The Bonefish


Guy Harvey

The 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 it was a tight to 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 removed the small hook and released a fine specimen of a Grand Cayman bonefish; weighing about five pounds. It slowly swam off away from the beach, and then quickened the pace blending into the colours of the shallow clear water.

I had been working on the stingrays doing the population survey and we had spent a lot of time in the shallow waters around Barkers. This, we discovered, was an area that pregnant stingrays frequent to have their pups in water too shallow for a prowling lemon shark or Caribbean reef shark. Every day we were there, I saw bonefish come and go, often accompanying a stingray, feeding on the shallow flats on the incoming tide. Next time, I took a small spinning rod and some conch guts as bait, and got lucky.

Bonefish are a fairly common species found around all three of the Cayman Islands. Nowhere do these islands have extensive areas of shallow water as seen in the Bahamas, Florida and off the Caribbean coast of Mexico, but where there is shallow clear warm water, there are bonefish.

Bonefish are found all around the tropics, even in the remote oceanic islands. Wherever they are, is a big draw for recreational anglers. For some islands, such as in the Bahamas, bonefish 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 bonefish and tarpon fishing.

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 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 colour of the surrounding flats. The face looks as if it 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 creature, so snorkellers and divers seldom encounter them here. They are so wary that many anglers claim that bonefish live in a constant state of alarm. Sometimes it seems that if you breathe too hard the whole flat erupts in fleeing schools. Its habitat, for angling purposes, are the flats or intertidal areas adjacent to sand and coral islands or mainland beaches.

It requires some local knowledge to determine which flats the schools favour. 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. Bonefish will accompany stingrays and spotted eagle rays as they dig around the substrate looking for food items. Bonefish may be accompanied by permit, small tarpon, small cobia and other species of jacks while crossing the sand flats.

Little is known about the life cycle of the bonefish. The eggs hatch into large leptocephali, which are transported by tides and currents into the open ocean. They transform from the three inch transparent eel-like larvae, which gradually shrinks in size while it is transported by ocean currents away from the spawning area 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 20 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.

In their quest to get bigger quickly, they are eaten by a variety of shallow water predators, such as juvenile jacks, snapper and grouper, before becoming large enough, and fast enough to evade the benthic predators. As adults they are hunted by large crevalle jacks, barracuda and king mackerel that will penetrate shallow water readily.

The only place I know where islanders catch bonefish for eating is in the Bahamas. During my field research for my doctorate at Port Royal Marine Laboratory in Jamaica, I used to catch bonefish in the nets set at night to catch herrings and sardines. The bonefish were saved for bait when I went marlin fishing. That was of course in the days before artificial lures made their mark.

The bonefish has been called the fastest fish with fins, the fight they give is disproportionate to their size, and their sizzling runs on fly tackle or conventional spinning tackle leave anglers feeling helpless, which is why they are referred to as the “gray ghost” of the flats.

Got some time on your hands on 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, Ph.D WH