Sunday Classic / 12 Tips for Spotting More Bonefish

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Photo by Louis Cahill

So you want to catch a bonefish?

To catch a bonefish, one must first see a bonefish, and there’s the problem. Bonefish are nearly invisible as any living creature. Their camouflage is almost flawless. Their sides are as bright as a mirror and reflect their surroundings perfectly. If the bottom is light, the fish is light. If the bottom is dark, the fish is dark. It can be maddening.

The problem is compounded for the angler who is making the transition from trout fishing to flats fishing. The method of spotting fish is completely different. In fact it’s almost opposite. To find a trout you identify the likely holding water and stare into that spot, waiting for the window to open so that you can glimpse a head or a tail. But trout are holding still in moving water. Bonefish are always on the move. If you stare through that window you’ll miss the show.

I can remember standing on the bow, listening to my guide’s voice become tense, then frustrated. “He’s right there Man, forty feet, right in front of the boat.” “You can’t see the fish, Man?” It will test your self confidence, make you wonder if you know anything about fishing.

With time, the lights turn on and you start to understand the subtle signs of life that you’ve been missing. You learn how to look for fish. Spotting bonefish never gets easy but it become doable. With time, a good pair of polarized glasses and a little patience from your guide, the bonefish will reveal himself.

Here are ten tips to help.


1. Keep your head on a swivel

There are some rules for how fish move on the tide, but bonefish don’t care much for rules. They’re like kids, they mill around, get distracted, turn and stop suddenly. They could be anywhere on the flat. Keep scanning the water. The closest bonefish may be behind you.

2. Don’t get tunnel vision

It’s easy to anticipate where you will see fish. You can find yourself staring at a small piece of water trying to make fish appear. This tunnel vision can be its worst when your guide is calling out a fish. You may be looking ten feet to the left of the fish and never see it. Keep your eyes relaxed and look at the big picture. See the forest, not the trees.

3. Search the glare

The surface of the water reflects the sky and one part of the sky is always lighter than the other. That means that there is almost always part of the water where you can see well and a part where you see mostly glare. The natural tendency is to spend your time searching the water where you can see well but this is not the most effective method. Scan that water quickly, then slow down when you scan the glare. That will help keep you from missing fish.

4. Tilt your head

Polarized sun glasses work with the angle of the light. The angle of the light is always changing but your glasses stay put. If you are struggling to see through glare on the water, tilt your head from side to side. At the right angle that glare may disappear.

5. Six eyes are better than two

There are usually three guys on a flats boat. A guide and two anglers. The guide and the angler on the bow will always be searching for fish but the angler in the chair is often looking at his iPhone. If you help your buddy search the water, he will help you when you’re on the bow. The more time you spend looking for fish, the better your skills will be so it’s a win, win.

6. Look for shadows

A bonefish’s camouflage is often so good that you never see the fish but crafty as he is, he can’t help but cast a shadow. When the sun is high and bright it’s often easier to see that shadow than the fish. Look for the dark shapes moving across the flat but remember the fish is not in exactly the same spot. You need to keep in mind the angle of the sun.

7. Look for nervous water

Bonefish feed in shallow water. They are generally close enough to the surface that their movement disturbs the water. The little wakes or ripples that don’t quite match the surrounding water give them away. It’s called nervous water because it won’t hold still. When a school moves in a hurry they make a wake called a push. Pushes are great because they are so easy to target but remember, the push is several feet behind the fish.

8. Look for tails

Bonefish root around like little pigs on the bottom tilting their tail upward. When the water is shallow enough, their tails break the surface. Tailing fish are the Holy Grail. Easy to see and fun to cast to. I have had some great days chasing tailers in weather so bad most folks wouldn’t fish. Tailing fish can save the day.

9. Look for movement

There are lots of things on the bottom that can look like fish. Coral, sea weed, bricks of cocaine dumped by drug smugglers — fortunately none of them move. If it moves, it has a mouth. Keep your eyes loose. Look at the scene and your eyes will naturally spot movement. Sometimes the ripples on the water can make an object seem to be moving. If you’re not sure, look away, then look back. It will be obvious if the object has moved.

10. Look for fish coming and going

The easiest bonefish to see is one that is moving either straight toward you or directly away. Their backs are slightly darker than their sides and far less reflective. These fish appear as grayish forms just slightly darker than their surroundings. Of course, the one coming toward you is the one you want.

11. Look for fish passing

The bonefish who is turned broadside to you is the toughest. His mirrored camouflage is at its most effective. Often, all that is visible are the small dark lines at his head and tail. Faint pencil stroke lines just the length of a fish apart can give him away.

12. Look for fish with your ears

When all else fails, and it will, listen to your guide. Pay attention to the angle of the boat so that when he tells you a fish is at eleven o’clock, you know where he’s looking. Point your rod so he can tell you, “more left” or “more right” you can hone in quickly. Early in the day, pick a mangrove or coral head and ask him how far it is so you know what his “fifty feet” looks like. When he tells you to drop your fly, drop it. Don’t take another false cast. I have caught many bonefish that I never saw thanks to good directions from my guide.

Perhaps most importantly, you will never spot a bonefish from the couch. You have to get out there and put your eyes to work. Like everything else in fly fishing, it’s a use-it-or-lose it deal. So get out on the flats and see what you can see.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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3 thoughts on “Sunday Classic / 12 Tips for Spotting More Bonefish

  1. Pingback: Tippets: “Baptism by Whitewater,” Tenkara Then & Now, Spotting Bonefish | MidCurrent

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