March 17th, 2003

The 'Truth' about Bonefishing!
By James Castwell

"Nearly everything you may ever have read about Bonefishing is a lie." That is a quote, you just read it here. I know, you are a fly-fisher, trouty type, could give a hoot less for some more hog-wash about the 'Ghost of the Flats.' But, that may be just the problem, it has all been hooey, hype, stuff designed to make you think the guys are great fly-casters and hero-type fly-fishers. Nuts.

I have been there, done that. And now, Castwell reveals all. Yes, right here on FAOL, the real 'straight-poop,' the 'skinny,' the way it actually is, and is done.

Let me start out first with those little 'flats' boats you are required to fish from, that is when you are not wading in eight inches of crystal clear water watching for marauding sharks, deadly rays and picky things under foot. They wobble. Even in calm water they do and you spend the whole time trying to pretend you have suction cups on each toe of each foot as you desperately try to keep from falling over the edge or off the bow.

Remember, some fellow (you have just met and do not know anything about) is standing on top of a platform mounted above the outboard motor, peering intently a mile or so ahead, jamming a long shaft into and pulling it out of the mud or grass or whatever the stuff the bottom may be made of at any given place you are drifting over; a series of little fits and starts might adequately describe the leisurely time you spend perched like a figure-head on the front of the panga (flats-boat for you newbys). You spend your day with your back to him, hoping, trusting, listening and praying that you could at least see a bonefish (this is after he has pointed out rather forcibly, "Bonefish, 30 feet, eleven o'clock!).

You are protected by SPF stuff so you don't blister too badly after the first day, (you do, but that will be covered later) This makes your already sweating nose even slidery and your special (did I mention expensive?) Polarized glasses keep slipping down, distorting not only your vision of any possible fish, but your view of the deck upon which your pirouetting becomes a bit swimmy looking especially if you are wearing bi-focals or worse.

After only a few short hours (by this time your spinal column is fused and your legs have a permanent cramp from furtively griping the deck) you think you have at last seen a Bonefish. Wrong, that thing is a Box fish, but you will spend the rest of the trip having the things alarm you every time they scoot into and out of your limited field of vision. You will quit hollering to the guide that you see a bonefish, humiliation is not a pleasant condition.

The magic moment comes when the guide spots a real bonefish for you and you get to make a cast at last.

"Eleven o'clock," he calls, "thirty feet." "Where the hell is eleven o'clock," you ask yourself. Your nerves are frayed, you're on edge, you are cramped and now you have a split-second to find eleven o'clock and make a cast to it. And at about thirty feet at that. Good luck. You raise your rod, fling the fly into the air only to find that the: A. The leader has wrapped around the rod. B. You have dropped the fly some time ago and it's stuck on the gunnel of the boat. C. You make a couple of flailing casts, way out of time and crappy loops trying to pay out line to the required distance. D. The damn fish is gone now anyway.

Well, that was fun, huh? Right. You tell yourself that you will do better on the next one. You are wondering if there will be a 'next' one. Doubt creeps in on greased wheels. As is turns out, hope springing eternal, there is a next one and you are ready when it comes.

"Bonefish! Queek mon, orethere, bout twoaclock."

(I forgot to mention that by this time the wind has come up and it is making the little floppy things on your hat rattle against your ears, hearing becomes muddled and distorted.)

"Huh, what did he say?" you ask yourself. "Two o'clock? How far? Damn it, he didn't say how far!"

"How far is it?"

"Thirty feet now mon, twelve o'clock, make a cast, lay it down."

"Down?" you tell yourself, hell, I don't even have it in the air yet!"

"Hey mon, not to worry, be more of dem soon, we get more for sure."

And you do. A small bunch (twelve?) is lazily resting near the shore, (where the water meets the mangroves, lava, limestone, rocks or other unknown material) Your hero behind you stops the boat with his poling pole, you do not pitch head-first over the bow, he lowers his voice so as not to spook the fish and gives you instructions. You tell him you can't hear a damn thing with the wind blowing.

"What, I can't hear damn thing with this wind blowing up here, where?"

"Over there, nine o'clock, twenty feet, just out from the shore."

The Gods are with you, you actually see them, at least you are fairly sure you do. You start to make a cast. Up goes the rod and out goes the line you have already stripped off of the reel for just such an event. Looking at your feet you see a possible disaster in the making, you reach down and untangle a few undulating coils of fly line from the laces of your boat shoes. Out goes the line, farther and farther, now about the right distance.


You do. It does. They run like hell.

It's been a wonderful morning, it's about eleven now and you are wondering what to do with the breakfast coffee you had at least one too many cups of. "Can I make it till lunch," you wonder. "Hell, when is lunch? Is there lunch." "Hey, where do we eat lunch," you inquire.

"Hey mon, we go to dat island, outta the wind, save some for the buzzards."

"Buzzards? What buzzards?" You wonder if he is joking. No, you do not ask. Why mess up a good thing now. You will hold it. Anyone can hold it for an hour.(Did I bring up the fact that the guide let it go from his platform perch an hour ago? No, didn't think I had, sorry.)

