How to Handle Bonefish

You want your bonefish to live long and prosper after you release it? Well, here are some thoughts. You’ll notice I’m not immune from making bad decisions. I do, from time to time, but I want to be better. That’s the goal.

The risk to the fish by our poor actions is not insignificant. Here’s a post from years ago about that very thing.

For best results, the angler should minimize two things.

  • Air Exposure – How long the fish is out of the water.
  • Handling – How much you touch the bonefish.

This is important because when you release a bonefish back into the salt, there are other things waiting to eat them. They don’t get a chance to catch their breath or recover. A bonefish survives because it can swim faster, react quicker than the sharks and cuda’s trying to eat them and if they are impaired when you let them go they stand a decent chance of becoming food for one of those predators.

Here are the grades of handling for bonefish.

A+ Handling

You have hooked the fish and fought it to the boat. You admire the fish while it is in the water, still swimming, on the end of your line. You reach down with your pliers and simply pop the fly out of the fish’s mouth (since you are fishing barbless).

  • Air Exposure = 0.
  • Handling = 0.

(This is WAY easier to do after you’ve caught about 8 fish.)

B+ Handling

You have hooked and fought a bonefish. Getting the fish to the boat you reach into the water and cradle the fish in your hands. Maybe you take a picture of the fish in the water, maybe even underwater. You unhook the fish and let it swim away.

  • Air Exposure = 0.
  • Handling = A little.

B Handling

You hook the fish, fight it in and you quickly bring the fish out of the water for a picture. The fish is out of the water for just a few seconds.

  • Air Exposure = A little.
  • Handling = Not that much.

South Andros Bonefish. Photo by Andrew Bennett

D- Handling

You hook that fish and get it in. You bring the fish out of the water and hold it, mid-air, out of the water, maybe sitting in the middle of the boat, while your friend or your guide snap a bunch of pictures.

  • Air Exposure = Too Much.
  • Handling = Too Much.

That’s an o’io.

F Handling

You hold that fish up with a boga, in the middle of the boat for a bunch of pictures.

  • Air Exposure = Too Much.
  • Handling = Way, Way, Way too much.

That green hat, my first decent bonefish and some horrible fish handling.

Here is what the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust has to say on the matter.

We all can do better. As I looked through my own pictures I was bummed to see my picture from Hawaii, just recently, that was poor handling. I think it was faster than it looked like, but I could have done better. It is harder to always be in the A camp. I think as long has you have an A- average, you are doing pretty damn well.

Other considerations you should keep in mind are to limit the duration of the fight (get that fish in as soon as you can) and never touch a bonefish with a dry hand (or dry anything).

It really is about education and the more we spread the word and encourage other anglers to learn about how to do things right, most will opt to do things right.

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  1. Thanks Bjorn! One friendly pointer on safe handling from my own experience on the West Side of Andros chasing schoolies: There were sharks herding the bones and thanks to the guide’s push poll and the words “Shark, Look OUT!” A shark came right to the boat after the fish I was attempting to release. Fortunately (for my finger’s sake) the guide repelled the shark with his push poll. Probably not the norm, but just sayin…

  2. Great Post Bjorn. I hear very little about proper handling for bonefish.
    The one that kills me is the guy who comes off the boat with a likeness of the fish in slime on his shirt. We know you love them, no hugs please!

  3. Thanks Louis. Loving G&G. You guys are rocking it.

  4. An uphill climb to be sure, especially where a large specimen is involved, it’s tough to overcome human nature.
    Most if not all need / want validation in the form of pictures of the quarry being held aloft in victory.
    Even worse – guides often encourage the hero shot of a big bone so they can post it on their web pages as an advertisement.
    But keep banging the drum, you have an audience, perhaps the tide will turn.

  5. I enjoy reading your blog. Its one of those things that a Bonefishing addicted individual can do while not planning a trip or tying flies to satisfy the craving. Today I learned that we have some things in common. Send an email, I’d love to share. BTW, I’ll never ever hold a bonefish out of the water again……… I want to be an A+ student!

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