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Bonefish Flats by the Chart

Integrate technology with old time water-sense. Spoiler Alert: Directions to some pretty good flats down south.

Volumes have been written about angling for the sleek, silvery bonefish. In the Keys, Bahamas, Miami and other tropical areas, you'll find guides who'll point out bonefish for you all day long.

But frankly, I don't think anyone's laid out a game plan taking advantage of modern technology on your own boat. For going on 17 years now, I've chased bonefish from every imaginable platform: kayaks, on foot, tiny poling skiffs, 20-foot bay boats. And I've fished for them most everywhere they're commonly found within a 150-mile radius of Miami (Cuba excepted). Only in recent months have I added a new mental Post-It note to my bonefish file: A modern GPS chartplotter is a major game-changer. But like a fine rod or well-made skiff, how you use this tool makes all the difference.

First things first. You cannot simply power away from the dock and blaze across shallow water at the mercy of a plotter. Bad idea—you could wreck your boat, wreck the grassflats, and certainly wreck your day. In the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary, they assess big fines for ruining grassflats, and justifiably so: Those grasses are integral to the ecology of bonefish country.

From a flats fishing perspective, don't expect the chartplotter to tell you where to go, but instead let it tell you where you've been, where it's safe to run, where you might've found fish at a certain tide. I'm speaking specifically of the Track feature found on most units—it draws a line which follows your vessel. So, visualize a possible route on your chart(s), then wait for a time of high sun,which will allow you to visually confirm a safe course. If in doubt, go slow. Always start with marked channels. Use observations of other vessels with guarded optimism: Just because that guy is zipping off toward a good-looking area doesn't mean you should, too.

And for goodness sakes don't count on sonar to keep you from running into trouble. It should go without saying, but at 20 or 30 knots, the precise depth of water beneath your hull is of negligible value if you're bearing down on a huge rock. Ultra-fast forward-looking sonar? Not there yet, guys!

On a trip to the Lower Keys this fall, Dad and I had a Navionics Gold chart chip in a Lowrance Elite 5 plotter to help guide the way. It proved reliable, to a point: Some otherwise safe-looking channels leading to the Gulf side of the Lower Keys have scattered, boat-smashing rocks. Not many, but enough to make you stand up and pay attention. As I'd hoped, we were able to see the rocks—brown or, if they're really menacing, yellow. In low light, those things could've been trip-enders. Navigate your way safely around such features, and your Track record will show the way next time. Some of the plotters (including that Lowrance) allow you to colorize different Tracks, and archive them such that you may select only the ones you need at a given time.

Also: Digital charts render many probable bonefish flats as drying areas—meaning zero depth at mean low water. You must take tides into careful consideration, not only to approach fish, but to avoid running aground or simply running out of water while staked out or poling.

And again I reiterate: Just because a plotter shows 2 feet of water ahead, and you're sure your boat draws only 1 foot, do not speed ahead blindly.

There's the ugly crunch of a lower unit on hard bottom, but there's also that horrible slosh when you shut down on soft bottom. Hurray! Nothing's broken, but then you realize you'll be putting or pushing for a quarter-mile.

Chart at your pleasure, but confirm, confirm, confirm.

About Some Flats

For the sake of education I'll stick my neck out here. A lot of fishermen would call me crazy, but I'll spill the beans (or bones?), on a couple of hotspots we found using the track method. Maybe I'll see you in the same places next time I'm there, but here's hoping instead you'll use this model to find your own spots.

What Dad and I did was take a series of scouting trips from a vacation rental on Cudjoe Key. Our goal wasn't so much to catch fish, but to figure out where we might catch fish. We were laying down our tracks.



We scouted first an Atlantic-side key, Lois Key, that had those tantalizing “BN” letters on our Florida Sportsman chart. (Yes, I'm biased, but frankly when I travel out of town, I'm a fan of these charts!). It was just after sunup, light enough to see bottom heading east, but still we opted for a conservative course, using a marked channel.

At the end of a long drift on a steady easterly breeze, we bumped out a school of big fish; I got off one cast with a jig. I took note of the time.

Back at the house, I pulled out a sheet of paper on which I'd jotted down the tides for several likely areas. Saw those Lois Key bones at the second hour of incoming tide, pretty typical.

I'd also scrawled out a rough tide chart. A real chart, as opposed to a tide table, which is merely a list of tides for the week or month. On my hand-drawn chart, I indicated the movement of water for observed

tide phases, and jotted down where we saw fish.

Later that day, we ran up Kemp's Channel all the way to Sawyer Key. We found fish there, too, as well as at Knock'emdown Key. Again, we made a few casts, but mostly were content with noting the presence of fish.

Tides are unusual down in the Lower Keys. Halfway through a rising tide on the oceanside, you may run to the backcountry and find it halfway through a falling tide. It's important to make notes: You may find published corrections for a nearby key or channel, but the tide for your target flat may be wildly different.

Our weeklong trip included lots of family activities (Mallory Square; catchin' mangrove snapper for a fish fry; rockin' out with the Doerfels at Boondocks) but Dad and I put our chart, and our chartplotter, together and made it happen.

Success came on Gopher Key, which was sheltered somewhat from northeast winds that dogged us the whole week.

I'd scouted the area the day before with my wife and 6-year-old daughter: We didn't fish, just stood on the bow of our 19-foot skiff and drifted with the wind. A sea turtle there, a shark there—all the magic of the Keys came to life before our eyes. Meanwhile, our plotter dutifully recorded our course, and I dutifully took note of the tide and depths.

The next day, same time, Dad and I came back for business. We again drifted that fishy-looking flat, and used our trolling motor to ease over to an especially attractive grass edge. Looked like the perfect place to anchor and watch for fish, so we did just that. To season the pot, I pitched out a few handfuls of cut-up shrimp.

Stare at the right water long enough and they'll appear, almost magically. “Dad, better come up to the bow, quick,” I said. “Two fish, eleven o'clock.”

The tide was just beginning to rise, straight into a 20-knot northeast wind. Odd conditions, if you aren't prepared for them. Fortunately we had sunshine overhead, illuminating a matrix of turtlegrass, sponges, sand and limerock bottom.

The bonefish took their time, seeming to drift toward the boat with the wind—though in fact they were nosing upcurrent, in their usual way.

Dad joined me at the bow. Spotting the fish, he made a quick, calculated cast with a shrimp-tipped jig.

One of the fish turned for the spot where the jig landed.

“He's coming for it,” I whispered. “Little jiggle of the rodtip, then reel.”

The fish moved forward, but hesitated. Dad gave another couple turns of the reel handle. That fish followed the jig to within 15 feet of the boat, before pile-driving it into the marl. Bonefish on!

The game wasn't finished yet: After a 100-yard run, light braided line suddenly went slack, as did the grin on Dad's face. “He's off,” he grunted, reeling up forlornly.

Cue “Hallelujah” Chorus

Bonefish are revered among light tackle and fly anglers the world over, not only for their speed and wariness, but for their unusual antics.

We were sure Dad's fish was lost, when suddenly the slack line got real heavy. That fish was still on; at some point it had decided to reverse jets, perhaps after burying itself in turtlegrass. After another couple of runs, soon Dad had a handsome bonefish to the boat.

But that wasn't the biggest trophy of all. What we had was a route for future trips, and a firm grasp on a system easily applied to other areas. - FS

First Published Florida Sportsman Jan. 2012

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