January 30, 2020
By Larry Larsen
I studied the school of bonefish moving up the flat with the incoming tide and a stiff wind at their backs. They moved slowly along, frequently pausing to tail-up while they fed on the Sound’s translucent shrimp and small fiddler crabs. A few puffs of sand beneath the surface about 60 feet away attracted my focus as I cast the bait sidearm to a spot 15 feet in front of the approaching school.
Two fish raced for the shrimp morsel, and the speediest nailed it and took off on a long run across the shallow flat. I held on tightly to the light-action rod as the powerful bonefish pulled out several yards of my 8-pound test fluorocarbon line seemingly at will. Sometimes, that’s all you can do. The spinning reel’s drag was singing a high-pitched “melody” as I tried to keep the rod tip high with minimal success. I finally snubbed the fish and slowly regained much of my line.
Then it blasted off again as though my 10-minutes of extreme pressure hadn’t deterred it in the least. I then watched my line disappear off my spool once again. After two more long runs and some circles around the skiff, the 5 1/2-pound bonefish was under my control. Or should I say “some” control.
“Ease him in on this side,” Captain “Bonefish Tommy” Sewell directed as he readied the net on the starboard. A couple of minutes later, after the bone circled the skiff one last time, I guided the brawny speedster into my guide’s waiting net. After a few pictures, we carefully released the fish to fight again.
The bones on the flats in Bimini’s Northern Sound, which lies at the curve of the Bahamian island, were active and numerous that morning. There are usually populations of several hundred to over a couple of thousand bonefish on those flats every day, according to Tommy, a native-born Biminite who was raised in the community of Alice Town. The huge schools of bones were there that morning but the wind on the water’s surface wasn’t camouflaging our presence as we approached several schools earlier.
For over an hour, our casts to the bones 30 to 40 feet away often spooked the fish when the bait landed. On a few other occasions, the rapid cloud movements above pushed along by the high winds actually spooked the fish. And at other times a bonefish would take the shrimp quickly but it wasn’t all the way in its mouth when we set the hook. The errant fish seemed paranoid about their competitive schoolmates who were after the same forage. Consequently, the striking fish would turn too quickly to bolt away to fully engulf and protect its meal.
Super Strong and Over-Sized Bones
The average size Bimini bonefish in most of the schools were a very respectable 3 to 4 pounds but there were, as we found out, larger specimens in many of the schools. The next three bonefish that I caught that morning were each a little smaller (in the 4- to 5-pound range) than my first one but very strong fish. I had several classic battles with the bones which are known for their hightailing across the flats when hooked. Deservedly, bonefish are on most saltwater anglers “Bucket List”. They tend to rule the flats and are the prime choice of many inshore anglers around the world.
I never did find one of the monsters that Bonefish Tommy claimed were sometimes in those shallows. Tommy has seen them up to 20 pounds on the North side of Bimini and the island record is reportedly north of 16 pounds. A 15-pounder was taken on the flats by a fly fisherman, according to the guide. Tommy told me that his largest Bimini bonefish on spinning equipment was a 13-pounder and on fly tackle was a giant that weighed over 12 pounds.
We ended up hooking seven bonefish and catching/releasing six that day. A blacktip shark took one away from me and I also caught a few other species. At one time it began to literally rain on us while the sun was still shining very brightly. That’s when Tommy explained that in Bimini when the sun is out and it is raining, locals say, “the devil and his wife are fighting over the Pot Cake”. A local morsel with Biminians, Pot Cake is the hard crust left over at the bottom of a pot after cooking beans and rice!
Our bait that day was 3-inch frozen shrimp, which was the only shrimp available on the island then. Bimini often has a shrimp run on a dark moon and outgoing tide, so shrimp are taken live around the island docks about once a month. On a full moon however, fish eat them all before they come into the island, according to the guide. Bimini guides also catch small fiddler crabs, which they cut in half or break to use as bait. Bonefish will suck them in and try to crush the crab shell. Sand fleas or “sea turkeys” are also used for bait, as are artificials such as small jigs and flies, which are also effective.
Locating the Small Chain and Timing the Visit
The chain of Biminis which stretches 28 miles is situated just 48 miles off the coast of South Florida and is made up of three major Bahamian islands, North, South and East Bimini, and numerous very small cays. Most of the islands’ population of a little over 2,000 residents live on North Bimini in Bailey Town. Alice Town there is the main tourist center and primary fishing center. The hook-shaped North Bimini is only 7½ miles long, and combined with South Bimini, makes up a landmass of just 9 square miles.
The islands are surrounded by some of the most beautiful aquamarine waters in the Bahamas. Bimini’s renowned fishing lies at the point where the Gulf Stream meets the Great Bahama Bank. According to Tommy, the best time of year to target numbers of bonefish on the Bank is late fall and early winter. When going after big bones, the months of March and April are perhaps prime times since they are spawning then. The best thing about timing a trip to Bimini for bones though is that there are no bad times. The fish are there year around and almost always active!
