Okay so there you are... one of those epic days on a hawaiian bonefish flat. there is no one in sight. a light overcast sky leaves a dark tint on the water and keeps the whole situation copacetic. barely a whisper of trade wind ruffles the calm waters around you...
and there are bonefish... and there are lots of them... and they are tailing like crazy!
you watch as they pop up intermittently all over the flat around you. there are slow, barely moving tails, vigorously thrashing ones, and even the occasional complete forked tail out of the water ones.
then it happens. a silver grey sword rises out of the shallow water forty, maybe forty five feet, in front of you and starts slowly waving around. this is it. the shot you've been waiting hours, days, weeks, months, years, or even your whole life for. it's all unfolding right before you.
you try not to crap your britches (that is the number one cause of blown shots at bonefish after all). not this time. instead, you fight off the "doo doo thrills", take a deep breath and begin to look "through" the water instead of directly at the tail waving in front of you. as you switch your focus, you suddenly no longer see the fish's tail sticking out of the water even though it is now shaking and quivering more violently than ever. instead all you see is a bonefish happily rooting away at the bottom. you see it as plain as day despite the glare. almost as if there were no water at all.
"wow, that old crazy guy at the fly shop was right," you think to yourself, "i thought he only blind casts, but maybe he does know what he is talking about. could it be? nah."
the fish stops tailing. maybe it caught its prey, maybe it didn't. it doesn't matter. the bone is on the hunt again and you have it locked in your sights. you make your cast. it is perfect. you put just the right combination of energy and line speed into your unrolling loop of fly line. perhaps you even used that trick inverted loop cast you've been practicing. whatever you did, you did it right and your lightly weighted fly lands like a mayfly on a trout stream about ten feet in front of the cruising fish.
the bonefish makes a slight, but noticeable, adjustment to its speed and course. the fish swims right up to the spot your fly landed moments ago and stops dead in its tracks. your heart is racing, you just know you've got it. you mentally prepare for the blistering run ahead, strip strike to drive the hook home, and...
wait... what the...
you realize that you are not tied into the bonefish of your dreams at all. instead, your fly is stuck on the rocky coral bottom. the fish is thoroughly confused as it tries repeatedly to get this "supernatural rock gripping" nugget of prey into its mouth. hunger quickly turns to caution. all you can do is watch as the bonefish turns away and hurriedly swims off puzzled by the whole experience.
sound familiar? if so don't worry, it happens to all of us. while there is no way of completely eliminating this scenario from happening (except maybe to quit bonefishing altogether), there are some things about the fly you choose to buy or tie that can help you hook more fish and less rocks. these fly design aspects, shall we call them, all have their own unique pros and cons. the best one can do for oneself is to understand the good, the bad, and the ugly of each of these designs and choose which one (or ones) works best for you. as many of us learned from arnold and willis jackson so many years ago, "the world don't move to the beat of just one drum. what might be right for you, may not be right for some..."
now a lot of this stuff has to do with physics and i absolutely SUCK at physics, but here are some of my layman observations anyway.
the most critical design aspect of a bonefish fly to aid in improving the mouth to rock ratio is having a fly that fishes with the hook point riding up at all times. a fly that rides with the hook point down is fine when fishing at the surface or middle of the water column. they are even okay for fishing sandy or muddy bottoms with little to get caught on. when fishing on rocky or coral bottoms, and especially when you need to let the fly sit on the bottom like often is the case in shallow water bonefish situations, having the hook point up is a must.
sean knows the importance of keeping your fly's hook point up.
this is the easiest and by far most common way of making a hook fish with the point facing the surface of the water rather than toward the bottom. a counter weight (usually a dumbbell shaped weight) is tied on the hook shank opposite the bend and hook point.
pros: a properly weighted fly will keep the hook point away from danger and in great position for solid unobstructed hook sets. hook a bonefish with a fly like this and chances are very good you will make it to the hero shot.
cons: it takes quite a bit of weight to properly "flip" a size two or four saltwater hook (the most popular sizes of bonefish flies in hawaii). contrary to what many believe, bead chain is almost never enough weight to keep a fly riding with the hook point up all the time, at least not the way most bonefish flies are tied. it takes heavier brass, lead, or tungsten eyes. unfortunately, these types of eyes cause the fly to land with a bigger splash which can spook fish especially in shallow water.
also on bottoms like those faced in hawaii, often times it is the weighted eyes themselves and not actually the hook that gets caught in the coral.
examples of flies that use weighted eyes to flip the hook. paris fat bomb (top), reef special (middle), claymantis (bottom)
reverse tied flies
i think this is one of the most underutilized fly designs out there. a reverse tied fly is one where the weighted eye is placed toward the rear of the hook rather than toward the eye of the hook.
a reversed tied version of a very popular shallow water bonefish fly in hawaii, the amber shrimp.
pros: by having the weight more directly opposite of the bend and point of the hook, less weight is needed to flip the hook. appropriate sized bead chain, in combination with a wing tied using buoyant materials, will have enough weight to flip most bonefish sized hooks when tied this way. the squimp fly is an excellent example of this, but almost any bonefish fly out there now can be tied in "reverse" to improve it's ability to keep the hook point up.
the well known squimp fly is a good example of a reverse tied fly, but just about any bonefish fly can be tied this way.
in addition, because the eyes are place toward the back of the fly, they are far less prone to getting caught on the reef themselves compared to when they are tied more toward the eye of the hook.
