Hurricane Irma’s dark clouds that did so much damage to the Florida Keys a year ago had a bit of a silver lining.
The storm’s winds cleaned out Florida Bay, resulting in some of the best flats fishing for bonefish and permit in years.
Capt. Richard Stanczyk of Islamorada had a recent trip where his anglers caught and released 11 bonefish in less than three hours. He’s been averaging three bonefish releases for a three-hour afternoon trip, along with the occasional permit, a prized sport fish that had seemingly disappeared from the bay.
“When I take people bonefishing, I used to tell them, ‘I guarantee you one thing: a beautiful sunset.’ Now I can almost guarantee them a bonefish,” Stanczyk says.
Stanczyk, 73, who owns Bud N’ Mary’s Marina, says he doesn’t have any scientific evidence of how Irma revitalized the flats and the bonefishing. But he does have 41 years of experience fishing what is known as the back country of the Keys.
“Bonefishing was my life,” Stanczyk says. “About 15, 16 years ago, the habitat began to change.”
According to Stanczyk, suspended algae darkened the water and prevented sunlight from reaching the bottom and stimulating the growth of sea grass. As the sea grass died, it prompted the growth of different types of more noxious algae.
Instead of acres of lush grass flats, Stanczyk says there was a buildup of toxins that made the bottom look like an old automobile.
“There was like rust on the bay bottom,” he says. “Irma churned up everything. After Irma, the flats were really beautiful.
“Since Irma, I’ve caught 18 permit. Prior to Irma, I never caught a permit. After Irma, we had an explosion of blue crabs. They would get to the baits before the fish. Those two things, permit and blue crabs, are like the canary in the mineshaft. Something’s different.”
When he first came to Islamorada in the 1970s, Stanczyk seldom saw more than a handful of boats in the back country and there weren’t a lot of flats guides. Those numbers have increased dramatically, which he says has changed the behavior of the Keys’ wary bonefish.
Bonefish that used to feed on flats with six inches of water now venture onto flats with two or three feet of water, making them harder to see. For 20 years, Stanczyk only fly-fished for bonefish. He’d use a push pole to propel his skiff across a shallow flat and look for tailing fish — when a bonefish dips its head to feed on shrimp and other crustaceans, its tail comes out of the water — or swimming fish, which appeared as shadows in the clear, clean water.
There are sharp-eyed backcountry guides who still pole across flats for bonefish, but at this stage of his life, Stanczyk prefers a bonefishing technique known as dead-boating.
“Instead of me hunting them down, I let them find me,”Stanczyk says.
Depending on the tide and wind — ideally, the wind and the current are moving in the same direction — he’ll ease his skiff onto the part of a flat where he believes the bonefish will be, stick his push pole in the soft bottom and secure the boat to the pole with a rope.
When the boat is positioned exactly where he wants it, Stanczyk baits two to four spinning outfits with live shrimp and casts them to specific spots on the flat where he expects bonefish to show up.
Think of a road map with one route onto and off the flat. Stanczyk, who has the map of the flat in his head, stakes his boat near that route. If the conditions are right, the bonefish will travel that route, find the shrimp and provide the thrill of zinging a hundred or more yards of line off the reel on their initial run.
Among Stanczyk’s other keys to dead-boating for bonefish is putting the bait on an edge with grass and sand, which makes it easier for the fish to find the shrimp by sight and scent. He recommends using light spinning outfits with 12-pound mono filament line.
“You don’t want to over-tackle bonefish,” Stanczyk says. “It takes away the excitement, the challenge and the fun.”
An egg sinker weighing an eighth to half an ounce, depending on the strength of the current, is placed above a swivel tied to 12 to 18 inches of 12- to 20-pound leader material. Stanczyk completes the rig with a size 3/0 modified circle hook, which hooks a fish in the corner of the mouth. A smaller hook could be swallowed by a bonefish.
Stanczyk baits the hook by breaking off the tail of a shrimp and threading on the shrimp, starting at the tail end, so the entire hook is concealed.
After casting out the shrimp, he puts the spinning outfitsin rod-holders. Then it’s a matter of watching the rod tips for movement.
“What you’re really watching is the bonefish trying to pickup the shrimp,” Stanczyk says. “As he’s nosing down on your bait, he’s sending you a signal. Pick up the rod, but don’t spook him.
“When he takes the shrimp, reel, don’t jerk. If he’s not there, stop reeling. He’ll pick it back up. If he is there, he’s going to be off and running. Let him make his first run, because you’re not going to stop him.”
After another run or two, the bonefish will tire. Then it can be reeled to the boat, where the hook can be removed and the fish safely returned to its much-improved home.
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