Ultimate Guide • Updated Fri, Aug 11, 2023
If you're seeking an exhilarating fishing experience filled with excitement and a touch of challenge, look no further than bonefish fishing in the Florida Keys. Expert navigators of shallow water haunts, bonefish are dubbed the ‘grey ghost’ for their speed and elusiveness. Before embarking on your bonefishing adventure, you should know a few essential pieces of information. In this ultimate guide to bonefish fishing in the Florida Keys, we'll cover everything from bonefish behavior and the best times to fish, to conditions, gear, and tactics to help you make the most of your next trip to the flats.
Image c/o Christopher Watt.
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Bonefish (Albula vulpes) are torpedo-shaped powerhouses that possess explosive speed, making them one of the most sought-after gamefish in the world. These shallow water specialists thrive in the tropics across the globe, and are right at home in the scenic Key West flats and backcountry. Bonefish in the Florida Keys range from three to five pounds on average. Bonefish weighing in the double digits are a rarity, but they have been known to grow to an impressive 18 pounds. The Florida state record for bonefish sits at a hefty 16 lbs. 3 oz. — caught in 2007 near Islamorada in the Florida Keys. Over the years, the waters around the Florida Keys have produced many IGFA saltwater line class records for bonefish, accounting for 16 out of the 23 existing world records. Bonefish earn their nickname ‘grey ghosts’ from the blue-green color and mirrored scales, making them quite challenging to spot. Brace yourself for pound-for-pound power and blistering runs — as bonefish are one of the fastest fish in the ocean, capable of reaching speeds near 40 miles per hour. After years of population decline, bonefish in the Florida Keys experienced a great resurgence over the past decade as a result of changing waters and critical conservation work to protect key spawning habitat. Now, anglers can experience the Keys bonefishing renaissance with truly world-class sight-fishing.
Around the Florida Keys, you typically find bonefish on the flats in waters around 1 foot deep. These inshore fish are typically found over lush turtle grass flats, but will occasionally feed over white sand and tight to the roots of mangroves. They are extremely wary fish — regularly hunted by ospreys, barracudas, sharks, dolphins, and other marine predators.
Smaller bonefish will travel in larger schools, while larger bonefish tend to travel more independently in singles or pairs. The larger, the older, and typically the smarter for it too. Being well-versed in the tactics of anglers makes hooking them more of a challenge.
When it comes to bonefish, their skittish nature and elusive presence pose significant challenges for anglers. Any motor noise will startle these cautious creatures, so a careful approach is necessary. One method many guides use while searching for bonefishing is ‘poling’ or maneuvering a flat skiff across the shallows using a pole to minimize disturbance. Bonefish can also be approached quite stealthily on foot. Keep your senses alert and watch out for subtle signs of their presence like tails and feeding holes.
Spotting bonefish requires a keen eye and patience. The easiest way to locate them is by looking for their tails and wakes as the feed. Bonefish root around on the bottom for food, as their diet mainly consists of bottom-dwelling species such as shrimp, baby crabs, and other small crustaceans. When feeding, bonefish will periodically kick their tails up and out of the water when on the flats. This behavior, known as “tailing” is an amazing sight to witness, and is the most visual way to target bonefish. When feeding, bonefish may also disturb the sea floor enough to create visible mud plumes. Scan the flats for sporadic puffs of mud; the bonefish will not be far behind.
The places where bonefish like to feed also tend to be places that attract sharks and barracudas. The presence of these predators amplifies their skittishness, especially in shallow water. Casting your line at a distance of 6-10 feet away from them is ideal, but be cautious not to cast directly over the fish, as it may startle them.
When it comes to angling for bonefish in the Keys, there are various methods you can employ. To ensure a successful fishing experience, booking a seasoned fishing guide is essential; AnyCreek works with a selection of the top bonefishing guides in Key West, Islamorada, and other parts of the Florida Keys. The name of the game when targeting bonefish is sight fishing. Guides can help skillfully spot the fish for you and recommend where to cast your presentation for optimal results.
Fishing for bonefish sometimes is described as akin to hunting with patience and accurate casts leading to reward. These “grey ghosts” are targeted using fly and spinning gear on the flats off Key West and the Lower Keys.
Once you hook a bonefish, you'll be amazed at how swiftly they take off, sometimes peeling off 100 yards of line in mere seconds. Big bonefish can easily strip 100 yards of line from a fly or spinning reel, so having the right gear is essential. Fly anglers should opt for an 8 to 9-weight fly rod with a weight-forward floating line designed for warm water use. Your fly reel should have a strong, smooth drag system, and a large arbor with plenty of room for backing (use a minimum of 250 yards). Pack flies tied on hooks ranging from size 6 to 1 to cover your bases. Your tippet choice should depend on the fishing conditions, but stick to low-vis tippet between 10-pound. and 20-pound test.
