Bahamas this March for my first time fishing salt. It being my first time and a family trip (not a fishing trip, my wife reminds me) I have my expectations set low, but I am hoping to hook up a few times. I tied up a dozen Gotcha’s the other night and last night was checking out tide charts. Awesome book by the way, I am already re-reading (yeah, I’m a bit excited).


  6. Just like in golf, it’s nearly all about the short game. I would say, however, if you’ve ever fished spooky tailing fish on a boat, it helps to have an 80 ft cast in your back pocket. That happened to me this past May in Ambergris when the guide was hesitant to take me to a tailing bone spot because the fish were very spooky, impossible to approach by wading due to a silty bottom. After I convinced him I could make the throw he took me to the spot, and just as he said, as we got to 80-100 ft the fish kept moving, and it was blowing 20 +. After an hour of positioning the boat due to the wind, and me figuring how to double haul the clear line out to 80 plus, I was able to pick up 3 bones in a row. I guess the main thing is if you can throw the line to long distance tell the guide, he may have a spot for ya. The tailers in Ambergris are larger then the deep water bones in the back creeks and sloughs.

  7. Brilliant! Love this article, Rod. I completely agree about the short game. Reminds me of my first trip to Belize years ago. Guide put me on tailers in thick grass, only about 30-40 ft off the skiff. They were digging around oblivious in inches of water. I’d been practicing my distance casting like crazy but couldn’t put the fly near the fish at 35 ft to save my life. “No. ON the fish,” the guide kept saying as I dropped flies all around feeding fish. When I got back home I started practicing my close game.

    Speaking of, most anglers choose rods for bonefishing based on distance casting. Often these rods are very stiff and fast, making them very difficult to load and accurately cast with only 10-15 ft of flyline out. So, when I try out a new bonefish rod I first try hitting targets with that much line out, just to see if the rod is sensitive enough. Only then do I see how far it will cast.

    Keep up the good work!

  8. Pingback: Tippets: Artificial Drifts, Adaptive Fly Rod, DIY Bonefishing | MidCurrent

  9. The line management portion of the article was the best I’ve seen or read on short-game wading. It would work just as well on the bow of a skiff.

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