one of my favorite shallow water flies for hawaii (especially on the hickam flats) is a white or yellow reverse tied charlie. i fished those exclusively for years and they are still my favorite for skinny water, sketchy bottom situations.
two of my all time skinny water, tailing fish, favorites. reverse charlies in yellow and white.
cons: to me, there are no real downsides to the reverse tied fly. it may be a tiny bit trickier to tie, but not really. the fly swims differently than those weighted at the front. reverse tied flies tend to sink and swim more parallel to the bottom and don't "dive" when they sink. that may be an issue for some but i have not personally found that bones care all that much.
the fly will still "roll" or tip over in current if left sitting on the bottom causing the hook point to be in more of a position to snag the bottom. i have found, however, that it will also right itself quicker than flies tied with the eyes toward the front when stripped from the tipped over position. this lessens the chance of a rolled over fly catching the bottom significantly.
why aren't all bonefish flies tied reversed like that? i don't know. i can guess that it probably has more to do with looks or historical tradition more than anything.
the 60 degree jig hook
i'm not sure when, where, or how this started, but somewhere along the line flies began being tied on 60 degree jig hooks. the shape of this hook changes the center of gravity (i am guessing it is called) of the hook causing it to naturally ride with the hook point up. i have experimented extensively with flies tied on this type of hook over the years. one of my favorite patterns, the jiggy bone bug is tied on a 60 degree jig hook.
jiggy bone bug and jiggy bone mantis.
pros: the hook itself already rides hook up so any weight you put on it is a bonus. this includes bead or cone heads as well as wrapping the shank with lead wire, weights which do not help to flip a regular hook. like the reverse tie, any bonefish fly can be tied on this type of hook.
claymantis tied on a 60 degree jig hook.
the bent part of the hook by the eye also acts a little like a "rock deflector" (which we will discuss later). when you get a good hook set with a 60 degree jig hook (on bones at least), it is almost like using a circle hook. that sucker gets in good. i often have a hard time even getting this hook out of the jaw of a bonefish when it is wedged in there.
cons: it is hard to find this type of hook in sizes smaller than a size two. there are some out now that have black nickel finishes that are "okay" for use in saltwater, however these are usually one and done in the "rusts everything hawaiian kine" saltwater.
like i mentioned above the 60 degree hook sticks fish really well when you get a good hook set. i have found, however, that it is a little trickier to get a good hook set with this style of hook compared to other hooks. i don't know the physics behind this. i just know this from my experience. when you don't get a good hook set with the 60 degree hook, it does seem to bend out quite easily. this will not be a problem for those who don't mind just bending an opened hook back into shape. i do not recommend doing that but i know quite a few guys, that catch bonefish by the ton in hawaii, who will bend back a straightened hook and keep on fishing it without batting an eye (doug and e.t.).
doug says no worry! jus' bend 'um back... it really is all about what you believe i guess.
the final downside i have found when using a 60 degree jig hook is actually the down side of one of its strengths. when you get a good hook set with a 60 degree jig hook, the hook really sticks in a fish's mouth. by the same token, when you get a good hook up on some coral, it really sticks in that too. so although using this hook greatly reduces the amount of times that it gets stuck in the coral, when it does manage to get stuck good, it is pretty much bye bye birdie.
weed guards (rock guards or rock deflectors)
weed guards come in several different styles. there is the loop type, the double loop type, the single mono guard, and the double mono guard (or v shaped guard). in hawaii, weed guards do little to keep actual weeds (seaweed) off of flies. in fact, flies with weed guards generally catch more seaweed than flies without them, at least the kind of seaweed that annoys us the most in hawaii. they do help to keep flies from getting stuck in coral by hitting the coral before the hook point hits and deflecting the fly and hook away from danger. my personal favorite is the single mono weed guard.
marabou mantis lite sporting a single mono weed guard.
pros: it does noticeably reduce the amount of times a fly will snag a rock. the heavier the mono guard the better it works allowing you to use different weed guards for different levels of snaggy bottoms.
no special hook is needed, you can add weed guards to any hook that you like to tie your flies on.
they are easily removable on the water with just a snip or two of a nipper. you can even add one on the water by simply leaving a length of the tag end of the knot you tied the fly on with. i do this quite a bit. it is not as effective at shielding your fly from coral as having a weed guard tied on the fly, but it does help quite a bit and i have caught countless bones doing this.
just leaving the tag from the knot that the fly is tied on with can create a decent rock deflector on the water. i colored the tippet for visual purposes, i don't actually use a black tippet.
cons: the biggest drawback of the single mono weed guard is that it cannot tell the difference between a rock and a fishes mouth... it will always do its best to deflect the fly away from both of them equally. i used to be adamantly against the use of weed guards on flies because of this, but that has changed considerably over the years. the main reason for the change is that over the years i cared less and less about loosing fish that i hooked and became more and more lazy about breaking off flies and having to tie on new ones. nowadays almost all the flies in my box have weed guards on them but my fish hooked to fish landed ratio has gone down considerably. you just need to find the balance that will keep you happy and not going insane from loosing flies or from loosing fish.
so that's about all i have to say about that. hopefully somewhere in this drawn out blah blah blah blah blah, you were able to find a nugget of useful truth that may just one day be the key to catching that skinny water, tailing bonefish of a lifetime...
or if nothing else, at least keep you from hooking that rock of a lifetime. good times.
brought to you by the good folks at Nervous Water Fly Fishers, Inc.
3434 Waialae Avenue Honolulu, Hawaii 96816