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Our Guide to Fly Fishing Fun on the Flats

A first visit to a tropical sand flat in search of bonefish can be daunting for some anglers. After all the build-up and excitement before your big adventure begins, a bit of preparation will ensure both you and your fishing tackle are ‘flats fit’.

The big day arrives – you hop off the skiff armed with your trusty trout rod and a handful of bonefish flies just about to head off in search of your first bonefish and it soon becomes apparent that all is not well. Your casting that was perfectly OK at your local trout fishery is now woefully inadequate in the brisk breeze you have on your right shoulder. The lenses on your sunglasses aren’t up to the task of spotting bonefish in the knee deep water and to make matters worse all the flies you have are way too heavy for the shallow flat you are fishing. All of this could be avoided by a little pre trip preparation.

So to help you on your way, let’s look at a checklist of suitable gear for bonefish first of all, with some recommendations from our range that will ensure you are properly equipped.

Bonefish Saltwater Fly Fishing Tackle

Saltwater Fly Rods - Your bonefish rod needs to cast accurately and give you control of the line in a range of often awkward conditions. Fly presentation is also key as bones are flighty by nature – always wary of the next potential threat they may encounter. Very rarely is this guard down. It’s no coincidence they are a dominant species in most shallow water tropical environments around the world for this very reason. In brief terms we are looking for a 9’ 4-piece high quality fly rod that will cast a line of 7, 8 or 9 weight. The rods action will be medium to fast – faster action (the speed the tip recovers from being bent to straight) rods are suited to more experienced casters. They have greater performance potential but require more skill to extract the performance. Slightly slower action rods need less precise input from the caster but ultimately won’t deliver the same level of control through the cast. The rod also needs corrosion resistant saltwater fittings.

Our favourite rods for bonefish are from Sage - we carry two ranges. The Salt (picture B) – the most technologically advanced high performance saltwater fly rod on the market and the Motive (picture A) – a perfect choice for less advanced casters and those on a budget. Both are made in the USA at Sage’s factory and enjoy a lifetime manufacturer’s warranty. Everyone here at Rok Max uses Sage fly rods and we have 100% confidence in them.

Saltwater Fly Reels - Bonefish are well known for their fighting abilities and a reliable saltwater fly reel, ideally with a sealed drag is a must for anyone targeting these fish. In shallow water, even relatively small bones are capable of a blistering run that will take you well down into the backing. So the reel needs three important attributes – a smooth, powerful drag, good line capacity (at least able to hold a fly line and 200m of backing) and be adequately corrosion resistant.

We stock Redington Behemoth Fly Reels(picture C) that tick all of these boxes and are beautifully engineered, again we use them ourselves and trust them in any circumstances.

Saltwater Fly Lines – Tropical saltwater fly lines are purpose designed using a tougher, stiffer plastic compound that can withstand the high temperatures they are to be used in. This ensures they will cast well in the tropics and last a reasonable amount of time in such harsh conditions. We recommend taking a spare fly line – it only takes a hooked bonefish to swim around a coral head or a mangrove to ruin a line – chances are you will be a long way from the nearest tackle shop. Match the line to the casting weight of your rod, modern saltwater lines are usually weighted on the heavy side and designed to match the medium to fast action rod they will be used on. The best range of species specific saltwater comes from RIO – we recommend the RIO Bonefish QuickShooter Fly Line (picture D) as a ‘go to’ line for flats newcomers.

Leaders and Tippet –As you will sometimes be casting relatively heavy flies and will need perfect presentation, I recommend you use a good quality tapered leader to optimise turnover (the leader needs to land straight on the water). Saltwater specific leaders are very steeply tapered to help turnover in awkward winds and with bulky flies. On very shallow flats it often pays to increase the length of your leader to reduce the risk of your fly line landing heavily close to your quarry. Carry a spool of clear nylon or fluorocarbon of a similar diameter to the end of your leader so you can either add a longer tippet or replace a damaged section. Again RIO offer both leaders and tippet materials in saltwater specific models.

