All About Florida Keys Fishing & Key West Fishing

    Florida Bonefish

    By Mike Conner, Editor

    February at its coldest and snottiest means South Florida flats anglers can only dream
    about bonefish. But those dreams become reality if March comes in, as they say, like a

    Veteran bonefishers know that March means monsters, those 10- to 13-pounders taken
    regularly in the spring from Miami’s Biscayne Bay to the Middle Keys. And a preview may be
    in the offing in late February, given a stint of mild weather.

    A fellow bonefisher I used to fish with called big bonefish jolly green giants. I’m constantly
    reminded of spring giants while sitting in my office. On one wall, at the edge of my sight-
    fishing periphery, is a photo of a corpulent Biscayne Bay beauty I caught on an early March
    day. My biggest bone on fly to date, it measured just under 33 inches, hit 13 pounds on a
    hand scale, and in the lower corner under the glass is the fly that did the trick—a No. 2
    Snapping Shrimp. The brown bear hair wing still has a smudge of bonefish slime. Gives it
    a touch of character.

    That fish was all the more satisfying because it was the only tailing fish I spotted and cast
    to that day; I wisely bailed out of the boat to get within casting distance of the fish as it
    scraped along on its belly in ankle-deep water. As I typically do in March, I hit the water
    around midmorning, planning to fish through the afternoon flood tide. I ran from Biscayne
    Bay to the oceanside of north Key Largo to get in the lee of a 15-knot, southwest wind. A big
    low tide was forecast at midday, and when I arrived, much of the shoreline flat was already
    dry. Mudding fish, typically the best bet in March, would be the order of the day, with perhaps
    a chance at shallower sight fishing once the flood tide got cranking.

    I was poling my dad, and we had shots at a few groups of “black footballs” in the 3-foot
    depths that beared down on us at what seemed like 10 knots-plus. They swam just under
    the surface and so pushed a big “bow wake” that allowed me to spot them well over 200
    feet away. Plenty of time to get the skiff in position for a head-on presentation. Or, plenty of
    time to get worked up and choke! They never slowed, or even changed direction. In fact, one
    bunch parted like the Red Sea around Dad’s shrimp-tipped skimmer jig, and then repeated
    the performance as they swam under our hull. They knew we were there, and they did not
    care. Like those frustrating bonefish that steam up and down the oceanside in December
    and January, the fish were not in feeding mode. This is often the case around slack tide,
    but once the flood tide started in that afternoon, pairs and small groups of big fish moved
    into a couple feet and rooted the bottom aggressively, raising single muds that stood out
    well in the bright sunshine.

    Dad and I landed four fish out of about a dozen legit shots. All were ravenous, mudding fish
    in the 29- to 31-inch class that inhaled our brown, shrimp-tipped skimmer jigs over soft,
    mixed marl-and-grass bottom just shoreward of “sea fan country” in about three feet of

    Two of those hooked fish required us to follow and motor from sea fan to sea fan to un-
    snag our 10-pound spinning lines. There is nothing quite like the stamina of big bonefish
    in February and March, when water temps range between the low 60s to low 70s,
    depending on cold front frequency and severity.

    A mild winter will really set the stage for great fishing, because water temps will not be so
    low to start with. But big bonefish don’t need much prodding—they’ll show at the edges of
    oceanside flats as soon as the water temp exceeds the mid 60s, and same goes for
    shallow basins and banks in the Keys backcountry. However, most anglers agree that
    more willing feeders can be found as water temps exceed the 70-degree mark.

    Throughout winter, and even on those frigid January or early February days, it is not
    unusual to come upon big masses of big bones speeding along the oceanside from Key
    Biscayne south. Some bonefishers think they are coming out of the deep refuge of Miami’s
    Government Cut, where they join tarpon, permit, snook, snapper and others to feast on the
    shrimp runs. And others are convinced they are just in from deeper patch reefs or wherever
    else bonefish go when the winter flats are mainly a barracuda stronghold. I’ve always
    wondered whether the big flats cudas have anything to do with the lack of bones in extreme
    shallows. Whatever the case, these bones push along at flank speed, and are not exactly
    ravenous when it comes to flies, jigs or even live shrimp and crabs. If it’s lovin’ on their
    minds, well, no surprise there. By March, they are back on the flats for the spring warm-up
    and all is well again.