When fly fishing for bonefish in the Florida Keys, proper presentation of the fly is crucial. Cast your fly 3 to 6 feet in front of a bonefish’s path and strip your fly away as they approach, using a combination of small ticks and longer sliding stips. Before heading out to the water, we recommend practicing your casting skills in a controlled environment such as a yard or local park. Mastering skills like the basic cast, double-haul, and strip-set, will help you make the most of your time on the water.
Spin fishing is another commonly employed method for catching bonefish in Florida. Spin fishing offers simplicity and accessibility for anglers of all ability levels. When selecting a spinning reel for bonefish, you'll want to consider a size that is suitable for the average weight of bonefish and the type of fishing conditions you'll encounter. While there is no exact size that universally applies to all situations, a reel in the 2500 to 4000 size range is typically a good choice for Florida Keys bonefish in the 4 to 8-pound range. You'll need a reel with a sufficient line capacity and a smooth drag system to handle their bursts of energy. We recommend pairing this reel with at least 200 yards of line and a 7-foot spinning rod. Use 8 to 12-pound test monofilament or fluorocarbon line, or #2 to #4 diameter braid with a 3.5-foot monofilament or fluorocarbon leader.
In the Florida Keys, utilizing live bait is one of the most effective techniques for targeting bonefish. Shrimp and small crabs are popular bait options easily found in the local waters, or at local fly shops, tackle shops, and bait providers. To rig bait for bonefishing in the Florida Keys, you'll need to set up a leader and attach the bait in a way that looks natural to the fish. For live shrimp or small crabs, thread the hook or weighted jighead through the tail or behind the head for shrimp, or through the leg socket for crabs. Adjust the hook size to match the bait. If you're using dead or cut bait, slice it into small, bite-sized pieces and hook it through the fleshy part once or twice, making sure the hook is exposed enough for a good hookset. Depending on the conditions, you may need to add weight to help the bait sink or stay in place. Use small split shot sinkers or pinch-on weights placed above the leader's terminal end, close to the bait. When presenting the bait, cast it near the bonefish, preferably ahead of their path, to give them a chance to find it naturally. Use a slow and subtle retrieve, allowing the bait to move with the current or mimic the movement of fleeing prey.
Artificial jigs can also be effective for targeting Florida Keys bonefish with a spinning rod. These small weighted lures imitate small crustaceans and can be twitched and retrieved to entice an eat. Us similar presentation techniques to bait fishing when fishing for bonefish with jigs.
The Florida Keys offer ideal conditions for bonefishing due to their vast network of flats and shallow waters that serve as a habitat for bonefish to thrive. The warm and clear waters of the Keys allow for excellent visibility, making it easier to spot and target these ‘grey ghosts’. If you're planning a trip to the Keys and want to catch some bonefish, here are some of the best spots to consider:
'The Sportfishing Capital of the World,' Islamorada, is a renowned destination for anglers of all skill levels. It boasts an abundance of bonefish fishing spots across the expansive flats of Florida Bay and the channels weaving through the islands and nearby mangrove keys. For quick, easy access check out locations such as the flats around Anne's Beach, or the Highway Flat.
Marathon, located in the heart of the Florida Keys, is renowned for its exceptional fishing opportunities. Some notable bonefishing hotspots around Marathon Key include the flats around Boot Key and Bahia Honda State Park. Here are some of the best fishing charters in Marathon Key.
Located at the southernmost point in the continental United States, Key West and its surrounding waters provide exceptional bonefish fishing opportunities, especially in the expansive flats. The protected Marquesas Keys are 15 miles southwest of Key West, which have a unique and abundant environment for bonefish. The Boca Grande Channel is a broad passage and functions as a migratory pathway for diverse fish species, enriching the seasonal replenishment of fish populations. To make the most of your time on the water, check out our world-class fishing charters in Key West.
In the Florida Keys, it's essential to wear lightweight and breathable garments due to the hot and humid climate. Even on overcast days, opt for clothing that offers adequate coverage and UV protection. A high-quality pair of polarized sunglasses is imperative for success when bonefishing, since attentively observing any movements and shadows in the water is the name of the game. Reflections and glare off the water can hinder sight-fishing, so having the right eyewear is vital to a good day on the water. Opt for glass lenses with a copper base for good contrast in variable light conditions. You may want to also invest in a pair of polarized low-light fishing sunglasses to have on hand for early mornings, late afternoons, and overcast conditions. Additionally, wear a hat and neck gaiter to protect your face and neck from exposure to the sun. Choose shoes with non-marking soles and good traction to prevent slipping on wet boat decks. Don't forget to bring a cooler packed with ample water and snacks, along with sunscreen, bug spray, and foul weather gear. Certain fishing guides may offer some of these items, so check with your guide on what to bring on your trip. You can review guides’ AnyCreek profiles to find out what they provide and their specific recommendations regarding what you should bring.