Temps and Tactics
The average water temperature ranges from 73 degrees in February to 82 degrees in August. While the temperature variations don’t impact the fishery much, it does alter the guide’s strategy. Bonefish Tommy will work the flats differently in the winter when the water is cooler.
In general, when the flats are 75 degrees or lower, he’ll focus more of his efforts on locating and fishing the “muds” which are created by feeding schools of bones.
The predominate, stronger winds in the cooler months will help Tommy identify the feeding activity and determine how quick the school is moving. That “mud” movement is usually seen from a long distance and the “cloudiest water” (disturbed bottom silt) is where the most active feeding is taking place. Once the feeding school’s direction is affirmed, the guide can more easily position his boat for an angler’s successful cast.
The shallow flats obviously heat up a few degrees more than deeper waters which is ideal for the predator-attracting crustacean that thrive there, and the relative warm water temperature and good sand bottom are great for wading. Wading is relatively safe and effective on these flats, but the angler should understand how the tides affect the depths.
The bonefish are usually most active on high outgoing and low incoming tides, but on a dead low or dead high tide, they might stop actively feeding and just mill around (not move from one area to next). Tailing fish are usually found in 4 to 12 inches of water when tides are low, so look at the last of the outgoing and the first of the incoming tide if wading the hard sand flats off Bimini.
Prepared for a Bigger Battle
Bonefish Creek and the Swash, both within the mangroves, are good areas for the “gray ghosts” at times and you should be ready for good battle around the cover, according to Tommy. There can be big schools of 24 fish or up to 150 in the Swash area but locating an isolated bonefish or maybe doubles cruising through the mangrove cuts is advantageous because the fish are usually larger. The Bank behind South Bimini near the island’s airport can be productive, and at certain times of the year when the weather is good, anglers can catch bonefish on the north side of island. Other top spots for big bones are the “Bonefish Hole”, a deep channel running along the mangroves and “black woods” area, and the nearby “Outer Bank” between South Bimini and East Bimini.
An added bonus to many bonefish expeditions around the islands are potential shots at the powerful permit. On my morning mentioned earlier, I caught two nice permit. I had noticed a school of a dozen or so moving across the “Big Bank” flats and pointed them out to my guide. The fish came in on the lee side of the Sound with the incoming tide but their movement slowly across the flats allowed us to get our boat positioned for a cast.
I made a long cast downwind to place the shrimp about 20 feet in front of a school of seven or eight fish. Three of the permit jetted right for my bait as it settled to the bottom, and the fastest grabbed it. While I thought that I had my “hands full” while battling the 5 ½ pound bone earlier that morning, I quickly learned that a 14-pound permit can be an even tougher adversary compared to battling bonefish. After a worthy battle, Tommy netted my big flats permit. It was a nice culmination to a great bonefishing outing on Bimini.
Bimini is known both as the “Big Game Fishing Capital of the World” and the “Bonefish Capital of the World,” and fishing is what draws most sportsmen to this area. Most travelers fly direct to South Bimini airport (BIM) from either Miami (MIA) or Ft. Lauderdale (FLL) airports on Silver Airlines or BahamasAir. You can also take a 2-hour ferry ride from the Port of Miami or cruise over in your own boat and dock it at a marina. There is also a ferry service between South Bimini and North Bimini islands.
For those wanting a break from the hot flats action, one interesting Bimini attraction is the Fountain of Youth, a site named after famed explorer, Ponce de Leon, who allegedly searched the island in 1513. Another attraction is the undersea Bimini Road, a formation of limestone rocks believed to be artifacts from the Lost City of Atlantis. Snorkelers can swim along the road, visit the Alice Town beaches on the west side of North Bimini, or they can snorkel around the sunken “S.S. Sapona.” The relic ship that went down in 1926 is often the subject of wild tales about the island rumrunners’ stash and offshore speakeasys in the Prohibition Era. Ernest Hemingway, who was quite a fan of rum, called Bimini his summer home after his initial visit in 1935.
Accommodations today on the Island include Bimini Big Game Club, the Bimini Blue Water Resort Bimini Sands and the Sea Crest Hotel and Marina. One of the latest hotels on North Bimini is the new Hilton at Resorts World Bimini, a 750-acre luxury beachfront resort featuring the Bahamas largest marina complex, world-class restaurants, a casino and spa/fitness center. There are also vacation rentals comprised of condos, villas and studios showcasing Bahamian architecture at Resorts World Bimini. Painted in tropical hues of green, blue, peach, yellow, pink and turquoise and accented with white, all units offer water views. Beside the marina is the Fisherman’s Village shopping center.
For general island information, contact the Bimini Tourist Office at 242-347-3529, visit bahamas.com or myoutislands.com, or call 1-800-BAHAMAS.
Contact “Bonefish Tommy” Sewell at 242-473-1089. He has over 35 years of experience and works out of Weech’s Marina in Alice Town, North Bimini. “Bonefish Ebbie” David has over 24 years experience and is another guide I’ve fished with on Bimini who is very productive. He works out of Bailey Town, North Bimini and can be contacted at 242-347-2053. For an angler’s guide and fishing map, visit bahamas.com/fishing.