The arrival of summer in the Florida Keys means different things to different people. For some it’s time to head north and visit family. For others, it’s time to dust off dive gear and load up the spearguns for some underwater hunting. But for a flats angler in the Keys, it’s prime bonefish time. The calmer conditions make it much easier to see the “gray ghost” of the flats, and the generally stable, warm water temperatures suit bonefish quite well.
To a flats novice, the speed of a bonefish’s first run is hard to believe. Line leaves the reel at an alarming rate, and many anglers wonder if the fish might take it all and keep right on going. That first amazing run is, for most flats stalkers like myself, the true payoff of a lot of study and effort pursuing the wily bonefish. And that first run is even more exciting from the cockpit of a kayak.
If you intend to have consistent success with bonefish from a kayak, I believe you have to be able to paddle and pole the yak from a standing position - much like a stand up paddle board. This necessitates a stable kayak, and time spent practicing. Standing and silently moving the yak through shallow water needs to become second nature so you can focus on looking for fish. I’ve recently incorporated a 12’ push pole into my gear and find it very useful. Hunting bones from a seated position is difficult because you just can’t see them soon enough to make a presentation. You will occasionally find tailing fish, or fish making wakes in very shallow water, and these can be fished while seated. But 90 percent of the bones I catch are spotted while standing and poling the kayak in 1 to 3 feet of water.
Many good books and articles have been written about bonefishing. I’ve learned from all of them, and I suggest you do some in-depth reading on this fascinating fish before heading out. Tides, type of tackle, lures and baits, presentation, etc., are covered in the bonefish literature so I won’t repeat it here. But compared to the typical scenario of hunting bones from a flats skiff (or alternately, wading), stalking these wary, hard-to-see fish from a kayak presents some unique challenges, which I’ll touch on below.
Perched high on the bow of a skiff’s casting platform, you can see fish at quite a distance - often 100 feet or more. Add the trained eyes of a veteran guide on the poling platform, and generally you’ll have 6, 8, maybe even 10 seconds to track the incoming fish and make your presentation. If it’s off target, you may have time to make a second cast. But from the lower vantage point of a kayak, you typically won’t see bones until they’re within 60 feet of you - many times far less than that depending on light conditions. This cuts your lead time down drastically - to about 3 - 5 seconds on average - leaving very little room for error or second casts. And that brings us to the trickiest part of sight fishing from a kayak: the quick transition from poling to angling. My main method is as follows (this is for a spinning rod set up):
A secondary method I’ve found effective, given the right conditions, is drifting. If the current and wind aren’t too strong, and you’re in an area that looks “fishy”, park the paddle, stay standing and let the kayak slowly drift. Have the rod in hand, bail open and be ready to cast. You do give up maneuverability of the kayak this way, but you cut the time necessary for casting to almost zero - a big advantage when operating in such close proximity to bonefish. This drifting method is very useful on a flat calm day when the fish are harder to approach, and longer casts become necessary. With the rod in hand, you can cast as soon as you see the fish and get a great shot before they’ve figured out you’re there. The biggest problem with drifting is going too fast and running over fish.
A bait bucket can double as a sea anchor to slow your rate of drift. And as your skill increases, you can actually have the paddle in one hand for limited steering and braking, while you hold the rod with the other hand.
Bonefishing has been on an upswing the past few years, so do a little pre-game study, get your kayak out there, and get busy with these silver speed demons!
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