The tide wasn’t quite right for sight-casting to bonefish, so the angler fishing with Capt. Jorge Valverde opted to target sharks. Valverde rigged a spinning outfit with a wire leader and hooked on a live shrimp. Shortly thereafter, a bonefish appeared and, lacking time to rerig, Valverde told his angler to make a cast. The bonefish ate the shrimp, and another myth — that you need fluorocarbon leaders to get wary bonefish to eat — was shattered.
Over the past 30 years of pursuing bonefish near his home in Cooper City, Florida, Valverde has learned that not everything you read and hear about bonefish is true, and he has made a name for himself as a guide who does things a little differently. And he’s not alone. Other anglers and guides in South Florida have stepped off the beaten path of conventional wisdom in bonefishing, and in doing so, have kicked their success up a notch.
1. Get Wired
Valverde now routinely uses a 20- or 30-pound wire leader instead of split shot when he needs to sink a bait. And since his discovery, he has learned that the old-time bonefish guides often used wire when they needed to add weight. “Split shot makes noise when it hits the water, and fish hear it,” he says. “Wire is much quieter.”
His choice of fishing grounds is also unconventional. Valverde fishes out of Flamingo at the southern tip of Everglades National Park, which is not a traditional bonefishing hot spot. Most guides and anglers prefer to fish the backcountry flats close to Key Largo and Islamorada, where bonefish are plentiful. As a result, Valverde usually has his bonefish flats to himself.
It helps that he built himself a one-of-a-kind skiff that allows him to sight-fish the shallowest of flats. He started with an aluminum hull, cut a tunnel in it and put on a 50 hp outboard motor. He added a deck, poling platform, casting platform and console, but kept the boat light enough so he can run, pole and fish in places most people wouldn’t even think about going.
Valverde’s entire approach to bonefishing qualifies as nontraditional. Here are some of the other rules he routinely breaks, to his advantage.
2. Cold Water
Most guides insist that water temperatures have to be in the 70s to catch bonefish on the flats. Anglers who pursue bonefish when temperatures are cool typically fish in channels where the deeper water is warmer. Valverde has learned over the years that winter cold fronts won’t keep you from catching bonefish on the flats. He has caught tailing bonefish — fish that are feeding on flats so shallow that their tails and dorsal fins come out of the water when they dig in the bottom for food with their mouths — in 63-degree water. As he explains, even when it’s cold, the fish still have to eat. The coldest water Valverde ever caught bonefish in was 57 degrees F.
The key is for the bonefish to get acclimated to the cooler temperatures. When temperatures drop, bonefish initially will go to deeper water and feed there, and Valverde will fish for them in channels. “Then they go back to what they were doing before it got cold,” Valverde says.
3. Tailing Fish
Casting a shrimp, jig or fly to a tailing bonefish is exciting, but it can be frustrating. It’s not a guarantee of a hookup. “Just because bonefish are tailing doesn’t mean they’re going to eat what you throw at them,” Valverde says. “The way they’re moving tells you what they want.
“If they’re doing what I call ‘mowing the lawn,’ moving five feet and eating, moving five feet and eating, they’re digging in the mud for something you can’t cast to them: coquina clams.”
Valverde says the clams are about the size of the nail on your pinky finger. When bonefish are tailing for the clams, casting a shrimp to them usually won’t change their minds.
“They know exactly what they’re looking for,” Valverde says, adding that bonefish typically feed on the clams during the summer when shrimp are scarce on the flats. “If you throw them a shrimp, they run, because they know it’s not supposed to be there. It’s worth a try, but in my experience, it’s not going to happen.”
4. Fish the Wind
Another commonly held belief is that bonefish feed into the current, so guides pole their skiffs with the current or anchor their boats up-current of where they expect the fish to appear and look for the fish to swim toward them.
“I had always read that bonefish feed upstream into the current,” Valverde says. “Then one day, I watched five schools of bonefish swim into the wind.”
Valverde says because bonefish feed into the wind, he positions his boat with the wind at his back, ideally on a slack tide when there’s little current, which he says makes it easier for bonefish to find the bait.
“I’m not as concerned about current as wind direction. I’ve had bonefish swim crosscurrent and downcurrent into the wind,” he says.
5. Spooked Fish
Most bonefish anglers will tell you that when you spook a school of bonefish, you might as well move on to a new flat. Not Valverde.
“People think that once you spook bonefish, they’re gone,” Valverde says. “I say: ‘Don’t worry. I’m just going to sit here and wait for them to come back.’ How can a fish live in Biscayne Bay and Florida Bay and not have heard a boat? When bonefish want to be somewhere, you can’t chase them off.”
Sometimes spooked fish can’t leave even if they want to, which Valverde learned by experience. He was running his boat on a flat and ran over a school of fish that he didn’t know was there. He stopped the boat and watched the fish swim to the edge of the flat, then come right back.
Poking around the flat, he discovered the water was so shallow that the fish had only one way to get off the flat, so they had to come back.
“I fish a lot of falling tides,” says Valverde, who knows every nuance of the bonefish flats he fishes. “And often as the water falls off the flat, the fish have one way in and one way out.” When that’s the case, he knows how to approach the fish and where he needs to be.