Yeehaw! Line was pouring off the small spinning reel, and the rod tip was bucking as the fish took off toward deeper water. I had a bite and was tight to a reasonable sized bonefish. The fish took out a hundred yards of line in the blink of an eye and then turned right, so I waded quickly along in the shallow water near the beach to catch up with the fish, before it emptied the reel. In a matter of minutes, I had the bonefish doing circles around me, and I bent down and grabbed the short leader to hold the fish and remove the hook. I released a fine specimen of a Grand Cayman bonefish about five pounds.
Bonefish are found all around the tropics, even in the remote oceanic islands. Wherever they are found, they are a big draw for recreational anglers. For some islands, such as in the Bahamas, bonefish (and other shallow water game fish such as permit and tarpon) fishing excursions provide a major source of income for locals. It is likely that if diving was not such a developed eco-business here, there would be a lot more emphasis on the bonefish and tarpon fishing that these islands have to offer.
The bonefish has an elongated, torpedo shaped body with a slender head and a small, inferior mouth inserted under a pig-like snout. The single dorsal fin is placed in the middle of the body, and the large tail is deeply forked. The back is dark green, and sides are lined with shiny scales that reflect the color of the surrounding flats. The face looks as if it’s made from beaten stainless steel plates. This is a species I love to paint, but they are a big challenge, not only because of the detail and serial repetition of the scales, but also because the light playing on their back and the added detail in their shallow water habitat.
The bonefish is primarily a shallow water species, and is a very wary fish. They are so wary that many anglers claim that bonefish live in a constant state of alarm. Its habitat, for angling purposes, is the flats or intertidal areas adjacent to sand and coral islands or mainland beaches. Bonefish invade tidal flats on an incoming tide and feed on buried crustaceans, mollusks and small fish. They often travel in large schools and can be spotted from a distance because of the clouds of sand or silt they stir up. If the water is very shallow, their tails will stick out above the surface while they dig in the substrate with their pointed snouts which is called “tailing” and “mudding” in angling parlance. They will accompany stingrays and spotted eagle rays as they dig around the substrate looking for food items. Bar jacks also accompany the rays for the same reason. Bonefish may be accompanied by permit, small tarpon, small cobia and other species of jacks while they cross the sand flats.
Little is known about the life cycle of the bonefish. The egg hatches into a large leptocephalus which is transported by tides and currents into the open ocean. It metamorphoses from this 3-inch transparent eel-like larvae which gradually shrinks in size while it is transported by ocean currents away from the spawning area and hence to populate other locations. When this reverse growth is complete, a tiny bonefish is formed, and from then it wears chrome-plated scales and grows to twenty pounds. The average size varies according to the area in which they grow up, but 4 to 6 pounds is the average size.
A new tagging study on bonefish migration is testing a hypothesis that bonefish from Florida cross the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas, and then return. Tagged bonefish have been known to make coastal migrations and new evidence may soon emerge about deep water transits, which by extrapolation, would then suggest that bonefish could move between the three Cayman Islands.
Got some time on your hands and a good weather day? Then grab the fly rod, or the spinning rod, and some conch, cockles or shrimp for bait and head out to Frank Sound, South Sound or Barkers, and spend some time getting close to nature. Stalking a bonefish school takes patience and persistence but the result can be very gratifying in serene surroundings. Tight lines!
— Guy Harvey
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