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October 26, 2001

Beyond Bonefishing Basics

Frustrating, absolutely frustrating. Stu Apte and I, standing on the bow of Richard Stanczyk's flats skiff, waved bye-bye to three large schools of bonefish pushing upwind and up-current behind us on the flat. Since the prospect of catching no bones at all loomed large this early June day at the western edge of Florida Bay near the Keys, Stanczyk - unable to make any headway poling back into the west wind with a dead-low tide - hopped out of the skiff and pushed it.

Frustrating, absolutely frustrating. Stu Apte and I, standing on the bow of Richard Stanczyk's flats skiff, waved bye-bye to three large schools of bonefish pushing upwind and up-current behind us on the flat.
Since the prospect of catching no bones at all loomed large this early June day at the western edge of Florida Bay near the Keys, Stanczyk - unable to make any headway poling back into the west wind with a dead-low tide - hopped out of the skiff and pushed it. Sloshing through foot-deep mud as the hull scraped the bottom, the 52-year-old bonefish fanatic simply wouldn't let this opportunity slip away. Though on the verge of passing out from exhaustion, Stanczyk climbed aboard when we finally reached an intersect position with the nearest school and held us steady with the pushpole.
As a dozen or so bonefish meandered toward us, I cast a shrimp in their path while Apte and I crouched to lower our profiles. The school stopped in the vicinity of my shrimp, but nothing happened, so Apte side-armed a soft cast just to the right of them and skittered the shrimp on the surface. A bone streaked for his offering and grabbed it, bolting away and throwing the rest of the school into a conniption fit.
Happy that Apte scored, yet still scowling that I hadn't, my gloom changed to glee when my line tightened and - bingo! - a bonefish doubleheader! Our fish ran together at times, causing us to do some fancy footwork to keep lines untangled, but we managed to bring the 8- and 9-pounders to the boat. After I snapped a few pictures, the fish rejoined the school and we smiled like a trio of hyenas.
Despite poor conditions, Stanczyk knew exactly where we might get a shot at bonefish. Combined with his mud-stomping determination, we succeeded in keeping the skunk out of the boat - unlike most others on the flats that morning.
In addition to determination, experience and acute observation help an angler move beyond the basics to become a competent bonefisher - a transition that occurs much faster when learning secrets from experts such as Stanczyk, Al Pflueger and Lefty Kreh. The level of knowledge and skill between a novice bonefish angler and those guys is like that of a beginning golfer and Tiger Woods, Greg Norman and Jack Nicklaus. But an eager bonefisher can quickly graduate from merely stumbling across promising opportunities to knowing before leaving the dock where bones will most likely appear.
Stanczyk, owner of Bud N' Mary's Marina in Islamorada in the Keys, astounds me every time we fish with his broad knowledge of bonefishing. Miamian Pflueger, considered by many the best all-around flats angler who ever lived, cut his teeth on the flats of Biscayne Bay and has visited all the world's bonefishing meccas. Kreh of Cockeysville, Maryland - the mentor of many world-class fly anglers - unquestionably holds the honor as the grand master of saltwater fly fishing. It's a fair bet that these three pros have released more than 10,000 bonefish among them after decades of passionately stalking bonefish in the Keys, Bahamas, Caribbean and other havens. They think like bonefish and understand bones' preferred habitats, eating habits, reaction to tides and what lights their fire and what turns them off. The advice and tips that follow can be taken to heart.
Keep Rolling Them Bones
During a recent trip to the Keys, I may have discovered a way to help those who can't quite master the art of precision casting to bonefish: Use a small pilchard for bait. Pilchards, small baitfish coveted by reef and offshore species, give forth a lot of vibration in the water, as opposed to shrimp or crabs that quietly sink into the bottom. I tossed a lively pilchard about 30 feet from a school of bonefish, and they streaked to it like Corvettes at a road rally! Smaller pilchards can be caught around docks and some bait shops sell them. Give it a try.
No matter how many tricks you know, oftentimes the old gray ghost comes out on top. A couple of years ago I fished a rocky portion of coastline off Key Largo. A big one grabbed my shrimp in about 3 feet of water and streaked toward the shore - unusual in itself because they usually run to deeper water - and as it reached the edge of the shore, its body half exposed, it turned left toward two jagged rocks. The bone zipped between those rocks through a space barely as wide as its body. It then ran straight back at the boat, and I swear it looked up at me just as the line parted. You can bet that wasn't the first time it pulled that trick.
So if anyone thinks bonefish don't have much smarts, then why do we need so many secrets to catch them?