The productive bonefish fishery in the Florida Keys is closely tied to the annual bonefish migration season. Bonefish engage in spawning during winter, specifically around the full and new moons. They school up in large pre-spawning aggregations, displaying complex behaviors like porpoising and gulping air during the late afternoon and sunset. Bonefish move offshore to depths exceeding 200 feet at night to complete their spawning process. The movements and migrations of tagged bonefish are then monitored through data collected by receivers anchored to the bottom. By tracing these fish’s movements to and from their spawning sites, researchers have paved the way for their protection and resurgence in recent years.
Bonefish can be caught throughout the year in the Florida Keys. However, the peak bonefishing season generally spans from April to October. For the highest chances of success, it is advisable to plan a trip between April and May or September and October, with September and October standing out as the top months due to spawning activities and the presence of larger fish. Morning and mid-afternoon is the best time of day to fish for bonefish. Look for relatively calm days with clear skies. Spring and fall are ideal for backcountry fishing. The summer is the offseason for bonefish in the Keys, but there can be excellent tailing action on the oceanside flats, particularly during outgoing tides. Success during the winter can depend on weather conditions, particularly following cold fronts.
When preparing for a bonefish fishing expedition in the Florida Keys, it is important to watch the weather forecast. The region experiences a subtropical climate, resulting in year-round heat and humidity, pop-up thunderstorms, and occasional hurricanes.
During the peak season for bonefish, the weather is typically warm, and the waters are serene and clear. However, checking the weather forecast before embarking on a fishing trip is important. Keep a radar app handy on your smart phone and check it throughout the day. Sudden thunderstorms are known to develop swiftly during hot Florida afternoons. These storms can be hazardous, particularly when on the water. Refrain from venturing out when there is a strong likelihood of storms. Monitoring wind direction and speed is crucial as well, since strong gusts can complicate navigation of small watercraft and make it much more difficult to spot fish effectively and safely.
Anglers should familiarize themselves with the regulations around preserving the bonefish population and promoting sustainable fishing practices. Keep in mind that bonefish fishing regulations are updated periodically, so it's essential to keep up to date on the most current rules and guidelines by referring to official resources such as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) website or seeking guidance from licensed guides or tackle shops. By sticking to these regulations and adopting responsible fishing methods, anglers can contribute to preserving a thriving and sustainable bonefish population in the Florida Keys, ensuring its existence for future generations to enjoy.
To legally fish for bonefish in the Florida Keys, anglers need to have a valid Florida saltwater fishing license, which can be obtained online or from a licensed vendor. The Florida Keys Bonefish fishery since 2013 has been a catch-and-release fishery.
In Florida, bonefish are considered game fish, and bonefish populations are carefully monitored and protected by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC). There are several regulations in place to protect bonefish, including catch-and-release rules and gear restrictions.
Here are some fundamental guidelines to be aware of when bonefish fishing in the Florida Keys:
Releasing bonefish safely is crucial for preserving bonefish in the Florida Keys and supporting the local Keys economy. The University of Miami estimates that each Florida Keys bonefish may have a lifetime recreational value of over $75,000.
If you are fishing on a licensed charter vessel, such as our bonefishing guides on AnyCreek, you and all passengers are covered under the captain or charter boat's license while onboard and do not need additional fishing licenses. However, if you are fishing from shore or on a private boat with a guide, you must obtain your fishing license. Verify with your guide beforehand to ensure you have the required licenses and permits for your outing.
When capturing their prey, bonefish employ a unique strategy of pinning their meal to the ground and grinding it up with their crushers at the back of their throat. To do this, they inhale a mouthful of sand and silt from the bottom, gradually expelling water and debris through their mouth and gills to sift out their food.
Because their mouths remain open for so long, anglers should allow some time for the fish to fully consume flies and baits. Try a slow and steady pull for a hookset. Mastering this timing is part of the challenge and the fun of bonefishing.
Booking a local guide is the best way to learn the ins and outs of bonefishing in the Florida Keys. Guides can help you access the best locations, provide you with the right equipment, and offer expert coaching for hooking, fighting, and landing your next trophy bonefish.
Local fly, tackle, or bait shops are great ways to gain some local intel, find the best gear, and hear the latest Florida Keys fishing report. Shops such as The Angling Company on Key West, or 7 Mile Fly Shop on Marathon Key are also great resources for connecting with the best Florida Keys bonefishing guides.
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