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Targeting Giant Bonefish

by Tim Mahaffey
Think chasing giant bonefish is the same as throwing to schools of hundreds on the white sands of the Bahamas? Think again. Renowned tournament fisherman Tim Mahaffey shares some secrets on fly selection, gear choice and mental preparation in pursuing double-digit bonefish.
Fly Fishing for Bonefish

Tim Mahaffey scans off-color water in the Florida Keys backcountry, waiting for a tail to show. Pat Ford photo.

ONE OF THE RESULTS of winning big bonefish tournaments is that people are always asking me about the keys to catching giant bonefish. It’s easy to understand; big bonefish are so difficult to fool that the frustration can become overwhelming. They are so different in “attitude” from small bonefish that I’d probably suggest you forget what you learned while casting to the schools of hundreds that are typical in parts of the Bahamas and the Caribbean. Legendary south Florida guide Steve Huff once said that if you can catch a big tailing bonefish with a fly rod, you can catch anything. And seeing a big bonefish tail sticking out of the water will make anyone’s knees shake. There’s no wonder that there’s a mystique about these awesome fish.

Duane Crab Bonefish Fly

The Duane Crab Fly, developed by Capt. Duane Baker to target giant bonefish feeding on shrimp. Pat Ford photo.

Competitive bonefishing is very much like professional golf. The mental and physical aspects of each sport are both incredibly important, and only serious focus and practice will produce results. When fishing, I always replay each missed shot in my mind, trying to determine if I made a physical mistake (rushed the cast, didn’t let the line load, etc.) or if it was a mental mistake (misread the situation, let nerves make me choke, etc.). Every spring, I make a point to watch the Masters Golf Tournament. The pressure these guys overcome is just incredible. Watching it helps me work on my mental game and get ready for the upcoming competitions.

All the best advice I can give about the pursuit of big bonefish give falls into two categories: technique and equipment.

Technique

The following are my “Top 5″ axioms when it comes to delivering a fly to bonefish. I remind myself about them each time I go out fishing, and I’m always harping on my fishing buddies when they aren’t following these basic tips. Like visualizing a golf swing, I go through these often in my mind when fishing in a tournament.

1. Use the heaviest weight fly that conditions will allow. This is my single biggest consideration when choosing a fly for a new location. Big bonefish will refuse a fly that doesn’t plunge hard and stay close to the bottom. If you get a follow and see the fish rise up in the water column, your fly is too light. I constantly change flies during a fishing day — not the pattern, but the weight of the fly based on the current conditions.

Keep stripping to a minimum, and watch the fish’s reaction. When fishing for large bonefish, most people strip way too much.

2. Throw as close to the fish as conditions will allow.Bonefish zigzag when they feed. I call it the “bonefish thing,” when a bonefish zigs and zags before ever getting to your fly. They are notorious for this. Based on water depth, current, and wind, you need to get it in there as close as possible. They love to see it fall, and will in many cases eat without you ever having to strip.

3. Keep stripping to a minimum, and watch the fish’s reaction. When fishing for large bonefish, most people strip way too much. I think this might be because their first experience may have been with a guide in the Bahamas saying “strip Mon!” whenever a fish was near the fly. Most of the giant bonefish I have caught ate with the fly sitting still on the bottom. The first strip should be a quick, 3-inch, abrupt bump. This raises the fly off the bottom, and then it quickly plunges back like an escaping crab. When you do this, you need to be watching the fish’s reaction. Many times, one bump is all it takes. Let the fly plunge. As veteran Keys guide Mark Krowka says, “let the bonefish be a bonefish.”

4. Be patient, make 40-60 foot shots. The tendency in any sight fishing situation is to cast too early and too long. Accuracy decreases dramatically with longer casts. Let the fish get closer and make the first cast count. Most of my big giants have been caught within 20 to 60 feet from the boat.

5. Keep your rod tip down while stripping, and make slow strip strike. When I strip I try to put the rod tip in the water. This minimizes the line slap noise that giant bones know as “that guy on the front of the skiff.” Then, when the fish eats, make a long, slow strip strike to the side. Many times the fish misses the fly, but if you do the slow strike, you can stop, let the fly drop, and get a second eat.

Equipment

I get asked a lot about the type of equipment that I use. It is amazing how much time and effort fly fishers put into analyzing and talking about equipment. I did too, years ago when I was stuck in Chicago practice-casting in two feet of snow, trying to throw a tight loop in minus-20-degree temperatures and 20-knot winds. I used to build rods, tie flies, go to the fishing shows, watch fly fishing on TV, all the normal stuff you do when stuck in front of the fire place.

Red Headed Stepchild fly

The Red Headed Stepchild fly, created by Capt. Duane Baker to target smaller, release-size bonefish. Pat Ford photo.

Now, all I want to do is fish. So I take the worry out of equipment choices, and by doing so I can focus on technique. All of my rod and reel combos are matching, so when I switch weights the actions are all the same. I’ve seen competitive anglers show up at tournaments with two or three different rod and reel sizes, different rod actions, and different brands of reel. Some reels have the drag knobs on the left, some on the right. How they make sense of it all and still pay attention to the important stuff is beyond me.

One of the main keys is to find what you like, what works for you, and then multiply those choices so you can be consistent. This helps take equipment mistakes and failures out of the equation.

