The silvery and sleek bonefish is a popular target for fly fishing. A wary fish, it presents quite a challenge. First, the fish must be spotted, which isn’t easy to do because it’s covered with mirror-like scales that reflect its surroundings. It’s almost like a high-tech stealth Mercedes. Then, the bait has to be cast near perfection. The thrill people get from casting for bonefish is a lot like the satisfaction of shooting an arrow right into a bullseye. By and large, these fish are catch and release (especially in Florida) because they’re not great to eat. With a name like “bonefish,” you can probably guess why. It is eaten in Hawaii and other parts of the world, so we’ll share a few recipes. You’ll also learn more about the bonefish itself, where to find it, and how to catch it in the sections below.
What is a Bonefish?
The term “bonefish” applies to several species of fish, but most of the time when people talk about bonefish, they’re talking about Albula vulpes. These guys are also referred to as ladyfish, tenny, banana fish, and round jaw. Their bodies are primarily silver, fading up to a light blue-gray on the dorsal side. Adult bonefish have several darker lateral lines that run the length of their bodies. They are quite difficult to see, even in crystal clear waters. The dorsal fin is triangular and the tail is deeply lobed, with the top half longer than the bottom.
One distinctive physical characteristic is the shape of the bonefish’s mouth. Since it feeds on the bottom, the mouth is angled downward. The fish has a snout that it uses to root around in the gravel for small worms, crustaceans, clams, and snails. It has specialized dental plates on its tongue, upper jaw, and throat that it uses to grind its food. The fish uses its weight to hold down its prey, so it often appears like it’s standing on its head with its tail in the air. In shallow waters, the bonefish may even extend its tail above the surface. Part of the reason they’re so skittish is that bonefish are hunted by barracuda and sharks. Their only defense is to move fast.
Where size is concerned, the average bonefish is about 10 lbs. They’ve been known to grow as large as 20 lbs. in lesser-fished waters around Hawaii, but one this size has never been caught by competitive anglers. The average length for an adult is about 18 inches, which they reach age three or four. Bonefish are a long-lived species and can live 19 years or longer in the wild. The females are quite productive and can lay almost two million eggs! Their spawning grounds and mating habits are unknown.
You can read a comprehensive summary of bonefish biology on the Florida Museum’s Discover Fishes page.
Where to Find a Bonefish
Globally, bonefish can be found along both North American coasts, down into Central America, in the Bahamas, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific. They move in and out of shallow water with the tides. When the tide comes in, they move to shallow areas and when the tide is out, they retreat back into deeper waters. Sometimes, they hang out for a few days in a channel or a bay, but not with any regularity. Since they mate all year ‘round, you won’t find them gathered in large groups to spawn.
The Florida Keys, especially Islamorada, is a great area in The States for bonefish. The list of line-class world records for bonefish is dominated by Islamorada. The records range from 10 to 16 lbs. The top catch on that list was in Bimini in the Bahamas in 1971. The last catch to enter that list was in 2003. The fly tackle records read about the same way, with Islamorada dominating the competition.
Bonefish like flat, inter-coastal waters, mangroves, and the mouths of rivers. They prefer warmer waters, which is key to finding them when the seasons change. Because of a specialized bladder that lets them take in air, bonefish don’t need to be in an oxygen-rich environment. You can find them in areas with grassy bottoms, but also in sand, rocks, or coral. They’re particularly difficult to spot in grassy areas since their reflective coloration disguises them very well.
Anyplace with a lot of boats and people is a bad place to look for bonefish. They get scared easily, so a bunch of kids splashing around or noisy motors will chase them off. Try a quiet place with relatively still waters. Of course, try to make as little noise as possible yourself to avoid scaring off your catch. Bonefish will stick to the flats mostly to avoid predators that swim in deeper waters. Plus, the flats are where their food is. They will sometimes go into deeper waters, especially the large fish who can hold their own. The biggest bonefish are not only found in deeper water but also tend to be loners. The smaller fish cluster together in schools for protection. If there are rays in the area, a bonefish will sometimes follow them and snap up anything the ray kicks up from the bottom.
