SI Vault
Thomas McGuane
August 21, 1972
One is tempted to think of bonefish as among the wildest of creatures, if a sensory apparatus calculated to separate them continually from man's presence qualifies them as "wild." Yet when the serious angler insinuates himself into the luminous, subaqueous universe of the bonefish well enough to catch one without benefit of accident, he has, in effect, visited another world, a world whose precise cycles and conditions appear so serene to the addled 20th-century angler that he begins to be consoled for all he has done to afford the trip in the first place. In his imagination he is emphatic about emptiness, space and silence. He is searching less for recreation than for a kind of stillness.
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August 21, 1972

An Unobtrusive, Shadowy Presence

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The difficulty in seeing fish gives the veteran a real opportunity to lord it over the neophyte, gives him a chance to cultivate those small nuances of power that finally reveal him to be the Captain of the Skiff. After that the veteran relaxes, showing generosity.

Of the fish that concern the flats fisherman, bonefish are the smallest and probably the hardest to see. Water and light conditions dictate how they are to be sought with the eye, but again, intuition eventually takes over. In the Florida Keys, where bonefish are characteristically seen swimming rather than tailing (and this is perhaps true everywhere), you must make a disciplined effort to look through the water surface. The water surface itself is something very inviting to look at, and the man who confuses angling with relaxation will let his eye rest here—and he will miss nine out of 10 fish. In the beginning, especially, the task must be borne down upon, for it is hard work. Eventually you will learn to sweep or scan back and forth over the area of possible sighting. At the first sweep your mind records the features of the bottom; on subsequent scans, if anything is out of place or if the small, unobtrusive and utterly shadowy presence of a bonefish has interrupted those features in your memory, you will notice it.

Polaroid glasses are an absolute necessity. There is some disagreement about which color is best. Green lenses are commonest, but things show up a little better with amber. Many people find the amber lenses hard on their eyes on brilliant days and so confine their use to overcast skies. I have used the amber glasses on brilliant July days and been plagued by headaches and strobelike afterimages.

In very shallow water, bonefish manifest themselves in two other ways: by waking and by tailing. Fish making wakes are often seen on the early incoming tide, and I think these are more important to the angler than the tailing fish. The singles make a narrow V wake, not always very distinct, and the pods offish make a trembling, advancing surface almost like a gentle cat's-paw of wind.

The most prized discovery, however, is the tailing fish. And wading for tailing fish is the absolute champagne of the sport. These fish can be harder to take than the swimmers—their heads are down and it is necessary to get the lure very near them so they may see it, yet this close presentation tends to frighten them—but the reward is commensurately greater and the fact that they are usually hooked in the shallowest kind of water makes their runs even more vivid. Since very often there is more than one fish tailing at the same time, the alarm of a hooked fish is communicated immediately and the companion fish will explode away from the site like pieces of a star shell.

The sound that a hooked bonefish makes running across a flat cannot be phonetically imitated. In fact, most of the delicate, shearing sound comes from the line or leader as it slices through the water. The fish will fight itself to death if not hurried a little and if great care is not taken in the release.

Anglers of experience speculate a good deal about the character of their quarry, doting on the baleful secrecy of brown trout, the countrified insouciance and general funkiness of largemouth bass, or the vaguely Ivy League patina of brook trout and Atlantic salmon. The hard-core smallmouth angler who accedes to a certain aristocratic construction to his sport is cheerful and would identify himself with, for instance, Thomas Jefferson, whose good house (Monticello) and reasonable political beliefs about mankind (Democracy) have been so attractive to the optimistic and self-made.

The dedicated trout fisherman is frequently an impossible human being, capable of taking a $400 Payne dry-fly rod to an infant's fanny. One hardly needs mention that more lynching has been done by largemouth bass anglers than by the fanciers of any other species, just as Atlantic salmon anglers are sure to go up against the wall way ahead of Indiana crappie wizards.

But the bonefisherman is as enigmatic as his quarry. The bonefish is as likely to scurry around a fiat like a rat as he is to come sweeping in on the flood tailing with noble deliberation. So, too, the bonefisherman is subject to great lapses of dignity. A bonefish flat is a complex field of signs, quite as difficult a subject for reading as an English chalk stream. The bonefisherman has a mildly scientific proclivity for natural phenomenology insofar as it applies to his quest, but unfortunately he is inclined to regard a flock of roseate spoonbills only in terms of flying objects liable to spook fish.

The bonefisherman is nearly as capable of getting lost between a Pink Shrimp and a Honey Blonde as the lone maniac waist-deep in the Letort reading his flybox from Jassid to Pale Evening Dun—though because a boat is usually required he may be slightly more oppressed by equipment.

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