Sunday Classic / How Not To Learn Bonefishing

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oops! Photo by Louis Cahill

Float to the Bahamas on a 55 gallon drum and save the air fare but hire a good guide every day!

My buddy Brad went to the Bahamas for bonefish recently. I loaned him a rod, reel some leaders and a box of my favorite bonefish patterns. It was his first trip to the salt and when he got home the stories brought back memories.

Brad is a great angler. He guides for trout and when it comes to working a tough fish with a tiny dry fly he’s the man but salt water is a totally different game and, like all of us, he ran up against the learning curve pretty quickly. He came home from the trip with a photo of himself holding a nice bone and that’s better than I did on my first salt water trip so I’m not dogging my friend here but I’m going to tell you where he went right and where he went wrong.

Brad took some advice I gave him and that was a good start. First off he went to the Bahamas. There’s a lot to learn for the beginning bonefish angler and much of it is retraining muscle memory. Developing a good strip set for example. The only way you learn to strip set is by feeding fish. “Those crazy ass fish run every which way!” Brad told me. That’s true, and you only learn how to lead moving fish by getting shots at moving fish. Simply put, in the Bahamas you get a lot more shots and you feed a lot more fish.

The first way he went wrong was he went to the wrong island. I told him to go to South Andros but he has a friend with a place in Eleuthera and went there. He saved some money and I get that, but he caught a lot fewer fish. It’s like my friend Joel told me when I booked my first trip to Andros. “The Bahamas is the best bonefishing in the world and Andros is the best bonefishing in the Bahamas.” Well said, and true.

I learned to fish salt in the Florida Keys and that’s a tough way to go. The fish in the keys are a lot more educated. The bonefish in the keys are big but fewer and the turtle grass bottom makes them hard to see. The Bahamas has a lot more fish and they see a lot less pressure. They also feed on white sand flats where the untrained eye has a lot better chance of finding them. Learning to see fish is the most important skill for a salt water angler. There are plenty of big bonefish in the Bahamas and a good guide knows where to find them but he also knows where he can put a beginner on big schools where the chances for success are higher.

That brings me to Brad’s next mistake, the guide. He hired a guide for one day and didn’t get a very good one. I laughed out loud when he told me about the guide cussing him up one side and down the other, then taking the rod and catching a fish right in front of him. I don’t know about you but I see a tip evaporating in the hot Bahamas sun. When you’re going to another country to chase a fish you’ve never caught, it’s no time to save money by skimping on the guide. Float to the Bahamas on a 55 gallon drum and save the air fare but hire a good guide every day!

Another thing Brad did right was to ask for advice.

A lot of experienced fresh water anglers will be too proud to do this but Brad was smart. We were floating the Watauga River in Tennessee when he told me he was taking the Bahamas trip. Before we dropped the boat in we took a rod out on the grass and I gave him a quick bonefish 101 primer. That way when Brad got out on the flats he knew what to expect and where to start. That’s a big leg up for a trout fisherman. He also asked me about gear and I sent him out with the right stuff including tested and true flies and a line that really performs in the wind. It’s a tough lesson to go all that way to find out your line sucks.

The last mistake my buddy made was not practicing. I know he’s busy, we all are, but standing on a flat in the Bahamas with a nine pound bone headed straight for you is not the time to be working on your line speed drill. That needs to be in the bag before you go. Take that eight weight out in the yard and practice. Salt water fly fishing requires a specific set of skills and it really doesn’t reward mistakes. My buddy Bruce Chard says, “practice makes permanent.” I really like that expression. When you’re casting to the fish of a lifetime, everything needs to be second nature. Practice is the only way to make that happen.

Salt water fly fishing is one of the most challenging pursuits I know but also one of the most rewarding. For me it has been an important part of my evolution as an angler and I’ve been really fortunate to have friends who are as generous with their time and knowledge as they are talented. Without the help of Bruce Chard and Joel Dickey I’d likely still be a flailing idiot on the bow but you don’t have to have friends who guide the salt to have a successful trip and shorten your learning curve. You just need a good plan that includes a good guide and some practice and you can be a successful salt water angler in no time.

The best way to learn is to attend the Gink and Gasoline Bonefish School!


If you are planning your first salt water trip, here are some links to help you prepare.

Better Bonefish Retrieve 

Fighting Big Bonefish

Sealing the deal, landing bonefish

My Favorite Bonefish Reel

11 Tips For Presenting Your Fly To Tarpon

Keep It Clean With A Clearing Cast

When Your Fly Is There, Be Aware

6 Salt Water Fly Patterns You Should Stock

Bruce Chard’s Double Haul Drill


Louis Cahill

Gink & Gasoline
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7 thoughts on “Sunday Classic / How Not To Learn Bonefishing

  1. Another location worth looking at for your first bonefish expedition is Christmas Island. Lots of fish, mostly on sand (some coral). From the east coast US/Canada, a two-day stint to get there, and honestly, it takes the same amount of time from the west coast. Lots of shots, great place to learn! All wade fishing.
    However watch it, I made my one trip, but liked it so much I spent four more weeks there in subsequent years. As a bonus, on the way there (or home) one needs to stop over in Honolulu …… Big bones and some very good guides are there too.
    Hmmmm read this and Andros is sounding pretty attractive too. Bonefish no matter where they are found are pretty cool fish.

    • That’s all about timing. There are some opportunities for tarpon in the Bahamas in the spring and summer. The Keys are a great option too. If you want better tarpon fishing go to the keys. For better bonefishing, go the the Bahamas.

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