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.
Only the utterly initiated think the bonefish is handsome. Those new to or stupid about the sport think the fish is silly looking, but those who know it well consider the bonefish radiant with a nearly celestial beauty. To me, it seems so perfectly made for both its terrain and my needs as a fisherman that it has the specialness of design seen in experimental aircraft. The nose, it is true, has a curious slant and there is an undershot mouth that we, with our anthropocentrism, associate with lack of character, but after a while you see that the entire head is rather hydrodynamic and handsomely vulpine. The body is sturdy, often a radiant gray-green above and pure silver on the sides. The tail, like the fins, is frequently a gunmetal gray and is oversized and powerful, as exaggeratedly proportioned to its size as are the fish's speed and power.
A bonefish doesn't jump. From the fish's point of view, the jump is a wasteful and often ruinous adventure. Tarpon customarily wreck themselves jumping, which is the only thing that permits the large ones to be taken on light tackle at all. So people who like to be photographed with all the spectacle associated with themselves, their fishing paraphernalia and their catch, ought to forget bonefish and concentrate on tarpon. When you hang a tarpon up at the dock, it will suck the gawkers off the highway like a vacuum cleaner. A dead bonefish at dockside scarcely draws flies.
It took me a month to catch my first bonefish, and I regret to say that I killed it and put it in the freezer. For a long time, at the drop of a hat, I would take it out, rigid as a fungo bat, to show to my friends. One said it was small. Another noted that the freezer had given it sunken eyes and a morbid demeanor. I asked how you could speak of demeanor in something which had departed this world. It was the last bonefish I kept.
Hard as it may be to believe, the bonefish leads his life in his extensive multiocean range quite without reference to the angler. For example, off the coast of Hawaii he has largely betaken himself to great depths where he is of no earthly use to the light tackle fisherman. His poor manners extend to the African coast where he reveals himself occasionally to cut-bait anglers of the high surf who smother his fight with pyramid sinkers that a Wyoming wrangler might use to keep the horses right handy.
For these transgressions of ordinary decency the human race can best revenge itself upon the bonefish in the shallows of Central America, the Bahamas and the Florida Keys. From a topographical perspective, the immensely distributed bonefish seems to be all over the place but the angler will generally settle for one. At any given moment, the angler will resort to low tricks and importuning the deity for a lonesome single. In the back of his mind, he recalls that marine biologists describe the bonefish as "widely distributed." It doesn't help.
The marine shallows where the bonefish spends much of its existence from the transparent larval stage to maturity are accessible only to the fisherman or scientist who wades or transports himself in a light skiff over the sand and turtle grass. As much delicacy of approach is required of these observers as is of the ornithologist. It is this essential condition that makes bonefishing almost generically different from offshore angling.
Unlike almost any other game fish, the bonefish is not sought where he lives. Bonefish live in deep water; they only do some of their feeding on the flats. A trout fisherman, for example, seeking a particular fish would attempt to ascertain where that fish lived, in which pool or under which log. The bonefisherman never has any idea where a particular fish lives; he attempts to find combinations of tide and place that are used by feeding bonefish. Occasionally, a particular fish will appear with certain regularity, but this is exceptional.
Flats used by feeding bonefish are flooded by tide. They are flooded at unequal rates depending upon the location of the individual flats relative to the direction of tidal bore and current and by the presence of keys and basins which draw and deflect the moving water. One flat, for instance, might have rising water at one time while another flat half a mile away may not get its first incoming water until an hour later. Even this is not constant since wind can alter the precise times of rising and falling water.
The beginning bonefisherman is often humiliated to learn that the flats he found empty produced bonanzas for anglers who had a better sense of timing than he had. A tide book and a good memory are the first tools of the bonefisherman. With experience, a pattern begins to emerge—the shape of the life habits of a wild species.