This atoll, part of the tiny nation of Kiribati, has been a popular bonefish draw since it came on anglers’ radar in the early 1980s. For a time, it attracted anglers as much for its giant trevally as its bonefish, though its GT fishery has receded in recent years— thanks in part to additional pressure (from a third lodge) and questionable fishing practices (including aggressive chumming). Some feel that the bonefishing has also ebbed, though Gies contends that the fishing is still quite good.
“Being on the west coast, we book a lot of anglers to Christmas,” he said. “I think netting is down and fish numbers are up. There are places where you can catch a ton of small ones, others where you can target bigger fish. I think the number of fish— and the fact that you’re only wade fishing—is great for new saltwater anglers. You can get your bearings.”
The Yucatán / Belize
In my experience, Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and the coast and islands of Belize are great venues for beginners hoping to catch their first bonefish, or anglers hoping to catch many fish, while being content with smaller specimens. But these areas may not appeal to anglers questing for larger fish. (For many here, bonefish tend to be an afterthought, as in “We want to chase permit, but if that’s not happening, we’ll look for bonefish.”)
While some parts of Mexico are under travel alerts, there are currently no restrictions for the state of Quintana Roo, which encompasses most of the Yucatán. And for those seeking more economical packages, the southern portions of the peninsula—Espírtu Santo and Chetumal Bay, for example—offer good angling at a competitive price.
A fatal shooting off Ambergris in June 2019 was disturbing to the angling community, but almost all agree it was an isolated event.
“Our Belize business is so diversified, the challenges on Ambergris didn’t impact bookings very much,” Leake said. “There’s some concern—a guy might say ‘My wife is wandering about .. . ,’ but it’s not enough to take Belize off the table.”
Those who have made the long (and costly) trip to the Seychelles, an archipelago of islands and atolls in the Indian Ocean, roughly 900 miles east of Kenya, generally agree that it offers the best bonefishing in the world.
“The surroundings are idyllic, the numbers of fish are staggering, and there are giant trevally and milkfish in good numbers too,” Leake said.
“Despite the cost [at least $10,000 for a 7-night/6-day package] and the distance [about 24 hours’ travel from New York], 2020 is three-fourths booked,” Codd said. “We’re [now] looking at dates in 2021. Aside from the pirates a few years back, there really haven’t been any downturns. All the islands are seeing interest. For many, it’s the trip of a lifetime.”
The Next Big Thing?
Bonefish populations are seeing an upswing in the Florida Keys, a venue known for its outsized fish. Big fish can also be found around Oahu and Molokai in the Hawaiian Islands. But these resources are fairly finite, not well-suited to accommodate cadres of anglers. Is there anything new on the horizon? Most think not.
“We’ve had opportunities to establish something on Fanning Island [Tabuaeran] and Nonouti [in Kiribati], but nothing we see there will be the next big thing,” Gies said. “Those places might offer a travel experience with fishing, rather than being a full-fledged fishing destination.”
“My bet,” Leake said, “is that if there’s a new hot spot, it will be somewhere in the Indian Ocean. There’s got to be another atoll out there.”
One thing is certain—as anglers, we’ll need to support the well-being of the resource. “There are three main threats to bonefish populations—overfishing, habitat loss, and water decline,” said Dr. Aaron Adams, the director of science and conservation for Bonefish & Tarpon Trust in Miami, and a senior scientist at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute of Florida Atlantic University.
“Overfishing is a fairly obvious problem, and something that can be addressed in a straightforward way,” he said. “Habitat and water degradation are trickier, as what happens away from the coast can impact the coast, but it is much harder to trace. It’s not so in your face. We should prioritize obstacles that can’t be undone. You can fix overfishing. But once you lose the others, you’re done.”
The Case for Bonefish
As alluded to previously, bonefish have lost a bit of their luster for some saltwater anglers. Permit, tarpon, and GTs have stolen the limelight. Klug thinks that’s a shame.
“I hate when people say they don’t want to go for bonefish,” he said. “They are an awesome species, particularly big bonefish. They don’t have the pretentious attitude of permit, or the gangster attitude of tarpon. They’ll reward you by eating a well-presented fly. If you’re ‘over’ stalking bigger bonefish, you should probably stop fly fishing.”
Dr. Adams agrees. “For many, bonefish are the gateway drug that gets them into flats fishing,” he said. “I think it’s hard to beat casting to tailing bonefish, especially when you’re wading. Fishing to tailing bones five to eight pounds—it’s hard to describe how awesome that is.”
SIX TIPS for Planning Your Bonefish Trip
I asked some of the agents who book scores (if not hundreds) of bonefishing clients each year for their planning tips. Here are six:
• Book at least four fishing days. This way, you have a better chance of getting good conditions at least one or two days. And plan well in advance to get the time frame you desire. March and April are the busiest months, and saltwater lodges are typically 90 percent booked by January. (Codd)
• Research what you’re specifically looking for and ask a lot of questions. Booking agents exist because they can help you find the best fit (and they take their commission from the lodge; you don’t pay any extra). (McKnight and Codd)
• Set up reasonable expectations for yourself. Regardless of how much you may spend on a trip, nothing is guaranteed when it comes to hooking and landing fish. Bonefish are by nature very spooky, hyperalert fish. Fooling these fish into eating an artificial fly is always a challenge, even on the best of days. (Klug and McKnight)
• Practice your casting before your trip. And then practice, practice, and practice some more. No matter how good your guide is, how aggressive the fish are feeding, and how perfect the conditions might be, you will struggle to catch bonefish if you can’t deliver the fly in a quick, accurate manner. (Klug)
• Ask your agent to help plan your air arrangements. You can waste lots of time without firsthand knowledge of things such as arrival times associated with transfers to the lodge, long and unnecessary layovers, and hotel overnights that might make travel easier, especially to far-flung destinations. (Codd)
• Relax and have fun. Learn to accept the occasional blown cast, tangled line, and inadvertent “trout set.” The more you stress out, the more likely you are to continue making mistakes and having problems. It is no coincidence that the most laid-back, easygoing, and lucky anglers are always the ones who seem to catch the most fish. (Klug)
Chris Santella is the author of numerous books, including the best-selling Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before You Die, and carries frequent bylines in the Washington Post and New York Times. When not writing, Santella creates and plays music, or chases steelhead on Oregon’s varied anadromous waters.