Years ago I tried to put together a trip to a lodge on Ragged Key in the Bahamas. I couldn’t pull it off. No regular flights in or out and charter companies to sort though and, yeah, never got it to happen. I ended up diverting to Long Island, which had regular flights, and had a good trip. But Ragged has always kicked around in the back of my head.
It is isolated. It is small (~60 people live there, maybe less). It looks juicy.
Flats on the west and deep water to the east looks like a very good big bonefish scenario.
So, I was excited to talk to Will Blair, who happens to be making a go of it at the newly opened Lost Key Lodge. He was just about to fly out there when I got a hold of him for a few minutes to chat. Seems he might have the flight situation more or less sorted out, which is good. He’s keeping the numbers low, four anglers a week, and there’s a lot of water to cover. Sounds a bit like paradise.
I just checked, and… well… it might be going well. I stole this pic from his facebook page. Holy bonefish.
Yeah, this place is going to be stuck in my head for a while longer.
There are a lot of bonefish in Christmas Island, which you’ve probably heard. I found the bones of Xmas to be irrationally difficult, due in part to the weather (several days of that high cloud, diffused light that makes bonefish vanish on the white sand canvas) and in part to my inability to make it happen. Let me explain.
There are loads of bones there. I saw maybe 200 a day, even if I got shots only at a fraction of those. In the low light the shots were really, really close. I hooked and caught bonefish with just the leader out of the rod, as well as at 10 feet and 20 feet and 30 feet and, rarely, maybe 40. However, I also botched a much higher percentage of fish in Xmas than I normally do and that comes down to the strip.
The strip, for the lagoon bonefish, is much faster than anywhere else I’ve ever fished for bones. The bones are not picking the fly off the bottom, they are eating it as it swims. This may be because they are taking the fly not to be a shrimp, but as a milkfish fry (that’s Shane’s theory and it is as good as any I could come up with). If you are used to a short strip, pause, short strip, pause, or if you are used to a strip-and-sit kind of retrieve, this is going to be hard to adjust to. I certainly found it difficult to adapt to.
On the ocean-side flats (the Korean Wreck) you may find a school of bones. I saw one of 30-40 fish, a school I took 3 fish out of. Inside the lagoon the bonefish just don’t seem to school up. If you see more than 3-4 fish together there is about a 90% chance those fish are actually milkfish. Milkfish can look frustratingly like bonefish and they share the same flats habitat. In deeper water the milks will be higher in the water column and the bones will be on the bottom, but in skinny water those fish can look very, very similar. When tailing, milks have a tail with some black on it, looking more like a permit tail than a bonefish, so that’s a giveaway.
Don’t get me wrong… I caught bonefish, having one day with ~15 and there were so many other fish to go after. I had one day without a bonefish, but that was the milkfish day and my cup was pretty full with that experience, so I didn’t mind so much.
The last day I had one particularly difficult morning, going 1/25 on legit shots. I was seeing the fish very well, but couldn’t make it happen. I don’t know what was wrong. That same time another angler in the group was going about 25/35… so, it wasn’t that people weren’t smashing it, it was just that I wasn’t smashing it.
Maybe it was the wrong strip and maybe it was my fly selection. Maybe it was the UV flash that has a purple tinge to it that isn’t maybe what’s called for. Maybe I was just having a temporary mental block. I don’t know what my problem was, but I wasn’t firing on all cylinders.
The bones of Xmas ran from 1-6 pounds with a few bigger fish around. I’d say they average 2-3 from what I saw.
I’d tie differently for this trip, knowing what I do now.
I never used a worm fly.
I never used a green fly.
I would have tied more plain Christmas Island Specials.
I would have tied more orange Christmas Island Specials.
I would have tied more #8s with small barbell eyes.
I would have used regular crystal flash, not UV crystal flash.
I would have left off any funky eyes (heavy eyes with actual eyes painted on)
I’d add… my crabs were on point.
I caught some nice bonefish and I had some decent bonefishing days. The days that were a bit more frustrating on bonefish were mitigated by other species (bluefin, GT, triggers, milkies).
So… bones, bones, bones galore, but for me it proved difficult to break old habits to adapt a new mentality to fish for them. Many good bonefish days were had by those in our group, so my issues were not universal or signs of a “problem” with the fishing. Just had some of my own shortcomings exposed… but that’s what learning looks like and I’m not disappointed.
Some of you may have noticed that the old DIYbonefishing.com site, which had allllll sorts of information on where to find bonefish, is now this hot wreck:
When was the last time you were bonefishing in a fresh water lake with snow capped mountains in the background?
This is a snapshot of the old website:
Gee… I notice a considerable difference.
Why buy the site and then put up a totally generic and crappy face on it? I mean… who does that?
Rod Hamilton was the guy behind the original DIY website and a couple of DIY bonefishing books, like “Do It Yourself Bonefishing.”
Good Book Rod!
What happened here is not readily apparent. There was no broadcast farewell. There was no message to fans and friends. The site just went down, replaced by that dumpster fire of a website. Rod’s email doesn’t work anymore. I don’t have a way to contact him. He appears to have called it a day, although no one I’ve spoken to really knows what to make of this sudden departure from the scene. I hope he’s well, as I know many of us do.
