Family vacation, not a fishing vacation, but, ya know, I’m going to bring a rod along.
We stayed at a resort for a conference my wife has signed up for in the “before COVID” times and this was our chance to actually get there and do it.
Maui isn’t known as a hot bonefish location, or as much of a fly fishing location. Sure, you can catch bones trolling in a kayak or jigging a fly with a spinning rod, but for the most part, this just isn’t a fly fishing destination. I knew that going in.
I fished three of the days, wading out on some old pipes as far as I could and seeing what was what. I managed to get broken off by what I think was a blue fin trevally and then I started to see some black triggers. The triggers became my prime targets, as I could see them.
Even these little triggers bite hard enough to bend a hook, as I found out. I had some crab flies from Christmas and used those with much stronger hooks and they worked well. The more realistic, the better.
I managed to land one black trigger, hooked and lost another and had a hand full of grabs I missed.
Man… they are prety.
There was a big of surf to contend with and there were a couple days it felt pretty stupid to be standing out there. One set came in that knocked me down. Glad my wife didn’t see that one or she may never let me fish again. The waves really were something to contend with and I have to say I didn’t totally enjoy that aspect of it.
It was not productive fishing, but I still enjoyed it. I haven’t been able to get out in the salt for a while and I really enjoyed just being there and doing it… scanning the water, trying to see what was happening, looking for fish, sometimes finding them. That part felt good… really good.
All my gear still works. My flies were mostly correct and un-corroded. My cast was still there. My boots hadn’t fallen apart. And… I caught a fish. That one fish felt really, really good.
Dr. Mike Larkin once sent me a bonefish tongue. It was awesome. The guy has forgot more about bonefish than I’m likely to ever know. So, I invite you to listen to this episode of the Tom Roland Podcast, where he talks about, well, bonefish.
Back in the pre-COVID world I got to fish Christmas Island. On the last day, on the last flat, I had a beast of a GT pushing water toward me. I made a cast, the fish followed. In my mind I was thinking “This is perfect! This is how you write it up! Victory at the death!”
The fish pulled up short, probably seeing me standing there, and just swam off. The script I was writing in my head of the last cast of the trip just didn’t play out the way I was hoping. There was a “wait, that’s not how that’s supposed to end!” thought in my head. The last cast in the low light on the last flat with the big opportunity in front of me… the script says that’s the one you are supposed to pull off… that’s what makes the story.
Fast forward a bit to yesterday. Here I am coaching U9 competitive soccer and we are playing our last game of the season. My son is on the team and he’s playing left mid. The clock is ticking down. A player on our team wins the ball back in the far corner and puts a lovely ball right in front of my son who slots a shot past the keeper. The last kick of the game. The last kick of the season.
One of my first thoughts was of that flat on Christmas Island and my last shot at a GT in the dying minutes of the trip, the last cast I’d get, and how I didn’t make it happen… but here, my son, a few thousand miles away and in a totally different context… well… he took the shot and scored.
A weird parallel maybe. Two things that are not at all the same, but that’s where my mind went, maybe realizing just a taste of how totally satisfying it is to see your kid do better than you.
Over the years I have pursued bonefish I came to realize a few things about handling bonefish.
A LOT of people, including my former self, have done it wrong. Just because a guide isn’t yelling at you for doing it wrong doesn’t mean they aren’t letting you do it wrong.
These aren’t trout. When you put that fish back into the water you are are putting them back into a “Only the fit survive” kind of environment. It isn’t the air exposure or handling that kills them, it is the cuda or shark waiting for the weakened/dazed fish (from air exposure or handling) to wander across their path.
Even when you do it right the fish can STILL be killed. That makes it important to do it right all the time.
Sadly, Joe passed away in March, 2022. I never got to fish with Joe, although I tried a couple of times. Those who knew him speak of him fondly, both as a person and as someone who loved and worked to protect Biscayne Bay. This interview was from 2010.
When it comes to Biscayne Bay and bonefish a guy who will probably come up in conversation is Joe Gonzalez. Joe has been a guide for a long time, he knows the water, he knows the fish and he’s tagged more bonefish than I will ever catch. Joe and I recently connected via the phone for an interview.
