Bonefish flies don’t have to be as complicated as we make them out to be, particularly for fish that are fairly unbothered. We can make fly selection much easier by thinking about bonefish flies from a functional perspective first, and then changing other features that might affect the bonefish second.
The specific bonefish destination also plays into your bonefish fly choice, since each venue has particular structural and food characteristics that will determine a good portion of your bonefish fly selection.
Below, we’ll examine the most important characteristics of your bonefish flies from most important to least important. So, let’s look at the best way to fill your bonefish fly box with the best and most potent bonefish flies around.
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BONEFISH FLIES: SINKING CHARACTERISTICS
The most important feature of bonefish flies is how they sink. There are three things to consider weight, sink rate, and how well the hook rides up.
Weight obviously affects sink rate, but it also determines how loud your fly is when it hits the water. Depending on the venue, you may spook bonefish with loud plops. In others, the plop or entry may get their attention and trigger a strike.
Sink rate is not simply determined by weight. If you fish an ultra-sparse fly, your fly will sink faster. If you fish a bulky fly made out of spun deer hair, your bonefish fly might hover in the water column. Your knot also makes a difference—a loop knot sinks faster. Your leader and tippet will affect this as well.
Sink rate is hugely important because you need to get your fly to the level of the fish QUICKLY! Bonefish move very fast at times, so you need to make a cast normally not on the bonefish’s head, sink the fly to the bottom, and begin moving the fly in front of the bonefish. If you don’t do that first, all while not spooking the bonefish with the plop, everything else you do to your fly is meaningless. That’s why sinking characteristics are the most important.
Finally, make sure that the fly rides hook up, so you don’t snag coral, vegetation, or mangroves as you retrieve the fly.
TIP 1: Use bonefish flies that have the proper weight to sink the fly fast without spooking the fish and that always ride with the hook point up.
BONEFISH FLIES: SHAPE
The overall appearance of your bonefish flies, as one might expect, is going to determine your success to a large part. These are the features a bonefish might see from a good distance off. Think of these as the “thumbnail” of your presentation. If the bonefish likes what it sees, it normally commits.
Bonefish will eat much larger fly patterns than you find in most fly shops, particularly the big fish, but there are some venues and times of year when bonefish need a smaller-sized fly. Either way, the size of your pattern will dictate whether the bonefish will even approach it.
As a rule, bonefish flies are normally size #2 to #8, with #4 and #6 being more common. However, you can fish size #1/0 and even #2/0 flies in some destinations with bigger, more aggressive bonefish.
Bonefish flies follow a basic rule of thumb that applies to most species and fly patterns.
TIP 2: If the bonefish are heavily pressured, in larger numbers, small, spooky, or in a venue with mostly small food, then go with a smaller fly pattern.
If the bonefish are lightly pressured, moving in smaller groups, large, aggressive, or in a venue with mainly larger prey, then use a larger pattern.
MATCHING THE HATCH IS RARELY REQUIRED WITH BONEFISH.
The general profile of your bonefish fly acts as a calling card to bonefish. If they are eating primarily shrimp, gobies, and mojarra, then a thin, longer pattern will probably be more effective. Bonefish eat a lot of crabs, but they are opportunistic and will almost always be interested in a longer, more shrimpy-looking pattern. In most cases, you’re better off going with a shrimp-style pattern for bonefish, because this profile resembles more bait options the bonefish regularly encounters, and a longer fly moves more naturally than most crab flies.
Predominance of prey
The major prey offering to a bonefish is obviously important. In most cases, they have a varied diet and are highly opportunistic. In some cases, like in Los Roques, the bonefish eat a substantial amount of one prey item, in this case sardines. Because of this, Gummy Minnows are really popular in Los Roques but are used virtually nowhere else. Before you head out to the flats, do a bit or research to see if you’ll be encountering a similar situation to Los Roques.
BE CAREFUL WITH RUBBER LEGS AND YOUR HOOK FOULING.
BONEFISH FLIES: FUNCTION
Bonefish fly function, outside of fly action, is often an afterthought for many bonefish fly anglers. The most likely reality is that if you are able to present a fly naturally and quietly that is even remotely close to a bonefish’s diet, it will probably eat your fly. This is why function is super important.
The word “action” with bonefish flies is somewhat a misnomer. Bonefish flies do not jig or dart back and forth, not necessarily because they aren’t able to do this, but because they don’t need to. The fly gets the attention of the bonefish and then sits there as the bonefish eats it. It’s more movement, not “action.”
In this light, using flies with enough movement to get the attention of the fish is normally all that is needed. Rubber legs, fox hair, craft fur, bunny, and pseudo-hair are excellent options to make your fly look alive and catch the attention of the bonefish.
As the bonefish approaches your fly, it rarely stops and admires your fly. It either eats your fly or ignores it. Sometimes you can move your fly again to let the bonefish know where it is or to give it another chance. This all happens in the blink of an eye. It’s not like you’re fishing for a largemouth bass on a spawning bed, where you have five minutes to try and catch the fish. The most basic action and natural movement is often all you need for bonefish.
Natural movement is the key here, so when your fly fouls, either because of a craft-fur wing or some rubber legs, the features that make your fly move naturally can also cause it to fail. Make sure that your rubber legs do not wrap around your fly. Cut the length of your rubber legs and constantly inspect if your wing is fouling. We’ve learned this the hard way with both bonefish and permit.
If you can’t get your fly to the bonefish, it’s useless. Large puffy flies with rubber legs, heavy weight, and flapping, wind-resistant appendages keep you from accomplishing your goal of putting your fly in front of the fish. Use bonefish flies that will help you to cast in a stiff wind.
