Bahamas Bonefishing on a Budget
I spent a few years messing around with the fly rod when I was younger, mainly casting Bett's poppers at bass and bream in the lily pads – nothing too serious.
My real addiction to the fly rod came about 10 years ago when my wife purchased an 8wt TFO fly rod for me. I doubt she knew what she was getting into... Because I’ve been ruined ever since.
Completely enthralled with my new pastime, I soaked up as much information as possible, much of it fueled by saltwater fly fishing magazines.
Although our local Carolina species got some love in those magazines, most of the articles were dedicated to the magnificent three: Tarpon, Permit and Bonefish.
They were the glamour species, and they were etched in at the top of my bucket list.
I’ve been lucky enough to scratch the Silver King off the list a few years ago.
Permit, well… I’ve seen them, cast to a few, and I’m sure I'll eventually catch one and it will be complete dumb luck.
Bonefish, on the other hand, seemed like more of an attainable goal – I just needed to get to them.
There are bonefish in the Florida Keys, but any honest guide will tell you that their numbers dropped significantly a few years ago. There are lots of differing opinions on what caused this drop. Luckily, I’m hearing better reports of bonefish in the Keys lately, so hopefully we’ll see them make a big comeback in the near future.
I realized that to really have a great bonefish experience, I needed to get to the bonefish capital of the world… The Bahamas.
Fast forward several years and I finally decided that there were no more excuses – it was time to scratch the Bonefish/Bahamas goal off of the list. I spent a lot of time researching a DIY vacation for my wife and me in the Bahamas.
After a lot of thought, I settled on doing a trip to Grand Bahama Island.
My goal was to get the best experience possible for the lowest price – two things that don’t often go hand in hand. I started pricing flights to the Bahamas from North Carolina and looked into driving to Fort Lauderdale, Florida and taking a hopper flight over.
Ultimately, I came across a ferry service that runs people from Fort Lauderdale to Freeport Grand Bahama at a really good price.
We rented an apartment off of VRBO and reserved a rental car on the Island. Once everything was set, I jumped into researching DIY bonefishing opportunities and looked into fishing with a local guide for a day.
This trip to the Bahamas helped me realize how attainable it was, even though I had put it off for many years because I thought it was out of my price range.
We returned the following year and now the Bahamas has made it to the top of my list for DIY fishing vacations.
I’m learning more each time I visit, but I’d like to share a few thoughts with anyone who has considered scratching it off their bucket list.
1. Google before you go.
Try to do as much research as possible before you go.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll spend months thinking about your upcoming trip, so you might as well use that time to gain as much info as you can.
Put a Bahamas folder on your computer and drop in any articles, forum links and maps worth saving.
The first decision to make is where you want to go on your DIY trip. There are 700 islands in the Bahamas with 30 of them being inhabited. Each of these islands is unique, so do your research and figure out which one works best for you.
Some are well inhabited with plenty of restaurants and shopping if you want to bring your family. Some are very isolated with only few locals and even less tourists. Some are known for miles of flats covered with bonefish and some are known for swimming beaches and casinos. Some are easy to fly straight into and some require a little more work to access.
All of my trips have been to Grand Bahama Island.
You can easily fly from most airports, or take a ferry from Fort Lauderdale to Freeport. Grand Bahama has a nice mixture of shops and restaurants along with some good DIY fishing spots, so you can keep your family entertained and still slip away to chase bonefish on foot.
Once you’ve chosen your DIY location, you should put some time in researching fishing spots. I’ve spent hours upon hours searching Google, and using the search function on fishing forums to get hints on where people have had luck on their trips. Don’t be afraid to send a private message or two and ask forum members if they’ll throw you a bone and help you with some locations.
One of the first websites you’ll come across is run by a DIY Bonefish expert named Rod Hamilton. If you like the info he shares on his website, you should really consider purchasing his book, "Do It Yourself Bonefishing," as it is packed with DIY spots for most of the Bahamian Islands.
Google Earth is your friend. Look around the beach areas for shallow wadeable flats. I’ve had good luck finding schools of bonefish along sandy beaches and flats on an incoming tide.
Don’t overlook silty mangrove flats, some of my best tailing bonefish were found around mangrove flats on either side of low tide.
Speaking of tides, go ahead and get a copy of the tides for the island you will be visiting. Keep in mind that the tides can vary greatly from spot to spot around the island. Save it to your phone or print out your tide info, along with maps, beach names, street names, etc.
You can forget using your data plan in the Bahamas unless you want a big bill when you get home, so no Googling locations and maps while wading the flats.
