Armed with the knowledge that scientists who dissect large South Florida bonefish report gulf toadfish (Opsanus beta) in their bellies, my intention was to uncover a panacean soft bait to target flighty bonefish. Heck, there must be a reason certain bonefish flies like Harry Spears’ Tasty Toad, Pat Dorsey’s Kwan Fly, and the Gummy Minnow imitate a toadfish, goby, and glass minnow.
But after speaking with established Florida Keys captains such as Rich Smith, of Marathon, and Dave Atkinson, of Islamorada, I’ve learned just how unpredictable and scarce bonefish can become at times. When limited numbers leave them with narrow opportunities for customers — live shrimp, small crabs and flies offer the best presentation, so they stay with what’s habitually successful.
“You really have to take advantage of the opportunities you get,” says Atkinson.
Different fish stories persist in South Florida of bonefish attacking bait schools intended for different species, but none ignite any degree of confidence. Still, options do exist for spin anglers who want to trick bonefish without relying on live baits like shrimp and crabs.
The Best Bonefish Jig
Most captains I spoke with agreed that the simplest lure to tempt a bonefish is the skimmer jig. Sometimes called a bonefish jig or flats jig, it’s flat with a tip shaped like a diamond or a circle. The hook and jig eye always point toward the surface to deter snags with grassy or rocky bottom where bonefish live. The hook is dressed with bucktail, fly or synthetic material to mimic shrimp and crabs. Different than traditional boxing-glove jig heads, the slender skimmer wobbles in the water and falls at a slower rate.
“Lightly twitch the rod so the jig hops off the bottom like a shrimp,” says Capt. Mo Estevez, who fishes South Florida’s Biscayne Bay regularly. “With a pure jig — which has no smell — you’re appealing to bonefishes’ keen eyesight. The jig’s productivity is dependent on the ability and skill of the angler. It’s tough to get the right action.”
Many captains tip the jig with fresh shrimp to appeal to a bonefish’s olfactory senses, but that’s no longer a true artificial. Instead, use artificial-shrimp scent (like Berkley Gulp! Alive, Pro-Cure or Carolina Lunker Sauce) on your jigs.
Color combos are wide ranging for the jigs, but browns, oranges, whites and pinks are top picks. In general, choose colors that mimic the same color as the bottom substrate or the colors of the local crustaceous fauna. In South Florida, common prey such as xanthid (mud) crabs , portunid (swimming) crabs , alpheid (pistol) shrimp and penaeid (Atlantic white) shrimp all mimic popular jig colors.
Pick ⅛-, ¹⁄₁₆- or ³⁄₁₆-ounce jigs based on how shallow the flat is.
“Skimmer jigs work for anglers who don’t fly-fish,” says Estevez. “With the higher tide, bonefish feel and act safer with more water over their back. Still, I prefer low water on an incoming tide to spot them as they ‘pop’ onto the flats from deeper water.”
Popular jig brands include Hookup Lures Weedless Bucktails or Capt. Harry’s Flats Jigs, but many lure makers offer their own patterns.
Playing the Bonefish Numbers Game
Beyond South Florida, areas such as the Bahamas, Yucatan Mexico, Los Roques, Venezuela and Belize can offer incredible numbers of bonefish. In areas of abundance, anglers have the opportunity to try different presentations.
The bonefish of Los Roques eat from a buffet of glass minnows in the waters around the island, shadowing pelicans that dive on the bait. But the Venezuelan bones are a unique and exotic outlier; shrimp, crabs and sea worms still reign supreme for bonefish in most parts of the world.
A Bone to Pick
Consider these two techniques when the bonefish are ready and willing or in large groups mudding.
1. Cast Berkley Gulp! Shrimp
“I have success with Berkley Gulp! Shrimp whenever I can’t find fresh shrimp,” says Capt. Jody Albury, of Marsh Harbour, Bahamas. He casts the artificial shrimp the same way he would a natural one. “Fishing the Marls, I use 10-pound SpiderWire braid, a light fluorocarbon leader and an Eagle Claw Baitholder hook, size 1/0.”
2. Cast a Fly With a Split Shot
A second method Albury mentions sprung from necessity — or possibly frustration — when fishing the extremely shallow flats that straddle the western side of Great Abaco. The Marls are a mix of mangrove, keys, limestone and bright-white sand.
“If the fish are being picky, I’ll have my spin anglers cast a fly with a split shot a couple of inches above the fly,” he says. “My favorite bonefish flies are the EP Spawning Shrimp and Veverka’s Mantis Shrimp, both in size 4.” Some might consider the technique cross-pollinating fishing styles, but I’d counter it’s a clever move to diversify your fishing arsenal for a fickle species.
Targeting Bonefish in Deepwater Harbors
Sight-fishing takes a back seat to other tactics when bonefish vacate the flats during the heat of the summer or the chilling temps of winter. Bonefish handle low oxygen levels that accompany hot water in coastal, tropical habitats by inhaling air into a lunglike air bladder. Still, larger bones retreat to deeper waters during the summer.
In this warm-water scenario, blind-casting artificials pays dividends. The trick is to find deeper water near productive flats with current.
Regarding the Finger Channels south of Key Biscayne, says Estevez: “If it’s low tide, or in the cold of winter or dead of summer, head to the Finger Channels and bounce pompano jigs on the bottom. Bonefish head for the deeper channels, and you’re also likely to catch permit, mutton snapper and juvenile African pompano.”
Try pompano jigs or an undersize bucktail jig crafted mostly with a chrome jig head, short-shank hook and nylon skirt. The skirts are often cut short, just past the bend in the hook. Bomber’s Nylure Pompano jig is a good example of this style of jig.
Other pompano jigs, like Doc’s Goofy Jig, are shaped kind of wacky. The Goofy jig is a long-shanked hook set inside a banana-shaped lead. Many times, the jig is dressed with a secondary hook hidden inside a skirt. This popular jig catches bonefish over sandy bottoms. Next time the fresh bait’s not available, tie on a jig with confidence.