Review: “Fly-Fishing for Bonefish”

WHEN YOU CONSIDER that the bonefish was the first saltwater game fish to rise in status from curiosity to addiction among fly fishers, it’s not hard to understand the fascination shared by authors. The study — around 50 years in the making — includes the anecdotal and the scientific and the closely held secrets of folks who’ve never read a fishing magazine or experienced the episodic rhapsody of fishing television.

Chico Fernandez's "Fly-Fishing for Bonefish"But at the same time bonefish are a relatively new curiosity. Anglers don’t benefit from what might be called folk wisdom in the trout angler’s world; we haven’t domesticated the knowledge yet. In fact bonefish expertise is highly distributed, sometimes secreted away, even across geographic boundaries. The bonefish of Bahamian experience is a different animal than the one who appears yards off of U.S. 1 in Islamorada or the chalk-white fish of Christmas Island. That makes writing about them a challenge for anyone who wants to be pedantic — something most angling writers try to squelch but whose murmurs are hard to ignore. As anyone who has fished for bonefish for any length of time can tell you, long hours, persistence, and a strong dose of self-analysis usually mark long-term success. Chico Fernández probably embodies these traits more than any other angler with such long experience with bonefish.

Fernández could have written the guide to fly fishing for bonefish book 30 years ago and it would still be in the number one slot for the genre (if it can be called that) today. But in 30 years, rods have turned from fiberglass to graphite, the disc drag has become standard on saltwater reels, and fly lines have become high molecular science. That’s a lot of change, and throughout it all Fernández was traveling the world testing equipment and entertaining — and no doubt occasionally bowing to, like all good hosts — the eclectic opinions of guides and anglers from all walks of life.

You can read Fly-Fishing for Bonefish without knowing all this, but you might not appreciate why a man would write something like “Please remember there are times when nothing works” when he talks about selecting patterns, or guess the full import of a statement like “Prey does not outrun a bonefish.” Fernández writes in thevernacular of a sun-smitten bonefisher who’s tried it all, as if he wanted to write the first vade mecum of bonefishing. That doesn’t mean the book doesn’t have a few faults. It just means that if you don’t read it, you’re going to miss an accumulation of insight that doesn’t come along very often. Beyond that, the writing is conversational, fast-forward, and capable of introducing an anecdote without losing its purpose. There’s a lot to be covered in a book like this, and you sense that while the author wants to address the far reaches of the topic, in the background he’s itching to share another story. This is the kind of guy, you think, you’d like to run into at the bar after wading the flats all day.

If you want to cut a fine distinction between Fernández and the other two authors of respected works on fly fishing for bonefish — Randall Kaufmann and Dick Brown — it’s probably that Fernández’s thoughts come across more carefully balanced, no doubt the result of long circumspection. Mr. Brown and Mr. Kaufmann’s works are comprehensive and very informative, particularly in the area of food sources and fly patterns. I’d recommend both Brown’s Fly Fishing for Bonefish and Kaufmann’sBonefishing! be a part any serious bonefisher’s library. (Read our review of Brown’s book here.) But beside Mr. Fernández’s book other works are reading more and more like travelogues — full of tidbits and compressed details but somewhat detached. Fly-Fishing for Bonefish, on the other hand, demonstrates immersion.

The book begins with four excellent chapters written by Dr. Aaron Adams (who is also author of the recent Fisherman’s Coast: An Angler’s Guide to Warm-Water Gamefish and Their Habitats, Stackpole Books, January 2004, 288 pages) covering environment, life cycle, tides and food sources. These 37 pages do a good job of setting the stage for Fernández, who jumps right into fly pattern history and selection and gives what seems to us to be the most accurate assessment yet of what should be in a fly box. Fernández’s perspective, of course, is colored by having been part of those sepia-toned years when the first really effective flies were being tested, so there’s much to read in the way of philosophies behind the early patterns (a lot has to do with sink-rate, an often overlooked factor). Finally, he puts crab patterns at the top of the bonefish flies list — something no one was willing to do in the eighties or nineties.

He then addresses fly lines, rods and reels, and miscellaneous gear. An example of the kind of purposeful advice he gives comes in his observation of how much backing bonefish will take off of a reel:

“You might be wondering how I am so sure that bonefish do not run 200 yards. After all, the first run looks so far into the horizon. Well, many years ago I got into an argument with some older fly fishers in the Keys who told me that bones run 200 yards all the time, often 300 yards. No one won the argument. But I went home and did an experiment.

My backing in those days was light-colored or white. I stripped 100 yards of backing off my reel, measured it carefully, and then dyed the next 10 yards bright red. If a fish ran over 100 yards, the 10 yards of highly visible red backing would come out and I would notice it.”

Well there you pretty much have it. Even after catching many large bones using that backing, he didn’t see the red backing again until he hooked a shark of over 100 pounds in the Everglades.

His chapter on leader construction is particularly good, in part because it addresses leaders from the most practical perspective — you come away knowing what you can get away with and what you can’t. Fernández relates as much practical knowledge about the subject as you need — with plenty of detail about leader formulas and preferred knots — and then some.

But the heart of this book are in the nine chapters that make up the last half and focus on finding, casting to, hooking and fighting, and releasing bonefish. Here, Fernández offers a common sense, let’s-get-serious set of instructions on what to do, when to do it, how to do it (and how not to do it), all in a well-crafted commitment of his knowledge. The stuff is easy to understand, and it’s on the money. As with any valuable advice, it seems obvious — but you’d have the same experience with a top guide. How to learn to see bonefish? When you or your fishing partner catch a fish, watch it swim away and notice how far into the distance you can follow it and what it looks like. How to present the fly where you want it to go?Take your eyes off the fish and focus on the place you want your fly to land; if you watch the fish while shooting the line, it will hit him on the head. It’s 100% well-headed advice.

What about quibbles? Some fly pattern aficionados will want more. The photos in the flies chapter are workmanlike and may not satisfy the dedicated tier. And I wish Dr. Adams’s content had been more integrated with the rest of the book. Adams’s environmental analysis is state-of-the-art, but the connections are sometimes left to the reader. And despite the fact that Adams is an excellent writer, it’s also possible that the three dozen scientific pages at the start will cause some readers to miss Fernández’s unique voice. My only other wish is that the book would be longer. There’s enough here that even veteran anglers may read the book two or three times, but I’m inclined to think that Fernández could expand the book if he wanted to. He’s certainly qualified to do it.

One final measure of the book is taken from Fernández’s chapter called “The Other Gamefish on the Flats.” His four-and-a-half pages on fly fishing for permit say as much on strategy as any other book to date.

If you’re a novice bonefisher, buy this book before you read anything else. If you’re a hard-bitten wrangler of bonefish around over the world, you’ll be pleased and enlightened. As Sandy Moret says in the introduction to the book, “What we always seemed to agree on is that there are no tricks, no gimmicks, and no instant-pudding mixes for catching bonefish.” Chico Fernández has come closer than many will come for a long time.