Courtesy of WildOutdoor Media
In the shadows of the flats are Gray Ghosts. A school of them are circling, looking for their next meal. They are a soft silver color, stealthy, and very, very fast. But instead of spooking you, they are more likely to get spooked by you and swim away before you even know they are there. These Gray Ghosts, also known as Bonefish, are common throughout the flats of the Florida Keys and Bahamas. And they are a ton of fun to catch… if you can find them.
They get the name “Bonefish” for their many small, fine bones. This also means that they are not good table-fare. Not that it matters much, as Bonefish are a protected species in almost every body of water they inhabit (i.e Florida, North Carolina, the Bahamas). Most anglers practice safe methods of catch-and-release with Bonefish to ensure the longevity of a healthy population and to comply with local regulations. Hawaii is one of the few exceptions where you can find Bonefish on the menu.
Their nickname, “Gray Ghost,” is from their speed, stealth, and coloration. Bonefish are slender with a silver, gray color and thin dark streaks running from head to tail. They typically grow 17-18 inches in length, but some have been known to grow to up-to 3ft in length. They are rarely more than 10 pounds, although some records have them up-to 18 pounds.
Bonefish have a deeply forked tail that gives them power to chase prey across the flats. They are typically chasing crabs, shrimp, small mollusks, worms, and some smaller bait fish. Bonefish don’t necessarily have teeth in the conventional sense. Instead, throughout their mouth (tongue, jaw, and throat) they have teeth and grinders to help chew. Needless to say, even though you can’t see their teeth, it’s going to hurt if you get a finger stuck in their mouth.
Region & Habitat
Throughout the Tropics and in warm waters worldwide are schools of Bonefish. They are most populated in the Florida Keys, Bahamas, and throughout the Caribbean. Bonefish are also found on the west coast of the Americas from Peru in South America, along the coast of Central America, and into California.
They are the “Gray Ghosts of the Flats” for a reason and enjoy the shallow waters near the coasts. Look near mangroves, river mouths, or waters with sandy, muddy, grassy bottoms. Some are found near estuaries as the brackish water does not seem to affect Bonefish.
Bonefish will sometimes be solitary, but are more likely to school with anywhere from 40 to 400 others. Schools are usually filled with small juveniles while larger adult Bonefish are more solitary.
Fishing For Bonefish
Anglers will fish aboard a skiff or flats boat that they will move with poles throughout the flats. Or they will wade the shallow waters stalking Bonefish. Either way, a quiet approach is the critical element of any Bonefish trip. Sight fishing is another huge element of fishing for Gray Ghosts, make sure to own an excellent pair of polarized sunglasses. This helps with the reflection of the sun off the water.
A secret of sight fishing for Bonefish: keep fresh eyes on the water. Don’t stare too hard, and watch for subtle movements of water. Remember to approach and move gently through the shallows. If the Gray Ghosts see anything out of the ordinary they will bolt before you even see them.
Use live bait such as shrimp or crab and make sure your presentation is as natural as possible, drifting the bait through the current. Skimmer jigs or shrimp and crab imitation lures also work well. For fly fishermen and women, patterns such as Crazy Charlie or Borski Bonefish Slider are good choices.
Bonefish are very strong fish. Expect one heck-of-a-fight once the hook is set. And they will run the line off the reel if you let them, so make sure to have plenty of leader line. Once you reel your catch to the boat, take a picture of your triumph then gently release your catch back into the wild. Unless in Hawaii, then bon appetit.
A True Ghost Story
Other fish species are well documented throughout their life cycle. Bonefish, however, are not. They are once again an enigmatic species that are still a mystery to many scientists and wildlife conservation groups. Spawning and reproductive cycles are unclear to many, as well as migration patterns and population growth (or decline). This Gray Ghost story continues to make many scratch their heads in wonder and amazement.
To help better understand Bonefish, a group in South Florida created the Bonefish Tarpon Trust conservation organization. Their mission, according to their website, is “to conserve and restore bonefish, tarpon and permit fisheries and habitats through research, stewardship, education and advocacy.” Throughout the world this group is helping to sustain Bonefish populations and learn about this amazing fish.
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