Fish Facts: Bonefish (Albula sp.)

Bonefish can be elusive and inscrutable to both anglers and scientists.
Photo by Sandy Hays

Sight-casting to bonefish in skinny water is a challenge that many fly fishers see as a vital rite of passage in their development. Once your angling skills reach a certain level, it’s time to test them against an especially spooky and powerful quarry, as well as the tropical winds. Watching a big bone tearing off line as it heads for the horizon, putting a sharp bend in your rod and causing your reel arbor to blur, is a unique thrill.

Mystery Fish
As popular as it is with sportsmen, the bonefish is still somewhat of a mystery to science, which still seeks some basic information about the fish’s life cycle and distribution. For instance, the most common species of bonefish in the Atlantic and Caribbean is Albula vulpes, but a 2003 study by Dr. Aaron Adams of the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida found that the vast majority of juvenile fish on the Florida coast were Albula garcia. Since 90 percent of the adult fish in the Caribbean are A. vulpes, where are all the juveniles? And where are the adult A. Garcia? Scientists continue to study these questions, as well as trying to discover where bonefish actually spawn. In fact, just this month, discoveries by scientists working with the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust has shed new light on bonefish spawning behavior.

A flats boat is often the key to finding bonefish, especially where flats are expansive.
Photo by Sandy Hays

Range and Life History
Even the number of species of bonefish is still not settled science. FishBase lists some 11 species, subspecies, or “cryptic species”—including Albula vulpes (which North American anglers target most), Albula esuncula (the eastern pacific bonefish), Albula glossodonta (the roundjaw bonefish), and Albula oligolepsis (the small-scale bonefish), among others. One of the reasons for all the diversity is that bonefish are found worldwide in tropical and warm temperate waters. In the Americas, bonefish are occasionally caught as far north as New York, and the range extends through the Caribbean to Brazil. On the West Coast, the range extends from San Francisco in the north to Peru. Other worldwide hot spots include the Seychelles, Christmas Island, and New Caledonia.

Bonefish are usually found in intertidal flats, mangroves, and creeks, and they can tolerate the oxygen-poor water often found in the tropics by inhaling air into a lung-like bladder. Often congregating in schools of 100 or more, bonefish often follow a daily pattern of coming up onto the flats as the tide rises and retreating to deeper water as it falls. (Although, as any bonefish aficionado will tell you, they often fail to show up for reasons that remain a mystery.) Larger bonefish tend to travel in twos or threes, and the trophy specimens are solitary. Bonefish feed by digging through the sandy bottom to root up prey, which are crushed in the fish’s powerful pharyngeal teeth.

Many anglers believe that choosing the correct weight is as important as pattern selection.
Photo by Sandy Hays

Tactics and Flies
Flies designed for bonefish usually imitate one of three prey types: shrimp, crabs, and baitfish. Different colors and configurations match specific species of the prey found in a specific region. The characteristics of a good bonefish fly are somewhat contradictory: it should land on the water quietly but sink quickly because bonefish look downward as they feed. The most popular presentation is to get the fly to the bottom in front of a cruising or feeding fish, and then strip it, as if it is a prey item fleeing a predator. The most famous bonefish fly of all, the Crazy Charlie, was created by California angler Bob Nauheim in the late 1970s while fishing on Andros Island in The Bahamas and named it for his guide, Charlie Smith.

For more on bonefish tactics, check out Tom Rosenbauer’s “Five Secrets You Must Know About Bonefish” on the Orvis Fly Fishing Learning Center.

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