Searching for Bonefish in Biscayne Bay

Dan Dow / Bonefish and Tarpon Trust

Forget the Bahamas and the Florida Keys—the world's best fishing is happening much closer than you think.

A bonefish is a silver phantom, difficult to spot and devilish to catch. It’s a creature that spooks easily and that, once hooked (should an angler be so lucky), makes runs so long and violent, you’d think it was shot out of a rocket launcher. It fights like a beast. Manage to haul a four-pounder up to the boat and it’s shocking to find it doesn’t weigh 20.

The bonefish has been called the perfect game fish. One of its early converts, the novelist and outdoorsman Zane Grey, declared it “the fullest, the most difficult, the strangest and most thrilling” prize he’d ever reeled in. The rhapsodies keep coming—more than ever now, as improvements in rods and techniques have (slightly) lowered the bar to entry. The last few years, a team of bonefishing swashbucklers that includes news anchor Tom Brokaw, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and actor Michael Keaton has even been stalking its quarry of choice on the TV show Buccaneers & Bones. It’s official: This is an A-list fish.

Fortunately for fishermen, bonefish feeding grounds tend to resemble paradise. The so-called Albula vulpes haunts the inshore waters of the Florida Keys and the Bahamas, the Seychelles and South Pacific. But it also cruises Miami’s Biscayne Bay. In fact, the bonefishing is arguably better here than in the Lower Keys. The species has been in decline in both U.S. regions. The exact reason is unclear, but experts point to commercial netting in the fish’s deepwater spawning grounds near Cuba and a 2010 cold front that decimated South Florida marine life. By some counts, the bonefish population around Islamorada­, Florida (the center of the bonefish world, to many enthusiasts), is down as much as 80 percent, compared with 40 percent in Biscayne Bay.

All the more reason to call up Captain Bob Branham, owner of South Florida Flats Fishing, who’s guided some of the world’s top bonefishing anglers over the course of his 35-year career. A big name in fishing, he’s a four-time winner of Islamorada’s spring and fall bonefishing tournaments. Somewhat anomalously, though, he lives two hours up the coast, in Fort Lauderdale. And the lively, sandy shallows of Biscayne Bay are his specialty.

We set off one morning from Key Biscayne’s Crandon Park Marina, about a 15-minute drive from downtown Miami. The marina is a launching point for both flats fishing (the little skiffs that specialize in bonefish) and bigger offshore boats (which take anglers out for mahimahi, marlin and other big fish). The latter can be more beginner-friendly because the big boats often troll, leaving lines in the water until something bites. The delicate art of flats fishing tends to attract more connoisseurs.

Branham—in an old chambray shirt and khakis, his mustache smeared with sunblock—motors us into Bis­cayne National Park, past the curious old Stiltsville over­water vacation houses and through a stretch where many Miami Vice scenes were filmed. The glittering sky­line recedes as we skim over low beds of waving green turtle grass. Less than a half hour after we had gotten underway, Bran­ham cuts the engine and mounts a platform in the stern and propels us by means of an enormous graphite pole.

With its shallow draft, his 18-foot skiff is built for flats fishing and not much else. (Many flats fishermen also pursue tarpon and permit fish; landing all three on a single trip, especially using flies, is a major belt-notch.) The clear water at points is only knee-deep, and marine life is easy to see under the sun: a cruising lemon shark, a chocolate-toned stingray. Bonefish sometimes trail rays, in hopes of poaching prey. But not this time.

Fly casting for bonefish, as I’m doing, perhaps hubristically, is more challenging than using bait. “That’s part of the allure,” Branham muses. “You’ve got to do everything right—and be lucky. If you’re real, real lucky, they’ll let you do a couple of things wrong.”

The weather, at least, seems to be on our side, and at our second stop Bran­ham points out a dozen or so ghostly figures approaching the boat: bonefish. Roused to action, I try to estimate how much line I can get out. For someone who’s never had to cast to fish visibly on the move, the pressure seems too much—as if throwing a buttonhook to a receiver who can’t see the ball coming.

By the time I’m ready to toss my line, the bonefish are about 30 feet away, just about as near as one can hope. I make a reasonable cast, then watch, transfixed, as one of the fish veers to examine it. A pucker in the water and my heart lurches—sadly, no take. “They’re gone,” Branham says flatly. The fish’s approach had been delicate, like a kiss; it had called for gentle coaxing, and despite my guide’s warning, I’d struck it like a trout—a classic tell of a bonefishing rookie.

Branham poles us through more boatless flats, looking like a gondolier wearing white New Balance sneakers. Clouds roll in, which is a problem. If you can’t see these finicky fish, you can’t entice them. Reduced mostly to scanning for tails poking up through the surface, Branham gives me casting tips. We start chatting. Before he started trying to take weekends off, he’d put in 280 fishing days a year—including 90 in a row once.

It’s noon now. The sun reappears; we see a small group of boaters snorkeling and splashing in some prime flats. “Goobers,” Branham says, wondering how many bonefish they’ve scared off.

As we motor to another flat, dark clouds threaten. The GPS confirms a storm is coming. Then, bonefish! “A whole wad of ’em,” Branham announces, about 80 feet away. The jitters come on again as Branham pulls around so I’m not casting into the wind. I fumble in my haste, but manage to get a fly over the passing school.

Landing it a little more in front, Branham tells me later, might have sealed it. One fish had a go—and with more authority than the first one—but I do not hook it. For the first time, though, Branham gets animated. “That’s what we live for,” he says, as we prepare to beat the incoming lightning back to Miami.

Even with nothing to show for my half day, I have an inkling of what he means. A person used to getting an immediate result might not. But as the saying goes: If it were easy, everyone would do it.