The sparseness of your bonefish flies can be purely aesthetic, but it pretty much always affects the fly function mainly in the drop rate and castability of your fly. The more material, the harder it is to cast and the slower it sinks. If you can use less material on your flies, it normally boosts the performance of your fly on at least these two levels.
Weed guards are necessary in a few destinations that have substantial amounts of coral and/or weed flats. If you’re collecting weeds on every cast, you’re going to have a tough time catching fish. Make sure you have at least a few patterns with weed guards in your box.
BONEFISH FLIES: HOOK CHARACTERISTICS
One of the most important reasons to tie your own flies is to guarantee that you are using the perfect hook for bonefish. You have many options and manufacturers of hooks to choose from, and you’re stuck with the hook that a commercial tyer provides otherwise.
The perfect bonefish hook is super sharp and sticky. You want the bonefish to almost hook themselves with the hook, and that only happens from a sticky hook. A sticky and super-effective bonefish hook comes from 2 main characteristics: thin wire and a well-designed point.
Thin-wire hooks, however, bring the concern of bending hooks. Because of the powerful nature of bonefish, you need to have strong wire on your hook. If you’re catching smaller fish, you can normally get away with a thinner hook, but if you have a chance of catching a fish over 5 pounds, don’t mess around. If double-digit bones are a real chance, you’re asking for a disappointing day on the water with a weak hook. The other advantage of a stronger hook is to turn a fish that is swimming towards mangroves.
Finally, but a distant 3rd, the shape of your hook helps you to make flies with the ideal profile for the specific bonefish flat you’re fishing. If you can’t find a perfectly shaped hook, but the hook is strong and sharp, then forget about shape. Make it work.
EXCELLENT BONEFISH HOOKS
Daiichi X452, Mustad C70SD, Gamakatsu SL12, Gamakatsu L11S-3H, Owner Aki 1/0 (big flies), and Tiemco 811S (smaller bonefish).
BONEFISH FLIES: SUPERFICIAL FEATURES
The features that, for all intents and purposes, are the least important to the bonefish are normally high on the fly angler’s list. These features can be important in some conditions, but if you have covered all of the other aspects of bonefish flies (sinking, shape, function, and hook quality), superficial features of bonefish flies add the finishing touches.
If you have a bonefish fly in tan or light white, you’re more or less set. You could use these colors virtually anywhere in the world. The general idea behind bonefish fly color is to match the bottom content. This is a simplistic, although effective, view.
You can use color to attract the fish to your fly. Orange and pink are excellent colors to use to attract bonefish to you. Normally, this is as an accent in stripes, an egg sag, or rubber legs. Chartreuse is also used in a few fly patterns.
Basically, if your fly is tan/off white with an accent of orange or pink, you’re ready to rock. You might need to go a little darker on weed flats, using olive-colored and brown-colored flies. However, for 90% of bonefishing situations, these colors cover most destinations. Also, don’t be afraid to experiment with color on your bonefish flats.
It is irrefutable that flash works on bonefish flies. Many famous patterns like the Christmas Island Special and the Gotcha have a full body of flash on it. Flash is a nice way to get the attention of a bonefish, and if they are feeding on minnows, like the mojarra, then this may contribute to the fly’s effectiveness.
On the other hand, some anglers will lessen the amount of flash on their flies because they swear that the bigger fish prefer less. Either way, have some flies that have flash and some that don’t. You can also trim flash on the water, but you really can’t add it on the water. Then, just see which bonefish flies are more effective for you on your waters.
Transparency can be good or bad. If the fish doesn’t see your fly because it’s blending in, then your fly has failed. If you’re fishing for highly-pressured bonefish, then a transparent fly might work, but don’t try to imitate the natural shrimp, because you’re not trying to imitate a natural; you’re trying to attract a bonefish. This is sometimes hard for fly anglers because they’re conditioned to match the hatch. Transparency is something to experiment with, but don’t be too zealous with this feature.
Texture is a bonefish fly characteristic that many ignore. This may be for good reason, since bonefish eat all sorts of hard-shelled critters. Because of this, it seems like it may have a minimal effect on bonefish flies, but feel free to experiment.
TIP 3: After your bonefish flies perform well with sinking, shape, function, and hook quality, superficial features of bonefish flies (color, flash, transparency, and texture) add the finishing touches.
BONEFISH FLY PATTERNS
Many bonefish flies will catch fish, but 12 patterns cover your basis in virtually every bonefish destination on earth. These are the first 12 we would suggest from top to bottom and left to right: Bonefish Junk, Gotcha (all its versions), Bonefish Clouser, Veverka’s Mantis Shrimp, Enrico Puglisi Spawning Shrimp, Peterson’s Spawning Shrimp, Squimp, Miheve’s Flats Fly (Greg’s Flats Fly), Bonefish Scampi, Bonefish Bitters, Beck’s Sili Legs, and the Christmas Island Special.
If you have a box full of the flies above in a few color schemes with a good variety of features related to sinking, shape, function, and hook quality, you should be just fine anywhere in the world. You might throw in a Fleeing Crab or a Strong-Arm Crab in size #4 or #6, and this would cover 95% of the bonefish situations you might find yourself in.
Remember, there are a few specialized areas like Los Roques and Hawaii, so check with your guide or outfitter on specific destination bonefish-fly standards.
At the end of the day, bonefish flies are fun to tie, fun to look at, and fun to fish. Don’t get stressed about it, just follow the advice above and work on your cast. If you need to get better at fly fishing for bonefish, read our forthcoming article next, and remember that if you find yourself on the bonefish flats, it’s a good day any way you look at it.