Bonefish release with Captain Joe
What makes the fishing in Biscayne Bay unique and what’s your favorite thing about the fishery?
What makes Biscayne Bay fishing unique, unlike the mid keys or lower keys, our flats on the north end of the bay are not as large, not as big and you can jump from flat to flat with ease until you find fish, unlike most Keys flats and banks that are massive. We also have a very strong winter time bonefishery here, even when the temps drop below the mid-60’s. You can still find fish, usually in large schools and have a banner day with northerly winds of up to 20 mph. We have a gargonian type bottom, lots of sea fans and basket sponges and gargonian sponges and for some reason the fish like to hang out in those areas at that time of year. You find a lot of fish, but you break them off.
Biscayne Bay, being at Miami’s doorstep with three million people, you would think the ecosystem would be in a deplorable state, but actually it is a pristine environment with a healthy fishery and plenty of food stores for the fish.
Biscayne Bay is known for two things… big bonefish and tough bonefish. Does Biscayne Bay deserve that reputation?
Yes, Biscayne Bay is not an easy fishery. Many think of calm, slick water and sunny days to be the best conditions. But ask most guides and they would usually prefer some wind and low light conditions. I myself love fishing in strong winds. The fish drop their guard and eat flies well. They move better and feed hard.
If you look at the world record books, out of 187 world records, 127 of them were caught in the US, most of the world record fish were caught in the Florida Keys and Biscayne Bay area. A lot more people fish the Keys than Biscayne Bay, but 10 world record fish have been caught in Biscayne Bay.
Most people go down to the Keys, Islamorada, to fish. Most of the time, people don’t think of Biscayne Bay or Miami. You usually get people when they are coming down on business and you get them on either end of the business trip. That’s how the start to learn about the fishery, for the most part.
What is the state of the fishery?
It seems like with the cold blast we had in January the fishery suffered a bit. We found that most of the affected areas were the back country parts of both Biscayne Bay and Florida Bay. The exterior parts of both Biscayne Bay and Florida Bay didn’t suffer as much as far as bonefish depletion. I fished hard for two weeks after the blast and the fishing was really good. It was somewhat of a relief to me and to others that there are still plenty of fish around. The press got a hold of some of the bonefish stories and exaggerated. Most of our outside fish ran offshore, probably to the Hawks Channel area and or deeper areas to take refuge when the surf temps dropped below 60.
So yes, the fishery is not as strong as it used to be, but we’ll always be talking about how it used to be.
You’ve been involved in bonefish tagging for the University of Miami with over 1,300 fish tagged. What have you learned about bonefish through that work?
It has helped understand their growth rates and movements. Working with Dr. Jerry Alt and Mike Larkin from the University of Miami Bonefish Research Program, we do an annual bonefish census and it gives us the number of bonefish. We learned that they live up to 20 years by taking the odilith and counting the rings, much like counting the rings of a tree. The oldest fish ever documented was about 20, according to Mike Larkin. 70% of the recaptures are within 2 miles. The tagging program gives us an idea about the number of fish, but it is more useful in letting us know about the movements of the fish.
Mike Larkin putting in an acoustic tag.
I have also helped with acoustic telemetry, which is putting transmitters into bonefish and setting up receiver fences and every time a fish comes by it records which fish has come by. We have learned that maybe
I don’t know if you are aware, there is a bonefish I tagged on February 11th, I believe, 6-7 years ago… the fish was at large 10 months and it was recaptured January 31st and it was recaptured in the middle bight of Andros.
I’m very familiar with that fish. I didn’t know that was you!
Everybody thought that Florida bonefish were only found in Florida and that the Bahamas fish were only in the Bahamas and the Mexican fish were only in Mexico. They thought all these fish were different, separate bodies of fish. With that one fish being found down in Andros (and Kenny Knutson our of Islamorada tagged a fish 2-3 years after my fish and it was also found over there in the middle bights of Andros), so there may be a genetic link between Florida bonefish and Bahamas bonefish with that fish making a trans-Atlantic crossing… it was the longest recorded migration at 187 miles, but it was a trans-Atlantic crossing, the fish had to cross the Gulf Stream. The closest point to where this fish was tagged is Bimini, which is 48-50 miles across the ocean and once the fish is in Bimini it is up on the Bahamian Bank.
