Game of bones

Tips for average the Canuck angler with dreams of landing a grey ghost

Do you dream of fighting the fabled bonefish on the fly? In the tropical paradise of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, it’s easier than you might think

At 8:30 a.m. on my second-ever day of flats fly fishing in the Caribbean, I’m already so hot my shins are sweating. Yesterday, the weather here, near the Mayan village of Xcalak at the southern tip of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, was as unsettled as my intestines. I’d spent the morning laid up with Montezuma’s revenge, and when I recovered in the afternoon, we were hit by squalls, leaving the fish scarce, skittish and uncooperative. The scent of skunk hung in the humid air.

But today I’m standing tall on the bow platform of a 24-foot fibreglass panga. My guide, Alejandro Batun, is gently poling us into a hockey rink-sized mangrove lagoon. And when he spots a few bonefish slurping shrimp in 18 inches of gin-clear water, I’m ready, confident and intensely focused, despite the heat. In a low, calm voice, Alejandro says, “Fifty feet, 11 o’clock, cast now.” I haven’t actually seen the fish—these grey ghosts are perfectly camouflaged against the sand—but I drop my size 6 Mini Puff fly right on target.

“Wait now,” says Alejandro, as the fly slowly sinks to the bottom. A few heart-pounding seconds pass, then he says, “Strip the fly once…dey see it, strip…strip…now streep fast!” Then I finally see the fish as it accelerates toward my fly. It hits, and I hit back with a final sharp pull. Immediately, the line flies through my fingers and my reel starts singing its sweetest song.

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Big bonefish, like the 10-pounders of the Bahamas, can swim 60 kilometres an hour and take 200 yards of line in seconds. This one isn’t big, maybe a pound, but its power is worlds beyond any comparably sized freshwater fish. After four blazing runs across the lagoon, it comes to hand. In the culmination of a 30-year dream, I’ve landed my first bonefish on the fly (above). And by 2 p.m., I catch five more. I’m not boasting (much) when I say that. My point is, with good preparation, this much sought-after experience is totally within reach of the average Canadian angler.

MEET THE BONEFISH

cNils RinaldiWhy do so many fly anglers lust after bonefish? Even by saltwater standards, these fish are freakishly fast, but also plentiful and, with their mirror-like flanks, beautiful. Along the Costa Maya, some call them la auténtica plata de México—Mexico’s genuine silver. Bonefishing itself offers the challenge and reward of sight-casting to moving targets in very shallow water. And because bonefish face the constant menace of predators such as birds, sharks and barracuda, as well as immense competition for forage, they have an oddly paradoxical temperament. They spook very easily, disappearing faster than your eyes can follow. But they’re also ravenous feeders, likely to strike any stealthily presented fly, or jig (for more on spin-fishing, please keeping reading). It’s an irresistible combination.

WHERE THEY ARE

6Scott GardnerIt’s often said trout only live in beautiful places. The same is true of bonefish—assuming you appreciate a tropical paradise. The bonefish’s range begins off the Florida coast, runs south to the Bahamas and Cuba, and east to Central America and Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. The bonefish of Florida and the eastern Caribbean are the biggest, but often more pressured. On the western side, bonefish average half the size, but they’re generally considered easier to catch. Going to Mexico for my first bonefish trip was my friend Phil Shook’s idea. Since Phil (above right, with guide Alejandro Batun) recently penned Flyfisher’s Guide to Mexico, I took his advice. In fact, we went on this adventure together, and Xcalak (pronounced Shh-ka-lack) and the Costa Maya region proved to be a perfect choice (more about Xcalak travel and accommodations on the final page).

WHAT YOU NEED

Unless you fly fish for salmon, steelhead or trophy pike in Canada, you’re going to need heavier gear. Bonefishing, even for smaller fish, requires a powerful 8-weight outfit, with a reel tough enough for saltwater. That power is not for the size of the fish—it’s for the conditions, because there’s a 95 per cent chance you’ll be casting in wind. But you don’t need a second mortgage to afford the gear—I used a $500 Redington rod/Sage reel combo (below), and it was outstanding.5Scott Gardner

Spool up with a weight-forward floating line. Consider one of the new stiffer “tropical” fly lines, since standard lines tend to go limp in the Caribbean’s 30°C water, making them harder to cast. For leaders, either buy some knotless tapered saltwater ones in various sizes or take spools of 12-, 16-, 20- and 30-pound tippet.

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As for flies, you should have two to three dozen bonefish patterns. Preferred sizes and colours vary, so get local intel, but you need a variety of weighted and unweighted shrimp patterns (above), including a half-dozen weedless ones, along with a few weighted crab flies. That said, many guides mistrust clients’ terminal tackle, so they supply their own leaders and flies. Still, I always take everything anyway, if only so I can make a few casts off the dock in the evenings.

