It always boggles my mind when I look over my shoulder while piloting my skiff on a run to the bonefish flats of south Biscayne Bay.
There it is. Miami. Like a monolith, shoulder-to-shoulder skyscrapers looming at the water’s edge. The early morning layer of brown haze hugs the top floors, a telltale sign that bumper-to-bumper traffic already clogging the highways at 6:30 a.m. It is surreal that this sprawling city of millions is within eyeshot of tropical tidal flats teeming with world-class bonefish and permit.
Running along at 40 miles per hour the humidity is temporarily forgotten, but if you’ve been in South Florida in the height of summer, you know it’s something unforgettable. And so is that first flickering, wet tail of a bonefish or permit as you pole into the shallows, with a rod in hand, and your heart in your throat.
My longtime flats-fishing partner Richard Kernish is at the wheel, and checking the tide table on his chart plotter.
“We still have falling water, Mike. Let’s start on the oceanside flats for bones, and come back into the Bay later to follow rising water.”
That game plan made good sense given the water temp, likely to reach the high 80’s by lunchtime. The slightly cooler oceanside current would bathe the flats there, giving us a better chance at fish. We skirted the labyrinth of east-west finger channels called Stiltsville, at one time a hodgepodge of private weekend bungalows on tall pilings that dotted the edges of bonefish flats extending south from the tip of Key Biscayne. Most succumbed to Hurricane Andrew, not to be rebuilt because those flats were swallowed up by an expanding Biscayne National Park.
On the oceanside of the long string of skinny Islands that is in essence the northernmost Florida Keys, Richard brought the skiff off plane. We idled into a grassy cove with soft marl bottom. Tailing bonefish were a possibility–the water was getting “skinnier” by the minute.
I stood and surveyed the scene, immediately encouraged by a flock of egrets and a roseate spoonbill foraging on the flat. A small blacktip shark’s fin cut the surface a hundred yards ahead, another harbinger of good things to come. As Richard unracked his pushpole, a stingray flushed from the bottom just off the bow. Another was up ahead, its wing tips showing above the surface as it moved into the tide.
“I’m liking this,“ I said aloud. “The supporting cast is here.” Richard nodded in agreement. “Almost all the players,” he said, as he climbed onto the poling platform.
I grabbed a spinning rod and a fresh shrimp from the cooler, Texas rigged it, and a glint caught my eye up ahead. “Richard, I saw something flash at about 10 o’clock to the bow.”
“Okay,” he responded. I scanned the flat until Richard called out. “Mike, that is a fish. Still at 10, I saw a tail tip.” I turned and the tail came full out and fluttered as the fish dug its snout in the bottom. “That’s a big bone,” I whispered. Richard picked up the pace to close in. “Let me know how close you want to get,” he said. Another 30 feet and I put up my hand to signal him to stop.
“Let’s wait it out,” I whispered. I saw a small swirl before the entire tail waved above the surface, telling me that the fish’s head was to the left, and it would move in that direction. Richard’s vantage point on the platform now allowed him to see the fish in the water.
“Mike, it’s coming over a white spot, moving left. Do you see it?” I did not due to white cloud glare, until the tail fin creased the surface.
“Got it,” I said. My bail was already open, so I put my right hand at the butt of my 7 1/2-foot PENN spinning rod and made the long cast, feathering the line just before touchdown to soften the splash. It entered five or six feet ahead of the fish’s line of travel.
“That should work,” Richard said. I could now see its wake as it closed in on the shrimp so I twitched it once, and let it sit.
“It’s close to the bait, Mike,” Richard whispered. The bone’s tail popped up and fluttered excitedly, so I raised the rod slightly and felt the weight of the fish. I made the hookset and the fish hesitated before hitting the afterburners, blasting away in a trail of marl. I held my rod high above my head, mindful of the sea fans that line the dropoffs of Biscayne Bay oceanside flats. The fish slowed, and I glanced at my spool. Close to 100 yards out there I estimated, a typical run from a sizable South Florida bone. I put it to the fish at this point, to get it boat-side quickly. Mid-summer water temps exhaust these fish quickly, and it’s paramount to use adequate spinning gear to shorten the battle. The fish made a second, shorter run during which I feathered the skirt of my PENN Conflict II spool with my forefinger to add a bit more drag. Richard stayed up on the platform to scan for more fish as I led the bonefish aside. About a 7-pounder, an average fish for these waters. It was lit up, that pretty mint green and in good shape for the release. I popped the hook out, and held the fish upright underwater. Richard poled forward to help get water flowing over its gills and two minutes later, once we determined that no sharks had homed in, I set it free and watched it swim off strongly.
A Demanding, World-class Fishery
Biscayne Bay is unrivaled when it comes to sight-fishing for trophy bonefish and permit. Both species abound here, the size average is the highest in the world, but make no mistake, the fishing is demanding.
Big bones and permit are “educated” here. Fishing pressure is high during the prime spring and fall seasons, yet there are days when you might have it all to yourself. Other water-related activities also put fish on edge, but if you avoid picture postcard weekend days, your chances of success soar. Biscayne Bay’s flats fishery is vast, extending from a stone’s throw of downtown Miami and Key Biscayne to the southernmost boundary of the Bay, at Key Largo. Lush grassflats exist both along the mainland western shore and the oceanside flats. Mainland flats hold primarily bonefish, and the oceanside offers a mix of bones, permit and barracuda, plus migrating tarpon from late spring through summer, giving both spin and fly anglers opportunity to score the heralded flats grand slam. Stalking fish via poling skiff is the main game, though firm-bottomed flats allow for wading, which is a great way to sneak up on these wary fish.
