My wife Jackie had never caught a bonefish. But there she was, only minutes after landing at our camp on the Los Roques series of islands off Venezuela, with line screaming off the reel, grit and determination written all over her face, weeds picked up by the line streaming in the wind like flags, the bonefish threatening to spool the small reel. As a novice, her choice was a light spinning outfit; the rest of us in our group of five using fly tackle. For the novice that she was, it was a thrilling, yet almost frightening experience as the fish made it's series of long determined, single minded runs.
When landed, the fish, the first for her, the first for any of us on the trip and among the first taken on these huge flats after fishing exploration only a few months earlier, proved to be about a five or six pounder, perhaps on the large size of the dozens that we would catch on the remaining week on the island.
Bonefishermen are basically adventurers. With bonefish found only in tropical waters, bonefish can be found in the U. S. only in Florida and Hawaii (in Hawaii where they are a deep water fish and thus not typically fished for by traditional shallow water bonefishing methods). Thus, bonefish are sought for in other countries, principally in the Caribbean and in Central and South America. One of the most promising places to fish now is Islas Los Roques.
Los Roques is a series of 365 islands located about 80 miles offshore (north) of Caracas, Venezuela. And while Los Roques means "the rocks", the islands and surrounding area are really built up of coral. The result is a series of dozens, if not hundreds of skinny water flats that hold the potential for bonefish. The point is almost academic, since most are too far away for the run from the camp with the boat, but those within boat range cover hundreds of acres with ample fishing, with care, forever. Fortunately, all of the islands in the chain are a part of the federal Venezuela Los Roques National Park.
Two of the best camps are Chapi Sport Fishing and Pez Raton Lodge, both used by Frontiers, International, a premier booking agency for both domestic and international fishing trips. Trips are based on double occupancy, with rates exclusive of the air fare to Caracas, Venezuela, and meals at an overnight hotel there at the front and back end of the trip. Both camps are located on a few minutes from the paved runway on El Gran Roque, the main island in the chain and one populated by about 1,000 natives. The paved runway provides easy access with a 40 minute flight from LaGuaira area east of Caracas, Venezuela.
Also provided are large open boats for the run to and from the fishing grounds, guides to help with tackle and to spot the bonefish. Included in the charter are accommodations in Caracas after arriving there and the flight by small plane to the islands the next morning. Return is just the reverse, with the option of visiting the interior of Venezuela or trying billfishing offshore from the coastal La Guaira, near the airport and a suburb east of Caracas.
Typical bonefishing can be among the best in the world, perhaps even rivaling that of Christmas Island in the south Pacific and certainly both closer and cheaper,particularly for eastern anglers where flights from New York and Miami to Caracas run on a regular daily basis.
The flats are rated as the top discovery in Atlantic water bonefishing in the last 20 years. Depending upon the flat visited each day, the fishing will vary both in numbers of fish and also the type of fishing and wading. All fishing is by wading, none by skiff or boat. In part this is because the flats are so shallow - so much so that other fish such as sharks, barracuda, permit, typically found on good bonefish flats in other areas - were never seen during our visit there.
Occasional catches of permit, sometimes tarpon and snook are possible, and fishing for barracuda is rated high. But this is mostly a bonefish area, almost exclusively bonefish.
Typical flats water ranged from about ankle deep to knee deep, mostly of hard white sand, but with some conch, sea cucumbers and coral, and occasional patches of turtle grass. The turtle grass seemed far less frequent than that found on other tropical bonefish flats. In all there are about 20 or 30 flats within range of most camps, some small and some large. Most are mangrove lined with white, black and red mangrove, typical of bonefish flats anywhere.
Most flats are almost uniformly shallow with bonefish scattering and feeding evenly as they zig zag over the white sand. Some flats seem to have better fishing in certain areas, such as one we found where the best bonefish and most frequent sightings of bones was along the deeper water on the edge of the flat. All of the flats are affected by the tide with the shallow ones emptying rapidly of bonefish at the tide falls, but producing good fishing in the channels that empty the skinny water. Some small lagoons in the middle of flats are also good. One such small lagoon on one flat produced several good bonefish when fishing typical bonefish flies by blind casting into the several feet deep pocket.
Though the hard flat sandy flats made for easy wading, the bonefish are at first difficult to see, although with the numbers that frequent the flats spotting them does become easier very quickly. While the shallow sandy water often reveals tailing bonefish, the constant wind hides the tailing and the mudding that these fish make as they course their way zig zag fashion across the flats. The wind is not all bad through, since it also makes it harder for the bonefish to spot anglers and spook. It also helps to hide casts that might line and spook a fish while allowing more frequent casts into a feeding school or pod.