I was invited by Venezuela, through the University of Miami, to fish in Los Roques and introduce the same tagging program we have here in Florida. The asked me to go, I packed and went. The fishery down there, the different camps and lodges and guides, it isn’t a happy place… folks don’t get along. I was able to go down there as kind of an ambassador. I speak the lingo, I speak Spanish fluently and I was able to go down there and make some peace between these guys and help everyone get on the same page and help everyone realize that by tagging bonefish, it is making the whole business down there a little bit more environmentally friendly. They were very receptive and with me being a guide they were able to relate to me. I was on their same level. It was a real good experience. The main guy that pioneered the bonefishing down there is a guy named Alex Gonzalez. People either like him or hate him. They’ve started a tagging program and they are starting to be able to estimate numbers, get growth rates, and do what we’ve done here. It was great being down there.
When I went down there I thought it was going to be easy. I’ll tell you what… it was hard to get the fish to eat. When I was on my own… now, I know how to strip, I know how to feed a fish… I thought, but I’d try it and they’d spook and I’d work with one of the guides and they knew how to read their fish better than I did because they were their fish. It was crazy. It’s like starting all over again. It showed me that there are things you know from being on the water that are special and unique to each place.
The more you are on the water, the more odd and unique things you get a chance to see. What’s the wildest thing you’ve seen out there?
One of the weirdest things I’ve seen is bonefish being prayed on by porpoise. I’ve seen propose corralling bonefish up on the flats and it’s not a pretty sight. It’s interesting, because it is nature taking its course. It is the only time I’ve seen bonefish coming out of the water and not bibbling, as they do in the Bahamas (kind of a rolling thing that bonefish sometimes do). When a pod of porpoise were chasing a school of bonefish and I saw a couple of bonefish go airborne trying to escape.
Bibbling, I’ve seen that down in Los Roques too. Bonefish sometimes, when they come off a flat and they are in a deep channel, they’ll do what they call in the Bahamas “bibbling,” kind of a rolling on the surface.
Another thing, they say that bonefish are really spooky and guides and anglers get upset when boats run close by and spook fish. Believe it or not, there are flats that have a lot of boat traffic, especially on the weekends, but the fish have evolved to get used to the noise… believe it or not, I’ve caught fish on flats despite having boats up on the flats because the wakes from the boats loosed the bottom and it makes it easier for the bones to find shrimp, crabs and crustaceans I’ll tell my anglers to look for the muds in the muds. I’ll be on the edges of the channels and the boats will come by and create a lot mud, but the fish are in the mud making mud. You are in fresh mud looking for new puffs of mud. It’s kind of weird telling my anglers to look for mud inside mud, but when you find it, it’s a gimme.
One really weird thing… and this was real… I was out with a friend of mine off of Key Largo in the early 90’s and I saw a bonefish with its head out of the water. It looked like it was walking on its tail. We approached it slowly, thinking it was dying or dead, but when we popped up next to it, it swam away… and no, I wasn’t high or drunk. Never, ever have I seen a fish doing that.
What’s your most memorable bonefish?
My most memorable bonefish… I was fishing with a guy named Mike Swerdlow, who’s been doing it forever with some of the best guides in the Keys since the 70’s. Mike’s the kind of guy that, when fishing together would screw me up a bit because he wouldn’t let me get close to the fish so he could make a 70-90 foot cast and usually that isn’t a high percentage shot with most of my clients, but Mike is different. He wants the hero shot, at 100 feet, and what’s funny, is that he can make it. We were fishing an area in Biscayne Bay called Feathervit Bank in the early 90’s when there was a fair number of big fish in that area and we spotted a single fish, up on the bank, tailing. We had been fishing deeper water for mudding fish so he had on a relatively large epoxy fly that was popular back then and was too heavy to throw at tailing fish, but he asked me pole up to that fish and give him a try. It was a small window of opportunity and we didn’t want to lose it. So, I went ahead and polled up to the fish, but I told Mike the fly was inappropriate, but he insisted on not changing the fly that would have been far better in 2.5 feet of water as opposed to 12 inches. He made the cast with that big epoxy fly and put it about a foot from the fish with a big plop and the fish jumps on the fly, runs 100 yards west on the bank with the line making a bonefish rooster tail all the way. I wish I could have videoed that fish. It is still vivid in my mind. It is moments like these that we live for, dream about and spend countless amounts of monies and time for that feeling.
