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Newcomers to saltwater fly fishing most often select the

bonefish as their first quarry.  The reasons start with

the availability; there are far more places where

bonefish are readily found than other saltwater trophy

species.  The rods, reels, and lines used closely resemble

stout trout fly fishing equipment, making the transition

from fresh to saltwater inexpensive and familiar.  And,

bonefish are plentiful so the action tends to be faster

than pursuing tarpon or permit.

The bonefish provides a memorable first impression

and target.  The excitement of hunting and sight-casting

on shallow saltwater flats becomes readily apparent as

an angle learns how to spot fish in the “skinny water”

The speed and power of the fish, given its relatively small
size, provides a genuine thrill. Even a two or three pound

bonefish can penetrate deep into the backing on its first run.

Bonefish are primarily a coastal species which inhabit warm,

temperate waters. While they may be found in North America

as far north as New York in the east and San Francisco in the

west, it’s the tropical climates where they are pursued. The most popular destinations where they are sought include the Bahamas (where bonefishing with a fly was first developed), Florida Keys, Seychelles, Los Roques, South Pacific and in many waters throughout the Caribbean.

Bonefish prefer intertidal flats and mangrove lined shores, and usually do not stray too far from deeper cover such as a channel.  They can be found on sand, grass and coral flats, and amongst the mangroves.  On an incoming tide, bonefish swim onto the flats to feed.  They may be found in large schools of over 100 fish, or often as individuals, especially when the specimen is a larger fish.  As the tide falls, the fish will usually leave the flats for the protection of deeper water.

Bonefish are notoriously skittish when foraging for food on the flats. The mere shadow of a fly line crossing over a single fish can often cause the whole school to panic, sending the fish back into an adjoining channel and the angler off to look for another flat. Ideally the angler will find the fish tailing, which occurs when the bonefish uses its conical snout to rummage through the grass or sand in search of prey, such as crabs, shrimp, worms and fish.  When its nose is down, the tailfin emerges from the water as the fish tries to leverage itself while foraging.  When tailing, bonefish are most easily approached as they are preoccupied with eating.  The angler can often delicately place a fly within inches of the fish and have a decent possibility of a hook-up.  If a bonefish is not tailing, they can be remarkably difficult to see, as their bluish-green back blends in easily with the surrounding environment. Because of this ability, they are commonly known by such names as the “gray ghost” or the “ghost of the flats.”  If water is more than a few feet deep, they are virtually impossible to see, and the angler must look for a “mud” created by feeding bonefish stirring the bottom.

The body of a bonefish is built for life on the flats.  The mouth is full of granular teeth, which cover the tongue and upper jaw and they have grinders in the throat, which make for easy processing of shellfish and crustaceans.  Their blue-green backs enable them to blend in with their surroundings, even in water only inches deep.  The body is sleek, round, compressed and built for speed, whether it is trying to break free from a hook-up or evading a barracuda.

A bonefish attains sexual maturity at the age of two.  They can spawn year-round, although the primary months are recognized as November through June.  Spawning usually occurs in deeper water, not on the flats.  During the larval stage, bonefish are actually shaped like an eel and most of the fins are absent.  The fish then goes through a metamorphosis, and the entire body shrinks to roughly half its initial size.  Eventually the fins and scales develop, and once it attains a few centimeters in length it enters the fry stage.  Juvenile bonefish have a series of dark bands that cross the back and run to the lateral line. As the fish matures, these bands eventually fade and are replaced by longitudinal streaks of a similar dark shade.  Bonefish can achieve weights in the double digit range, with the current fly-caught world record being over fifteen pounds.

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Don Muelrath
Fly Fishing Adventures

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