Bonefish Fishing: In Pursuit of the Legendary Ghost
They are legendary in the Florida Keys. The “ghost of the flats”, the “gray ghost” or bonefish, has certainly seen its gamefish value rise in the last 25 years to become one of the most prized of species, pursued by saltwater fly anglers from all over the world. In bygone years, the only attention paid by anglers to these incredible saltwater fish was by big game fishermen who caught them for use as bait for marlin fishing. Talk about missed opportunities!
Today, these incredibly elusive fish are considered to be among the world’s premier fly game fish and are highly sought after. In Florida, they are under conservation watch and fishing for them is strictly a catch and release activity. Bonefish recreational fishing is also very important to Florida’s economy.
An ongoing study by the University of Miami started in 2003 to track the Keys’ bonefish population pegged their annual economic contribution to the state at $1 billion. That comes out to roughly $3500 per bonefish. Factor in that these fish live about 20 years (conservative estimate) and do the math – that works out to about $75,000 per fish over the course of its life). From a dollars and cents standpoint alone, these are some of the most valuable sport fish on the planet. And this is based on a bonefish population that has declined some 90% since the 1940s, by some estimations.
The albula vulpes (literally means “white fox”, alluding the fish’s silvery color and cunning nature), which is the Latin genus-species name of these bony fish, are primarily caught for sport and are not commonly eaten. As their name implies, they are quite boney and, even if they were legal to take home, I would not. Preparing and eating them would be a chore in itself, and they are far more valuable as sportfish. Having said that, they are eaten, however, in Hawaii where they tend to also be much bigger than their Atlantic cousins.
The bonefish, also known as the “phantom” or “gray ghost”, a moniker it sometimes shares with another Florida flats legend, the permit fish, for good reason. Not only is it considered by many to be pound for pound the strongest and speediest moving fish of any saltwater species, but it is also one of the hardest fish to catch… here one second, gone the next… hence, the ghost.
Bonefish Fishing Locations
Bonefish fishing is pretty much a shallow-water sport done in depths as low as a foot of water. They are found in warm seas worldwide and primarily inhabit shallow sand and grass flats of warm tropical waters, but also spend a good amount of their lives in deeper water. A highly sought after fish for anglers fishing the Florida Keys, as previously noted, the bonefish also provides exciting angling opportunities for the fly fisherman and flats sight-fisherman alike off both coasts of Africa, along the coastal waters of the Hawaiian Islands, Mexico, Belize, the Bahamas and as far south as Brazil along the Atlantic.
They are usually found together in large schools as juveniles, sometimes in groups over 100, in shallow coastal areas, in the flats, along mangroves and also in deep waters, particularly when speaking of big bonefish or during their spawning season between November and May.
Bonefish Fishing Techniques
Fly fishing for bonefish is the most commonly practiced method for chasing these hard fighting fish. On the flats of the Florida Keys, sight-fishing for them is the preferred approach for many anglers. Though most flats fishing is done by fly fishing, there are also several productive ways to spin fish for bonefish as well, using live bait such as shrimp or crab.
“Flats boats” without motors are propelled by a method called “poling” where the boat is pushed along using a long pole, usually with a forked end. This is preferred over standard fishing boats on the flats because their shallow and stealth design allows the angler to get closer when in pursuit of these very keen and elusive fish in sometimes less than a foot of water.
Bonefish Fishing Seasons
Bonefish like warm water in the 70 degrees-plus range and but be found in The Florida Keys and other places year-round. However, March to October is prime bonefish season in the Keys. They average 4 to 6 pounds but it’s not uncommon to catch specimens as big as 12 pounds.
The Upper Keys is more productive during the fall/winter. The early spring and fall seasons have been known to produce some really big catches. The Florida state record for the species is a 16-pound, 3-ounce fish caught off Islamorada.
Fishing for bonefish can provide any angler with a serious and memorable fight. Whether you enjoy wading the shallows of isolated flats or searching for cruising fish from the casting deck of a customized flats skiff, versatility is the key to success with this unique fish. If you are new to this type of fishing, we recommend a bonefish guide or charter service, as this may be your best bet for finding and catching this wily fox of the flats.
On light tackle or fly fishing gear, bonefish are certainly a worthy adversary. Patience and persistence are key when chasing these very elusive fish. And, of course, always practice catch and release to help in the conservation of these beautiful and legendary fish.