The tailing fish…. One solo fish… back out of the water fish… that’s the highest, the pinnacle… and to do it with the wrong fly on a long cast… it was that scenario… never in a million years would I think the guy was going to catch the fish… and to have it happen and it was probably an 11-12 pound bonefish.
What’s your favorite rod/reel?
I’ve been using the NautilusFeatherweight. I love those reels.
As far as rods, I’ve been using the S4S in an 8 wt. with a matching Nautilus reel.
Drugs er bad… right? Well then, why are so many bonefish doing drugs? SERIOUS QUESTION (kind of)!
BTT recently released a story about trace amounts of chemical-life-enhancers found in bonefish in Florida. Seems wastewater carries enough of it to tip the flag on the assays used to check for pharmaceuticals in these fish.
As I got close to Redding, 3 hours north of the Bay Area, I was met with a wall of ash. There was a fire, a new fire in months of never-ending fires, and it was close. More forests and homes burning up.
So much has burned this year. 2.4 million acres up in smoke. It was so thick. I wore my N95 in the car and it still smelled like a campout.
Once past this latest fire I emerged just beyond Shasta Lake and into areas which had already burned by other fires in the past couple years. Miles of burned-out forests, no canopy, no undergrowth, just the slightly reddish earth and the charred skeletons of trees.
It is apocalyptic and I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the characters from “The Road” walking along the shoulder of I-5.
Arriving in my little home-town the smoke was background level and the forests the clung to the canyon walls were still thick and dark green. A stop at Ted Fey’s Fly Shop and a quick stop off at my dad’s now former home and I set off for the river.
In September you don’t need waders and I stepped into the waters to find them cool. I had been expecting the worst after my drive up and was almost surprised to find the waters so frigid and trout friendly.
It was just so nice.
This summer started off rough up here. June had temps over 100 every day, all month. That didn’t happen when I grew up here. Temps like that were reserved for late August and early September, but not June. June can still be cool. June can still be cold in the early mornings. June can be cold at night. June has runoff swollen rivers that are both a little high and very cold.
This year there wasn’t much snowpack to come down, so the river was not high at all when I saw it in May, and no where near as cold as it should have been. I feared for the summer months.
Now, in the waning days of September, I could see the river had made it though the unprecedented heat. It survived.
I hiked up the tracks to the Falls, which are always beautiful. They are worth the hike all by themselves. They are also about as far as most people get. I started fishing upstream from there.
Over the next four hours or so I enjoyed some of the best fishing I’ve had in ages. It was a throwback to how this river fished for me 15 years ago. I caught fish and then more and then more. I saw a mink. I landed a very nice fish at or above 18″ which is a really nice fish for this river. I didn’t see another soul above the Falls. I had the place to myself to enjoy, to reconnect with, the play in.
It was odd, how I felt on the drive up, how it all felt like it was all being lost, and how I felt standing in that bit of paradise, having it all to myself. It was hard to hold both things in my head at the same time.
I hope this little bit of perfection survives the next few decades… the droughts and the fires that are likely to keep ravaging California and the West as we struggle to come to grips with what exactly we are losing. I want to hold onto this a bit longer.
My Facebook Memory today was me with a very nice tarpon on a trip I had with Yellow Dog Fly Fishing Adventures and Jim Klug in Cuba. I wrote Jim just to thank him for that experience and we got to talking about fly fishing travel and where things stand now. I sent Jim some questions and he took the time to respond. Thanks for that Jim.
For me it is going to be a while longer. I’m vaccinated and employed, so that’s good, but child care is much more complicated and my wife’s doctor schedule is unpredictable for the time being. We’ll need things to settle a bit before I find myself on a flat, but I am thinking a lot more about it these days… looking at pictures, going through my gear, thinking about what plans I need to set in motion.
