Bonefish on lures – the addiction begins

DCIM100GOPRO bonefish soft plastic

If you’d asked me 6 months ago what I knew about bonefish, I could probably tell you about this much:

1) They live in tropical places.

2) They live on vast sandy tidal flats which are impossibly white.

3) Rich white men pay a lot of money to fly to tropical places with vast sandy tidal flats which are impossibly white AND employ local guides to try to catch them with a fly rod.

4) They are tough to catch.

Has any of this changed?

Here in my new home in tropical Hawaii, there are bonefish swimming around the tidal flats.  They aren’t however restricted to vast sandy tidal flats which are impossibly white. Here they forage amongst brownish shallow reefs and along weed edges. Rich white men DO pay a lot of money to come here, employ local guides and catch them with a fly rod BUT thanks to the information black hole which is the internet, it is possible to target them by yourself after doing a little research.  So what started out as an experiment to prove (to myself at least) that it could be done, has become a semi consistent method for catching Hawaiian bonefish with soft plastic lures and spinning gear.  They ARE however still tough to catch!

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Broken reefs, rocks and weeds are prime habitat for Hawaiian bonefish

The reason I know so little about bonefish is mostly due to circumstance. Home for me was, until recently, the southern states of Australia where flats fishing is done for bream, flathead and whiting in tidal estuaries and lakes. The typical quarry over there is 1-3lbs (I’m in the US now, everything is in pounds!).  I soon discovered that the bonefish in Hawaii average 6-8lbs and can grow to 10-15lbs! This massive size difference, despite living in similar habitats, would soon be my undoing, but first I had to find out how to hook one.

Research

When not devoted to cat videos and adult content, the internet can be a very useful resource and so I set about learning as much as I could about catching bonefish in Hawaii and around the world.  Of course there are countless videos from the Go-Pro brigade, where you are expected to watch several minutes of shaky images accompanied by a wind-blown soundtrack of someone reeling in a bonefish. But amongst this carp (sic), there is some really useful information out there, especially from the local Hawaiian fly guides who have videos here and here. But for all the searching I couldn’t find a single video of someone catching a bonefish on a lure, at least not one showing how it was done.

In the written world, I sought out any article that mentioned bonefish and lures, for which I think there is the grand total of 1,2, 3, 4, 5, 6.  Again there are tantalizing little pieces of information on what plastics or jigs might work, but very little information on how to cast or retrieve them.  And for each of these articles on using lures there must be 100 on how to catch them on fly rod or bait. I gleaned what I could from each piece and started to build a picture in my head of how this might unfold. It honestly feels like I’ve been on journey of discovery.  It’s been a lot of fun and landing that first bone on a plastic felt like a massive achievement – OMG this actually worked! And while I’m certainly no expert, I am slowly starting to get a handle on these amazing green torpedoes and how to catch them on soft plastic lures.

Bonefish by-catch comes in all shapes and sizes
Bonefish by-catch comes in all shapes and sizes: Cornet fish
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Bonefish by-catch: Oriental Flying Gurnard
By catch: Bluefin Trevally (Jack)
By catch: Bluefin Trevally (Jack)

 

Locations

Oahu is the only Hawaiian island that has extensive flats to chase bonefish. Basically the entire southern shore line of the island has flats suitable for bonefishing. Oahu is one of the older islands in the Hawaiian chain, so it has had enough time for the rocks and soil to erode and form flats. While I could regurgitate all the information that helped me find the hot spots, I’ll instead direct anyone that is interested to a superb summary here.  The other bonus of the extensive and easily accessible networks of flats is that you don’t need a boat or a kayak, or even a car, to go bonefishing on Oahu. Most of the hot spots are accessible by bus. And if you’re staying in the famous hotels of Waikiki, you might not even need to catch a bus. The Waikiki flats hold bonefish.

