Bonefish VS Redfish

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Cast Owen Player releases a nice bonefish. Photo by Louis Cahill

By Owen Plair

Over 12 years of working in a fly shop and 10 years of guiding for Redfish I have heard the comparison of Redfish and Bonefish more than any species out there. 

They are so similar in many ways but also very different. You can target redfish on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean from Massachusetts to Florida and the Gulf Coast from Florida to northern Mexico. That is ton of area for Redfish to live and thousands of miles of flats which is why its such a favorite target species for fly anglers in the United States. Bonefish on the other hand are not as abundant in the U.S., because they inhabit warm tropical waters and can only be found in South Florida and Hawaii. There are a few myths of Bonefish going a little father north at times but not targeted.  Bonefish can also be found around the world in countless other countries that have tropical waters, from the Bahamas all the way to the Seychelles, unlike the Redfish, which are only found in the US. I would say that bonefishing has a more exotic feel because in most cases you have to travel pretty far to fish for them. Redfish, on the other hand, can be caught in multiple states through out the year, in different weather patterns and completely different ecosystems. They are both amazing fish to target with a fly and offer great opportunities for sight fishing.

I fished for bonefish a few times down in Biscayne Bay and Islamorada, FL with my friend Capt. Honson Lau. Taking a break from Tarpon, I was fortunate enough to hook one nice fish, which broke off before we could land it. 

I’ve been catching redfish since I was a 3 year old kid and have been a full time guide for Redfish in Beaufort, SC since 2009. I always had the urge to catch bonefish but just never found myself able to go on a destination trip for them. I always felt like it was so similar to Redfish, which I had spent countless hours targeting. Finally, the right opportunity came and I was on a plane down to South Andros to join Louis on his South Andros Bonefish School back in November 2016. 

Man, what an incredible trip learning about bonefish. After 6 days of fishing the flats of South Andros I was very lucky to experience some amazing fishing. Everything from schools of fish, tailing fish, mudding fish, big singles coming in from the ocean, deep water schools, and fish weaving through the mangroves. I lost count of fish that week but did not lose count of all the memories and techniques learning through experience even after a few too many Kaliks. One thing I realized after years of Redfishing was that targeting the two species was very similar in a lot of ways but also very different in ways I’ve never thought of. 

Seeing the Fish- Bonefish and Redfish have a lot of the same characteristics on the flats. They swim in schools, singles, tail, mud, flash, and just about everything in between. I felt that Bonefish were definitely easier to see from a distance simply because of the gin clear water where they live. They also showed up darker on the white sand flats and the shadows they cast. Most of my red fishing has been on darker, mud bottoms, or fish floating under the service giving off a red glow. I felt that everything else when sight fishing for both of these fish was exactly the same. 

Casting to the Fish- When casting to Bonefish I felt they could definitely see the fly a lot better than a redfish. There were times when I would be 5 feet or more in front of the fish and it would still find my fly. The redfish I target, you have to be within a 1-2 foot window, sometimes even closer in muddy water situations. Overall the presentations  of the fly and distance of the cast were all the same. 

Feeding the Fish- This was the most important part of what I learned about Bonefish and Redfish. With Redfish, Tarpon, Snook, Jacks, and almost all saltwater species I always found myself keeping the fly moving with steady strips to keep the fish turned onto the fly. The feeling you get when a fish is behind your fly chasing it down is one of my favorite feelings and one of the main reasons I love sight fishing. I had stopped the fly before for permit and bonefish in South Florida but always thought it was for the situation, but I soon learned a lot about stopping the fly for bonefish. 

It amazed me how odd it felt to stop stripping the fly to get the bite when thousands of times I have told my anglers to keep stripping the fly to get the bite. What I learned with bonefish is how they eat on the flat and like to pin their food to the bottom when they eat. Not that they are lazy or lethargic if you keep stripping, but when the fly stopped, and dived to the bottom, it would turn the bonefish on. They’ed swim up and kill the fly! 

Watching the mud flow through there gills after the bite was always a sight to see. With Redfish you always want to keep the fly moving because most times if the fish is on your fly and you stop stripping, it will turn off, and not bite because of lost of interest. It was a great experience learning how to feed a bonefish because I felt that, in a way, it was more technical than feeding a redfish. Not only because of the stop, but also because you cant see the fish open its mouth to eat! You have to learn when you get the bite by reading the body language of the fish instead of looking for its mouth to open up on the fly. 

A bonefish eating a fly on the stop is very fast, efficient, and most of all obvious because of the little wiggle of their body when they stop. Seems like it’s almost orgasmic how these fish eat on the stop and even put off a purple blue glow at times when they eat. When Redfishing you can almost count on seeing the bite and watching the fish open its mouth to swallow the fly. Being able to adapt to this was crucial and saved me a lot of missed fish. In some ways I missed seeing the bite but also enjoyed the challenge of reading the bonefish and anticipating the bite.

The Fight- There is no doubt that the bonefish is famed for its fast and long runs for a reason! The shear power and speed of these fish is amazing and will make your drag scream. Most every fish I hooked over 3lbs would take me to the backing and some over 5lbs would take me to the backing multiple times. Redfish do not run near as fast and long as a bonefish but they do fight a little harder than a bonefish with a much harder tug of war.

The Gear- Most of the gear is all the same stuff with 7wt, 8wt, and 9wt rods with large arbor reels. Floating weight forward lines and 9-10ft leaders. There are some lines made specifically for Bonefish or Redfish but most any saltwater tapered line will work perfect for both fish. I actually used my 7wt and 8wt Redfish line while bonefishing and then used my 9wt Bonefish line while redfishing and couldn’t tell a difference. If your fishing the colder months for redfish, I wouldn’t recommend using a tropical line because you’ll get some memory build up in the line from the colder water. Bonefish flies are lot smaller than redfish flies and also a lot lighter in color due to the gin clear water bonefish thrive in but I did notice a few flies could blend for both fish in certain situations. 

The Size of Fish- Bonefish are by far a lot smaller species only ranging between 2-15lbs when a redfish can be anywhere from 1-40lbs. If you get a bonefish in the double digits its considered a huge fish but when redfishing a double digit fish is lot easier to accomplish. The biggest bonefish I caught on my trip to south Andros was around 6lbs and you could really see the difference in overall girth of the fish compared to smaller 2-3lb. The biggest Redfish I’ve ever caught on fly is 24lbs in Louisiana and the difference was almost unreal compared to my average 5-10lb fish. 

Overall I feel like Bonefish and Redfish just like any other species have there own unique characteristics but are still very similar when targeting them on the fly. I wouldn’t say that bonefishing is easier than redfishing because they both have there ups and downs depending on conditions and fishing. As an angler and guide I can honestly say I will be doing a lot more bonefishing in the near future but Redfish will always have my heart! They are both amazing species and will bring you to some amazing destinations in search of them.

Let me know your thoughts on comparing the two. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think! 

Owen Plair
Gink & Gasoline
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5 thoughts on “Bonefish VS Redfish

  1. Sounds like there’s a big difference on how the Redfish or Bonefish attack the fly. Which one is harder to get to attack the fly? I would assume the Bonefish because they are generally in clearer water?

  2. As a long-time redfish guy who recently did a couple of bonefish trips, I can say you really nailed the comparison. Thanks for the post.

  3. As you wrote, “Bonefish flies are lot smaller than redfish flies and also a lot lighter in color due to the gin clear water bonefish thrive in but I did notice a few flies could blend for both fish in certain situations”, could you please share the names and sizes of these “crossover” flies?

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