May 16, 2011
Lower Keys flats action soars when the tide and sun bottom out.
Prime Lower Keys flats have nearby channels and firm bottom for wading.
The weather's hot, the tide's low, the sun's sinking in the west-it's time to go bonefishing!
The water's surface was like a sheet of glass. Looking around, I could see wakes everywhere as a variety of fish moved onto the shallow flat to feed. You just knew that every ripple or bulge meant a fish. There were a lot of ripples and bulges. I watched the fin of a bonnet shark zigging and zagging across the flat, at first nearly mistaking him for a giant bonefish. Beyond the shark, a permit's tail reflected the rays of the setting sun, too far away for me to give chase. Closer, a stingray's tail momentarily broke the surface, yet another distraction to catch my eye, momentarily interrupting my search for bonefish tails. The joint was certainly jumping.
Finally I saw what I was looking for. A big silver tail waved at me only three casts away. This lone bonefish had moved out of a 3-foot deep depression onto the shallower flat, combing the bottom for succulent little goodies, dipping down to feed whenever it spotted something it liked. With every dip, the tail waved. With every wave, my heartbeat accelerated.
The bonefish was working into the current, slowly feeding and closing the gap. I waited impatiently until the bone was in range, then dropped my fly 10 feet in front of the fish, letting it lay on the bottom, hoping and praying nothing would change the fish's course. In only a foot of water without so much as a ripple, I was aware of how easy it would be to spook the fish. My long-lead strategy worked. The tail popped up where I thought the fly was lying. I gave it a gentle twitch and watched the tail swirl as the fish pounced.
The bonefish did a quick hundred-yard dash, turned and made for the channel, skirting my staked-out skiff and reached deeper water bordering the flat. I splashed after the fish, high-stepping as fast as I could in an attempt to reach the channel dropoff to prevent the line fraying on the edge. Seconds later, I watched in amazement as the fish pushed a wake on the flat across the channel, 100 yards away.
I increased the pressure on the fish, moving him back into the channel. I kept as much pressure on the bonefish as my 8-weight rod and 12-pound tippet allowed. It was imperative to work him back across the 6-foot-deep channel as quickly as possible. The more time in the deeper water, the better the chance of being eaten by a shark or cuda.
The bonefish and I were lucky. I was able to work him back to the flats on my side of the channel fairly quickly and without incident. There was another shorter run of a hundred feet or so, after which I gained control of the fish. Finally I got my first close look at one very nice bonefish. I led it to the boat and measured it out at just a little over 28 inches. This was a fat, heavily proportioned fish, not a 10-pounder, but not far from it. I was happy to see it swim away tired but looking strong and healthy.
I had two more opportunities that evening. One was a permit, which swam right over my fly and kept going. The other was at a school of a dozen bonefish, including one in front of the main body of fish that I didn't see and unfortunately lined. That took care of that bunch.
The sun dipped into the horizon, telling me it was time to head for home. It had been a wonderful evening on the flats for me. It would have been great even if I hadn't been fortunate enough to land a prize fish, but, as always, catching a big bonefish on a fly of my own design put the icing on the cake.
A combination of factors brought that flat to life that evening. First, there was a minus low-tide height, so low in fact that many surrounding flats were exposed. Secondly, the water was flat calm. It doesn't have to be completely calm to find and catch fish on these late-afternoon low tides, but it does make for more exciting fishing. Not to mention a better idea of what's coming my way from a greater distance. A mirror-like surface keeps the angler aware of what's happening on the flat for a long way. The third factor was the presence of so much visible life on the flats. When you see rays and sharks and baitfish, you can expect to see bonefish and maybe a permit or two. Last but not least, it was very warm. And that kind of action is typical of a summertime fishery that rarely occurs in cold weather.
My bonefish was substantial, but it didn't compare with the monster that Fletcher White caught and released from that area the same summer. His fish was over 32 inches long and he and another guide estimated the weight to be at least 14 pounds. It too, was caught just before dark on a minus low tide on a Gulfside Lower Keys flat. Bonefish caught in the Lower Keys are smaller on average than those caught in the Middle and Upper Keys. That brute is a big fish anywhere. I've noticed that many of the Lower Keys bonefish caught during similar tidal conditions are much larger than average.
When referring to the Lower Keys, one thinks of the waters from the Content Keys west to the Marquesas. The most accessible productive flats to wade for bonefish start at the Lower Harbor Keys and extend east all the way to Old Spanish Channel. There are some good areas on the Atlantic side, but the Gulfside flats are much more extensive and are also firmer-much more suitable for wading. Every bonefisherman alive has a favorite wading spot. In the Lower Keys, there are several physical characteristics you should look for on a flat to help you find tailing fish. Certain tide and weather conditions are important as well.
Look for a channel cutting through a Gulfside Lower Keys flat. Flats next to channels, where there is good water movement, are a preferred feeding ground for bonefish. Stake out or anchor your boat at the mouth of the channel right where it empties into the Gulf. You'll usually find a shallow, narrow strip flat parallel to the channel. That's an excellent place to start looking. Most flats have channels running through them, and in many cases these channels are only a few hundred feet apart. Usually there will be a "U" between the channels, with the feet of the U forming the narrow strip flats and the curve of the U protruding into the exposed part of the flat. Often schools of bonefish will feed back and forth in the U-shaped shallows.
For anglers new to the area, there are some great aerial photo maps available which will make choosing the best places to fish easy. Aerial maps clearly show the Gulfside flats and intersecting channels. They will also help you get home. Two excellent aerial maps you want for the Lower Keys are number F104-Key West and number F103-Big Pine Key. Most marinas in the Keys carry them, or you can order them by calling Glenn Schurr's Standard Mapping Services at 1-(888) 286-0920. I often think of how much help these aeri
al maps would have been to me 20 years ago when I first started learning this area.
