The Bonefish Special

The Bonefish Special

A classic bonefish fly pattern that continues to yield memorable results in shallow water.

  • By: Chico Fernandez
  • Photography by: Chico Fernandez
Chico and Mike - Big Bonefish

The bonefish had been tough to approach and on this day, the last day of the Redbone tournament in the Florida Keys, the wind speed must have dropped to zero because it was dead calm. It was a day on which the water and the sky don’t make a defined horizon and the least disturbance would send bonefish to another zip code.

Capt. Mike Ehlers, an old friend and one of the top guides in the Islamorada area, started that morning on one of the oceanside flats (as the Keys are the landmasses separating the Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Mexico), poling me along the shoreline. You could see every speck of sand on the bottom and the water was so shallow the keel of the skiff occasionally rubbed the hard bottom. The bonefish were so fidgety and nervous it was nearly impossible to get within casting range. We hoped we’d find one feeding so hard he would not notice our approach. Thin hope, but it’s all we had.

I was armed with a 7-weight rod, 12-foot leader, 10-pound tippet and my shallow-water weapon, a Bonefish Special tied on a size 4 Mustad. The fly was a little over an inch long. Mike said he had not seen that pattern in years. And I was not surprised to hear that—flies go in and out of vogue with fly fishermen and this fly of my design was out at the moment. But not with me, and not with the bonefish, I knew that.

As Mike pushed us along we succeeded in spooking a few bones. (The boat alerted some but I spooked most.) Finally, he spotted a large fish tailing close to the beach. Carefully, he poled within 70 feet or so and told me he did not dare get any closer—and, besides, he added, in the calm weather I should be able to make the cast. But then he relented and inched to about 65 feet of the fish; now he would go no closer.

After a couple false-casts, I let the fly drop; it softly entered the water a couple of feet from the tailing fish. He kept on tailing. I had not spooked him. I moved the fly once or twice. Immediately the big bonefish stopped tailing, rushed to my fly and without hesitation took it and stopped. I set the hook by strip-striking and all I can remember is that this big bonefish headed for deep water. In overdrive, he passed within 10 feet of the boat and kept on going. I was trying to recover lots of slack line, but soon all that slack disappeared and the line hit the reel, the drag of which screeched. Next came the backing, but not for long because Mike, who is quite strong, was using the push-pole to make the skiff fly in the bonefish’s direction.

I don’t remember the exact weight of the fish, but he was well into double figures and was the biggest bonefish of the Redbone tournament that year. And you know something? The Bonefish Special was a little more in vogue with the Islamorada and Miami anglers after that. It’s still in vogue with me, and I assure you the bonefish feel the same way.

In the summer of 1968, with more than 10 years experience bonefishing by then, I sat down at the vise to create a bonefish fly that would entice some of the big bonefish in the Upper Keys and Miami area. And now, more than 40 years later, I look back and ask myself, Was the fly successful? Well, yes and no. Read on and find out why.

The reason I thought I could tie a different and better bonefish fly is that earlier that same summer I had come up with a way to tie a body for a glass-minnow imitation by wrapping ¼-inch Mylar on the shank of the hook and then wrapping 30- or 40-pound-test monofilament line over the Mylar. This created a translucent body that let light come through, which added a life-like appearance and yet was almost indestructible.

Also, I had learned from several fishing guides and anglers that big bonefish, looking for a big mouthful, had a preference for the many juvenile fishes that abound on the flats and the schoolmaster snapper and yellowfin mojarras were a good part of their diet. My new pattern would imitate them. I remember going back to the flats, this time armed with a six-foot cast net made with fine mesh. My experience using a cast net as a kid in Cuba was about to help me get a good look at the bait I wanted to copy.

The yellowfin mojarras are silvery, with faint bars along the sides and anal and pectoral fins in a yellow tone. Schoolmaster snappers, even as juveniles, already have a yellow tint to the whole body and some banding along the sides, with yellow fins. Colors changed on each individual depending on if they were living mostly on white sand or pieces of coral and dark turtle grass. So I would use some silver in the body, or yellow, with yellow fins and barring. That’s how I read it. I believed then, and still do, that a more or less representation, almost an impressionistic approach, usually produces an effective fly design. After all, most fish and crustaceans change their colors constantly to match their environment.

With this in mind, I selected a Mustad 34007, stainless-steel hook in size 2. Placing the hook in the inverted position, as I did with most bonefish and even some redfish flies in those days, I wrapped bright yellow thread around the shank. Then I started thinking about building the body. A few attempts later, I settled on a gold Mylar underwrap and 30-pound-test yellowish monofilament wrapped over the Mylar. The heavy mono gave the fly a big, fat body that would show well in the water.

Then came the wings. Because I felt that the wings should have a certain degree of translucency that was often present on juvenile fish, I selected white kiptail (or calftail). And to add the barring on the body, I used two thin grizzly saddle hackles, which I placed on top of the kiptail.

It could be argued that placing the grizzly feathers on the sides would be more realistic to the barring that occurs on these baitfish; but I felt that with the feathers on top, the fly swam more naturally. And I’ll take action over a realistic look, anytime. Because the fly was designed to be fished in very shallow water for tailing fish, it’s always been unweighted.

Having finished the design of the fly, I tried it a couple times, took bones with it but had refusals too. The fly looked incomplete somehow. Not flashy enough, bland, just another streamer? Frankly, I couldn’t make up my mind what it needed.

A few days later, I visualized the finished fly. I ran to the tying bench and started another version, this time with black thread. But before I made the body, I added a bit of orange tail using the marabou-type fuzz that’s on the base of a large saddle feather. That change made the difference. The orange tail belonged, and the black head was a strong accent. It looked right and I loved it from the start. Hopefully the bones would feel the same.

Now, I could not say this was my schoolmaster-snapper fly or my yellowfin-mojarra pattern because the fly was really an impressionistic creation, taking a little bit from the characteristics of several baitfish. So this special fly had to have a more universal name, and I remember I came up with it in minutes—the Bonefish Special.

If I recall correctly, the first time I tried the Bonefish Special was early in the morning, on an incoming tide on one of the many flats just south of Miami. Bonefish would push onto the flat when the water was only a few inches deep but rising. There used to be tails all over the place. And I remember taking several nice fish by the time the tide was too high to see tails anymore.

My new fly was light and easy to cast, and that helped accuracy. And cast close to a bonefish in six inches of water, it landed with the delicacy of a rose petal. The fish mostly became aware of the fly when I started moving it.

Over the past 40 years, I’ve taken hundreds of bonefish with the Special, not only in Miami and the Keys, but also in the Bahamas, Belize, Mexico’s Yucatan and many other places. Maybe I’ll do the same someday in Cuba.

Coming back to the original question— Was the fly successful?

Well, in its original intent of taking big bonefish, even though I’ve taken several bonefish in the double-figure range and one 12-pounder…no, it wasn’t. Today there are many large weighted bonefish flies that work much better at taking the big bonefish of the Upper Florida Keys and Miami. But in the right conditions, mainly shallow waters and calm days, the Bonefish Special can be deadly…so, yes, then it’s successful.

And you know something? It has been a special love affair fishing with the Bonefish Special all these years—partly because in the right conditions it’s such a great fly; but also because every time I tie one on my tippet, I remember those days, those wonderful fishing days so many years ago. And what can I tell you: I’m a fool for memories.

Chico Fernandez, the author of Fly-Fishing for Bonefish, is one of fly-fishing’s top teachers. He lives in Miami.