Bare Bones

These stripped-down flies catch bonefish anywhere in the world.

[by Seth Fields]

As I finish my last batch of bonefish flies, I hear the familiar Ping! of an email. I add a few strands of flash to the head of my 12th Gotcha, whip-finish and snip the thread, seal it with a smooth layer of glue, and reach for my phone.

Hook: Ahrex NS156 or your favorite saltwater hook, size 6 or 4.
Thread: Pink 3/0 (210 denier)
Flash: A single strand of large Flashabou.
Keel: 30-pound-test monofilament and gold tungsten beads.
Weight: Medium black bead-chain eyes.
Wing: Natural rabbit fur.
Legs: Pumpkin/blue Sili Legs.
Glue: Light-activated resin.

The email is likely for business, but when you work in fly fishing, the demands never stop, especially in the publishing world. I am the editor of a monthly newsletter that focuses on fly fishing travel called The Angling Report, which is an online sister publication of this magazine. What that really means is I live with my phone and am in constant contact with our writers, many of whom are all over the globe and have no notion of Eastern Standard Time. I usually have a rule: No business past 10 p.m. I am intrigued, however, by the subject line of this email. It reads, “Bonefish Flies . . . Sort of.” With a bonefish trip only days away, I opened it. Little did I know that this story would send me back to the vise.

When Less Is More

The gist of the story is that one of the writers was in the Seychelles fishing for bonefish. He had an epic day of fishing using a Bonefish Bitters, but he hooked so many fish that the fly began to unravel. Bonefish kept coming and he kept casting it until that fly was barely more than a hook with a few loose thread wraps attached. He said the fishing never slowed down. Later, he decided to hit the water with only bare hooks of various sizes and colors, and was astonished to see the bonefish eat those naked hooks as readily as they did actual flies. It was a lightbulb moment!

I will be the first to tell you that many flies are designed to catch anglers, not fish. We have a tendency to overdo it for the sake of making beautiful flies. That’s one of the awesome things about fly tying: It straddles a fine line between utility and art. Sometimes, however, you don’t want to make art, you need to quickly whip up a batch of flies to catch fish.

I love tying and have no desire to fish bare hooks, but I wondered if I could create bonefish flies that use the hook shanks as focal points and part of their designs, but tie them sparsely with as few materials and steps as possible?

I call these patterns Bare Bones flies.

Hook: Gamakatsu SC15, size 6 or 4.
Thread: White 3/0 (210 denier).
Tail: White rabbit fur.
Weight: Medium black bead chain.
Body: White thread and white Semperfli
Straggle String.
Head: Tying thread or pink paint.

The Flats Diet

To the untrained eye, the flats resemble a great watery desert, often void of life. Dig deeper, and you’ll see a varied and intricate ecosystem that ranges from microscopic bacteria and microalgal communities to small baitfish, worms, and crustaceans. Further up the food chain are the predatory fish we love: bonefish, tarpon, permit, sharks, and more.

Fish that spend their time combing the flats for food are opportunistic. They eat what they can find, and they don’t usually shy away from much-needed calories on account of tastes or preferences. Worms, shrimp, crabs, snails, and baitfish; you name it, and bonefish will eat it. It’s the nature of being a flats fish.

What organisms might my writer’s bare hooks have resembled? The first guess is worms, but they could also mimic smaller crustaceans such as amphipods and copepods, squids, and small crabs that typical bonefish flies often overlook. Anglers often focus their attentions on big meals, such as larger crabs and shrimps, but there is a whole host of tiny appetizers that bonefish readily eat.

Bare Bones Design

For this style of pattern, the shank is always the focal point. It provides the color, flash, weight, or profile for the fly.

All these designs are based on minimalism; keep the materials simple and limited. For most of these flies I use little more than a handful of materials—sometimes less. With many modern ingredients, tying these patterns is quick and easy. You can make just about any of these flies in less than 10 minutes, some under 5. Applying enough materials to provide the desired profile, flash, color, and movement—without overdoing it—is the key. And due to the relatively small materials lists, they are cheap to make and taking tying supplies on a trip is not so cumbersome.

Hook: Ahrex NS172 or your favorite
saltwater hook, size 6 or 4.
Thread: Burnt orange 6/0 (140 denier).
Tail: Natural rabbit fur.
Weight: Gold wire.
Glue: Light-activated resin.

When fishing the flats, you never know what you will encounter with regard to the bottom. Sandy or coral flats are common in many places, while other flats are dominated by turtle grass or mangroves. Each has its own appeal and presents its own obstacles that your flies must overcome. In terms of pattern design, none is harder for me than turtle grass.

Turtle grass means two things: snags and shallow water. On a recent trip to Cuba’s Gardens of the Queen, I was concerned that most of the flats we would fish consisted of turtle grass and mangroves. On a flat with turtle grass, water that is a foot and a half deep might offer only five inches of clear water between the top of the grass and the surface. This means you need a slow-sinking fly that stays in the view of feeding bonefish and contains a weed guard or rides with the hook point on top up to avoid snags. Luckily I had a handful of smaller Simple Shrimps and Petit Peterson’s that brought dozens of bonefish to hand, often in very shallow water. These flies are among the most simple of my Bare Bones patterns and have proved themselves all over the Caribbean and Florida. I never leave home without them or the materials to tie them.

Sometimes, however, I ditch the shrimps and stalk the flats with other Bare Bones flies that mimic worms (the Cinder-ella), squids (the Mini-Squid), and various crabs and small shrimps (the Sand Flea and Baby Blue). All are impressionistic but specific enough to entice bonefish on the prowl for familiar-looking meals. These patterns have proved themselves over the years.

Once you establish the basic principles of Bare Bones design, you can dress a fly using whatever colors and materials you wish. The potential is endless. While I have shared a few patterns that have been very effective for me, adapt them using the materials and colors you have on hand. Use them as a starting point for your own artistic interpretations.

Sometimes you want to dress a fly to impress your buddies, and other times you need flies that are just easy to tie and catch fish. Who says you can’t have both?

Seth Fields is trying to find a balance between being a saltwater flats junkie and living in Tennessee. Luckily he finds plenty of big carp between trips. To see more of his work, go to www.flywaymedia.net.