Jim provides some insight and good advice in the answers below.
How did Yellow Dog weather the pandemic?
Well … We’re still here! There is no doubt that 2020 was a difficult year for our business and for destination angling in general. We had thousands of trips that were cancelled or postponed
What did you learn about the travel business and your own company as a result of the pandemic?
We had some interesting and important take-aways from 2020, and we learned some valuable and important lessons about both our business and our customers. All told, Yellow Dog navigated some tricky waters in 2020, and along the way, we identified some key take-aways from the past 16 months:
We learned that for our clients, having a legitimate agent working on their behalf is incredibly beneficial – especially when things get difficult. We saw this play out time and again in 2020. While we were not always able to immediately fix things or deliver the perfect answer for cancelled trips, we worked tirelessly for our customers – operating on their behalf and looking out for their interests. Having an agent like Yellow Dog (the largest creator of trips for many of the lodges in the industry) often-times made a difference. For people that had booked on their own or through a smaller shop or hobby agent, the outcomes – and the solutions offered – were often-times markedly different.
Patience is everything. We’ve learned that tenacity and persistence goes a long way when it comes to re-bookings, re-schedulings and other resolutions. In the beginning of the pandemic, many operators and lodges were unprepared or unable to provide optimal solutions for cancelled or affected trips. Over time, however, we were able to work with many of these operations – on behalf of our clients – to secure better solutions and improved offers. Patience pays!
Being nice matters, and when the shit really hits the fan, you truly see the very best of people, and also the very worst. Luckily, the vast majority of our customers and clients were patient, nice and incredibly understanding throughout the pandemic, realizing that the world shutting down was not our fault nor the fault of the lodges or guides. The entire destination angling infrastructure took a devastating hit in 2020, and – unlike major airlines or cruise ship companies – there were no industry bail-outs or easy money. Every lodge, guide, outfitter and agent was hurt by this, and for every one of our clients who was kind, patient and understanding in the face of cancelled trips and disrupted fishing plans, know that it was very much appreciated!
Trip insurance can help, but it is important to understand the fine print and details. For years, trip insurance was the security blanket that promised to make things right if a fishing trip was cancelled or disrupted. And when it came to work conflicts, illness, hurricanes or cancelled flight routes, these policies usually paid off. The problem with trip insurance is that – like all insurance products – the companies know how to cover their asses against big-time cataclysmic events, and way down the list in the fine, fine print of things that were NOT covered was … you guessed it … “worldwide pandemics.” It turns out that most insurance policies would not cover trip cancellations that were pandemic-related, which meant that travelers who seemingly did everything right (booking early, securing a trip with the right deposit, and of course covering themselves with a travel insurance policy) were left hanging when their trips were cancelled due to lodges (and the world) being shut down. Moving forward, we fully expect that travelers will remember this, and we hope that those companies and products that have failed to protect travelers in the pandemic will be replaced by innovative policies and new products which actually deliver.
Having a solid and healthy destination angling infrastructure is crucial to our sport. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve known that – eventually – things would get back to normal and we’d be able to get back to doing what we love most: traveling and fishing the world. Having a lodge to return to (or your favorite guide still around to fish with) is a big deal, so being supportive of this infrastructure matters. For everyone that accepted a trip roll-over, re-booking fee or new dates, and especially to those that sent along the equivalent of a guide’s tip or donated to industry economic relief efforts, thank you.
Are you seeing the pent-up demand from a year off?
Oh yeah! Things are absolutely crazy right now. Once January 2021 hit, things started ramping up, and it has only gotten crazier since then. After a brutal 2020, Yellow Dog just closed out a record-setting first quarter of 2021. It was as if someone flipped a switch in early January, and people are now booking and reserving trips at a pace we’ve never before seen. Trip dates are being snatched up as quickly as toilet paper was selling out ten months ago, and the biggest challenges for the year ahead will unquestionably revolve around availability. If you are thinking about planning a trip for the near future – or even 2022 or 2023 – my advice is to start the process now. Getting out in front of the demand will ensure prime dates and great guides at the best lodges and destinations. “Last-minute” trip planning – while still possible – is going to be more of a challenge than in years past. If you know that you want to travel and fish in the near future, then get a jump-start on the planning process and get your dates and destinations on the books.