    The good news is that late-winter and spring conditions can be your ally. You may luck into
    a flat-calm warm period for a day or two, but blustery conditions will rule, and afford you
    some cover, so to speak. A choppy surface “fogs” the otherwise clear window pane that
    allows wary bonefish to detect your skiff or your profile while wading. When steady winds
    set up, and they will in March, bonefish become more aggressive. They push along and
    vigorously plow the bottom, mudding with abandon, just off the shallowest crowns of flats in
    two to three feet.

    South Florida bonefish are the wariest on Earth, and the real giants are especially so. To
    increase your odds of seeing them, getting close enough for a cast, and closing the deal,
    you will need to raise your game. The bottom line is trophy bones are nothing like those
    little guys you catch in The Bahamas, or even the generally 5- to 7-pound bonefish that raid
    the skinniest Florida flats in summer. Don’t bypass the deeper waters to pole the skinniest
    crowns of flats—you may miss the show altogether. SWA

    Land of the Giants

    Long shorelines such as those of upper Key Largo, Upper and Lower
    Tavernier and Biscayne Bay’s Elliott Key, have shallow grasses up
    tight, and a distinct edge that drops off a couple of feet. Though big
    fish do pop up and tail in a foot or less, the majority of spring giants
    are taken in this deeper water. And it’s wise to concentrate on the
    portions of oceanside flats abutting channels that lead from the
    ocean to Biscayne Bay, or, in the Keys, into Florida Bay.

    “Toothpick” flats, those long, narrow flats running parallel to channels
    are home to big bonefish in the spring. Singles, pairs and small
    groups of three to five fish make short forays onto such edges during
    a particular phase of the tide, and then return to the depths when
    ready, or of course, when alarmed.

    You’ll find such flats in the Stiltsville region of Biscayne Bay, running
    east to west, with deep water on both sides. Tide flow is strong over
    these flats, particularly during new and full moons, and sometimes i
    t’s best to pole onto them, and stay put temporarily to let fish come to
    you. During the peak of a tide phase, stake out and chum with fresh
    shrimp, either diced and broadcast over the bottom, or stuffed in a
    chum tube.

    Big stingrays return to the flats in spring, and when they burrow while
    feeding, they raise big muds that can be spotted for quite a distance.
    You will find the most carefree bones of all in this situation. Also,
    watch for mudding nurse sharks—they too attract huge bones.

    The Food

    Top baits for big bones include blue crabs (about 1 to 11⁄2 inches in diameter) and shrimp.
    “Bonefish” crabs can be bought at many bait shops in South Florida and the Keys, and
    should be hooked through the corner of the carapace to keep them alive and swimming.
    When live crabs are hard to come by, some bonefishers turn to the smallest, scented
    artificial crabs such as Berkley Gulp!.

    Choose between a Texas-rigged shrimp (weedless for fishing over grass), a tail-hooked
    shrimp (great for casting distance once the tail fluke is removed) and a “horn-hooked”
    shrimp. Plan to add a splitshot or two to get the bait down more quickly in water over two
    feet deep.

    For my money, it’s tough to beat a skimmer jig tipped with fresh shrimp. A 1⁄8-ounce jig will
    suffice for one to three feet of water, though a 1⁄4- or 3⁄8-ouncer is better for casting long
    distances, particularly into a stiff wind. Be sure to keep the shrimp tip small (no bigger than
    your thumbnail) and be sure to remove the tail fluke to ensure the jig does not spin in the
    water. It’s always a good idea to match jig color to the bottom. White, tan or brown are
    commonly used. However, some days a pink or even a chartreuse jig can be the ticket.
    Keep flash to a minimum; big bonefish sometimes flare off a jig with too much “tinsel,”
    particularly on sunny days, and many bonefishers (me included) avoid flash altogether. You
    will need to lead a bonefish when casting a jig. The distance depends on the water depth
    and forward speed of the fish. When bones are mudding, you can tuck it in a little closer,
    and normally fish will pounce on the lure as it sinks. Otherwise, little hops along the bottom
    do the trick.