One can argue if it was a good idea to “hotspot” in such a public and readily accessible manner. I fall into the camp of “if you tell everyone where all the spots are, you spread out the pressure.” It may be a crap opinion. I don’t know that there is a scientific study here to fall back on.
I liked having all the info out there. Knowing where to go doesn’t mean you are going to find fish, or that you’ll be able to catch them if you can find them. DIY fishing is, simply, harder than doing it with a guide who knows the ins and outs of their particular bit of water.
If you have additional information on what happened here, please share here. And Rod… if you are out there, I hope you are well.
Man… what a week that was at East End Lodge. It’s been a while since I’ve had 6 straight days of fishing and it was glorious. I don’t think I’ve had 6 days of such good weather in all my flats fishing life (only a decade of doing this, so others certainly have a longer time-span to compare).
The fishing was solid. We had days that were better than others, but overall there were plenty of fish around.
I was accompanied on this trip by Elliott Adler, a guy I had never met before. That’s a risk, fishing with a guy who you don’t know. It worked out well and we fished together well. He’s a good caster and easy to share a skiff with, and I’m not saying that just because he let me catch the first fish, although that helps.
We really got to explore the East End on this trip and I remain impressed with the size of the fishery. There really are a lot of options out there and Cecil, our guide for the week, had enough room to enable him to dodge the squalls and thunderheads that would loom, threateningly off in the distance, conjured from the afternoon heat.
A few memorable moments…
The permit shot – wasn’t expecting one. I had it… I missed it, but when you don’t permit fish often every shot is a memory.
Elliott’s first bonefish – always nice to be there for someone’s first bonefish. It is sometimes the start of obsession.
Paddling crabs – we found a bunch of crabs hitching rides and paddling on mangrove leaves. I had heard about that once before, but had never seen it. They were using tools! Somehow we didn’t get a picture of those.
Late nights with Rob – Rob was a great host and we spent many hours at the bar late into the night talking about everything from Rob’s childhood (which was very different from my own) to politics to Bahamian flats fishing regulations to life on the East End.
Some memorable fish – the cruisers along the shoreline the last day, the fish in the mangroves, the shark munched bone that was hit by both a cuda and a shark.
The day had been pretty good and this our sixth and final day fishing out of East End Lodge on Grand Bahama.. We had waded a couple of lakes you couldn’t get a boat into, although there is no way I could point you to them on a map. Cecil knows where they are.
I had caught a few fish, the winds were low, the sun was high and the clouds were few and far-between. Basically, it was a great day for bonefishing.
The third to last spot we were fishing from the skiff and found a small school of really picky fish. The lead fish would spook easily and the rest of the school took their cues from those spooky fish. Eventually, I got the cast in well ahead of the fish, waited for the jittery fish to pass over and then gave a couple slight twitches and got an eat.
I lost that fish.
Next spot and it was the kind of bottom you have to have bionic eyes to see the fish on. Cecil had me casting at fish and often I only had the vaguest notion of where they were. Still, I got eats. Three, to be exact, and every single one of them came unbuttoned.
Last spot and it was a nice looking flat with a small island in the center. As we drifted I told Cecil to give it 20 more minutes and then we’d get back. It was the end-of-season party at three and we’d be getting in close to that time. I didn’t see any fish and my mind was starting to go through what I needed to get packed up and how long it might take to get to the airport. After ten minutes I told Cecil that we should pack it up.
He said “Just wait. Let me pole you for a couple minutes here.”
About a minute later he had me casting to a bonefish. One strip and I was tight. I landed the fish.
Last cast of the six days of fishing was a fish. Hard to argue with that.
It was the second to last day and we were on the skiff with Cecil. The tide was coming in, the fish heading up into the mangroves, some hanging around the edges. I was up on the bow and Cecil called out two fish cruising in and out of the mangroves, just 40 feet away. It seemed they might move further in and the shot would be gone.
I had a window to make a cast. There were two mangroves about five feet apart and a dinner table sized area of white sand. The fish were cruising left to right. I made the cast, didn’t hang up in the bushes and the fly (a tan shrimp) landed well.
In cases like this I figure you hook the fish and then see where things go from there.
The fish jumped on the fly, I managed not to trout set or pull the fly out of the fish’s mouth and the game was on.
The fish ran back into the mangroves, line screaming off the reel and I tried to lighten the drag to give the fish less to pull against.
We could see the fish thirty feet from the mangroves, back over the sand, unable to move any further. We tried to find the leader or line, but couldn’t see either, so we went back to where the line went into the jumble of roots and twigs. I put on my boots and jumped out of the boat to trace the bonefish’s route back to open water.
It worked. I followed the backing back to the line and then back to the open water. The fish still had some gas, but not much. He came to hand moments later, a nice fish, about 5.5 pounds (maybe 5).
The cast, the fight through the mangroves, landing the fish, the good release… that was my favorite fish of the trip.
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 postfrom 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.
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.)
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.
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
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.
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.
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.