Many waters got an unanticipated rest over the last year. What are some of the benefits or silver linings after a year-long COVID shut-down?
Obviously, one of the biggest positives that has come from the pandemic is the environmental benefit that comes from literally shutting the world down for months on end. Global satellite images from space in late-2020 showed pollution levels that had dramatically decreased from those of only eight to ten months earlier, showing how nature can heal and recover when we simply reduce our footprint and let the planet do its thing (even for a relatively short period of time). For anglers, the effect of this “global rest” has been evident and abundantly obvious over the past several months in the quality of the fishing and the behavior of fish that we’ve witnessed across the planet. For many of the destinations that have already reopened (Alaska, Belize, the Bahamas, the Yucatan, Costa Rica, the Seychelles and numerous other destinations), we have already seen off-the-charts fishing and numbers that have not been seen in years.
Were there any operations that didn’t make it through?
That remains to be seen. This is something that will likely play out in the year ahead, but sadly, we are going to see some lodge, outfitters, guides and agents that will likely be gone by the end of 2021. The travel industry and destination angling as a whole were absolutely crushed when the world shut down. People stayed home, lodges closed, and airlines stopped flying. Small business loans and programs designed to keep people employed provided some assistance here in American; however international lodges, guides, outfitters and support businesses were largely left to survive on their own. Many of the guides we’ve fished with and come to know over the years were dealt a serious financial blow, as there was literally no work and no income for most of the year. Some guides were forced to sell their boats. Lodges terminated large numbers of staff, and many in the fly fishing community left the fishing world all together. Every international operation (along with many domestic operations) was hurt by the shut-downs, widespread cancellations and the lack of sales, and it will likely take years to fully recover.
When folks are booking now, do they require proof of vaccination or testing or what is it that has to happen to get back out there?
Proof of vaccination is not required to actually book or reserve anything (at this time) but there are plenty of countries that are requiring proof of vaccination for entry as a tourist. Regardless of how you personally feel about vaccinations, the fact is that life as a traveler and as a traveling angler will for sure be easier in the months (and possibly years) ahead with proof of vaccination. This is going to be true for some time to come with many foreign destinations.
Are there places that are still closed/highly limited?
For sure, and some that are likely to remain closed into 2022. Right now, New Zealand, Australia and the Cook Islands are all closed indefinitely. Argentina, Chile, India, Canada, Russia, Christmas Island and several other popular fishing destinations are all still closed as well, although we are hopeful that things will open in the months ahead. We’re thinking August for Christmas Island, although that is not a for-sure opening date!
Is there somewhere in particular you are excited to get back to?
For me personally, I’m really excited to get back to the Seychelles for the coming fall season. Honestly, any place that requires a passport stamp is going to get me excited at this point!
Any recent trips that you’ve been able to do?
I actually just returned from an incredible week in the Yucatan, fishing Xcalak and Chetumal Bay. An incredible fishery with some of the best permit fishing I’ve seen in years.
What would you say to the traveling angler who is still hesitant to get back out there?
You need to be comfortable to travel right now, and that is a personal thing for everyone. DO your homework, research what is involved in traveling to a destination, and above all have someone in your corner that can help if problems or unexpected delays pop up. But travel is possible right now, and there is a lot of great fishing that can be accessed and enjoyed in a safe, easy manner. Regardless of your destination, however, when you are ready to get back out there, we are absolutely recommending that anglers begin their planning and booking processes earlier than normal. As a result of losing the entire 2020 season, there are countless trips that have had to be rolled over and rescheduled for the 2021 and 2022 seasons, which means that availability for the foreseeable future will be tight. For those destinations such as the Seychelles, Cuba, prime permit destinations in the Caribbean, and others that were already in high demand, it will be even more important to look ahead and plan well in advance. Even destinations in Belize, the Bahamas and the Yucatan are likely to book up quickly for this season and well into 2022. Our recommendation for those that know they want to get back out there is to start the process now.