"Ready now, bonefish, twenty feet, eleven o'clock. See him?"

You actually do, the thing is just lying there (or swimming or whatever they do when they are not moving). You can see it well enough to make your own decisions. The rod and you go into action. Out streaks the line, controlled, the fly drops the required two feet in front and gently drifts to the bottom. The bone spots it and moves in for the grab, you have the rod tip inches above the water. "Strip," says your guide crouching atop his throne at the stern. You do not look at him though, you are focused on the job at hand. You strip.

"Pause, now strip, strip, easy now," again from the rear of your boat. Tragedy has struck; you can not find the bonefish.

"Strip mon, strip, strip,'he is almost yelling now. You do, but only because he is demanding that you do so. You now have absolutely no idea where the hell the damn fish went, it simply disappeared as you were looking directly at it.

"He's got it!" "What," your thinking? "Who's got it?" Your mind gradually accepts the fact. You have a bonefish on the end of your line and have no idea where it was, where it came from, where it took the fly, and for that matter, where it is now.

From some primitive reflex, you raise your rod and think about getting the 'fish on the reel.' Not to worry, he is not only 'on the reel,' he is already into your backing. All that fly-line you had been toe-dancing around all morning is gone, long gone and zinging toward the horizon at a blistering speed. All senses go on automatic now. There is absolutely no time or room for conscious thought or considerations. It is you against the fish; 'the Old Man and the Sea' so to speak.

The whizzing reel slows a bit and you can see about half of your backing is gone, or left depending on your perspective of the situation. What should you do now? It does not matter, you are not in control, at least not yet, perhaps in a little while. You have forgotten about the extra cups of coffee by now, all senses are pointed toward the little place in the water where your backing is disappearing, but slower now. In fact, the fish stops.

He has run straight away from you, now out about 150 yards plus another 30 yards of fly line. You have no idea how big it must be. Huge probably is an understatement. You feel a couple of gentle shrugs on the line and the thing is off again, same direction, no chance to regain any line yet. You can not for sure remember just how much backing you have, you may soon figure that out though. Vaguely you are aware of the guide and some instructions he has been spouting back there; they must not have been too important as you sure didn't hear any of them. You look at him, a mix of panic, unbounded joy and desperation detail your features. He is smiling, God bless him.

At somewhere around 200 yards the fish tires and you are able to start the retrieve (if one is lucky, on the flats there may be plenty of shallow water to play these things). As you are about to bring the backing knot into the tip-top guide off he goes for his third run, but this one is shorter, maybe a hundred feet or so and you return to the retrieve. The ever resourceful (hopefully now your best friend in the world) guide asks, "Hey mon, you want me to help land him for ya?" Of all the questions you have heard in the past six months, that one takes it, "Hell yes," you yell.

He is off the tower and in a flash is leaning over the gunnel reaching for your leader. Grasping it with his right hand, he tells you to lower the rod tip, he needs some slack. You do and he slides his left hand under the fish and raises it into the boat. The most beautiful fourteen inch fish you have ever seen. And you did it all yourself too.

Laying the rod down, you fumble in your bag of things you brought on board for your camera, take a couple of pictures of the fish and realize it should soon return to the water. Confusion reigns supreme. You tell him to release the fish, he does. You both watch as it swims directly away from the boat and disappears completely from view. Now you know why the name, 'Ghost of the Flats.'

Lunch. You (still shaking) pull up to a sandy beach on a small scrubby tree infested island, an anchor rope with the hook is flung ashore and you step from the bow onto solid sand. Feels a bit odd to stand on something solid, you try to make a mental note for future thought on that. The guide hands you the cooler with lunch. He has picked a place where there is enough breeze to keep down any interested flying insects and if you are really lucky, even a bit of shade from a tree.

The cooler is opened and out comes a couple of plastic bags with some sandwiches of sorts, one for you, one for him. Some cans of soda may or may not emerge at this time, you spot them and remember you need to 'bush-up' as they say in Texas. Returning from that little venture, you see he has probably eaten most of his lunch already, you are still shaking from the monster fish you landed half an hour ago. But, you open the baggy only to find it has not been sealed well and the melting ice has now turned it into something not quite a sandwich anymore. You say nothing, you start eating it, it's been a hard morning. A shadow drifts across the sand, the cooler and you. A big shadow from above. Instinct drives you to look at the possible source of said shadow. You wish you had resisted that impulse. In the tree, directly above you (not the guide, he is off under the edge of the tree) sits a gigantic ugly bird, a vulture (buzzard). He is either looking at you or the sandwich, maybe both. Cute little fella, a six foot wing span, red bald head, no feathers on his head or neck, and black as coal; ya, cute, really cute.