Read this article from Saltwater Sportsman for regional differences in bonefish behavior.
Best Bait for Bonefish
Before we go any further, it’s worth noting that there are some restrictions on catching bonefish in certain areas. In Florida, there’s a strict catch and release rule in place. There are no exemptions for tournament fishing and you cannot use a multiple hook along with baits and lures to catch them. In the Bahamas, to fish the flats where bonefish live, you’ll need a Bahamian-registered vessel and possibly a Bahamian guide. Anyone over the age of 12 will need a license too. It’s worth checking your destination’s rules before you go. A run-in with the authorities makes for a bummer of a fishing trip.
It’s always best to match any live bait to what your target fish is eating. Since bonefish has such a wide distribution, this can be tricky to nail down. Things the fish eat in one area may not live in another. So, the fish in that region have a different diet. For example, bonefish eat shrimp and small crabs in Florida’s waters but prefer conch in the Bahamas. Bonefish will also eat worms and chunks of sardine.
To rig up, you have some different options. A good one is to use a plain, long shank hook tied onto a 15 or 20 lb. fluorocarbon leader. If you’re using a large shrimp, you won’t need anything else. For the tiny ones, squeeze a couple of split shot onto your leader just above the hook. This is to aid in your cast and get the bait to the bottom. Since bonefish can grab your bait and run with it, make sure you have plenty of line on your reel.
For more on Florida’s rules, check out the Florida Fish and Wildlife site.
Best Lures for Bonefish
Some anglers aren’t fond of using fresh bait. It can be difficult to keep alive, stinky when it’s not, and you may have to contend with turtles and seagulls trying to steal your bait. When you’re choosing an artificial lure, the same rule of “match the hatch” applies. Softbait shaped like shrimp, crab, and worms are all good options. Plenty of anglers swear by a skimmer jig (a.k.a. Bonefish jig). These jigs are shaped a bit differently from other jigs. They’ve got a spade-shaped head with the line loop on the top of its nose. Buggs Fishing has some fine looking heads in varying sizes and colors. Skyline has another good selection, called their Ghost Bonefish jig heads. Neither of these comes dressed, so you’ll want some soft worms or shrimp to entice the fish.
Try pairing with a Berkley Gulp! Peeler crab or a D.O.A. Shrimp Body to really get their attention. When you cast it out, try to aim for a foot or two in front of the fish. Once your lure sinks, pop it a few times to make it look like it’s hopping along the bottom. Unless you’re using some type of artificial scent, it’s the motion of the lure that will attract the fish. So, you have to appeal to it by moving the lure realistically. Think of it as a little underwater theater performance. As far as color choice is concerned, try and match the bottom of the flats where you’ll be fishing. That might make it harder for you to see, but it won’t be disguised from the fish.
For more detail on jig lures, check out this from Sportfishing Magazine.
How to Cook Bonefish
Bonefish is not known for its culinary delights. While the flavor is inoffensive, the main problem most people have with it is that it’s…well…bony. Still, this fish is part of a traditional diet in Hawaii and folks in Mississippi seem fond of it too. So, if you want to try your hand at cooking up a bonefish, we’ve found a few recipes that might tickle your tastebuds. You might want to have someone else filet it though unless you like picking out the bones.
This article from Southern Cultures covers bonefish from the viewpoint of Ricky Moore, a restaurant owner in North Carolina. He calls bonefish important and sustainable and suggests frying it up so even the tail is edible. This involves a high-temperature oil and a long while in the fryer. That helps with the problem of encountering so many bones. In Hawaii, where the fish is known as O’io, chef James Temple combines the flesh of the bonefish with things like egg, herbs, and potato to make fish balls. They can be steamed, fried, and even baked. They can go in a soup, on a salad, or tossed into an Italian tomato sauce.
Whether you plan to cook up your catch or let it go, the best part of bonefish is making the perfect cast and getting a strike. It will likely take some practice to wade into the shallows without spooking this nervous fish. But, hopefully, this article has given you the tools and the knowledge to get started on your great bonefish adventure. Remember to check local regulations, dispose of your line responsibly, and be safe.
Love fishing? Read How to Catch a Blackfin Tuna