    Bonefish fly patterns run the gamut, but a good general selection for big fish should include
    crab flies such as Borski’s Critter Crab, Del’s Merkin, the Tasty Toad and similar crab
    patterns, and also beefy shrimp patterns tied on No. 2 and even No. 1 hooks. Big bonefish
    love to eat small baitfish too, most notably gobies and blennies, and the Borski Bonefish
    Slider and Dorsy’s Kwan (with their barred wings), are good imitations, as is Lenny’s
    Blenny, created by Keys guide Lenny Moffo. Most importantly, the flies should be tied with
    sufficient weight (lead dumbbell eyes or lead wire along the hook shank) to sink quickly.
    Big bonefish typically strike a fly zooming for the bottom, and rarely take something hovering
    in the middle water column. When fishing fast-sinking flies always use fluorocarbon
    leaders; they sink faster than those made of monofilament.

    It may strike you as overly cautious, but I believe that getting some mud or sand on the fly
    just before casting makes the fly smell just like the bottom that the real critter is burrowing
    in. At the least, it may help mask human scent or anything else on your hand that may tip off
    a bonefish.

    The Tackle

    Common sense says big bonefish call for top quality tackle. Spinning rods in the 8- to 10-
    pound class are ideal, matched to reels with smooth drags that can hold 175 yards of line
    minimum. A 71⁄2-foot rod is ideal, and some like an 8-footer for longer casts with light-
    weight baits and lures. Choose a fast-retrieve spin reel; a big bonefish can sprint back to
    you at flank speed. Monofilament has fallen out of favor with some bonefishers who like
    braid for longer casts, and unsurpassed durability when hooked fish run through sea fans
    and sea feathers, or get into debris or “crunchy bottom” during long runs. If you prefer
    mono, avoid the 6-pound stuff; 10-pound will not abrade as quickly. Just use a big enough
    spinning reel to spool a sufficient amount of the heavier mono.

    Gelspun braid in the 8- to 20-pound-test class is fine for bonefishing. Keep in mind that the
    thinner the braid, the more likely it will tangle (see Gearbag in this issue for tips on
    handling braid.) With braid, you’ll need a mono or fluorocarbon leader testing between 10
    and 20 pounds. Make your choice after considering the terrain where you fish.

    Fly fishers should always consider the size of their flies and wind conditions before
    choosing a rod. Big bonefish like big flies and you’ll often be casting in deeper water where
    weighted flies are a must. For that reason, a 9-weight is your bread-and-butter rod, with an
    8-weight on the light side. Most casters deal with spring winds better with a 9-weight. Your
    reel should hold 200 yards of backing as a rule.

Upper Keys Fishing
Marine Fisheries News
On this site, you'll learn about Florida Keys
Fishing, Florida Keys Fish, Florida Keys Fishing
Charters, Dolphin Fishing, Swordfishing, Florida
Keys Fishing Guides, Florida Keys Offshore
Fishing, Florida Keys Deep Sea Fishing, Florida
Keys Flats Fishing, Florida Keys Back Country
Fishing,  Tarpon Fishing, Bonefishing, Florida
Keys Fly Fishing, Reef Fishing, Wreck Fishing,
Bridge Fishing, Deep Drop Fishing, Lobstering in
the Florida Keys, Stone Crabbing, Shrimping,
Spearfishing, Fishing Regulations and much more!
More helpful Florida Keys and Key West websites: | |
All About Florida Keys Fishing and Key West Fishing