May through September is best for Lower Keys wading, and April and October can be as good. You need a minus low tide (these occur during spring tides, around the full and new moons.) If you glance at a tide table-the Florida Sportsman Fishing Planner includes the tide heights-you'll notice that the lowest lows (ranging from -0.1 to -0.6 through summer) occur during late afternoon. And from June on, there will be plenty of calm evenings. These conditions are perfect for wading with your fly rod in search of the big fish.
It's important to note that the tides on the Gulfside of the Lower Keys are three to more than four hours later than the posted Key West tides. Look at your chart and find Snipe Point. Figure on tides four hours later than Key West for that area. To the west you'll see the Lower Harbor Keys. There the tides are approximately 3 1/2 hours later than Key West. To the east of Snipe is Sawyer Key-with about a 4 1/2 hour delay. Predicted tide times and heights in the backcountry are very susceptible to wind and atmospheric pressure changes. Also be aware that the tide will start rising while the current is still moving out. This is my favorite time to fish.
Basic bonefish fly tackle is standard here. A 6- to 8-weight rod with a good quality reel and a weight forward floating line will do it. Let the water depth and wind conditions dictate your choice of tackle. The shallower and calmer it is, the lighter your fly line should be. You don't want a heavy fly line slapping a flat surface when the fish are all ears. A wide variety of bonefish flies will work. You need an unweighted or very lightly weighted fly with a weedguard when fishing over grass, which covers most flats you'll be fishing. Where the bottom is sandy, switch to a weighted fly that will bounce along the bottom.
I learned the value of a stripping basket the hard way. It's really frustrating to watch a school of bonefish working toward you, only to have the line tangle and the fly hit the water halfway to the fish. It happened to me on a summer evening bonefish trip when a happy school of tailers was coming right at me. I cast, but the line in the water at my feet came up in a heap. The light was failing and there I was with my fly sitting on the bottom barely 20 feet from me, while I franticly tried to unravel the tangle so I could pick the line up and recast before the fish moved on. It came as a complete surprise when one of the bonefish picked up my idle fly and took off like a rocket. And there went the tangle, zipping-or should I say bumping-through the guides without tearing them off the rod. It was even more amazing that my leader didn't part, and that we landed that fish, a feisty 7-pounder. I say we, because my buddy Joe waded in front of me once I got the fly line back on the reel to undo the knotted tangle, which was flying around in all directions. As he worked on it, we both moved back and forth in some crazy dance, in conjunction with the fish's movements. We finally gave up on the tangle and hand-lined a very tired fish in the rest of the way so we could release him. By now it was dusk, so we waded back to the boat, tangle and all, and raced home in darkness.
You can wade in tennis shoes, but wading shoes are much better. One nice thing about the Lower Keys flats bordering the Gulf is these are almost all hard-bottom flats. Move inside from the Gulf and you run into a few soft bottom flats.
When you're out in this area and see other anglers in the distance, nine times out of ten they're local guides. After a full day poling his skiff in pursuit of tarpon, many of us head out again, alone or with another guide. When the wind is down, and the sun and tide are both low, tailing bonefish are just a short skiff ride away.
Who can resist such an ultimate fly-fishing challenge? Wading in water only a foot deep, creeping within casting range of giant bonefish tails glistening in golden afternoon light. Make a perfect presentation to a feeding bonefish 60 feet away and your rod is bent, your reel is singing, and your line is hissing as it zips through the water.
Sometimes, life is good.
If anyone would know what fly works best during low-light, low-water conditions, it would be the locals who are out there when the conditions are right. But among those who were willing to divulge their favorite pattern, there was no consensus. It came as a surprise to me that every local expert I questioned gave me a different answer.
A pattern I developed expressly for these Lower Keys flats-which I dubbed the Franklin Fly-is tied with leach yarn, beige Craft Fur, has a brown feather palmered in front of the eyes and wing and has eyes that are best suited for the depth. I tie it with a weedguard unless I'm fishing sandy bottom, and then I like lead eyes.
Well-known author and guide Jeffery Cardenas prefers the Borski Fur Shrimp, tied weedless and with bead chain eyes, and has had great success fishing this fly over shallow Lower Keys grassflats.
Captain Nick Malinovsky likes to wade where there are big sandy spots. His favorite fly for this is a light-colored Clouser with the hair or fur trimmed to within a half-inch of the bend of the hook.
Expert fly fisherman Charlie Johnson likes a simple rabbit fur fly, which is basically a 2-inch strip of fur tied to the hook. One loop of monofiliment keeps the fur strip from tangling on the hook and another makes the fly weedless (see photo).
Veteran Lower Keys guide Tom Pierce's bread-and-butter fly is a blonde Craft Fur fly with a ginger hackle collar that serves to cushion the fly's landing-perfect for tailing fish in the shallows.
Big Pine Key dentist Fred Troxel has probably walked more flats than anyone in the Lower Keys. He normally uses a tan or beige Snapping Shrimp.
Captain Simon Becker prefers a West Coast pattern, Jay Murakoshi's Shrimp Fly. Out there it's used to catch surf perch. Simon uses it here for bonefish.
These Lower Keys fly fishers may not have agreed on favorite patterns, but they all tied with No. 4 or 2 hooks, used weedguards and minimum weight for fishing over grass and lead-eyes to get their flies down fast over clean sandy bottom.