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Wade Fishing the Flats for Bonefish and Permit

Wade the deeper flats to fool educated bonefish and permit.

Wader fights fish up close and personal.

Wade the deeper flats to fool educated bonefish and permit.

There are three or four things wade-fishermen from Southwest Florida don’t do: They don’t intentionally step on stingrays; they don’t spit into the wind; and they don’t catch bonefish or permit.

At least, those are the things all but one of us doesn’t do. Bokeelia angler Dave Harrington is the exception, to that part about bonefish and permit. Since 1990 he’s been catching either or both on a half-dozen outings every year.

He doesn’t exactly do it in Southwest Florida. But as often as not he does it out of Southwest Florida, on day trips to the Keys in his car. And anyone else within driving range of the Keys can do the same, with never a thought about a boat.

Which is not to put down fishing from boats, much less guided boats, although most guides would be hard-pressed to equal Harrington’s record. He never, ever gets blown out by the weather, and he doesn’t remember the last time he got skunked. He averages three to five bones in the 4- to 6-pound range on every trip, and he manages a permit about every third day of wading. Once he even grand-slammed on an overnight trip, catching tarpon, permit and bones in less than 24 hours.

“I don’t count the little 2- and 3-foot tarpon I catch in the dredge holes,” Harrington said of the junior poons he sometimes finds stacked up in underwater borrow pits dug for causeway fill along the Overseas Highway. He sometimes catches those fish in bunches, but in truth he can catch more and bigger tarpon back home while boating in Charlotte Harbor.

Every other month or so Harrington takes a day or a weekend for a Keys bout with his beloved bones. It’s a few hundred miles round-trip, but gas for his car, meals and the occasional motel room are almost his only expenses. Besides his Chubby Grubs.

After considerable trial and error, the only baits he ever throws, year in and year out, are Cotee Chubby Grub plastic jigs with 1⁄8-ounce red or white heads. The grubs are always clear with gold metalflake. Other manufacturers also make the ribbed, spear-point style grubs, and Harrington has no doubt they will work just fine, but he has a large supply of his favorite brand and he no longer even thinks about experimenting.

Harrington just gets right to it, wading and casting in every conspicuous spot along U.S. 1, from Matecumbe to Boca Chica.

“The only thing I don’t do is I don’t try to sight-fish,” Harrington says of his technique. “Ninety percent of the fish I catch are by blind-casting.”

That, Harrington believes, is the key to his success where others often fail.

A clear-cut example came on the day Harrington agreed to take Fort Myers Beach angler Bill Sharp and me on a day-trip to the Upper Keys. I had heard of his exploits and was dying to see how he managed such consistency at a task I had tried—and performed at middling to failing levels—with more than a few skilled guides and heralded amateur anglers on the platform behind me.

When we arrived, two anglers were already wading the oceanside flat off Lower Matecumbe, “where every tackle shop in the Keys sends people who want to try catching a bonefish,” Harrington said. One of the two was wielding a spinning rod, and the other appeared to be skilled at casting flies, on the two occasions he cast. Both, however, confined themselves to shallows of tailing depth, where they might easily see cruising bones, should any come in with the rising tide.

Harrington paid them no mind whatever, proceeding west down the beach until patchy grass was visible about 100 yards offshore. He headed straight for the grass, not even casting before the water was up to his thighs, and he was battling a small bonefish within minutes.

Shortly thereafter, Sharp noted that his own Chubby Grub was being swarmed by a school of permit that followed his bait like ravenous jacks. None struck on that retrieve, but he reloaded and cast to a fish only 15 feet to his fore, with not even enough time to flip the bail on his spinning reel before his bait was Miami-bound.

Sharp, who has his way with hundreds of snook every year, found his hands full with the permit.

“The way you know you’ve got a permit,” Harrington said of his blind-fishing technique, “is that you would have landed a bonefish a while ago.” Otherwise, it is debatable which can make a spool spin faster.

Not two minutes after Sharp released his permit, a pod of six or seven bonefish swam along the grassline inshore of me, but close enough to make me forget about breathing for a minute. Those bones were so big, I hesitate to say how heavy I thought every one of them might be, but we are not talking even close to single-digit weights. Unfortunately, they did not arrive at leg-long lengths by glomming onto every jig that came their way.

Meanwhile, the fellow with the fly rod had thrown a couple of long loops with no discernible result, and the ankle-deep spinning guy did not appear to have spotted so much as a starfish through his tan polarized lenses.

Bill took one more bone on the oceanside flat, and Dave lost a couple of fish that easily might have turned out to be permit, if he’d ever gotten them back within sight. Altogether they combined for five bonefish, all caught on jigs.

