Going Deep to Catch Bonefish in the Florida Keys

They are known as the holy grail of flats fishing. Albula vulpes, the hard-to-find, hard-to-see, hard-to-catch bonefish.

Normally, bonefish are caught and released in the clear shallow waters of the Florida Keys — at depths ranging from one to four feet.

Fishing for them is more like hunting. The flats guide, perched on a poling platform, looks for them and then relays instructions to the angler standing on the front deck of the boat armed with a light spinning or fly rod.

Going Deep to Catch Bonefish in the Florida Keys

Anglers “hunt” for bonefish off Islamorada, renowned as a sportfishing Mecca. (Photo by Andy Newman, Florida Keys News Bureau)

“There he is at 1 p.m.,” the guide might say, pointing at an imaginary clock with noon being straight ahead.

The cast and presentation of the bait must be perfect. Too far and the bonefish won’t see it. Too close and the easily spooked fish will take off faster than a speeding bullet.

Now we’re hearing (and seeing) that, during the past few weeks, bonefish are being caught in very deep water. Up to 130 feet in depth, in fact.

To flats anglers, that concept seems absurd. But the proof is in the catch (and, of course, the release).

Going Deep to Catch Bonefish in the Florida Keys

Ben Loy, captain of the Miss Islamorada, displays a bonefish caught by one of his anglers while bottom fishing in 130 feet of water. (Photo courtesy of Ben Loy via the Florida Keys News Bureau)

Anglers on two Islamorada-based party boats have reeled in bonefish in deep water while targeting lane snapper and porgies on stout bottom-fishing tackle.

An angler on the Miss Islamorada, skippered by Captain Ben Loy out ofBud N’ Mary’s Fishing Marina, caught a small bonefish Dec. 29 in the early afternoon. The fisherman was using a rig with multiple hooks baited with squid.

The “silver ghost,” as it is also known, was photographed and quickly released.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Ben Loy marveled. “Who would have ever thought about catching a bonefish in 130 feet of water?”

But it turns out that wasn’t the only bonefish caught in deep water offIslamorada in recent days.

Going Deep to Catch Bonefish in the Florida Keys

Bonefish are typically caught and released in shallow water.

Friday night, Jan. 4, anglers on theCaptain Michael out of Robbie’s Marina in Islamorada were fishing a wreck in 119 feet of water.

Using the same deep-bottom tackle — known as chicken rigs — and squid for bait, they caught and released eight bonefish ranging from 18 to 24 inches. The next night, anglers on the Captain Michael, skippered by Tony Narvaez, scored two more bones.

“They were very lively,” the captain said of all the fish caught. “Once we tossed them back in the water, they took off.”

Dr. Jerry Ault, director of the University of Miami Tarpon and Bonefish Research Center, said the fish encountered in deep water were likely spawning — and that late December through early January is the height of the bonefish reproductive season.

Going Deep to Catch Bonefish in the Florida Keys

Skill and patience are required to catch the elusive bonefish and other Florida Keys sportfish.

“Bonefish tend to spawn in deep water near the edge of the continental shelf, but it’s certainly unusual to catch a bonefish in that kind of depth,” Dr. Ault advised. “Typically they are inshore, and this is really cool and of great (research) interest.”

Although Florida Keys flats guides needn’t worry about deep-water bonefish replacing traditional shallow-water targets, the bonefish release did fulfill a goal for Ben Loy’s angler.

“When he came on board, he said that he wanted to catch a swordfish or something really exotic,” Captain Loy said. “He got a bonefish instead, and that’s really special.”