After a couple of trips circumnavigating the island I am starting to get an idea of what each of the different flats look like. With this little bit of local knowledge, I am guessing that a disproportionate number of scenes in the aforementioned youtube videos are shot on the flats just to the east of the airport (the mangroves are a dead giveaway) or in Kaneohe bay. Unfortunately both of these require a boat to get to and so remain on my ‘to-do’ list.  If the guides are anything to go by, the trip out to these spots is worth it, with their clients getting multiple chances to cast to feeding bonefish. My focus thus far has been the flats that I can get to without spending all morning on a bus from Honolulu or hiring a kayak. Once I arrive at a spot I just start wading and looking for fish.

Time and tide wait for no man (or woman)

One minute, there are bright white tails sticking out of the water and cruising fish popping up every few minutes, and the next minute they’re gone.  This seems to be the story with bonefish.  They are shy tidal feeders, following the movements of the water with each cycle of the day.   I can highly recommend a tide chart and a note book (or digital equivalent). I’ve found the site here pretty accurate, reliable and user friendly for accurate tide information.  After each trip I recall when I saw fish and what they were doing and compare this against the tide and moon chart.  This is much easier said than done, as I’ll describe in the next section how difficult it can be to spot fish.

As a general rule though, a rising tide seems to be the best time to target bones. The first push of the tide sees a migration from the deeper channels to the edges of the flats and reefs. The next couple of hours they seem to move into the water that was only ankle or knee deep at low tide and that is now waist deep. And then they start moving onto those flats which were completely dry at low tide, cruising the edges at first and then onto the flats themselves as they fill with water searching for food.  Which flats they will move onto and when will vary with the speed of the tidal movement and the size of the tide – which changes every day!

In my experience big spring tides (full or new moon) seem to be harder to fish.  This mimics what some of the guides have written about here. Typically these spring tides go from negative (say -0.3ft) at low tide to the extremes of the high (+2.3ft). It might not seem like a big movement of water, especially since it is expressed in feet, but on the flats a single extra foot of water opens up acres of new foraging ground for bonefish, making the fish skittish and harder to locate … at least thus far.

Bonefish!
My first bonefish!

Sight casting vs blind casting

If there was a perfect way to catch a bonefish, it would probably be something like this: You spot a fish about 20 yards away cruising in shallow water. Its dorsal fin and tail are bright white and sticking up out of the water. From the distance between the two fins you can tell this is a BIG fish. It mooches along and then starts burrowing into the sand to extract a small crab from a hole, waving its tail at you. You calm your adrenaline-filled body just enough to make a perfect cast about 6 feet beyond the feeding fish and slowly tease the imitation back towards it. The fish moves a couple of feet, grabs the hook and takes off for the horizon. Vzzzzzz the reel is screaming. Fish on!

If there was an effective way to catch bonefish in Hawaii however, at least on lures, it would probably be the exact opposite. The trade winds being what they are, it is pretty windy a lot of the time. This chops up the surface of the water and makes it harder to spot fish. Also, the mountains (see volcanoes) tend to drive moist air upwards to form clouds, which sporadically cuts the sunlight and also makes it harder to spot fish. Casting to feeding fish is further complicated by the wind, which has that awful habit of dragging the line away from where you’d originally cast. So while sight casting is definitely achievable, it is much more difficult than blind casting into likely looking water.  Sight casting purists, you’ve been warned!

The most productive areas have broken reef with odd shaped patches of sandy bottom between the raised chunks of reef. It has been blind casting into these small holes that all of the hook ups have come so far.  A ‘hole’ might be 3-10 metres across and have been most productive when the water is thigh to waist deep. My suspicion is that the fish feel more comfortable in the deeper water these holes provide. When they come onto the raised reef platforms you’re back into sight casting territory. Hold your breath, make the perfect cast, hop the lure into their field of vision and hope you haven’t spooked the fish in the process …

Sight casting is a lot more fun, but it is proving to be MUCH more difficult. I’ve managed to interest a couple of fish and even for them to momentarily chase the lure before taking off in the opposite direction at a rapid rate of knots. It’s a shoulder slumping experience each time it happens. Successfully sight casting to a bonefish is still on the bucket list.

