Cool Shots at Bonefish

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

What makes a rewarding bonefish trip.

It’s hard to fly off to an exotic location for a week of fishing without having a goal, or at least some expectations. The first can be dangerous and the second disastrous. Still, one or the other is generally present on a fishing trip and the more the trip costs, the higher they usually are.

I’ll never forget my first bonefishing trip. My expectations were to actually see a bonefish and my goal was to not make a complete ass of myself when I did. (It’s good to have goals, right?) That trip did so much more than exceed my expectations. It was an awakening of sorts and the beginning of a life long obsession.

On subsequent trips I adjusted my goals. I wanted to catch a lot of bonefish. I wanted to catch big bonefish. I wanted to increase my hookup ratio. I wanted to catch bonefish on my own. I wanted to develop my own fly patterns. Eventually I just wanted quality fishing with good friends. One by one, all of those things went in the done column and I kept going bonefishing.

There’s not a thing on that list that I don’t still enjoy doing. Who doesn’t want to catch a lot of fish, or a big fish, or have a great day with a good friend. With the exception of the friend however, they all become less important with time. Most days all I really need is to stand on the bow and glide across a beautiful flat.

So what makes a day of bonefishing exceptional?

More and more, for me, it’s about the quality of the shots. I’ve written before about my Spaulding Gray moments. The perfect shot. But it’s a lot to expect to have a perfect shot on every trip and the road to hell is paved with expectations. Sometimes it’s just about cool shots.

What makes a shot cool? Something different. Something that requires me to think past the lead and cross idea of a bonefish shot. I had one of those shots on my last trip.

We were poling the edge of a flat on a pretty high tide. Drifting along about twenty feet from the mangroves. It was a beautiful day and fishing had been really good. I was fishing with my buddy Rich Hohne and guide Norman Rolle, two guys whose company I really enjoy. We were telling stories and laughing way more than was good for the fishing, when in my peripheral vision I saw movement.

The small school of bonefish were just in the edge of the mangroves, well behind the boat. They must have been too far back in the bushes when we blew past them. Now it was a challenging backhand cast and a pretty unforgiving current taking me away from them. Add to this that the fish were still well back in the mangroves and there was no clear shot.

I dropped a cast at the edge of the mangroves but the fish ignored it. They were swimming in our direction at about the same speed we were moving. Norman began bringing the boat to a slow and quiet stop as I dropped another cast at the edge of the mangroves. Still nothing. The fish were too far in the bushes.

I watched the schools progress. Five or six fish with the lead fish being pretty respectable. They were just nosing along about six feet from open water. I found a gap in the mangroves that I could hit. It wouldn’t get me all the way to the fish but a good three feet closer. I took the shot. I made a couple of strips and still got no attention. I spotted the next gap and started to lift my fly for another cast.

Just as I accelerated the fly, the lead fish saw it and charged out of the mangroves. I was just about to pick up the line for a cast. How I stopped that cast I don’t know, but I did. I did and the fish came for the fly hard. I took one enormous strip, to pick up all the slack the truncated cast had left in my line, and by the time I was at the end of the stroke the fish had my fly. There was still slack in the line and no time for another strip to set the hook. I clamped the line against the cork of my grip and pulled back hard with my rod hand.

Norman and Rich exploded when the hook found its home and all hell broke loose. I was in a potentially rod shattering tug of war with a nice bonefish on the edge of the mangroves. He was in and out, in and out. I’d lose ground then gain it back. After less than a minute the fish became momentarily disoriented and I grabbed the leader and snatched him out of the water green as a dollar bill.

It was a weird shot. The shortest fight I’ve ever had with a bonefish and plenty went wrong, but I pulled it off because I thought on my feet. It’s not a hero story. It’s in no way epic but of all the fish I caught on that trip, that’s the one I find myself thinking about. It was different. Challenging in ways you don’t usually get, and just cool in general.

Like the day I was wade fishing with guide Tori Bevins and hooked a big bonefish, only to learn I had a huge bird’s nest in my stripping line. The fish was running hard and there was no way I was stopping him. When the bird’s nest hit the stripping guide it stuck and it looked like it was over. Another nice fish broken off.

I don’t know where the idea came from or why I thought it was a good one, but what I did next was pure inspiration. I hooked my left arm through the slack line between my reel and the bird’s nest stuck in the guides and let go of my rod. Tori’s eyes were the size of a permit’s when my rod and reel, drag still screaming, shot off across the flat connected to me only by the line looped through my elbow.

I got that rod back and landed that fish. I guess that’s what I love about bonefishing. It’s a fast paced game of wits and it rewards the angler who can improvise. As soon as you think you know what you’re doing, something weird happens and you’re caught with your pants down, again.

That’s really all I need. One cool shot. That can make a trip for me. If you have a favorite cool shot story, at any fish, tell us about it in the comments section.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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3 thoughts on “Cool Shots at Bonefish

  1. Mine would have to be in Belize. We were staying in one of those over water huts on an island off the coast. I fished a flat that AM. At around mid day decided to grab a 6er of Belikin IPAs from the bar and just hang out on the porch around the hut while the tide was low.

    While my wife napped, I sat drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, thinking about where to wade later that day, and I saw nervous water about 150 feet away, which I assumed was just a school of the jacks I’d been harassing all morning.

    A few minutes later they got closer, and I could see what they were

    “oh shit. those are Permit”. And there was about 8 of them, not big, but the happiest damn fish I have ever seen

    I ran into the hut and grabbed the Permit stick I had rigged up, trying not to wake the Mrs.

    Now to figure out how to deliver a fly to these things ~70 feet away, from a porch, with a thatch hut behind me. I let a ton of line out and tried to throw a sort of spey cast at them, but missed by a mile. I tried to throw a short back cast under the hut (basically casting upside down), but missed short by 30 feet. Finally I leaned over the railing, threw a forward cast over the roof of the hut and shot the back cast out to the pod of fish.

    One pounced on the Merkin almost as soon as it hit the water and took off for the horizon. The maintenance dudes working on a roof next door who had stopped working at this point to watch the stupid tourist frantically try to get a fly to these fish hollered and laughed. I got the fish in, had the Mrs. snap a pic and released him. I don’t think I’ll ever beat the “porch drinkin’ Permit” shot.

      • Thanks Kerry. That was my first shot at a school, I’ve only ever thrown to singles or pairs. They seem to lose some of that famous Permit wariness when they have buddies around. I ended I up getting a bonefish off the porch too. I told my wife if a tarpon came in range that we were going to buy that damn hut and never leave.

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