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“THE WILLING FISH AROUND
AMBITIOUS WAIT FLY TO THE LINE AND FASTEN ON THE BAIT.”
THIS fish must not be confounded with the ladyfish (Elops saurus). The latter is to be found all along both the east and west coast of Florida and bears the local names of ladyfish, bonefish, bonyfish and big-eyed herring, but it has no resemblance to the true bonefish either in appearance or in its method of fighting, for it is a high and lofty jumper, whereas the true bonefish never leaves the water when hooked.
The bonefish (Albula vulpes) has fifteen rays on the dorsal fin and eight on the anal fin, whereas the ladyfish (Elops saurus) has twenty rays on the first dorsal fin and thirteen on the anal fin. The latter is a slim fish with delicate silver scales and has no streaks.
The bonefish proper has the appearance of a beautiful silvery fish very like the whitefish of the lakes; the mouth is small, the lips are thick with grinding teeth set in the throat. It has large fins and tail, hard scales, and is marked with stripes like a striped bass.
Bonefish are not large fish; the largest I ever saw weighed twelve pounds, but they will average five or six pounds. It is their fighting ability that is extraordinary and it is away above their weight, for they are the strongest and most plucky, as well as the most shy fish that swim in the sea.
The habitat of the true bonefish begins at Biscayne Bay, Florida, and extends through the Florida Keys. How far south they really go is not known but, as natives have told me that they are more plentiful in the summertime, it would lead one to believe that they come from the south. I have seen them in the Havana fish market, and on one occasion I saw a bonefish taken from a net at the entrance to Havana harbor. In the winter and spring months they may be found from Bear’s Cut to Bahia Honda. These fish travel in schools and are to be found on the change of the tide in channels and on the flats often quite near the shore.
Along the bars near Caesar’s Creek and northeast of Indian Key on the east side of Lower Matecumbe Channel are good fishing grounds but Card Sound is probably the best place to find them.
The fishing is best from flood to full tide at which time the fish come in to feed in water not more than eight or ten inches in depth. They feed on crustacea and as they hunt about the bottom their tails often show above the surface.
In fishing for bonefish the best tackle is a two-piece light split bamboo such as is known as a Punta Rassa rod, a free-running casting reel with four hundred feet or more of nine- or twelve- thread line, and two 4/0 hooks mounted on gut. Although many fishermen think otherwise, no leader seems to be necessary. A four-sided sinker, one that will not roll in a tideway and frighten the fish, should be placed on the end of the line with the hooks above it. You can then, by keeping your line taut, feel the slightest bite.
The method of catching these fish is to pole a shallow-draft rowboat along the flats until you reach the spot where you purpose to fish, and to fasten her at bow and stern with short sticks that will cast no shadows, for the bonefish are very shy and being in shallow water the least shadow cast or noise made in the boat will frighten them away.
Your guide should then crush a crayfish and allow it to sink to the bottom attached to the boat by a bit of cord; if no crayfish is handy he may chum with crabmeat, for the tide will carry the small pieces along and attract the fish.
Having baited your hooks with soldier-crab, hermit-crab, sand-crabs, or sprites you cast your bait in the direction of the chum. Another method is to bait a chosen spot with chum, place your baited hook near by, move off some distance paying out line, and anchor. Allow the fish to pick up the bait and move off before striking, or better still by stopping the reel with your thumb allow the fish to hook itself.
It is most interesting to watch the bonefish feeding along with the tide and gradually approaching the spot where your bait lies. You can see their fins above the surface, and now and then the tail of a feeding fish will appear or the flash of the sun as it strikes their silvery sides will catch your eye.
When hooked the bonefish is off with a dash for it is the fastest moving fish that swims. It will take from two to four hundred feet of line in its first run, which is not infrequently repeated two or three times. This is the more remarkable owing to the shallow water. When the steady pressure of the rod turns your fish it will circle around the boat again and again fighting all the time, and if you succeed in bringing it alongside it may be lifted into the boat, for it has died game of sheer exhaustion.
As the tarpon is rated the king of the large game fish that swim in the sea so should the bonefish be classed the king of the smaller tribe, for he is game to the very last moment.
The bonefish are supposed to be good eating and the taste of the meat is said to resemble the shad. I can testify that they resemble the latter fish as to the number of bones they contain for in that respect they are well named.
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