2. Pack light, pack right.
Make sure you pack all the essentials and a few backups. I don’t know of any fly shops in the Bahamas, so a broken piece of gear can mean disaster when you are on vacation in another country.
Bring a pair of bonefish rods, either 7 or 8wts and a reel for each rod. My personal preference are TFO’s BVK and Mangrove rods matched up with Allen Fly Fishing Kraken reels, all of which have withstood years of my “guide abuse” at a very affordable price. I’d also recommend carrying a bigger rod, maybe a 10wt, to play with the numerous sharks and barracuda you will see on the flats. Don’t be a bonefish snob, you know you secretly want to catch a big ‘cuda or shark too.
I brought my TFO Esox stick with me on the last trip, as I’ve found that it’s much more than a “Musky rod." It can easily handle landing a variety of big fish and casting the big flies they eat.
Invest in a large multi-rod hard tube that can hold 3-4 rods, so that you don’t have to be hassled with carrying 4 separate rod tubes through the airport.
Make sure you have a backup floating line and some extra leaders and leader tying material.
My current favorite line for everything from tailing redfish to bonefish to tarpon is the Scientific Anglers Mastery Grand Slam series of line. It can handle everything from close shots at reds with big bulky flies to long accurate shots at bonefish with small shrimp patterns. I usually take a spool of 30lb, 25lb, 20lb, 16lb and 12lb mono, along with fluorocarbon in 30lb, 16lb and 12lb.
I’ve had success tying my leaders about 12ft long with 12lb fluorocarbon tippet. If I’m fishing around coral or rocks, or I’m getting broke off, I’ll bump up to 16lb fluorocarbon.
A decent pair of pliers/cutters is also essential.
Carry a good pair of polarized sunglasses in brown, copper, or rose, and I’d really recommend having a backup pair as well. There are a variety of fantastic glasses out there, and I’ve tried several, but I’m a full-on believer in the quality of Smith Optics. My current pair of “can’t live without” shades for sight fishing are the Smith Guide’s Choice frames with the Chromapop Ignitor lenses.
A waist pack or sling pack is useful to stuff all of your gear and a couple frozen Gatorades/waters in.
Bring a good pair of neoprene wading boots even if you only plan on wading sandy areas. I’ve gotten several years out of my Simms neoprene flats boots. The Bahamas may have white sandy beaches, but they are still islands made of rock when it comes down to it. Some of the places I’ve waded, especially the silty bottoms around mangroves are full of sharp rocks. I always carry a second pair of shoes just in case.
If you’ve never been to the tropics, trust me when I say that the sun is harsh, protect yourself accordingly. Bring your t-shirts, board shorts and flip flops but make sure you pack some clothing that offers a little more protection too. My bag is packed with baseball caps, breathable long pants, buffs, and several long sleeve performance fishing shirts from the great folks at Marsh Wear Clothing.
Fly selection is very important, enough so, that I’ll dedicate a separate section to it.
3. Bring the right flies.
Scanning the flats with a Fish-Skull Shrimp & Cray Tail fly at the ready.
The good news is that the bonefish in the Bahamas don’t seem to be nearly as picky about flies compared to a bonefish that makes his residence in Islamorada, Florida. That being said, it’s still crucial to have a good selection of flies with you on your trip.
Basic Bonefish flies like Gotchas and Crazy Charlies work very well. Besides your standard shrimp patterns; spawning shrimp patterns, mantis shrimp patterns and small crab patterns also work great.
Do some internet searches for your particular island and see what patterns are recommended. Take a look at the local Bonefish Lodge websites and see what they recommend.
Tie a handful of different patterns, but more importantly, make sure you have each pattern in multiple colors and weights.
The new Fish-Skull Shrimp & Cray Tails are designed to give your fly the same weight you would expect from a bead chain or small dumbbell, allowing a predictable sink rate.
For example, I usually bring several Gotcha flies tied in a tan/pearl color and also in darker colors like brown/copper.
Shrimp on the flats match the color of their habitat, so you always try to match the fly color to the bottom. You will usually be fishing light colored flies on the sand flats and darker flies on the mangrove flats and backwater areas.
Of each of those colors, I will tie most on a size #4 hook, with a few on size #2 and size #6 hooks. I will also vary the weight by having some tied in small bead chain, medium bead chain and small or medium lead eyes.
Sink rate is very important.
A bonefish in 3 feet of water will likely pass by before a very lightly weighted fly makes it down into his field of view.
Conversely, a bonefish tailing in 6” of water will not be very pleased if you plop down a heavy fly right in front of him.
This summer, I switched out all of my bead chain and lead eyes for the new Fish-Skull Shrimp & Cray Tails in all 3 sizes and they worked great on the Bahamian Bones.