That was at the same time when the 17 top-flight anglers and guides in the 2002 running of the 36th Annual Mercury Outboards Bonefishing World Championship/Islamorada All-Tackle Tournament were abandoning artificial baits for live shrimp and crabs, due to exceptionally high tides throughout the Upper Keys. Those teams averaged catching a total of 71⁄2 bonefish over five full days of fishing in the same conditions.

Bonefish and permit, of course, are not the only things a wader can hook in the Keys. There also are a bunch of uninvited species that also aren’t often caught on Southwest Florida flats. For whatever reason, barracuda and blue runners are abundant offshore along the lower Gulf Coast, but they don’t often move into the bays and on the flats. They certainly do in the Keys, and they are amusing diversions from the spells between more glamourous bites. The cudas, of course, sometimes are evident only by the lack of a jig on one’s line, and sometimes by the lack of a tail on the fish on one’s line.

The other significant player on the Keys flats is the boxfish, more properly known as the scrawled cowfish. The boxfish fill the same ecological niche as the puffers and burrfish back home—a group that appears to thrive primarily on soft plastic. I know of no person who ever has been bitten by a boxfish, but after seeing the scoops they carve out of Chubby Grubs, I can imagine no one who would care to be first.

Harrington estimates he has caught about 600 bonefish in the dozen years since he started making Keys sojourns—actually on the same weekend George H.W. Bush took his first presidential bonefishing vacation. At first he wasn’t much more successful than the Prez, whose well publicized score was zero. Likely the entourage of hovering helicopters and press boats had a lot to do with the president’s failure, but that wasn’t Harrington’s problem.

“The first year I lost more than 50 percent of the fish I hooked,” he noted. “I lost all of them on bottom structure—sponges, fans and that stuff.”

The fix for that, he found, was fishing where that stuff wasn’t. That also alleviates hangups while retrieving the grubs, although that isn’t much of a problem to begin with. He also uses 15-pound line, which provides significant advantages for an angler who can’t well follow a hard-charging fish. He can get a bonefish or permit to end that first blistering run with a little less line stretched across a flat, and the heavier line can withstand a lot more abuse than 8-pound, which admittedly casts farther.

The great thing about wading is that long casts aren’t at all necessary. Bonefish can detect boats at great distances, especially if there is a slight chop running. But a wader standing still in 30 inches of water is virtually invisible. Fly fishing’s thick line and more conspicuous casting action make for a somewhat less stealthy approach, but compared to the same disadvantages from the extra height of a boat, wading with a fly rod is much less problematic.

Fly fishing, of course, is much easier when the caster can see the fish—an advantage Harrington gives up at the outset. He doesn’t give up his fly rod, however. If conditions develop for sight-fishing, and tails start popping up in extreme shallows, he is quick to switch to a fly. Otherwise, he just waits until blind casting with a fly is the odds-on thing to do.

“If I catch as many as three fish in an hour, I automatically go to a fly rod,” Harrington says. His favorite pattern is a crystal chenille Conehead Shrimp.

Most times, though, he is bumping his Chubby Grub along the bottom, albeit in a way rarely seen among most veteran jiggers. Harrington imparts all of the action to his jig with his reel, not the rod. He does that by cranking rapidly for two revolutions of the handle, and then stopping the reel dead. The rod never moves from a position parallel to the water.

The advantage to that technique is that Harrington never gets a bite with his rodtip held high. Up there it’s impossible to strike a fish without first lowering the rod, and likely without cranking a bit of slack out of the line as well. The disadvantage to Harrington’s technique, as far as I could tell, was none. Bonefish bit the heck out of his jigs, which he attaches to 20-pound fluorocarbon leader.

If he feels a bite during the significant pause between spurts of reeling, he can instantly strike with the rod against a tight line. If he feels the bite while he’s reeling, he strikes on an even tighter line. That would be what most of us would call a win/win deal (unless you’re a bonefish).

Over the past dozen years Harrington has discovered eight flats with hard bottom, where the wading is easy. In most spots he fishes from about 30 inches of water, casting in some cases into 4-foot depths. Some “private” flats he uses on overnight trips, when he stays at the motels from which they are accessed. He often finds the best fishing very early and very late in the day.

One, the Long Key seawall flat, is especially valuable because it’s on the Florida Bay side of the islands, and therefore is sheltered from south and east winds. Harrington’s Key West spots, one of which is the site of his only mutton snapper on the flats, are well protected from an east wind. The other lucky seven all are favorable for fishing north or westerly winds.

Six others he’s keeping to himself, just in case these become too popular. Try one, and you may get hooked to the bone, yourself.

FS