Fly casting is easy most of the time. Four of us used fly rods. Since the area is right in the trade wind area, (about 12 degrees north of the Equator), the constant wind must be coped with. Fly rodders need nine foot long 8 and 9 weight fly outfits, even though 6 and 7 outfits could handle the flies used and the hooked fish in a no-wind situation. But Los Roques is not a "no-wind" situation or fishing and the heavier outfits are a must to have control necessary to get the line out and the fly down when and where you want it in front of a school of bones.
While any outfit can be used, we varied between direct drive and anti-reverse reels, with all of us finding that the almost-clear Scientific Anglers Mono-Core lines proved best in preventing spooked fish, and where necessary, allowing several casts to the same school to get a hook-up.
As in bonefishing anywhere, the competitiveness of the school fish (schools ranging from 10 to several dozen fish) made for easier fishing than to the more skittish singles and small pods of three or four fish. While Jackie's first fish was taken blind while working a small plastic grub off of the beach, almost all of the fish were taken by sight fishing - either our sight or that of an accompanying guide.
While the camp will be open year round, and the fishing is rated and expected to be good year round, the best months, according to Molly Fitzgerald of Frontiers are March through October when the wind is slight less and the schools of bonefish plentiful. The air and water temperature, comfortable for wading and warm all the time, varies little.
It will come as no surprise that typical bonefish flies that work anywhere and everywhere also work here. Crazy Charlies, various shrimp patterns, crab flies, simple reverse wing streamers in the popular tropical colors of yellow, pink, white and tan are good, along with some flies in dark shades such as the popular root beer and even black. The darker colors are probably better for spotting the fly and working it in relation to the movement of the bonefish; the lighter shades usually getting more hits.
Basically bonefish are scavengers, feeding along the bottom on small brown worms (thus the effectiveness of the short root beer-colored worm in other areas), minnows, shrimp and small crabs. Bonefish flies in sizes 6 through 2 worked best.
The fish were not that particular and the specific pattern did not seem to make a difference. Shrimp patterns proved good as did those shrimp like patterns tied with red plastic bead eyes heat fused onto short mono and tied into the head as are bead chain and lead dumbbell eyes. The shallow water made these heavier eyes that are used to sink bonefish and other flies in deeper water unnecessary.
The Mother of Epoxy flies with the pyramidal or diamond shaped translucent clear epoxy body also worked well. While we used the reversed tied flies that causes the fly to ride hook point up, the clear and relatively open sandy flats would not require that and traditional styles would also work well.
Techniques on Los Roques are simple. After going over the side of the boat ferry to and from the flats, simply wade the flats working in the direction that will provide the best visibility and casting ease. Often wind is a consideration here, since heading and fly casting into the wind or directly away from it is easier than trying to work with a cross wind. Once the fish are spotted, cast in front of the expected movement of the fish. Work the fly or lure slowly, since in the shallow water it will immediately sink to the sandy bottom. If the fish are on an intersecting path or aiming straight for you, drop down to one knee to reduce your profile to the fish and to try to get a hook up before they spook.
One advantage of the fly rod is that the zig zag movements of the bonefish are easy to cope with, since a school or pod that moves away from the fly can be easily cast to again by picking up the line, back casting, and dropping the fly again in front of the scavenging school.
Catches range from an average of three to four pound size, up to about six or seven pounds, based on our experience. Some few small bonefish of about one-half pound were also caught, a good omen for future fishing, even though all the bonefish are released unharmed. And you can expect larger fish, with catches up to seven and sometimes even ten pounds not uncommon on the average week-long trips or amongst a group of six anglers (all each camp will hold).
While most bonefish catches on other flats in Florida and the Bahamas seem to rate as excellent with a half-dozen fish, our catches per angler ranged from a low of that figure to up to about two dozen. Depending upon experience, plan on about an average of up to ten fish per day, more if exceptionally experienced or the fishing is exceptionally good.
Early exploratory trips back in the mid-80's indicated repeatedly that most anglers were catching about 100 bonefish per week. One party of six anglers took 560 bonefish in the first week there, another group of seven took 700 fish, most in the three to four pound range. While we did not get any the size of the 11 pounder taken on one of these trips, even larger fish, though not common, are said to be there.
With catches like that, with the ease of working the skinny water flats despite the wind, and with the huge expansive flats to work that would take a lifetime to cover well, Los Roques has rightly and rapidly taken its place as a top bonefish area, certainly one for any serious bonefish angler to try.
For information on bonefishing Los Roques at Chapi Sport Fishing or Pez Raton Lodge, contact Frontiers, Box 959, Wexford, Pa., 15090 phone 1-800-245-1950 on in Pa (412)935-1577.
Author shows off a typical Los Roques bonefish.