HONE YOUR SKILLS

Honestly, you can be a mediocre or even a sloppy fly caster and still be a terrific trout angler. That is not the case with saltwater fishing. Brushing up on your casting is by far the most important aspect of preparing for flats fishing. Sight-fishing for bones requires a few unique skills, but with practise, any competent angler can learn them. If you do not prepare—and I cannot emphasize this enough—you will have a lousy, frustrating fish-challenged trip.

To start, line management and learning to cast from the “ready position” are just as important as pure casting skill. The ready position (below) describes the way you set up on the casting deck as you wait for your shot. Since you can deliver a cast much faster if you’re not pulling line off the reel, you start by stripping off 40 to 60 feet of line (as much as, but not more than, you can confidently cast). Then dump out the line, strip it in and pile it on the deck. This leaves the front of the line on top of the pile, preventing tangles. Keep about a rod’s length of line outside the tip, and hold the fly in your non-casting hand. When you spot a target and start moving the rod back to cast, pass the fly under your rod hand and release it into your initial backcast. This is awkward to describe, but not difficult to do.

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Flats fishing is much more about speed and accuracy than distance. You are usually casting to an incoming fish, so you need to quickly get a fly in its line of sight. That translates into hitting a target the size of a bath towel 30 feet away with at most two false casts, in roughly 10 seconds. If you can do the same at 40 or 50 feet, you’ll double your catch. Oh, and you’ll need to do all that in 20-kilometre winds.

Although I’ve fly fished since I was 15, I could not do any of this before going to Mexico. But knowing that was half the battle, and I specifically practised hitting targets fast, from the ready position, in heavy wind. As I’ve written before, you’ll be shocked by how regular practice dramatically improves your casting. After a dozen 30-minute sessions in the months before my trip, for example, I had the chops.

One joy of flats fishing is that you have lots of obstacle-free room in which to cast—an ocean of it, in fact. That means you can deal with unfavourable wind by laying down your backcast or sidearming, which are other skills worth practising. For more help, check out the many excellent instructional videos on YouTube.

ONCE YOU’RE THERE

When meeting your guide for the first time, be perfectly frank about your abilities. If you can only cast 30 feet into the wind, admit it. You’ll have better odds if the guide moves you in close—even at the risk of spooking the fish—than by attempting an impossible cast.

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One thing you can’t practise is learning how to spot fish. The eagle-eyed Alejandro (above) sometimes saw bones 100 feet out, but I would be lucky to spot one at half that distance. But there are a few tricks. In Spanish, bonefish are sometimes called by the accurate, if undignified, nickname ratons—rats—for the way they dart and scurry. And being paranoid gluttons, they are rarely idle. So, the first thing to look for is a flicker of underwater movement of any kind. Also watch for a shadow on the bottom. You’ll see that long before you spy the fish’s greyish outline.

4Scott GardnerLike many saltwater species, bonefish require a stout hookset. Local conditions will dictate how you move your fly, but to set the hook, you must keep your rod tip in the water and point it at the fly during your retrieve (above). This keeps slack out of the line and encourages you to strip-strike—set the hook with a long, firm pull—rather than lift the rod to set; rearing back on the rod in the dreaded trout strike is death in saltwater. Breaking this habit isn’t easy, and every saltwater novice struggles with it. But keeping your rod tip in the water makes a lift-strike awkward, helping you resist the impulse.

Finally, don’t forget how harsh saltwater is on gear. Rinse everything in freshwater every single night, and leave your fly boxes open to dry. Salt caked on your rod guides can hamper your casting, and even high-end reels need care. You want your gear to last, after all, because once you get a taste for chasing bonefish, I guarantee your first trip will not be your last.

BEYOND THE FLY

dHaggerty Lures

There are a few bonefish lodges for fly fishing only, but most destinations also welcome spin anglers (or “light-tackle” anglers, as they’re known in the tropics). You can use a 6½- or seven-foot medium-action rod from home, but invest in an ocean-quality reel. Big bonefish can practically melt the drag on an underpowered spinning reel. Spool up with 250 yards of 15-pound braid with a leader of 12- to 15-pound fluorocarbon. Bring an assortment of 3/16-, 1/8- and 1/16-ounce saltwater bucktail jigs, including some weedless ones. And like your fly-fishing compadres, you’d be wise to practise casting these light baits in heavy wind.

XCALAK TRACK

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To reach Xcalak, my friend Phil Shook and I flew to Cancun, rented a car and drove five hours south on well-maintained roads. In Xcalak, we stayed at the lovely beachfront Hotel Tierra Maya (above). The hotel caters to anglers and divers, who come for the spectacular Banco Chinchorro atoll, and owner Eduardo Zapata offered us a very attractive food-and-fishing package. By booking directly through Eduardo, and driving ourselves to Xcalak, Phil and I reckoned that we saved at least one-third of the cost, compared to using a travel comnpay. But for a less DIY trip, the Costa Maya also has several full-service fishing lodges offering airport pickup. Though the region is remote, it’s very safe and welcoming to visitors, and most airport and travel staff speak English (as did both Eduardo, and our guide Alejandro). 
ePhil Shook

Associate editor Scott Gardner is already planning his next tropical fishing adventure.