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Biggest bonefish so far, perhaps 8 pounds

Lures and jig heads

In Hawaii the most popular flies for bones seem to be prawn and crab imitations in natural brown, green, orange and beige colours. With this in mind, I threw a few likely soft plastic lures into a box before flying over. So far in testing the Squidgy bug 70mm in bloodworm colour and the Z-man crusteaz in 2” gudgen (UV) green colour have both tempted multiple fish.  The most life-like lures, the nipper patterns, have been the most difficult to use, probably because of the way I’ve hidden the jig head, to imitate the way nippers and prawns tend to flee facing backwards.  Having the tow point in the middle means they tend to rock and roll from side to side and much more likely to hook the reef. I’ll revert to putting the jig head through the ‘head’ of the nipper and see how that goes.

Round 1 of bonefish lures
Round 1 of bonefish lures

1/12 and 1/16oz jig heads have been the best suited to the terrain so far (remember it is only ankle to waist deep water) with 1/8oz a possibility to target the deeper channels.  It’s better to stray on the heavier side to make sure you’re regularly making contact with the bottom. The challenge as I’ve discovered is finding jig heads that are relatively light but also strong enough. Back in Australia, a lot of this gear is designed to target bream around oyster racks, snags or pylons. Bream generally grow to 2lbs. Bonefish in Hawaii average 6-8lbs. So the first hookup was a very short lived affair with a Z-man Crusteaz rigged on a weedless 1/16oz worm hook.  The fish sucked up the lure, I set the hook and even with only modest drag pressure the hook quickly had a couple of new interesting bends in it.

Bream hooks are generally not strong enough for bones!
Bream hooks are generally not strong enough for bones!

The reason I chose the worm hook was that it could be fished weedless and thus not hook on to the reef. After this experience, I reverted to a standard jig head, partially because it looked stronger, but mostly because I only had one worm hook in the lure box and it was now bent to buggery! With the standard jig head I would have thought that hooking the reef would be a constant problem. Amazingly enough it isn’t. The reef is mostly flat and doesn’t have too many point bits to catch the hook. That said, the ‘twang’ (drawing the line like a bow and then firing the lure backwards) is a very handy trick to know when it does happen. And when the reef is properly hooked you simply wander over and unhook it.

Squigdy bug
This Squidgy bug 70mm darting across the bottom has caught a few big bones and is not surprisingly, looking a little worse for wear. On the biggest fish the fine gauge hook had straightened slightly and I was lucky to land it.

That said it does become frustrating when you have twanged and retrieved lures from the reef for the 100th time that session so I thought the worm hook warranted some further experimentation. The original just bumped its way over the reef beautifully before it was so brutally mauled by a hungry bonefish. The latest creation is the same Crusteaz soft plastic, but threaded onto a 1/0 worm hook designed for bass fishing. It is a much stronger hook. The hooks I have are unweighted, although I have found some online that are as light as 1/16th oz, but for now I’ve just played around with adding some weight in the form of split shots  …

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Experiment with a 1/0 worm hook, a Z-man Crusteaz and a small split shot to keep the lure near the bottom. The Crusteaz has a groove along the top making it perfect to rig weedless in this way.

Interestingly in the united states, they tend to use jigs. A jig as far as I can tell is basically a heavy fly that can be cast with spinning gear. Jigs don’t really seem to be a ‘thing’ in Australia, but try typing ‘Bass jig’ into google and you’ll see just how popular they are here. More to the point skimmer jigs which often copy the best fly patterns can be used for bonefish. Maybe I’ll give one a go – when in Rome …

The worm hook experiment was a success and incredibly snag resistant
The worm hook experiment was a success and incredibly snag resistant, even if a little untidy once it has been inhaled.

Retrieve

Imitating the retrieve from one of the local fly guides in his video here, I’ve settled on an ultra slow technique.  Flicking the rod tip up just a few inches and then slowly cranking one turn of the handle. Then a double flick. Wind. Back to a single flick. Wind. The lure is only being moved every 3-4 seconds and even then only a few inches across the bottom. Remember the aim here is to imitate a little crab or prawn that is flitting or scurrying across the bottom and then trying to nestle back into the sand or reef. I guess bonefish are foragers more than hunters so keep things fairly slow.

