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
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.
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
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
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.
Florida Keys Sportfishing Information : Florida Keys Fishing Charters : Florida Keys Flats Fishing : Florida Keys Offshore Fishing : Florida Keys Wreck Fishing :
Florida Keys Reef Fishing : Florida Keys Bonefishing : Florida Keys Tarpon Fishing : Florida Keys Bait & Tackle Shops : Florida Keys Marinas : Florida Keys Boat Rentals :
Florida Keys Fishing Tournaments : Florida Keys Fishing Articles : Upper Florida Keys Fishing : Middle Florida Keys Fishing : Lower Florida Keys Fishing
|More helpful Florida Keys and Key West websites:
www.flkeys-diving.com | www.thefloridakeys-keywest.com | www.flkeysgc.com