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THE BONEFISH: GHOST OF THE SHALLOWS
Burton J. Rowles
February 02, 1959
One of the greatest fighters of the sea is shown on these pages—from the Inside out. In the X-ray photograph above, his fantastic, bony structure is revealed, and the cordlike cartilage of his fins vanishes. In the painting below, his silvery armor and whiplash tail are seen as they appear to the thousands of salt-water anglers who seek him out each year in the shallows of sunlit seas. The dramatic story of the bonefish, and that of the cult which has grown up around him, is told on the following pages
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February 02, 1959

The Bonefish: Ghost Of The Shallows

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One of the greatest fighters of the sea is shown on these pages—from the Inside out. In the X-ray photograph above, his fantastic, bony structure is revealed, and the cordlike cartilage of his fins vanishes. In the painting below, his silvery armor and whiplash tail are seen as they appear to the thousands of salt-water anglers who seek him out each year in the shallows of sunlit seas. The dramatic story of the bonefish, and that of the cult which has grown up around him, is told on the following pages

A FISH TO REMEMBER

If names mean anything to ships of war, the U.S.S. Bonefish, which will join the Navy's submarine fleet in June, should be a real hackle-raiser, the rousingest piece of machinery ever to prowl beneath the surface of the sea. Certainly the Bonefish has a namesake to live up to, a fish that makes the heart of any angler turn over twice while dizzy visions flash before his eyes—and this is the time of year when any southbound salt-waterman is most susceptible to the fever. The submarine Bonefish weighs 1,700 tons wet and measures 219 feet with a beam of 29 feet; a bonefish of similar length would be about 34� feet wide and would weigh 1,400 pounds. The sub is cleanly rounded with a slender conning tower; the bonefish is streamlined and steely, with a slender dorsal fin. The sub is diesel-powered, but the bonefish is atomic—or, as some say who have fished him in the Bahamas, he is driven by 10,000 frightened devils.

It is that kind of demoniac speed, combined with power and heart, that makes the bonefish irresistible to the angler. The first run of a bonefish can start a man trembling, and every bonefish guide can cite at least one case of "bonefish paralysis," which is total inability to lift a rod and cast. The victim recalls what happened the last time he hooked a bone, and this memory spreads through his nerves like novocain.

Some of the chaos of fighting a bonefish is attributable to the fact that it feeds in salt-water shallows called fiats. An eight-pound bonefish in one foot of water is the marine version of a bull in a china shop. The hooked bone can't go deep and start one of those 40-fathom tugs of war. It isn't a leaper; it is more like a warrior in one dimension, breadth; a warrior that leaves all its fight in the water and never grandstands in the boat. It may have enough left to flick its tail against the bottom of a skiff, but that is widely interpreted as an exhausted plea for a speedy return to the element it dignifies.

Nothing else about the bonefish is nearly as impressive as its gameness. It doesn't overwhelm anybody with its size. The all-tackle record bone is 3 feet 5� inches long and weighs 18 pounds two ounces. It looks more odd than savage, lacking features that give the tiger shark a fighting scowl. Its scales are chromium bright, shading to greenish blue on its back. Its dorsal, tall and raked, is often flown above the surface along with the upper lobe of a broad-V tail. The head is armor-plated, evidently built to withstand abrasion from vigorous rooting on the sea bottom, which the bone performs with a pointed, hard snout that is piglike in overlapping the low-set mouth.

The bone's diet of crabs, shrimp and mollusks is crushed between a set of paved teeth on the back of its tongue and hard ridges on its palate, then passed back to a matching set of grinders on the upper and lower throat bones. This powerful apparatus can break a brittle fishhook and bend a wiry one barb to shank.

At one time or another, the bonefish has had—in addition to such addicts as former President Herbert Hoover, Ted Williams, Sam Snead, Benson Ford and many more—most of the top-ranking fishing "pros" on the line. John Alden Knight, Joe Brooks, Van Campen Heilner, Joe Bates, George La Branche and Zane Grey, for example, have all fought him. Such anglers are not easily impressed by a fish, but they have been impressed by the bonefish. Heilner, for one, wrote in 1937:

"The line goes so fast it makes a ripping sound. Four hundred feet.... The line bellies and sags...a 200-foot run back...he halts and sees you. Zing!...half your line...he circles the boat, tiring...seven pounds! Seemed like 50."

There is a clue to the speed and trickiness of the bonefish in its family tree, but it comes at the end, as a twist, as it does in the pursuit of the fish with rod and reel.

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