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.
Use Wire Leader
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.
Don’t Avoid Fishing 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.
Tailing Bonefish Aren’t Sure Bets
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.”
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.
Don’t Leave 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.
Be as Quiet as Possible
Bonefish often spook at obvious noise, such as footfall on the boat deck or the slamming of hatches. But Valverde goes several steps further to eliminate noise.
The plotter/depth finder on his console has the GPS, temperature gauge and plotter functions hooked up. Valverde disabled the depth-finder feature because it makes a clicking noise in the water when it’s on. That clicking has cost him fish.
That’s not the only noise he eliminates. Valverde keeps live shrimp in an aerated livewell. When he spots bonefish from his poling tower, he turns off the aerator with a switch he installed on the platform. He turns it back on when a bonefish is hooked or the fish depart.
Wait to Cast if Bonefish are Too Close
Sometimes bonefish schools show up unexpectedly, or the angler on the front of his boat is unable to see the fish until they’re so close to the boat that making a cast would spook them. When that happens, Valverde does nothing.
Instead, he lets the school swim past the boat. After all, he says, bonefish are used to seeing trees and logs, so the boat won’t necessarily spook them. Once the fish have passed, Valverde repositions his boat so his angler can cast to the fish.
Braided Fishing Line Means More Fish
Most bonefish guides don’t use braided line, preferring monofilament, because they think the braid spooks fish. As Valverde learned when his angler caught a bonefish using a wire leader, bonefish really don’t care what you use for your line or leader, because they can’t see it when it’s on the bottom.
Valverde uses 7½-foot extra fast-action graphite rods with Pflueger Supreme spinning reels spooled with 10-pound Sufix braided line. He likes the braid, because it holds up better than monofilament when it comes in contact with rocks, vegetation and coral. “I don’t care about world records,” he says. “I care about my customers getting fish to the boat.”
He ties 18 inches of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader to the braid to protect the bonefish from the skin-cutting braid when the fish heads for the horizon.
Rig a Live Shrimp With an Exposed Hook
Many bonefish guides bury the hook in a live shrimp, hooking it Texas-style like a bass angler hooks a plastic worm by inserting the hook point at the tail end, pulling it out and down, then turning the hook and inserting the point into the body of the shrimp. That makes the shrimp weedless.
“But fish still miss the hook,” Valverde says. “So I leave it exposed.”
He pinches off the shrimp’s tail, which provides a little scent, inserts the hook point and threads the shrimp on the hook, bringing the point out the side of the shrimp’s body.
Because he has his anglers keep the shrimp on the bottom instead of hopping or jigging it along, snagging something on the exposed hook is not a concern.
“I like to leave the shrimp on the bottom and let a fish pick it out of the grass,” he says. Sometimes a tiny bump is required by the angler — and then it’s usually game on!
Invest in Quality Fishing Sunglasses
Tailing bonefish on a shallow flat are easy to see, but spotting bonefish as they swim in deeper water takes practice and a good pair of polarized sunglasses, which cut glare and let you see into the water.
“People spend $1,200 on a fly outfit, but they will not spend $150 on sunglasses,” says Capt. Jorge Valverde, who keeps several pairs of glasses with different-colored lenses in his boat.
When fishing the flats, Valverde likes sunglasses with amber or vermilion lenses. In low-light situations — like when the sun is obscured by clouds — Valverde uses glasses with yellow lenses.
Let Needlefish Eat Your Bait
Many bonefish guides and anglers get frustrated when a bonefish is near and a needlefish picks up the bait. Typically, the angler rips the shrimp out of the needlefish’s mouth as it swims away.
Valverde instructs his anglers to let the needlefish take the bait, because that gets the attention of the bonefish.
“When the needlefish starts to run, the bonefish figures, ‘Ah, he’s got something,’ and goes after the needlefish,” Valverde says. “The needlefish freaks and drops the bait, and the bonefish gets it.”
Don’t Move Your Live Bait
Unless you’re a really good bonefish angler, don’t try to move your live shrimp as a bonefish approaches the bait.
“I would rather you leave it and not screw things up,” says Capt. Greg Poland of Islamorada. “If the fish is looking at the shrimp and you move it, it’s going to spook.”
If you must move the shrimp to get a bonefish to notice it, Poland says to reel your rod tip down to the water, then very slowly lift the rod tip and let it drop. That’s all it takes for a bonefish to find the shrimp.
Bonefish Aren’t That Smart
Capt. Carl Ball of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, uses 10-pound braided line when he fishes for bonefish and says he feels people give bonefish too much credit.
“You hear people say that you have to use 12-pound fluorocarbon to catch a bonefish. One day on Biscayne Bay, I saw some girls holding up an 8-pound bonefish. I know they didn’t know what they were doing; they weren’t in a flats boat — they just had a dead shrimp on the bottom. I use a 20-pound leader, and I don’t think they even see the braid,” Ball says.
Booking Your Bonefish Trip
Some Florida bonefish guides have a reputation for being a little highstrung, but that’s not necessarily a sign of expertise. Here are three easygoing guides who also excel at putting their customers on bonefish:
Capt. Carl Ball
Capt. Greg Poland
Capt. Jorge Valverde
About the Author
Steve Waters is the outdoors writer for the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and the Orlando Sentinel in Orlando, Florida. A frequently frustrated bonefish angler, his stories are at sunsentinel.com/outdoors.