Bonefish Bitters

Craig Mathews' fly was originally named Pops Bonefish Bitters, and gets molested with hot melt glue in this version.

By Martin Joergensen

The prize - The author, GFF partner Martin Joergensen, with a bonefish, which - even this small - will surprise you with their strength.
The prize
I cannot say that I am a seasoned bonefish angler. I have fished for bonefish on a couple of occasions, but even though I am not nearly what I would dare call experienced, I have accumulated some experience with these ghosts of the flats.

My latest trip was to Punta Allen north of Ascencion Bay about a year ago, and there I got my skills honed with two weeks of bonefishing.
One of our local guides - Gaspar - was a Gotcha-man. He would select a small Gotcha over anything else in almost any situation, and emptied my box of small Gotchas within a day.

By the frequency of his "Let me see you fly!", "Too big!", "Let me see your fly box" and the fly change following every second cast, I was led to think that bonefishing was the hardest type of fishing on the surface of the planet.

I owe the originator, Craig Matthews, an apology for molesting his pattern as I have done here. My variation of this fly differs so much from the original in tying method, that it's almost a new pattern. I have chosen to keep the name, but refer you to his fly shop Blue Ribbon Flies (Where the original Bitters isn't on the tab any more for some reason!) as an attempt to undo it.
Matching the hatch for picky chalk stream trout was kids' play compared. Bonefish seemed not only extremely spooky, but also very choosy with what kinds, colours and sizes of flies they would take.

Read the complete story from Punta Allen in the article "Bumpy Mexico".

Brown Bonefish Bitters - The brown variation of the Bonefish Bitters which was my most succesful colour.
Brown Bonefish Bitters
Neutral Bonefish Bitters - This discreet - almost uncoloured - Bonefish Bitters worked well in Punta Allen.
Neutral Bonefish Bitters

This would prove to be all wrong later during the trip, but since it was the first couple of days and we were with a skilled local guide, I chose to follow his advice, and observed many a bonefish swim by within casting range while he was clipping off my fly, only to exchange it with something of almost similar size, colour and appearance.

Seen in retrospect I guess that he was just earning his salary by convincing us poor tourists that it was the wrong fly that caused the fish to spook - not our poor eyesight or lousy casting skills.

The Bonefish Bitters was invented by Craig Mathews sometime back in the 80's. It was originally named Pops Bonefish Bitters after a Belizian guide nicknamed Pops. My flies are probably not quite true to the original (which I have never seen).
I tend to tie them more elongated, slender and rounded than most Bitters I have seen, which are flat and with the "tail" more spread out to look like the legs on a small crab.
The original was most likely tied with epoxy. For this fly I dearly recommend glue. So much easier to handle and more than adequate for the purpose.
Luckily I got the chance to fish without a guide for the last few days of the trip, and during these days I learned a lot. First of all I learned that my trusty 7 weight Loomis IMX was no good at this game. I must have overlined it, because casting it was a curse, even with a 7 weight line - and casting is a very important aspect of bonefishing.
I replaced it with a Hardy Ad Swier Pike Teaser (yes, a pike rod!), which was the perfect rod for the purpose. It cast my 9 weight Rio line like a dream and increased my reach and my precision by an order of magnitude!

Fly thieves - These small mangrove trees and all their air roots are bound to cost you some flies - and fish. Any bonefish running into this will most likely break you off. So tie enough to loose a few.
Fly thieves

That rod and the Bonefish Bitters changed me from an insecure bonefish angler to a much more self confident bonefish catcher. I started attracting bonefish to my flies in stead of scaring them off. I started being able to target single fish or pairs and even have more than one fish going for my flies. I started catching fish that I saw myself on long distances.

Stealth - My fellow fly fisher Kim and guide Gaspar (kneeling) casting to a bonefish. Stealth and precise casts are prime methods of targeting bonefish.
I could probably have achieved the same thing with a small Gotcha, but my box was filled with Bonefish Bitters in several colours, and on one of my first solo walkabouts I selected a brown one.

The fly sank readily on my first cast to a fish, the fish turned - and towards my fly! I slowly retrieved the fly a bit, increasing speed slightly and the fish picked it up delicately from the bottom. Anyone who has fished for bonefish knows that what happened after that was not done delicately. As most hooked bonefish, it took off in a 30 yard rush, faster than imaginable.

I continued using my Bitters and caught many more fish on them the following days and after two weeks of fishing I felt like a champion and was very satisfied with myself.

HookI use my favorite, the Kamasan B175, but any salt water resistant hook can be used. Sizes from 4-8 will work well.
ThreadTo match materials
TailA small bunch of deer hair or bucktail, rubber legs to match colour
EyesBead chain, not too large
HeadHot melt glue, clear (coloured may be used for denser coloration)
I had most success with brown, neutral and white variations, less so with a red one.


Red Bonefish Bitters - The red Bonefish Bitters was my least succesful variety, but red is usually a popular colour on this pattern.
Red Bonefish Bitters
White Bonefish Bitters - White can be a surprinsingly good colour for bonefish like on this Bonefish Bitters.
White Bonefish Bitters

Tying method

  1. Attach the thread to the rear of the hook shank just in front of the bend
  2. Prepare a small bunch of deer hair or bucktail. 10-20 hairs are enough
  3. Tie in the hairs. Have them protrude a shank length behind the hook bend
  4. Allowing the tips to spread out - although not too much
  5. Leave the butts as long as half the hook shank
  6. Tie in 6-8 rubber legs a bit longer than the deer hair
  7. Tie down all butts and cover with tying thread
  8. Tie in bead chain eyes on the top of the shank midway between the tail materials and the hook eye
  9. Whip finish and cut the thread
  10. Use a hot melt glue gun to cover the eyes and the thread covered butts with glue
  11. Aim for a rough drop shape - largest around the eyes of the fly
  12. Tip the vice slightly downwards and rotate it while holding a lighter or candle flame under the glue
  13. Be careful not to scorch the glue, but have it melt slightly and become smooth and perfectly rounded
  14. Rotate for a bit while the glue sets
  15. Drop the still warm and soft fly into a glass of cold water and leave there for half a minute
You can select to use coloured glue, a coloured thread or you can mark the thread, eyes and hook shank with a felt tipped pen to achieve a more colourful fly. I use clear glue only and vary the colour by choosing materials, thread and an occasional pen job.


User comments
From: Nycflyangler  Link
Submitted October 16th 2010

I'm not a bonefish, but I think I like your version a bit better.

From: Charles Hrbek  Link
Submitted February 19th 2007

The posted tying method is extremely helpful in the technique used to form, and color, the head. Quenching in cold water is a real time saver. Forming the heads before tying in the legs and hair may be easier for some. The "Belizian guide nicknamed Pops" is "Pops" Cabral who is still actively guiding at Turneffe Flats. A modest gentleman, and true master of his game.

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