Seasons and Conditions
Getting ample shots at fish and catching them calls for picking optimum conditions.
Local knowledge of flats is a must, and that is why hiring a guide is advised. For example, some flats fish best on rising tides, some on ebb tides. Water temps must be monitored. Tolerable range for bonefish is roughly 68 to 85 degrees, though they will tolerate some extremes. Permit are more tolerant of hot water then bones, but not of cold water.
September through November and March through May are prime periods for both big bonefish in the 9- to 13-pound class and permit from 10 to 30-plus pounds. The water temp is ideal, and allows for all-day fishing. By late June, water temps in the mid to upper 80s cause bones to feed shallow early and late in the day. Permit numbers again increase in late August (many fish spawn earlier in the summer) and peak in September and October. You need sunshine to spot fish, and many flats anglers agree that some wind is better than none. A mirror-smooth surface allows you see fish better, but they can spot you more easily, too. I’ve caught most of my permit, and my biggest bonefish over the years when it blew 15- to 20-mph. You can get closer to the fish before casting on such days.
Tailers, Cruisers and Mudders
Expect to see more cruising fish than tailers on the Bay’s flats. Tailing activity takes place either on the early incoming or late outgoing phases, as a function of depth. The tail comes out when the head goes down to feed, if shallow enough. Bones and permit sometimes scrape their bellies in skinny water, and their dorsal may show, too. It’s exciting to see, but fish this shallow feel super conspicuous, and will spook at the slightest provocation. Hardest of all to catch.
Bonefish will swim along either alone, paired up or in groups of three to five on flats edges at low tide and on the crowns of flats on high tide. Permit need higher water on the flats than bonefish due to the “depth” of their bodies.
On the oceanside flats, both single fish and groups of bonefish sometimes “plow” soft bottom sediments in 2 to 5 feet for food, raising unmistakable “muds,” silty water which stands out in the typically clear water. The fish head into the tidal current, and move at a pretty good clip. For that reason, rather than looking for fish directly in the mud, scan the flat for the fish anywhere from 10 to 30 feet up-tide of the muddy patch. Mudding activity is most common on windy days, and on spring tides (coincide with the new and full moon).
Natural bait (a fresh shrimp or quarter-size live blue crab) often out-fishes flies and jigs, especially when water temps are at either end of the fish’s preferred range. Shrimp-tipped or pure “skimmer” or round-head jigs in the 1/8- to 1/4-ounce size are standard lures for both species, and can be cast a bit farther, and sink fast, so are ideal for bones over deeper flats, or permit that prefer water over 2 feet deep. Favorite colors include tan, brown or pink. Small crabs for either species are best matched to a short-shank hook ( a no. 1/0 or 2/0 depending on brand). Pass the hook through a corner of the crab’s carapace from underneath. A live of fresh-dead shrimp can be paired with the same hook, or Texas-rigged with a longer shank model to make it snag-free over grassy bottom. Choose a 7- to 8-foot spin combo suited for 8- to 12-pound test monofilament or 10- to 15-pound braided line. I recently fished a PENN Slammer III 3000 spinning reel paired with a 7 1/2-foot PENN Battalion rod rated for 8- to 15-pound line and feel it is ideal for permit; the PENN Conflict II 3000 matched to the same rod serves well for bonefish or permit. Both have ample line capacity and smooth drags that are vitally important.
For bones or permit, a reel must hold at least 200 yards of line. Tie a 4- to 5-foot, 12- to 15-pound mono or fluorocarbon to that. Set your drag relatively light—you can always apply more friction with your fingers to the skirt of your spool as a fish runs.
The key is to present a bait or jig without alarming the fish on impact, or when reeling the offering into position. With light braid in the 10-pound class, you can cast a good-sized shrimp a fair distance with or without a splitshot weight. Snip off the tail fin and Texas-rig it to make it snag-free over turtle grass, or pass the point through the tail meat exiting the point through the “belly.” Make sure the shrimp does not spin in the air on the cast, or in the water. If a bonefish tails within casting range, get the bait within three or four feet of it quickly, while its attention is on what it’s trying to eat. Feather the line with your casting hand forefinger or your free hand just as it is landing to soften the entry. If it is in the fish’s line of travel, let the fish find it. Otherwise, reel it slowly into position. Watch the fish for a reaction. If it tails over the bait, it probably ate it. Or, watch for it to surge ahead and take it.
With a jig, things are trickier. You can’t bean the fish in shallow water—you must cast farther ahead and move it into position, or you chance spooking the fish. The ideal shot is a fish coming at you and this applies to both bones and permit. Cast the jig 5 to 10 feet ahead, depending on depth and fish’s rate of travel. Once you feel the lure has been spotted, let it drop and watch for the take. If a fish appears suddenly at close range, you have no choice other than casting a jig close—be sure to feather the line a bit to soften the entry sound.
You can cast a live crab surprisingly close to a permit or bonefish. Often, the second it lands, the crab will jet straight for bottom. With a skimmer jig, let it sink in the same fashion to imitate a crab. Both permit and bones will follow it down and pin it to the bottom. Simply reel steadily until you feel tension and set the hook soundly.