The next big discovery happened quite by accident (as they so often do). I paused mid retrieve to have a look at my watch to see where the tide was up to.  Was that a bump on the lure? I gave it a little twitch and let it sit again. After a short pause, there was another bite and this time I set the hook on a solid fish. From then on, I always incorporate a pause into the retrieve after a dozen hops across the bottom. It only needs to be a moment, but half of all the bites and hookups have come on a pause. On reflection the lure is probably ‘swimming’ up for a second or two, then falling for a second or two, so with the standard retrieve (ie no pauses) the lure is virtually never stationary.

DCIM100GOPRO
Rich man’s carp? I was surprised to learn that bonefish have a very similar mouth shape and rubbery lips like a carp. They are both ‘bottom-feeders’.

Gear

The first run from a bonefish is blistering! Watching the neatly wrapped coils of line disappear off the reel it is only natural to wonder if the fish is going to stop. But even on fairly light drag pressure, they do stop and you can start to gain back some line. Inevitably there is a second run, which is less spirited than the first, then they give up and seem to be fairly docile.

I’ve had a ball on a 2-4kg 6”6’ spinning stick with a 2500 sized reel.  6lb braid seems to be fine with a 15lb leader. I’ve yet to put any nicks or scratches in the leader after a few sessions, so 10-12lb should be plenty and might offer a more natural presentation.  I’ve got 125 yards of braid top-shotted over mono and so far have ‘only’ lost perhaps 50-70% of the braid on that first run. The caveat is that the flats I’m fishing don’t have much of a change in topography or any real structure to cut the line. From what I understand other parts of the island have perched ‘pancake’ flats and if a bonefish makes it over the edge the angle of the line is likely to come in contact with the edge of the reef.  You can put a lot of pressure on 6lb braid before it will break, so my advice would be to crank up the drag and put the brakes on any bigger fish as required.  The temptation might be to use bigger or stiffer rods, but it may be prohibitive to cast these very lightly weighted lures in this case.  For now this light gear is doing just fine. Ask me again if I’m lucky enough to hook a fish over 10lbs – I’ve spotted a couple that would be in this size class!

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Bonefish – called O’io in Hawaiian

Catch and release

As their name suggests, bonefish are full of bones, and are not considered good eating when prepared using traditional western methods (eg filleted). Accordingly guides and fly anglers tend to be exclusively catch and release, treasuring these fish as a sports fish. So far I have followed suit, although I am intrigued by a Hawaiian method for removing the flesh from the bones with a spoon. They often need to be swum for a couple minutes prior to release to regain their energy. Given the reverence for these fish it surprised me when I saw one of the guides using lip-grips to hold a fish his client had caught. Hamish has written about how much damage these poorly designed devices can do to fish, particularly bonefish here, so I would leave the grips at home. A wet glove works quite well if you are by yourself and only have one hand free, otherwise they are free of spikes and readily grasped with excited hands.

A hard earned thirst needs a big cold beer

At either end of the Oahu flats are Diamond head and Koko head volcanoes. So after a hard day of fishing for bones, wading around and being buffeted by the sun and wind, you can enjoy the view one more time from the comfort of home as you enjoy one of the local brews named after this famous landmark.

Cheers!

IMG_4480 Koko brown Kona beer

 

 

flickandflyjournal.com

Hamish Webb, Dan Firth, Graham Fifield and Lee Georgeson have been fishing the south-east Australian region since 1987. Since then they’ve become avid sportfishermen who are constantly looking for new ways to challenge themselves. They are all scientists and conservationists who are passionate about the long-term sustainability of the ecosystem in which they live. They promote understanding and appreciation of the complex socio-political, economic and environmental issues surrounding fish, fishing and fisheries, while never losing sight of the various motivations that keep them coming back. In English, that means they love all things fishing and have a damn good time on the water, and that’s all that really counts in the end!

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