Vol 6 No. 31 - April 26, 2006
Stalking bonefish in Islamorada
SUN PHOTO/RUSTY CHINNIS
Captain Bob Branham and Andy Mill share their strategy
for catching bonefish.
By Rusty Chinnis
sun staff writer
The morning sun broke free of the horizon an explosion
of light, framed by an ominous line of black clouds. The
shallow flat mirrored the clouds, broken only by a line
of fluorescent green mangrove shoots trailing off to the
backcountry. Two pairs of eyes had been staring holes
in the horizon for a solid hour before the first sign
of life appeared at the edges of the flat.
Captain Bob Branham was the first to notice a slight disturbance
from his perch on the poling platform. The bonefish materialized,
barely a ripple, moving almost imperceptibly where the
water in the channel met the turtle grass-festooned flat.
Suddenly the ripple morphed into muscular mounds of water
as six massive fish found a wheel ditch and moved onto
Branhams awareness telegraphed almost imperceptibly
to Andy Mill, standing soldier-stiff on the bow. Lifting
his fly rod, Mill made a false cast and landed the "Quan"
fly three feet in front of the advancing herd. Waiting
a split second for the bonefish to arrive in the strike
zone, Mill started a quick hop-hop-stop strip, imitating
the action of a shrimp. The lead fish broke from the pack
and rushed to inspect the fly. In a split second it spooked
and took the rest of the bones off the flat leaving a
half dozen boils on the waters surface.
There are better places to catch bonefish than "Downtown,"
"Upper Slobovia," or "Hog Heaven,"
within site of Islamoradas World Wide Sportsman,
but no better place to catch a tournament winner. I had
been invited to accompany Mill and Branham and photograph
the 9th Annual George Bush/Cheeca Lodge Bonefish Tournament.
I used the time to learn from two of the best in the business
about the habits and intricacies of hunting big bonefish.
There are few fish harder to catch than a big bone, and
this is one of the reasons that Mill, a former Olympic
athlete, loves to fish for them. He and Branham have posted
some impressive wins over the years, including being three-time
winners of the Presidential Bonefish Tournament.
Branham targets bonefish based on a mix of weather conditions,
temperature, time of day and intuition. Bonefish spend
their lives in deeper water, coming up on the flats to
feed. During these feeding forays they can be stalked
in an up close and personal way. Sighting them on the
clear shallows when the conditions permit is perhaps the
One of the reason bonefish are so sought after by fly
anglers is the fact that they "tail" and "mud",
both feeding activities. When pursuing prey, (small crabs
& shrimp) they will often bury their heads in the
grass. In the process their tails protrude above the surface.
Few sights are as electrifying to an angler as a dozen
silver tails waving in the sunlight. "Tailing"
bonefish are as challenging as they are exhilarating,
tracking an uneven and seemingly random path across the
flat. They are the easiest to see, but the shallow water
makes them extremely wary. They often approach the fly
aggressively but then change their mind and flee the scene.
On higher tides and in cooler water they can be found
by the "muds" they create during the feeding
process. The Keys are covered with flats created from
the remnants of ancient coral reefs. Over millions of
years the reefs have been eroded and their sediment, easily
disturbed, sends up plumes of dust that suspend in the
water column. Feeding bonefish actually inhale sediment
and prey, expelling the mud through their gills.
Muds created by bonefish speak volumes to an experienced
guide like Branham. He has studied these signs and made
an art form of tracking feeding bonefish. The size of
the cloud can reveal the size of an individual fish or
a school. It tells him how close fish are feeding, how
aggressively and how long ago they created the disturbance.
By tracking the direction and speed of the mud, the path
of feeding fish can be determined. This allows the guide
to anticipate a point at which to position the angler
for a cast. Mudding fish feed more aggressively and are
much less likely to spook. They are also harder to see
and move much faster than tailing fish. To be effective,
you need better light and must be able to pole faster
to set up your shots.
Even more obscure signs can tell Branham how to approach
the fish and what fly to use. When a feeding sting ray
plows across the flat, bonefish will sometimes follow,
waiting for prey to be flushed from the grass and mud.
Other signs on the flat that point to bonefish activity
are the presence of sharks, stingrays and other predators.
Branham matches his tactics with the conditions he finds.