Saltwater Flies (picture E) –Wherever you go in the world there will be a list of local favourites and the tour operator or lodge should be able to provide this for you. One thing to bear in mind is that it’s worth your selection including flies of various weights (most bonefish flies will be weighted with dumbbell or lighter bead-chain eyes to ensure the fly fishes with the hook point facing away from the bottom). Heavy flies will scare fish in shallow water and light flies won’t get to the bottom quickly enough to put in front of bones in deeper water. Also bear in mind that in order to look ‘natural’ the fly wants to blend with the bottom – so on a light sandy bottom a light tan or sandy coloured fly will look more in tune with its environment. So your collection should include shrimp patterns, small crabs and in some areas small fry and baitfish imitations. We keep a wide range of saltwater fly patterns in stock and are always happy to put together a suitable selection matched to your destination.


Saltwater Fly Fishing Clothing

Fishing Sunglasses - Are a very important part of your flats fishing kit, both from a fish spotting perspective and for the long-term wellbeing of your eyes. It’s proven that UV radiation from the sun damages your eyesight and the flats are definitely somewhere that maximum protection is required. We sell and use the Pelagic fishing range – long term field testing over the last decade has proved them to be the best glasses available for saltwater fishing with a good range of frame styles and lens options to suit a range of light conditions. My personal choice for the flats is the green mirror lens – it offers very high levels of polarisation as you would expect plus adding greater contrast to your vision. Perfect for spotting bonefish against a variety of seabeds. Bi-Focal and prescription lenses are also available off the shelf and as custom orders with a quick turnaround time.

Sun Hats and Caps –To spot bonefish effectively a cap with a brim that keeps your eyes in the shade is a must, it needs to be made from a lightweight breathable fabric that will help you stay cool in the heat of the day. Choose from either a conventional cap worn with a Buff or a traditional Flats Cap that shades the back of your neck and ears. One advantage with wearing a Buff is that it protects your neck and can be used as a face mask to give very high levels of protection in the middle of the day. Buff’s (picture G) are also available treated to repel insects.

Fishing Shirts/Trousers –These need to be lightweight, comfortable, quick drying and enjoy a high UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) rating. This rating measures the amount of UV rays which the fabric effectively blocks compared to a non UPF fabric. So out of 30 units of UV rays only one will pass through the fabric giving a rating of UPF30 (96.7%), UPF 50 allows 49 units to be reflected and one to pass through (98%). Anything with a UPF rating of 30 or higher offers a very good level of sun protection. Choose from either a traditional flats shirt with pockets and a collar or a crew neck long sleeve top (picture H), both are practical but it really comes down to personal preference which you choose.

Trousers or shorts again are down to personal choice, whilst it is more comfortable to wade flats in shorts you obviously don’t get the same degree of sun protection as is offered by long trousers.


Out on the Flats

Tackle Bags & Packs –You will need a bag of some sort to carry the items needed for a day’s fishing to the water. If you are fishing from a skiff and possibly doing a little wading you are better off with a larger and ideally waterproof bag large enough to take waterproofs, boxes of flies, tippet material, a camera, sun protection cream, any spare tackle etc. It’s good if this bag can either double up as your carry-on bag for flying or will pack flat in your suitcase. If you are going to be wading you will need a hip pack, large enough to carry a box of flies, a waterproof camera, tippet material, a drink etc. As you will be carrying this for most of the day it pays to take only what’s needed and leave the rest at the lodge.

Tackle Accessories –There are lots of things you can add to your kit that will make little difference to your fishing but there are also some essentials.

