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Third and last part of a three part harmony about a fantastic trip for Bahamas bonefish Introduction to the article
By Paul Slaney
Some Boring Practicalities
Part 3 - Nothing can really prepare you for the experience you actually get on your first bonefish trip.
Ok, straight in at the deep end. Learn to cast and learn to cast well. It's the single most important thing that will directly affect your success. It doesn't have to be pretty to be effective but before you go, be confident that you can handle a line quickly, accurately and with confidence in windy conditions. Of the 6 days I spent on the flats only one of them can be described as relatively calm (we are talking a stiff breeze) the rest of the time I spent battling a strong wind. Phillip assured me that it doesn't always blow like that. BUT, like a Boy Scout, you should always be prepared.
I've heard, and read a lot about the need to cast great distances when Bonefishing. On the Joulter Keys I can assure you that this is a great big steaming pile of bullshit. If you can competently deliver a 60 or 70' shot you will catch plenty of fish and I'm including the length of the rod and leader in those measurements. Ok, a full line shot might get you a second or maybe a third chance at a fish. However, in the wind, the chances are that the lack of line control and loss of accuracy is going to force you to make the second shot anyway.
A mistake I made early on was to present to the fish at distance. I realised that once the guide sees that you can do that, well, that's as close as he'll get to the fish or, from the boat he'll be pressuring you to take the shot earlier than strictly necessary. I suspect this would be true of most guides and understandably so. After all, he's worked hard to put you onto that fish. The last thing he wants to do is spook it.
So, learn to double haul to increase your line speed and tighten your casting loop to cut the wind. It helps if you can throw a cast over both shoulders. Sweat, in windy casting practice before hand will pay vast dividends and if you need to, spend some money on casting lessons. The investment is far wiser than spending the money on a fancy bit of kit, with perhaps the exception of sunglasses.
Sunglasses next to casting need serious consideration. Good polarised glasses make life a hell of a lot easier. The fish are difficult enough to spot as it is and if you are like me you will need every bit of help you can get. I took a couple of pairs with me in two different colours (we have a saying around here "all the gear but no idea!") The best colour for me was amber rather than a grey lens but I've heard that a colour known as clearwater copper is very effective also.
I heard a Bahamian song that went something like "Sunshine, sunshine. Let me feel your warmth just one more time". Warmth is a good description, it doesn't feel that hot out on the flats, the wind has a pleasant cooling effect and it's not humid. Take tropical sunshine, a cooling breeze and you have a very pleasant climate indeed. The temptation to fish in a pair of trunks and a T-shirt is undeniable.
But, as I learnt to my cost, sunburn is a very real threat and bad sunburn can appear very quickly indeed. If your skin suffers in this way, use plenty of sun cream of the highest SPF you can obtain and keep covered up. Long trousers, long sleeved shirts and a good sun hat are essential. A couple of my shirts were short sleeved and yes, my arms got burnt. It didn't spoil my trip, I was lucky.
The wading surfaces on the Joulters are varied. From beautiful flat sands, to grassy and weedy areas to the type of bottom encountered in such places as Moletown. Which brings me onto wading shoes. Though not strictly needed on the sandy flats in weedy or molehill areas they are comforting to wear. You tend to be looking for fish, not where you are treading. Bits of coral, broken shells, sea urchins covered in grass, crabs and all sorts of stuff lay in wait. I found it reassuring, but not particularly comfortable to wear them. I used some cheap shoes of the type that scuba divers wear, they zipped up the side, kept the sand out and though not pretty, they were certainly adequate if more than a little smelly after some 60-70 hours of continual use.
I suppose I'd better talk a little about equipment. Well, compared to the lake fishing I'm used to, the equipment required is refreshingly simple. The wind will dictate your line weight not the fish. 7's, 8's and 9's I suspect would be the sensible choices for most occasions, though a 6 would be perfectly practical in calm conditions. I used 8's and 9's for all the fishing. Both on 9', 8 weight rods. One built on a Pac Bay 4 piece blank the other a purpose built bonefish rod by Steve Abel. Perhaps the Abel had the edge in the wind, but nothing to write home about.
As far as reels go, I used a Loop 2 Wide with the 8-weight line and a pretty Flylogic 789 for the 9 weights. On both I had about 250 yards of 30lb gel spun backing and both performed perfectly adequately. The loop recovers line at an amazing rate, the lack of drag wasn't a disadvantage but the purring sound of the Flylogic was pleasant to hear as the fish ran.
Far more important than your equipment is your backing, line, leader, tippet set up and knots. Starting from the reel arbour I had a couple of yards of heavy mono, Gel spun tends to spin on the arbour, the Mono 'bites' better. Then the Gel Spun was blood knotted to the mono and wound on under a fair pressure, criss-crossing the wraps to avoid bedding. My standard backing to fly line knot is an Albright. Big mistake. The first night after fishing the flats I changed this to a whipped loop to loop connection, I'm not used to fish hitting the backing, the Albright knot catching on the rod rings is not a good idea.
