So back to fishing the Keys: aquatic applied animal behavior in action! In the Keys for a fishing-immersion, 50th birthday trip, I described the offshore trip in my last blog. But what I was really looking forward to was the flats-fishing: two mornings, out before sunrise (ouch!), and in position on a 2-3 foot deep sand and grass flat, in a boat designed to float in less than 1 foot of water, watching for the characteristic changes in the surface of the water that revealed the movement and feeding of bonefish, tarpon, and sharks under the surface. It’s a more subtle kind of fishing than offshore running-and-gunning for open-ocean species, and when a bonefish finally slurps that shrimp or lure and accelerates away to peel 300 feet of line off your reel in a matter of seconds, there is nothing like it. I had successfully fly-fished for bonefish in lagoons on the north side of the island of Cozumel in Mexico (that’s another story altogether), but for the much spookier, more experienced fish here in the Keys, we were fishing with live crabs and shrimp.
So the approach is more like the wildlife photography that I had been doing since I was a teen-ager, and in which my son was quite active now: a stalk, a stake-out, a quiet move to a (hopefully) better location. Keen eyes (some keener than others) watching for the evidence of an animal’s passage, attempts to predict the movement of feeding animals: again, applied animal behavior in action. All set in an absolutely gorgeous tropical setting, with exotic birds (frigates, ibis, endangered herons and pigeons) to watch at the slow times.
How’d we do? Not bad: our guide was Captain Ann Holahan out of Islamorada (boneranger.com), and she first moved us to a channel on the edge of a flat to try for tarpon, the huge, leaping species that has excited so many anglers in the past like Zane Grey and George H.W. Bush, who had caught a 130 pound tarpon a few hundred yards from our location a few months ago. We dropped a couple of crabs over the side, and watched the sun rise… in what seems now like a very short time, my line was tight. But no jumping, just repeated high speed runs, each run peeling off a hundred feet or more of line in that, oh, so satisfying whine of the reel that signifies a BIG fish. Without the characteristic jumps, it didn’t seem like a tarpon: perhaps just a big lunker nurse shark, a relatively unexciting and very common species. But the speed was too much. Thirty-five minutes of fight later, and the brilliant silver flash of a very large permit neared the surface: 40 pounds of a beautiful fish, not a record but a very large fish, probably a tournament winner if we had been in a tournament. A Captain Ann client had boated a 60+ pounder a few months earlier: she’ll need to be careful or she’ll have to switch her reputation from bonefish to big permit. For those not familiar with Caribbean or tropical sport fish, a permit is a vertically-flattened, high-speed swimming, flats-crab-and-shrimp-feeding fish related to jacks and pompanos. It’s a sport fish, and we grabbed a very quick photo and performed a smooth release.
Later that morning, we moved to the true flats, about 2 ft of water, and my son watched and waited while small bonnethead sharks (smaller relatives of the hammerhead shark) move up the current towards our boat. A quick and very accurate cast of a shrimp in front of them and he hooked up for a wild ride. In this shallow water, the trick during that blazing initial run is to raise the rod as high as you can in the hopes of preventing the fish from wrapping your fragile line around a piece of coral in the sand. He got it up high, began to gain line, and brought a ten pound shark up next to the boat before it broke away: sharks have such sharp teeth that a thin wire leader near the hook is required to assure a catch, and this would scare off a bonefish (our primary target) and hence we were not using one. Boating a shark would therefore be a much bigger challenge and he did well to get it close. Nothing for the rest of the morning, although we saw bonefish and sharks, but none came within casting distance.
Two days later, we are out again, hunting for bonefish again, and again, skunked. We moved around, and eventually started working on some little sharks, but it was not to be, and we went home mildly frustrated but still riding a high from that permit, and happy to be outside, in the Keys, on the water, and learning a LOT about flats fishing. We’ll be back soon, we always are, and now we can add flats-fishing to our repertoire.
I hope you enjoyed this little departure from dogs and cats and their trials and triumphs; let me know if you’d like to hear more about animal behavior, science, and field experiences by clicking on the Comments button below. If you have general animal behavior questions, or questions about the science of animal behavior, send me a note, and I will try to address them in future blogs. If you have a great flats-fishing story, send it along as well.