Vol 6 No. 32 - May 3, 2006

Stalking bonefish in Islamorada

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 the flat.

Branham’s 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 water’s surface.

There are better places to catch bonefish than "Downtown," "Upper Slobovia," or "Hog Heaven," within site of Islamorada’s 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 easiest.
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. It’s 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 isn’t 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 bottom.

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 doesn’t 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 doesn’t 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 that’s 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 class tippet).

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. That’s 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 phishpeople@aol.com
The Keys: Florida Keys and Key West: www.fla-keys.com

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