While making some mumbling mouthful noises you gesture to the guide and with an elbow point to your new lunch buddy. He explains they are all over the place, almost tame, help keep things cleaned up. He is not concerned, you are less so inclined. Lunch runs it's course and after one last 'bush-up' just in case, you both are off again to enjoy the tranquil recreation of bone-fishing. You look over your shoulder at the poor old bird, trying to choke down the rest of the pseudo-sandwich which someone carelessly left behind.

It's now about one in the afternoon and the sun is high in the sky, it is getting hot, really hot. You can tell that because you can see lots of sweat on the guides face, your glasses will not stay up and your feet seem like you have them on a bed of coals. The boat is zooming along at about forty per, you have opened the front of your shirt to catch all the wind you can, you have tightened the string holding your hat on, turned it around backwards, or better yet, taken the silly thing off. It occurs that perhaps you should have put on some more SPF stuff at lunch, "Oh well, later" you delude yourself.

Your mind is exploding with the sights blasting at you now. The colors of the water, the scenery is spectacular, and with the crystal clear water, you wonder what the heck are all those things flashing by on the bottom. If ever there was sensory-overload, this is it. You try to think what it is exactly you do for a living back home, you are not now sure and it does not bother you that you are not now sure. You want more of this.

The afternoon pays out into three or four hours of a blur of events, some small, some more memorable. You see barracuda, osprey, shark, turtles, more boxfish, all manner of un-namable little fishes, star-fish, different grasses and bottom types, conch, sponges, various shells with things living in them and odd shaped holes in the bottom making you wonder who made them. And you see bonefish.

You see singles, twos, fours, eights, groups, and schools. For the most part, bonefish will school or group by size, that is, the vast majority of them will be all the same length. You may or may not choose to cast to the smaller ones; you are starting to get picky now, you want a big one.

During the afternoon, you do get a chance at a few more, you land a couple, break off some due to bad knots, having them wrap you around a sprig of mangrove or such, a shark eats half of one and you drop one trying to land it yourself. You get the guide (now for sure your best friend in the whole wide world) to take a couple of pictures of you and some of your trophies. Life is good; you will be back for more of this.

Nearing the end of the day, as the tide is coming off off the flats and the fish are doing the same, as you near a slightly darker shade of water, a bit of a channel or sorts, you see a good fish, perhaps ten pounds or so. No, this is not a 'cuda' you have figured out how to tell them from bonefish by now by the black end of their tails, this is a bonefish for sure. You have seen him at the same time the guide has, your personal value is rising. You are already starting to sweep your rod back and release your fly as the guide is telling you about the big bone at ten o'clock, about thirty feet.

The fish is on your left, moving very slowly. The cast should land gently in front of him with time for the fly to drop about the same time he gets close enough to see it. You do, it does, he does, he's on.

A deep, very deep sense of accomplishment swells in your chest and libido. You have managed (perhaps by luck, but with some learned ability and some skill) to get it just right. Yes, this one you mostly did all by yourself. The runs are spectacular; the reel screams, the rod bends, you reel, you fight, you play.

"No, I want to try this one myself," you reply to the guides question. You now are aware that these things take a bit of tiring out, but that the first thing you do when you get a fish on, sometimes even before you cast for one is... look for sharks. You learned that one the hard way earlier in the day. You have determined you have the room to handle this one. After three or four runs (later you can't remember for sure how many) you have him along side the boat and raising the rod with your right hand, you grab the leader with your left, you lay the rod down, switch the leader to your right hand and gently place your left hand under the fish. As you do, you bend your wrist a bit and this eases the fish off to his side some and seems to quiet him for a moment. Nervously you pluck the small fly from the soft mouth and briefly admire your prize, with a few spontaneous words between you and the fish, you send him back to his home.

It's been quite a day. You have learned much. Some of it about bonefish and bonefishing. Some of it about yourself. It's only four o'clock, you tell the guide that it's time to go in. There will be other days. For sure there will be for you. You are now a bonefisher.

Oh, one more thing. You will notice I didn't mention that it will cost you several hundred dollars a day just to be where bonefish live, then the cost of a guide is on top of that (and tips to him, the staff and even a fee to leave the country sometimes). I didn't tell you that you may (will) spend countless hours decorating the bow of his boat, peering for bonefish so hard your eyeballs stick out and you could cut washers from them. Many hours are spent just standing there, waiting, watching, hoping, sweating, cramping, stretching, worrying, wondering and wishing.

I tried not to discourage you from going. I wanted to paint a picture of all the good stuff and leave out the troublesome things like what do you do when the wind reaches gale force and you can't get a fly in the air, or when it rains (tropical storms can be very interesting) or you break your only really good fly rod, the knot from your backing (nail-knot? separates and the only other line you have is a sinking tip), you stick a hook in your thumb releasing a big fish and you know it will get infected, forget your SPF stuff and fry yourself, or your guide has motor problems (five miles from home and has a dead battery in his cell-phone), your lodge runs out of bourbon or worse... coffee.

Nope, I just wanted you to see the bright side, hope you liked it gang. ~ James Castwell

Till next week, remember . . .

Keepest Thynne Baakast Upeth

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