Another whipped loop on the business end of the line enabled my preferred loop-to-loop, line/leader connection. A surgeon's knot for the tippet and then for the fly I settled on a non-slip mono loop for the larger flies and a tucked blood knot for the smaller. I changed my leader daily and my tippet several times a day, the abrasive nature of the bottom on the flats is very hard on tippet material. Another basic mistake I made early on, before I even got there. That was tippet material; I only took 8 and 10lb, low diameter, co-polymer. I would have preferred a harder, stiffer material.
This is also too small a diameter for the hook eye on larger size 2 flies I was using in deeper water. I found a blood knot, even with a tuck could slip (maybe greasy sun cream on my hands had something to do with it, but more likely not) However, a mono loop stopped this, but It has to be tied with a smaller diameter than the width of the eyes on the fly to stop it catching and fishing off centre. I lost a couple of fish before I realised this was happening. The simple answer is to have the correct tippet diameter for the fly. Easily solved, but not on Andros. There ain't no fly shops.
The overall leader length I settled on was about 16 feet. This length, I'm comfortable casting on my home waters, where we use leaders much longer than this. And to a certain extent I feel it can help avoid spooking fish when sight casting from the boat. It enables the caster to put a slight tuck in the cast to help the fly sink at the same time as keeping the tip of your fly line away from the fish, even if you are leading the fish by some distance.
Which brings me to fly selection. I tied flies for 6 months prior to the trip, people kindly sent me their favourites, and I even bought some my mail order from the States. All in all I went armed with hundreds of the bloody things. My greatest fear is going on a trip and having a boxful of the wrong pattern. This has never happened to me, probably never will. Over the years I've come to realise that it's purely psychological and I undoubtedly need professional help.
My experience of the Joulters proves that it's the size that counts and what you do with it. Yep, as always its presentation that counts. I settled on 3 patterns and sizes and after a couple of days used them almost exclusively. Firstly a McVays Gotcha size 2 or 4 for deeper water from the boat. For sandy bottoms and medium depth water, a Yellow, Gotcha, Crazy Charlie type of fly on a size 4. Finally, for shallow wading a size 6 or 8 bunny fry, tied upside down in pale tan. Other recommended flies for the area are a Clouser Gold Shiner Minnow, a tan Yarn Crab, a Cuz's Flats Killer from Hell (had some but didn't try em, sorry mate) a Kaufmans Yellow Sands and a most unlikely looking fly called a Bahamas Special. All tied in the size 2-6 hook range.
1. McVays Gotcha
Hook: Size 2 Partridge Sea Prince, the short shank version.
Thread: Bonefish pink 3/0. Very pretty and by all accounts crucial to the pattern.
Tail: 4 or 5 strands of pearl crystal flash.
Body: I used twisted pearl crystal flash over pink thread and a layer of cement, though there are all sorts of pearly body material you can use.
Eyes: Large, silver bead chain eyes.
Beard: Sparse bunch of pale tan craft fur. I couldn't find any of this and used pale tan calf tail instead.
Flash: A couple of strands of pearl crystal flash each side of the beard and about the same length.
2. Yellow Gotcha, Crazy Charlie Type Fly
Hook: As above but size 4.
Thread: Yellow 3/0.
Tail: As above but yellow.
Body: As above but yellow.
Eyes: Medium, silver bead chain.
Beard: Yellow calf tail with a few strands of white over.
Flash: As above but yellow.
3. Upside Down Bunny Fry
Hook: As above but size 6 and 8
Thread: 6/0 tan.
Weight: Small strip of lead wire tied along the top of the hook shank to make the fly swim inverted.
Tail: Zonker strip in pale tan, the same length of the hook shank. Tied in upside down at the hook bend
Body: Tufts of tan and white rabbit fur, tied top and bottom along the hook shank. Remember the fly is tied upside down. I.e., white on top, tan underneath.
Flash: A couple of strands of pearl flashabou on each flank.
Head: Rabbit fur, spun in a loop, wrapped forwards to the eye and tied off.
Eyes: Stick on epoxy type.
Head finish: Smooth back the rabbit fur at the head and hold to the rear of the hook. Place on the eyes. Apply a drop of superglue to the top section of the head and hold till dry (A couple of seconds) Trim the underside of the head to your satisfaction.
That's about all I can say after an all to short week of fishing this fantastic place except, the memories of unforgettable scenery, of the warmth and friendliness of the people, of the anticipation of the day as you power out to the keys, of the challenge of catching one of those spooky, supercharged fish, the successes and disappointments all conspire to make a fisherman, even a dyed in the wool trout fisherman like me, yearn to return for a re match. Only next time I'll be a little better prepared.
Finally, the recipe for the Godfather. Take a tall glass, add lots of ice, a shot of Brandy, a shot of Tia Maria, a splash of Gin and top the whole thing up with Milk. Believe me, it looks and tastes revolting. However, if you are crazy enough to drink one, do so in bed.
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