The following is a break down of the key components I use everyday while flats tournament fishing:

Boat — I fish out of a 17-foot Mirage HPX-V. In fact, it is the first VARIS-built (Vacuum Assisted Resin Infusion System) Mirage to have come out of Maverick. I have it matched with a 115-hp 2-stroke Yamaha. For what I do day in and day out, this combo can’t be beat. There is zero hull slap on my skiff in even the strongest winds, and my best advice on bonefish skills is to buy the quietest skiff you can find. You want to be able to pole up on bonefish completely undetected, and at distances inside of 30 feet. The 115-hp Yamaha gives me the speed to move around quickly.

Reels — The key to reel selection is pretty simple: buy the most reel you can afford. I fish all older model Abels: 4N Rapid Retrieves for my 9- and 10- weights, and 4.5 Rapid Retrieves for my 12-weights. Large arbor is very important, and of course picking a reel with the classic large cork drag is essential. I love the silent, Seamaster -like outgoing drag the Abels give me, but there are many great choices in this category, including Tibor.

Years ago noted fly tier Tim Borski looked into my fly box during a Redbone Tournament and was shocked. I guess he expected some sort of elaborate selection. I remember Tim asking me, “That’s it?”

Rods — This is a very personal choice. Rod selection should be matched to casting style. I like a fast-action rod for my 9s and 10s, and so use Loomis GLX two-piece rods. Since I never take my rods apart, a one- or two-piece rod is the best choice for me. For my 12-weights, last year I switched to the Loomis Pro one-piece rods for my tarpon fishing. This rod has a powerful butt section for fighting fish but has a lighter tip when delicate presentations are necessary.

The choices of rods are mind boggling, and spending $750 isn’t necessary. Remember, most manufacturers’ second- or third-rated rod was their premium rod five years ago.

Lines — I exclusively use Monic’s Tropical Clear Fly Line for all of my fishing that targets bonefish, permit, redfish, and snook. I also use it in clear water and calm conditions for tarpon on the ocean. I’ve said for years that Monic gives me an extra fish or two a day, and in a tournament, this can make the difference between winning and losing. By the way, Monic used to be a nightmare to attach to backing and leaders, but they recently started welding loops to the end of their lines and solved those problems completely.

Using Monic takes practice and commitment to learn to cast it effectively. Because it is clear, you can’t see it, especially at distance. You can’t see it in the air, nor can you see it on the water. It is soft and will have a different feel altogether than what you may currently be fishing. But fishing it will make you a better angler because it will make you focus on the fish’s reaction rather than on your fly line.

Leaders — I use 100% fluorocarbon leaders, and I make them 12 to 18 feet in length depending on the wind. Fluorocarbon sinks better than mono and has more abrasion resistance. My simple leader formula for my 9- and 10-weights is as follows: 6 feet of 50-lb. butt, 3 feet 30-lb., 2 feet 20-lb., and a 2-3-foot 15-lb. tippet.

Flies — Years ago noted fly tier Tim Borski looked into my fly box during a Redbone Tournament and was shocked. I guess he expected some sort of elaborate selection. I remember Tim asking me, “That’s it?” I think that might have been an insult, but if you ever look into his beautiful box of creations I know you would understand.

For targeting giant bonefish and in the bonefish tournaments I fish three fly patterns: a brown Merkin, a brown Duane Crab (toad), and the Red-Headed Stepchild (reddish-brown-colored Gotcha that I use for catching smaller, “release” bones). All my flies are tied on size 1 or 2 Mustad 3407s. Color doesn’t matter, as they say, as long as it is brown. Simple stuff. Remember what I mentioned before — your primary concern for fly selection should be the weight of the fly.

Sunglasses — I use one color of polarized sunglasses, Costa Del Mar’s vermillion lenses. I put those into a Bolle skier frame that has leather sun-blocking side shields.

Boat Accessories — I use Pro Trim front casting platforms and stripping baskets, and all the guides I fish with — Captains Mark Krowka, Rick Murphy, Duane Baker, and Eric Herstadt — do as well. I love the size of the Pro Trim platform, which allows me to comfortably move around as well as place the basket up there with me.

So that is it. Now you know what goes into my boat on tournament day. I try to take the old adage, “keep it simple stupid” to the extreme. Take the equipment worries out of the picture and work on simplification and duplication. This will allow you to focus on what we are all trying to accomplish: catching more fish!

If you use the tips mentioned above, landing a giant bonefish on fly becomes more a matter of preparation than luck. Remember, when you do catch one, take a few quick pics and get him back in the water quickly. He is old and possibly embarrassed. He might even have been caught before, and if you take care to release him properly, he may provide someone else the thrill of a lifetime.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Tim Mahaffey fishes 70 to 80 days a year in south Florida. He is the only angler in history to win all of the major fly fishing invitational tournaments in the Florida Keys — the Gold Cup Tarpon Tournament, the Don Hawley Tarpon Tournament, the Golden Fly Tarpon Tournament, the Keys Spring Fly Bonefish Invitational four times, and the Fall Fly Bonefish Invitational. Tim writes a fly fishing Weblog called "Tournament Tails" on the Maverick Boats Web site. Article copyright © 2007 by Tim Mahaffey.
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