Bonefish Close UpThese are:-

  • Saltwater Pliers – use these for unhooking fish and cutting leaders. If you are lure fishing as well as fly, get a pair that open split rings.
  • Nippers – always have these at hand for accurate cutting when you tie on flies or add a tippet length to your leader.
  • Hook Sharpener – essential for keeping a good sharp points on your flies after they have caught on a coral.
  • Rain Jacket – If you get caught in a tropical storm it gets cold very quickly if you don’t have a waterproof jacket to hand, if you are on a skiff ideally over trousers too.
  • Flats wading boots – for walking over sand lightweight neoprene zip up booties are fine. If you are likely to wade along the reef edge amongst broken corals more substantial boots are required. Wear with dense weave socks or gravel guards in extreme conditions.
  • Gloves – The backs of your hands and wrists are likely to get burnt – it pays to cover these areas using sungloves. You will also need to protect your fingers from line burns – when you hook a fast moving bonefish it can pull the line over your fingers fast enough to burn and even cut your hands. Some sungloves incorporate built in protection.
  • Lens cleaning kit for your sunglasses – saltwater spray will need to be cleaned from your glasses to restore clear vision. For this you need a cloth and cleaning fluid, such as the Costa Clarity Kit.
  • Sun protection cream and lip block. Pay careful attention to protecting your skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays take a high quality waterproof sunblock or apply a once a day product before you set off in the morning. Don’t forget to re-apply the product as directed – the sun is very strong in the tropics even on cloudy days.

Saltwater Fly Fishing Top Tips

My Top Ten Tips for Success with Bonefish.

  1. Listen carefully to your guide – they are out on the flats most days and will have forgotten more than you will ever learn about flats fishing if they are any good.
  2. Practice casting with your gear before you go in a variety of conditions with accuracy and gentle presentation at the top of your list of things to learn. In most instances casting very long distances will not help you. We offer saltwater casting lessons and ‘flats know how’ sessions for our customers. Please call us for details.
  3. Wade slowly and quietly – these fish are completely wild and only survive by being constantly alert to any threats of danger.
  4. Look out for bonefish giving their presence away at distance by subtle disturbances in the surface of the water as they move, this is what is referred to as ‘nervous water’.
  5. Feeding bonefish will often have their tails out of the water in shallow water as they hunt for crabs and shrimps. This is called ‘tailing’ – these fish are feeding but very easy to spook. There may be other bonefish you can’t see between you and the tailing fish – landing your fly line amongst these fish will spook them and every other bonefish in the vicinity.
  6. To successfully hook bones that take your fly you must strip strike – this means keeping the rod tip down and pulling on the line to set the hook. Once the fish is hooked and running lift the rod high to minimise the risk of the line catching coral or mangroves.
  7. If you are fishing on a bottom where the hook catches coral or weed you can catch bones by giving the fly a tiny tweak to move it – if a bone sees this and is feeding it will dart over and hoover up the fly.
  8. After every fish, or if you catch a snag with the fly, check the leader for any signs of damage and the point of the hook to make sure it’s still sharp.
  9. Unhook fish swiftly and return them to the water quickly – the warm shallow water has low oxygen levels and after a hard fight bonefish need careful handling and a swift but gentle release. Don’t let them go until they are ready to swim – barracuda soon learn that a tired bonefish makes an easy meal.
  10. Having the sun at the right angle and not obscured by clouds is vital for seeing fish on the flats, use the time when the light is good to best advantage!


Need more saltwater fly fishing advice?

We have a wealth of fly fishing experience in many locations around the world. We can also help you arrange your trip via our friends at Fly Odyssey and Roxtons. So please do give us a call on 01635 736 436 and ask us anything you need to know.

Allan Shephard
I've spent a big chunk of my life either fishing, talking about fishing, teaching fishing or working in the tackle trade. My hunger for ever more extreme and challenging fishing adventures continues to grow and can only be satisfied by a regular angling fix! I hold AAPGAI advanced instruction qualifications in single & double-handed fly-casting and have had articles published by some of the biggest UK fishing magazine titles. I consider myself very much an all-round angler. I have fished in over 20 countries worldwide for a variety of species in both fresh and saltwater. Advising people how to kit themselves out with tackle and clothing for their next fishing adventure is always a pleasure – please take advantage of my experience and knowledge.