Targeting Bonefish In The Southeast Region With Capt. Jimbo Thomas

One of the most popular inshore gamefish in my region is the bonefish, and we’ve got some of the largest bonefish you will find in North America here in the Southeast Region of Florida. The flats of Biscayne Bay from Key Biscayne all the way south to Angelfish Creek hold bonefish of all sides on both the inside and outside flats.

The best bonefish action will be on the hard bottom along the outside flats, but you need calm weather to fish them. When the wind gets up, those areas get choppy and the waves bouncing into the boat not only make it difficult to stand and fish, but also the sound of the waves bouncing off the hull make it hard to sneak up on a bonefish. When the winds blows, you’ll want to fish the inside flats where you can get in the lea of an island.

The best inside flats are on the southern end of Biscayne Bay, and you’ll want to look for the hard bottom grass flats in those areas as well.

Bonefish see really well, so you have to limit your movements when you get within casting range. A lot of guys fly fish them with small shrimp and crab patterns or a Clouser Deep Minnow on 8 or 9 weight fly tackle with a 12 pound tippet. Bonefish don’t have teeth, so you don’t have to use a bite tippet when fishing them.

If you’re throwing lures, a skimmer jig in either pink or brown is a good option as it mimics a shrimp in the grass. You want to lead the fish with you cast by 10 to 20 feet. If you cast right on top of the fish, it’ll spook. Lead the fish with the cast and let the fish get close enough to see the lure before you move it. When it gets close, bounce or hop the jig and the bonefish will pound it. They also have an incredible sense of smell, so you can tip the jig with a bit of shrimp to help them find it or hold onto it longer.

Probably the most efficient way to target bonefish is with live bait—either a live shrimp or small crab. Since these baits are their main food source, the bonefish are constantly on the prowl for them, and because they’re real, it’s easy to get them to eat the bait.

Bonefish feed into the tides, which allows them to take advantage of their keen sense of smell as they work their way into the current. They feed more aggressively onto the flats with the incoming tides, and then work their way off the flats as they tides start to fall. One of the best techniques for targeting bonefish on the flats is to stake out the boat near some sandy potholes on the edge of a dense grass flat and then chum with bits of shrimp, while you wait with a live shrimp to cast to any fish that come to the chum. You want to make sure you’re on the up-current side of the potholes, so the fish come directly to you.

I like fishing bonefish on 7 to 7.5 foot spinning tackle and anywhere from eight to 12 pound line. The longer rods let you cast farther, and I’ll use a 12 to 15 pound fluorocarbon leader and a 2/0 circle hook with shrimp or crabs. You can hook the crabs in the corner of the shell, while shrimp should be hooked in the tail. A lot of times, we’ll use a split shot ahead of the hook to give you more casting distance and accuracy, and to keep the bait on the bottom. If you’re using a shrimp, break the paddles off the tail, and insert the hook in the last joint, bring it out, and turn the hook back into the shrimp tail another joint or two down the tail. That keeps your bait weedless.

When you see bonefish approaching, that’s the time to make the cast, not when they’re right next to the boat. Lead the fish up-current and allow it to come to your bait. It’ll smell the shrimp, and then see it when it gets close. You can hop the bait if the fish is close by but doesn’t see it, but more often than not, the bonefish will see the shrimp and come right to it.

When you come tight, that fish is going to blister off the flats like no other shallow water fish, so make sure your reel has a smooth drag and that it’s set on the light side. Let the fish run, and try to keep it out of the deeper channels where it can find sea fans and corals to break off on.

Before you land the bonefish, have your camera or cell phone ready to take a picture, then wet your hands before you grab the fish to limit the slime coat you wipe off when you handle it. Fish need their slime coat for protection against bacteria and diseases. Grab the fish, unhook it, shoot a quick photo and then put it back into the water for release. If you prepare ahead of time, that fish will swim right off, but if it doesn’t, take the time to revive it and make sure it’s healthy before you move on. Bonefish populations in South Florida are at an all time low, so we want to make sure any fish we catch survives its release to help build the future of the fishery.

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