4. See the fish, feed the fish.
As I waded a beach on the south side of Grand Bahama this summer, I was thinking about how easy it was to walk right past fish if you lost focus.
Bonefish are tough to see. Not the ones waving their chrome tails on a mud flat, but the ones pushing along the sand flats or cruising along the edge of the beach.
When you hold a bonefish in your hand, it’s like every single scale is a perfect mirror. With that mirror finish, they become the David Copperfield of the flats as they reflect their surroundings and disappear right into the background.
The first time I walked a bonefish flat, it took me 45 minutes to see my first fish. After that, I saw a fish every 5 minutes or so. I’m pretty sure I passed several bones in that first 45 minutes before I saw the first one.
Once you see what you are looking for, it’s easier to pick them out. Sometimes it’s like looking for a bonefish shaped silhouette that is barely a half shade darker than the bottom they are swimming over. Add that in with a little surface chop or glare and you’ll quickly realize why they have earned the name “The Grey Ghost”.
A quality pair of polarized sunglasses will make it or break it for you when you are trying to locate fish. Those glasses are there to help cut through the surface glare and hopefully add some contrast between the fish and the bottom. That being said, you still have to train your eyes to look for them.
Walking that flat this summer, I realized how easy it is to look at the water, not into the water.
Our eyes seem to want to focus on the ripples and the glare along the surface. Try to force yourself to focus past the surface and into the water column. Once you do this, you should start to have better luck spotting fish.
Expect to not only see fish working in a foot or two of water, but also expect to see them right along the water’s edge inches from dry sand. There have been times when I have had to walk high along the beach and lay most of my cast along the dry sand with just the leader in the water, so as to not spook the fish pushing along the water’s edge.
Expect to see bones traveling in singles, and in groups, anywhere from pairs of fish on up to large schools.
As a redfish guide, it took me a little time and some help from a Bahamian guide before I learned how to adjust my presentation to one that was pleasing to a bonefish.
When you cast to a fish, try to place your fly 5ft or more short of him, off to his side.
A lot of my redfish casts have me casting a few feet in front of the fish and stripping it when he gets within range. A guide explained to me that if you cast in front of the fish, he can see your leader in the clear water as he approaches. If you cast short of him and he turns and comes towards the fly, he will see the fly first and not the leader. I heeded his advice and it made a difference for me.
You also strip your fly a lot less for bonefish than I am used to with redfish. Think of stripping the fly as a way to get the bonefish’s attention, not as a way to induce a strike.
If you make a cast and the fish doesn’t notice it (he’ll usually bolt or approach it as it’s sinking), then give it a small strip or two to get his attention. When he turns and comes to it, stop stripping. A lot of times he will tip up and eat it while it’s sitting still. If he seems to be losing interest, strip it again to convince him that he wants to eat your fly and then wait for him to take it.
Hopefully he’ll eat for you, and if you don’t panic and trout set, you'll be a few seconds away from seeing your backing roll out through the guides.
5. Go with a guide.
Why would I spend all this time talking about DIY bone fishing and then recommend fishing with a guide as the final tip?
Because it’s worth it and it will pay off in dividends.
If you can pony up the cash to spend one day on the water with a guide, not only will you see places and fish you won’t see on foot, but you will also learn a lot about bonefish.
Simeon Higgs from East End Lodge races to the bonefish and permit flats.
A day with a guide will teach you where to look for bonefish, how to see them, proper fly placement and how to feed and land them properly.
I believe a day on a guide’s skiff or wading with a guide will teach you as much as a week of fishing on your own.
If you can line up that guide on the first day of your trip, then you will be a week ahead of the learning curve when you start looking for bones on your own during the rest of your trip.
I have spent a few days on a boat with the guides at East End Lodge on Grand Bahama Island, and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to them for the knowledge they have imparted on me.
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About John Mauser:
Captain John Mauser owns and operates Tailing Tide Guide Service, a fly fishing and light tackle guide service out of Swansboro, North Carolina. He has been fishing the waters of North Carolina for thirty years. John graduated from UNC Wilmington with a degree in Marine Biology and soon started working for the North Carolina Aquariums. John is the program lead for the local Project Healing Waters Program, which rehabilitates disabled military veterans through fly tying and fly fishing activities. Most of the time, John can be found poling his skiff along the inshore waters of the Crystal Coast. His favorite targets are redfish and false albacore…but he also spends time chasing spanish mackerel, bluefish, speckled trout, sharks, and countless other species. During the Spring spawning run, John fishes for Shad, Striped Bass and other species that are found in North Carolina’s Coastal Rivers. John looks forward to sharing his love of the waters along the Carolina Coast with everyone he meets.