Tom Rosenbauer caught a bonefish on his first try. If you know anything about the notoriously elusive saltwater species, you know this is as impressive as it is unlikely.
Rosenbauer was fishing off Christmas Island, near Indonesia, at the time. He was feeling pretty proud of himself—until he and his guide realized that the catch was sick from being stuck in brackish water. “The whole thing with bonefish is to stalk them, because they’re easily spooked,” says the author, fly-fishing instructor, and marketing director for Orvis. “And here we were, pulling them in like bluegills.”
His subsequent experiences with the fish have been more typical. Which is to say frustrating, challenging, and—when he’s lucky enough to occasionally hook one—exhilarating. “When you get a bonefish, it just takes off,” says Rosenbauer, a Vermont resident who grew up fishing and hunting in his native Rochester, New York. “They’re like no freshwater species. The line sizzles through the water. They make one long run.”
This visual drama, paired with the species’ signature caginess, explains its allure among saltwater anglers, who chase the silver- and olive-hued fish in shallow flats off of the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, the southern Yucatan, northern Belize, and beyond.
For those proficient with a fly rod but new to bonefishing, Rosenbauer suggests first perfecting the 40-foot cast. “Most bonefish are caught within 40 to 50 feet,” he says. “The most important thing is to learn how to accurately cast to that distance. Practice in your front yard. I pick two or three spots on the grass, where I cast over and over. The better you can cast, the easier it is to deal with the wind when you’re on the water.”
On the tackle front, Rosenbauer likes a 9-foot fly rod, an 8-weight floating line, a nice reel (with good drag), and flies with different sink rates to account for varying conditions and water levels. “You don’t need a lot of patterns with the flies,” he says. “Bonefish aren’t picky, but are pretty opportunistic—as long as it looks like shrimp or crab.”
When you’re ready to give it a go, head to areas with wide expanses of shallow water. Rosenbauer prefers the Bahamas. “They have a pristine ecosystem with a healthy mixture of smaller and larger fish,” he says. “I love the country and the people.”
The veteran angler also likes northern Belize, where the fish are smaller but great in number, which could be an advantage for the novice.
No matter where you end up, hire a guide to help you spot the fish (which generally involves looking for a fin or a shadow through a nice pair of polarized sunglasses, says Rosenbauer). Saying a little prayer might help, too.