Honolulu, Hawaii, June 26-29, 2012
I was sitting in the patio with my brother talking about our morning fishing session, the wind, the rain and lack of hookups when I received a text message from SteveT. We fished with him in the morning but he hung around after the tide bottomed out to continue fishing, hoping to hook a few bonefish as the water began to rise on the flats.

“Steve got a nine pounder twenty feet from shore and a four pounder a little further down the beach,” I told my brother. “He got them all sight fishing, no blind casting.” Eric was impressed.

The weather has not been the greatest for the past week and when the wind is up the water is chopped up by ripples while fast-moving clouds block the sun. It really makes no difference if you’re practicing the “blind casting” technique, which involves finding a spot where you THINK bonefish might be feeding then thoroughly covering the area with a half dozen or more casts before moving on. However when you stand on the beach and look out over the vastness of the flats you’re fishing you realize blind casting also requires an incredible amount of luck because if you don’t know where to start (or stand), and even if you do know, you could be wasting your time casting and fishing the fly across sections of the flats that hold no bonefish. Putting the fly in front of the fish without seeing it, without knowing what direction it’s swimming or how far out or how close it is, is just luck. The rest comes down to technique, stripping the fly at the right speed, and having a fly the fish will want to eat.

Sight fishing is like hunting. If you know the area well and know what to look for, you can stalk bonefish. It’s not a technique that’s easily learned. A bonefish is called the “grey ghost” of the flats because it’s coloration blends perfectly with the conditions found on the flats--the fish appears then disappears at will. Like a mirror, the fish’s silvery sides reflects light while the top is a greyish green hue which can change in intensity to further blend in with the environment. When you’re sight fishing you look for the moving grey torpedo-shaped shadow as the fish moves to feeding areas. You have to walk very slowly while constantly scanning the reef for movement. When the sun is out and almost directly overhead, and with a good pair of polarized glasses, it’s like looking into an aquarium and it becomes quite clear where the fish are or aren’t.

SteveT said he caught the 9 pounder close to shore at low tide. He said it was lucky it was low tide and not out in deeper water where the fish would probably have run over the reef and into the open ocean when it was hooked. “It was low tide. There wasn’t much water on the reef so where could he run?” said Steve.

He saw a small school of bonefish feeding and put the fly close by. You usually try to place it about 5 to 10 feet in front of the fish but Steve said he plopped it right in the middle of them and thought he blew it when the fish began darting about after the fly hit the water. But one of them swam over and grabbed the fly and after a short fight he had the fish in hand. His second fish, a 4 pounder, was hooked out of a school feeding on the sand bottom. “Those fish were easier to spot,” said Steve. “On a sandy bottom, the fish really stand out and you can see the shapes easily.”
Unlike blind casting, sight fishing requires a slow, methodical approach. You walk slowly and carefully, spot your target before you cast and be spot on with the presentation. You must be able to spot the fish before casting and this is a technique that can only be acquired through experience. You can read about it and hear others talk about it, but until you actually do it and learn what to look for it’s very difficult. Ed Tamai, a guide for Nervous Waters Hawaii, and Doug Lum are probably two of the best sight fishing fly anglers on the flats. They have years of experience and can spot fish from a great distance. Doug recently caught an 11.5 pound bonefish sight fishing a few weeks ago.

When you fish with Ed or Doug it usually goes like this:
ED: “There’s a fish 50 yards out...10 o’clock...moving towards us. See it?”
ANGLER: “Yeah. Uh...no.”
ED: “The fish is closer. Near that reef and sandy area. About 40 yards now, moving towards us. See it?”
ANGLER: “Ummmmm...where did you say it was again?”
ED: “Thirty yards. Swimming in the open on the sand (pointing). Nine o’clock. To your left.”
ANGLER: “Is that it over there (pointing with the rod tip).”
ED: “That’s a rock. The fish is over there about 20 yards now.”
ANGLER: “Oh. Oh yeah. Ok, ok I see it moving now.”

With blind casting you move up to a spot and fire off a few casts then move on. You’re on a constant search pattern, hoping to place the fly in front of a cruising fish. This means fewer casts and if you’re a person who has little patience and has to be doing something with your hands and rod (your fly rod), then sight fishing might not be for you.

Blind casting is the shotgun approach to catching bonefish while sight fishing is using the 30.06 with scope. Both are effective and both produce fish. One is just a bit more elegant than the other. So where and when would you use such techniques? If it’s cloudy and the wind is up, the water choppy and you’re fishing deep (waist deep) water then blind casting will probably work best. If you’re fishing fairly shallow (knee deep or shallower) the sun is out, the sky clear and the wind minimal then sight fishing will be the ticket BUT you must have the skill to spot the fish.

EQUIPMENT: We used fast action 8, 9 and 10 weight rods with floating lines and fluorocarbon leaders with 20 to 30-pound tippets. We used a variety of shrimp and crab flies from size 2 to 8 in various patterns and colors with lead eyes, bead-chain eyes or mono-eyes. For sight fishing, use long leaders up to 15 feet long and flies that will land lightly without too much splash. For blind casting you can shorten up the leader and use flies that are heavy enough to get down to the depth you are fishing.