It used to be that Key Largo and Islamorada were the hot spots in the Keys, but over the last ten years, the Lower Keys and Key West have been the place to consistently catch them. Whatever area you fish, you want to have favorable conditions which are a good incoming tide with a lot of current. Keep in mind that in the Keys there’s a different body of water on either side of every island, so there’s an incoming tide from the Atlantic and an incoming tide from the Gulf of Mexico, and a lot of times they differ so that you can fish the incoming tide on the Atlantic side and then run into the backcountry on the Gulf side and fish the incoming tide there.
On the incoming tide, the bonefish come out of the channels and up onto the flats to feed. As the water levels rise, the fish push up shallow to take advantage of the shrimp, crabs and worms that are exposed with the incoming water.
The key to bonefishing is in the water level—too much water and you can’t see them or they’re in the mangroves, and too little water and they can’t get up onto the flat. What you want is 8 to 15 inches of water on top of the flat. Tide is critical and the windows are small, so you want to time your bonefishing to stay the most amount of time in that perfect level of water.
Sometimes in the middle of the day when the tide is high, you’ll find bonefish mudding in three to five feet of water. It’s not your traditional dark looking mud, it’s more of a dusty, off-color to the water. If you see that discoloring of the real clear water, you want to stop and either blind cast or look for fish.
Remember that when you’re dealing with current, it’s like a conveyor belt, so the mud you’re seeing is actually behind the fish. Bonefish feed into the current, so if you’re looking at a mud, you’re looking at something that had already happened. You want to look ahead of it to see the fish.
Good baits are a small 1/8-ounce brown jig, a live shrimp or a quarter-sized blue crab. If you’re going to use the shrimp or crab, you’ll want a 1/0 hook. You can break the tail off the shrimp and thread the hook through the tail, and then back into the body of the bait to make it weedless. If you’re using a crab, you want to hook it in the corner of the shell, and then break off the other corner to add scent to the water. You can also break off the claws and some of the legs so the crab can’t burrow into the sand and hide.
I fish them on seven to right foot 10 pound spinning rods with a 4000 size reel and 10 pound monofilament line. You want to have a reel that holds at least 200 yards of line. If you use braided line, you want to use a monofilament leader, because bonefish have excellent eyesight. I like the eight foot rods when there’s a lot of small mangrove shoots in the water, because it gives you a little extra height when you need to get around them.
You don’t want to cast directly onto the fish. Cast ahead of them 15 to 20 feet and let them swim up to your lure or bait. Bonefish have an outstanding sense of smell, and they’ll come from 10 feet or more to find that shrimp or crab.
The average bonefish in the Keys these days is four to five pounds, with a 10 pounder a big fish and anything larger a jumbo. When someone hooks up on a bonefish, that’s the time to get the camera out and get ready for when you get it to the boat, so that you can grab the fish, take a picture and get it back into the water quickly. You want to handle the fish as little as possible and release it so they live to repopulate the species and fight again another day.