Best Bonefish Release Practices

Here’s a great video from Bonefish & Tarpon Trust. Learn the best bonefish catch and release practices from BTT Bahamas Initiative Manager Justin Lewis. Proper fish handling is essential to the survival of your catch, and to the overall health of the fishery, especially when you consider that research has shown that a bonefish kept out of the water for more than 15 seconds is 600% more likely to die! That is a shocking statistic.

Be a part of the solution and help preserve our fisheries for our daughters and sons. Educate. Share. Practice.

Strip Strike vs Trout Set

Strip Striking on a Cayman Bonefish

What is the Strip-Strike?

A strip-strike (a.k.a. strip-set) is a long pull with the line-hand to set the hook while fly fishing. While it’s mostly used in saltwater, but is just as effective for top-water bass fishing or streamer fishing for trout. However, in saltwater it is de rigueur. Trout-set on a bonefish and the only reward you’ll get is a resigned sigh from the guide.[1] Can’t take a picture of that.

Why does a strip-strike work on bonefish, but trout-set doesn’t? The answer that most saltwater anglers have heard is: “Raising the rod—trout set—pulls the fly away from the fish. But, if you strip-strike and miss, the fly only moves a foot or so and will still be in the zone so you can get another chance at that fish.”

Ok, fine, but that doesn’t explain why the trout set fails to actually set the hook at all. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard or read the real reason it’s nearly impossible to hook bones with a trout-set. The answer is actually simple, but does require an overview of how bonefish feed. Most freshwater species—trout, bass, etc.—eat a fly and turn. Trout turn back to their lie after taking a fly from the surface or snatching a nymph. Bass often take their food in a turning maneuver, heading back to their ambush spot. In either case the fish is headed away from the angler when he strikes, and the fish has its mouth closed around the fly. Raising the rod means you come tight and usually hook the fish in the corner of the mouth. Perfect.

This is exactly opposite from bonefish. Bonefish mostly feed on prey that only runs a short distance and then hides on the bottom. Of course, I have seen bonefish feeding on minnows and at those times they will strike a fly hard. But day in, day out, bonefish pick their food up off the bottom.

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Bonefish Release Technique

  • Bonefish Release Technique
  • Bonefish Release Technique
  • Bonefish Release Technique

It’s common knowledge that bonefish are no good to eat; as their name suggests, they are full of bones. All Cayman bonefishing is catch-and-release. We all want these fish to be here the next time we hit the water; we want them here for our kids to enjoy just as much as we have. It’s up to us—the anglers—to keep our fish healthy with proper care.

Good release practices actually begin before you actually hook a bonefish, starting with the fly itself. Barbless flies will actually hook more fish and makes releasing them soooo much easier. Due to their rubbery mouths, bonefish almost never throw barbless flies.

Bonefish exposed to air
for more than 15 seconds
are 600% more likely to die.

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Choosing Bonefish Hooks

  • Choosing Bonefish Hooks

Bonefish: the Silver Bullet

Bonefish are strong, and fast. Pictured here are two common bonefish hooks that were reduced to “not hooks” after an encounter with bonefish. The smaller hook is a #6 and the larger a #4, both stainless Mustad® 34007 models.

The larger hook was straightened after a smallish, 2-2½ pound bone wrapped the 14-pound leader around a sponge and left town. The smaller hook was left in its present condition after a long run by a 5+ pound bonefish. Even though the drag was loose, the sheer pressure created by the drag of 100 feet of fly line through the water was enough to do that damage—opening the hook and ripping most of the material off the fly.

These were standard saltwater fly fishing hooks—the type used on many commercial flies of that time. But if a bonefish could open them so easily, then what hook should I be using. Well, I got myself a collection of hooks, a scale and a pliers and began testing. Here is what I discovered…

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Fly Casting for Bonefish

Fly Casting Double Haul & The Stealth Cast

It was windy, too windy to be wading thigh-deep in cold water. I could clearly see the tails of bonefish on the shallow flat rising in front of me, but with the wind in my face I had better odds of being beaned by a coconut than actually getting one of them to see my fly. Still, I’d come here to try. My first few casts were tentative, feeling out the situation. Not good: the line piled up about halfway to the fish, which fed on oblivious of my presence. I tried harder, keeping my cast low and really muscling it into the rising morning breeze. Suddenly a small gust caught my cast and in an instant I was draped in flyline.

I raged at the wind, pulling lengths of line off my clothing, and false-cast hard again into the breeze. Bad to worse. The bonefish continued to feed on into the tide, easing farther away with each futile cast I made. My leader looked liked I’d practiced tying knots and my fly was fouled in a loop of monofilament which had wrapped around one eye, dragging the fly sideways through the water. Humiliated, I retreated to shore and left the flat in peace…


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