Early in the morning or on cloudy days he tries to find
fish in shallow water where they will tail or push water
(make a wake as they move). If it is calm or later in
the day he prefers deeper flats where they will be mudding
and less spooky. On very hot or cold days also he looks
for deeper water with plenty of current as this moderates
the water temperature.
Once a pattern has been determined, Branham and Mill decide
on the appropriate fly. Fly selection depends on a number
of factors including water temperature, visibility, signs
of food, time of day and tide. Its a multi-dimensional
decision based on an ever-changing environment.
According to Branham and Mill, the important things to
remember are size, sink rate, color, and weedlessness.
In shallow grassy areas you must have a weed guard since
you will be working the fly slowly through the grass.
When fishing for mudding bonefish a weed guard isnt
necessary if the fly rides hook-up.
Weight is important to get the fly down to the fish. The
amount of weight is determined by the depth of the water
and the strength of the current. When choosing color,
Branham and Mill start with a brown or tan fly. If the
bonefish refuse those colors they try yellow or some other
bright fly. In low light or cold weather pink has proven
effective. A light colored or white fly is best over light
The largest bonefish in the Keys inhabit the waters between
Key Biscayne and Lower Matacumbe. They feed on the flats
on the Gulf side, and the shallow edges of the Atlantic
Ocean. These big bones have been around and seen lots
of flies. They are wary of a presentation that looks unnatural,
and doesnt act like their prey.
The retrieve is of utmost importance. Mill attempts to
match the speed of the fly to the fish. Tailers move slowly,
so the fly should move slowly. Mudding fish move faster
so Mill uses faster strips. Bonefish should not have too
long to inspect the fly and it must look natural the first
time they see it.
Branham and Mill have found that dropping the fly in front
of the fish and then surprising them spooks them. When
bonefish spot the fly, it should be moving away from them.
The key is to keep it away, but allow them to catch it,
increasing the strip as they approach. A straight down
current shot is always best as it provides a presentation
with no swing.
On an overcast day when the wind is blowing, the travel
of the fly and the noise it makes hitting the water will
be masked by the elements. Under these conditions the
fly can be placed practically on top of a fish. When the
water and sky are clear and calm the utmost stealth must
be employed. This means long casts with light flies, long
leads and very soft entries.
More than one cast is often required to get in the "strike"
zone and many anglers spook bonefish by ripping the fly
line from the water for another cast. The line should
be carefully lifted from the water to the leader before
making another cast. It is also important to have control
of the line in the air and as it hits the water. Never
let the fly line leave your left hand (right handed casters)
as it shoots towards the target. You can pin point the
cast by clamping down on the line and then be ready to
impart immediate action to the fly. A fly that doesnt
look natural will generally spook fish, but at best they
will lose interest.
Bonefish are typically not leader shy, but they are easily
spooked by fly line. Very light tippet is not required,
but leaders should be as long as possible. Mill varies
his leader according to weather conditions and the clarity
of the water.
During low light a 10-foot leader will suffice, but on
clear days up to a 14-foot leader is required. Most bonefish
rods are from 8-10 weight. For a leader to turn over properly
for a good presentation it must be carefully constructed.
Mill starts with a 50# butt section tied to the fly line
with a nail knot. The key to a leader that "turns
over" properly is a butt section thats 50 percent
of the final length. His leaders are tied with progressively
lighter sections of line. The class tippet must be at
least 15 inches (measured inside connecting knots) to
conform to IGFA standards, and the bite tippet must be
at least 12 inches (measured from hook eye to single strand
When bone fishing, the bite tippet is generally the class
tippet, so Mill uses a 24-inch length of 12-pound Ande
so he can change flies without re-rigging. He builds his
leaders with improved blood knots and uses a loop knot
to attach the fly.
Fishing for bonefish in general can be daunting; chasing
"Downtown bones" adds a whole new level of complexity.
Make the right cast with the right fly, know how to work
it, have a little luck and the rewards are great. Thats
the name of the game in "Upper Slobovia."
Lodging: The Cheeca Lodge: www.cheeca.com 305-664-4651.
Guides: Captain Bob Branham: 954-370-1999 firstname.lastname@example.org
The Keys: Florida Keys and Key West: www.fla-keys.com
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