Bone Fishing…The Full Monty of Fly Fishing

Bone Fishing…The Full Monty of Fly Fishing

Tim Kempton | Sunday, 3 April 2016

I took up fly fishing about 7 years ago. I had spent a decade or more targeting billfish on standup, and saltwater sportfish (mainly Barramundi, Queenfish). I had read about bonefish. The claim was that catching a bonefish on fly was better than sex! It was explosive, it lasted forever, you could take photos and share with your mates, and there was lots of them. I was hooked. All I had to do was learn this fly fishing thing.

I was in Cabelas in the US and had no idea what to buy. I had read about a Sage rod and that was it.  All this stuff about weights , floating and sinking lines was another language.

 As it happened, Brian O’Keefe (Catch Magazine) was at the Cabela flyshop and was kind enough to spend some time…his advice was buy two cheaper rods for the price of one good one (I still had to learn how to cast it) as I was sure to break them, and spend my money on a good reel.  I walked out with a 7 and 8 wt rod, and a Ross Momentum reel.  I bought a book on flycasting and set to work.  All went well until I tied on a barramundi fly. I had never heard of the 5 principles, especially Pause, and so it got ugly, and ended up with some  more stitches and a staple in my shoulder to hold the tendon in place from a previous injury.  Brute force obviously wasn’t the trick.

Time for some proper lessons.  And  so began the journey into the world of flycasting and flyfishing.  I have been fortunate to spend time with many of the great teachers, and to fish with some very generous people. I did my CI to learn, and have never stopped.


Bonefishing at Kiritimati (Christmas Island) (CXI) in the South Pacific offers everything you could want in the world and art of flyfishing.  It is the Full Monty of all the skills in one session. There are plenty of bonefishing destinations around the globe, but Kiritimati is easy and affordable. Flights are only once a week, so you have 7 days of full on fishing.

Guides.  Guiding is the most prestigious job on Kiritimati. They are not paid much.  Don’t be too proud. Pay for a guide as it helps the local economy.  They can see fish that you will never see.  Some of the guides have fished for over twenty years, which is 20- 30,000 hours.  One week of fishing is about 50 hours. They can teach you a lot!

 2. Fish where the fish are.  Kiritimati is a coral atoll with thousands of hectares of sand and coral flats.  The guides decide which flat to fish each day based on tides and water temperature. Mostly you are wading in ankle to knee deep water. There is very little to no danger...the currents aren’t strong, and the wading is easy.  You will move about all day between flats on the canoes depending on the stage of the tide.  There is some fishing on the full moon on Paris Flats for schooling/ mating bonefish.  That is about as skilful as fishing in a fishtank.  Do it if you want to catch a big fish.

 3. Gear.  Rods are anywhere from 4wt up to 8 wt.  After many years going to Kiritimati, my preference is for a Hot Torpedo 8. It allows longer, more accurate casts in the wind. You need a really good wide arbor reel with a good drag, that will hold at least 300 metres of 20 lb backing.  There are specialist WF floating bonefish lines. We use a tapered leader with a 12lb tippet. Carry a 10 wt with 40-60 lb straight through leader for the big GT’s that cruise the flats.  It does happen. 

 5. Tying flies.  Sparsely tied Crazy Charlies are the go. They are easy to tie, and usually pink or orange.  There are lots of versions (just like trout flies).  The sparsely tied #6 flies that get to the bottom quicker are preferred.  


 6. Sight casting. This is polaroiding at its best.  You have to look at the bottom, not the waves. Bonefish are not called the ghosts of the flats for nothing. On a bright day, when the fish are feeding up the flats on incoming tide, they are relatively easy to spot. They are the grey shapes moving on the bottom. The dark shapes that don’t move are rocks. Mullet are on the surface and milkfish are midwater. When a bonefish turns sideways, it disappears. They don’t flash like a lot of fish. Eventually, with experience you get to see the eye, and the tail. They are always moving, and easily spooked. In deeper greener water, or under cloud cover, it is just plain hard work, and requires patience and experience.  It is great to see them tailing...big tails = big fish!


 7. Casting in the wind.  The Trade winds blow most of the time at 20 -25 knots from the East to South East.  This presents a great opportunity to learn how to make the wind your friend.  We are taught high back cast, tight loop, high line speed.  It is interesting to watch the guides cast.  Ekete, a guide at The Villages, who fished for Kiritimati in the Commonwealth Fly Fishing team in Tasmania in 2012 tells it differently.  He says cast as soft as you can to land the fly as soft as possible. If you can hear the fly plop in the water it is too loud.  He casts tight loops, and “floats” the flyline into the wind. He also uses what looks like a Mulson wind cast a to avoid the line being blown sideways.  Some days the fish are spooky, other days they are not.  The aim is to cast 1-2 metres in front of the fish, allow for the current and wind, and then draw the fly in slow strips away from the fish.  Little crabs don’t usually swim towards a feeding bonefish.  Use every technique for casting into, down and across the wind, as the bones can appear from anywhere. My son encouraged me to cast either hand…that has been one of the best skills I have learnt.


 8. Strip striking.  This is saltwater fishing…strip striking is essential.  These are not trout.  The hardest thing for a troutie is not to lift the rod on the strike.  I fished with some of the New Zealand fly fishing team last year.  They argued the case that barbless hooks gave a better hookup rate (the barb acts as a point of resistance), were easier to remove and did less damage to the fish.  Since netting was banned some years ago, the fish are getting bigger and 10+ lb’ers are now more common.  They require finesse in strip striking to avoid busting the tippet on the strike. 

 9. Line management. After hooking the fish,  you have to feed out the line and avoid tangles caused by the wind. It goes out very fast!  Lift the rod and tilt the reel into your forearm to stop line wrap.  Stripping baskets are a great help.  

 10. Playing the fish.  If a bonefish could talk, you could imagine it crab can fight. The first run is all power. A big bonefish will easily run 200+ metres, and very fast. In shallow water, there is an impressive rooster tail. When you look at the size of the tail, and the torpedo shape, it is obvious why the bonefish has so much speed.  Have confidence in your gear. The drags aren’t set very high, because the wind and the water create a lot of drag. Don’t panic and wind up the drag...palm it if you have to.  The fish will turn and run back at you, and so wind and wind. If you cant wind fast enough, and the water is deep enough you can try putting the rod tip in the water if necessary to create more drag, but this is pretty hard to do on the flats if the fish is running at you, and there are spikes of coral.  When they get near, they will turn and run again, and usually just as far.  After that it is a matter of winding, and playing the fish until you have its head out of the water.  

 11. Landing and handling the fish. This is all about respecting the fish. The guide will use a dehooker to remove the fly, and release the fish without handling it. Take your own dehooker, as you will spend time on your own. This is all about landing and releasing the fish as soon as possible. Light weight rods, and light leaders mean you take longer, so you stress the fish more.    


 12. Other species. There are trigger fish, goatfish, milkfish, all sorts of trevally, including goldens and big GT’s.  Triggers are elusive and addictive.

 You can expect to catch 100+ bonefish in a week at CXI. They vary in size from 1-10+ lbs. They are seldom weighed, nor measured, and when asked how big a fish was,  Ekete once replied, “how big do you want it to be?”. 

I have caught some big fish. Ekes said one was 10lb. Who really cares, the fish didn’t and I was happy to see it swim safely away!