I can remember the perplexed look I received from my clients, as they strolled down the dock in search of their guide for the day. The overnight air temperature had dropped below sixty degrees, but with one glance at my attire, you would have thought it was closer to zero. A flannel shirt, a layer of Polarfleece and a Gore-tex jacket started off the day, while heavy gloves and a fleece head wrap completed the ensemble.
I spared them the ear protection until I got the boat on plane. What were my Wisconsin based anglers wearing you ask, a tee-shirt, shorts and sunscreen. With the skiff on plane, we headed out the channel in search of bonefish, I watched as they acquired goose pimples the size of golf balls. With the combined speed of our skiff and the frigid morning air, a wicked wind chill effect bit at their exposed flesh. I was certain they thought they were anywhere but the Florida Keys.
Bonefish, and the suntanned locals, aren’t accustomed to temperatures much below 70 degrees. Finding bonefish may be a bit tougher during the winter, but with a little knowledge of the underwater terrain and a handle on water temperature, you should find it easier to locate them. During our winter season, as the sun edges above the horizon, it begins to warm the shallow flats which bonefish use to seek both warmth and food. After the initial shock of a strong cold front passes, bonefish become hesitant and tend to remain in deeper water for several days. Gradually, as the fish become more accustomed to the drastic drop in temperature, they work their way onto the flats with increased frequency during the warmest parts of the day. The key to finding these accommodating areas is a matter of pinpointing locations with minimal current and minimal wind.
The presence of wind and current on a flat can push the water quickly across it and prevent the sun from radiating heat through the water’s surface. Current (the lateral movement of water), is determined by the velocity of wind and tidal strength. Both combine to push the tidal flow across a flat and do not allow the sun to ultimately heat the water. The absence of either, allows the water to sit in place for a prolonged period of time, thus absorbing those warming rays from the sun. Think of it as having to negotiate a distance of hot coals. Walking slowly across the hot coals would easily transfer the heat to the soles of your feet.
Running across would not be quite as effective. Other factors such as depth and bottom color on a flat can also strongly affect the temperature of the water. The color of the bottom may help to radiate the heat of the sun into the water. Thick beds of dark green turtle grass absorb heat better than a sun-reflecting, white sandy bottom. If one were to combine minimal current with the dark, grassy bottom of a shallow flat, the surrounding water would heat up faster. The depth of water must also be considered. The shallowest areas of a flat are able to warm much quicker than the surrounding deeper basins. Wind, another important factor to be considered, produces waves. These waves transfer the cool air temperature through the surface of the water, consequently dropping the water temperature. The current allows that very same cool water to mix within the immediate area. That’s why it’s suggested that fishing areas sheltered from the wind during the winter months will help immensely in your search for action.
Historically, cold weather bones are above average size. While locals may consider an 8 or 9 lb. fish average during the rest of the year, there are now plenty of big bones in the 10 to 12 lb. class. A typical spinning outfit would be a 7 foot rod coupled with a reel with a very smooth drag. I highly recommend fresh line for your reel if there is any doubt of its age or condition. In fact, most guides will re-spool after a full day of bonefishing.
Fly fishermen should bring a nine-weight, paired with a quality discdrag type reel. Due to the larger flies used and ever-present wind, a fast action rod and weight forward floating fly line is most common. 3/M Scientific Anglers produce a product called the Ultra 4 Saltwater series. It has a braided monofilament core with a shorter head designed to help turn over a larger fly in a brisk wind. Winter bonefish are big, strong and make long hard runs. The capacity of either your spinning or fly reel should hold a minimum of 200 yards.
The weather during the winter months rarely allows for perfect casting conditions, as one would expect with a breeze of at least 10 to 15 knots. Add to that a fast, indecisive and nearly invisible target and your speed of casting and accuracy of presentation are paramount. Practicing your accuracy into the wind and at a variety of angles to the wind prior to your trip is advisable. If fishing with a spinning outfit, you’ll be throwing live shrimp that may weigh less than an ounce. For fly fisherman, that 60 foot cast you practiced on Golden Pond might only make it 30 feet if you are unable to negotiate the wind. Most fish however, are caught within 40. Learn to load a rod quickly and false cast minimally. Shrimp imitations such as Tasty Toads, Sliders and Clouser Minnows are good choices in cooler water. On the flats, polarized sunglasses are mandatory, even if you only invest in a pair of polarized clip-ons to slip over prescription lenses. Tints in amber or brown work best on the flats of the Florida Keys. Practice your casting whether fly or spin fishing. You have a small window of opportunity when you first sight a bonefish, the faster and more accurate your cast, the greater your odds of catching that prized fish. Preparation will greatly influence the outcome of your day. Although the Florida Keys is located subtropically, during the winter months it can be a bone-chilling experience for those running in an open skiff. The wind chill effect can drop temperatures to 45 degrees or less while running from flat to flat. Dress accordingly. A wind-proof jacket is a necessity. Fleece is not designed for blocking the wind, but might be practical under a jacket. One might also consider bringing something to cover your ears. I’ve had clients utilize a towel from the hotel room to help shield their ears from the stinging wind.
One of the most important tools you’ll find on my skiff is a digital water temperature gauge. The frequent monitoring of the seawater temperature is extremely important while pursuing winter time bonefish. A temperature gauge is an invaluable tool that aids in finding warmer pockets of water which attract bonefish. Properly installed, the sensor should be located as low on the transom as possible to better reflect the readings where the fish are actually feeding. Surface seawater temperatures may be cooler due to the wind’s influence and its transfer of temperature to the water. In a pinch, a handheld thermometer left in the bait well will do, but the ability to monitor continuously with a console-mounted unit, will keep you on top of things while on the platform. If your GPS has the ability to include a temperature sensor, take advantage of it.
Conversely, you will find an additional use for them in the heat of the summer while searching for cooler waters. Clients often ask me, what’s the best water temperature to find bonefish in? Rather than targeting a specific water temperature, it is important just to find the warmest water available at that time. Over the course of a few weeks, the average seawater temperature can fluctuate greatly from day to day, but you’ll only have to worry about finding the highest temperatures on that given day.
Bonefish do acclimatize, since they have to eat to survive. I have caught bonefish in water as cold as 64 degrees, which was the warmest water I could find on that particular day. As with any time spent bonefishing, keep focused on the best available conditions throughout the day! The Florida Keys are recognized for their low-key way of life. As viewed from our small islands, the term “formal” typically means wearing a clean t-shirt, shorts and your favorite flip-flops… but only on shore. Come down, relax on a quiet beach and enjoy what the Key’s have to offer. There are plenty of hotels big and small to accommodate you, if only for a weekend getaway. It may be winter, but the flats of the Florida Keys still have plenty to offer the shallow water angler. Quick Tips for Winter time Bonefishing: While searching for bonefish in the winter keep these points in mind: The leeward (windless) side of an island, shoreline or jetty hinders the movement of water, allowing it to warm up quicker than the exposed areas. A slack tide further allows the water to warm. If a cold front has passed the evening before your outing, focus on the shallow, most expansive flats, away from any deeper channels and the cooler water which accompanies them. Darker grass-laden bottoms warm quicker than lighter flats. A white sandy bottom reflects the sun’s rays. Late afternoon? Focus on the water falling from an extensive flat. The bonefish will concentrate on the deeper edges. Avoid the narrow strip banks that allow deeper and cooler water to be pushed over the crown from an adjacent deeper basin. Keep your distance from deep channels, especially if a strong current is present.
305 393-2587 cell or email
Specializing in sight fishing for bonefish, tarpon, redfish and permit on fly or light tackle.
Capt. Barry Hoffman's