I recently asked veteran South Florida flats fishing skipper Captain Bob Branham what he considered to be the key factors in choosing an effective trip to Biscayne Bay's salty shallows. He mentioned that it's always essential to consider the tides and their stage, direction, and velocity. The last component is linked to the velocity of the current, which has more speed during full moon and new moon stages. He said, "These are known as spring tides, which not only feature the fastest current but also bring the strongest changes in tidal height both on the high tide and low tide." Captain Bob contends that the spring tide periods bring the most flats fish activity to the shallows of Biscayne Bay.
|Early morning is a great time for tailing bonefish.|
He also recommends that anglers be sure that the basic minimum water temperatures are in effect. This means seventy degrees for bonefish and around seventy-five degrees for permit. Although Bob was discussing the flats of Miami, all of these factors apply to all the flats in Florida — though some shallows may not have the same number of tides (two incoming and two outgoing per 24 hours) as Biscayne Bay.
So, a trip with Captain Bob Branham (and all adroit flats skippers) will be done in consultation with the moon and tidal tables — and his subsequent approval that his anglers will get the most optimal conditions. One more important consideration are sky features yielding excellent overhead light, which is best expressed as bright sunshine on a cloudless day as an ideal. Good lighting will be necessary to see into the water column when fish are cruising under the surface, as opposed to tailing through it.
Most inshore anglers know that bonefish can get into some very shallow water to feed. Bob's current vessel — an Islamorada 18 flats boat — is constructed and configured to get him and his inshore anglers into mere inches of water. This enables him to easily pole within close casting distance of bonefish tailing in a mere six inches of water.
His vessel has two unique features that are sure to set the prototype standards for open water flats fishing. Firstly Bob's vessel has massive integrated spray rails which keeps the boat's interior and its' occupants dry even when plowing through the sizeable waves that Biscayne Bay can generate. The second feature is a removable forward casting platform whose entire mesh enclosure creates a massive stripping basket with a back bar and seat construction that allows you to sit "at the ready." Of course this device is for flyfishers that need or appreciate an elevated platform with seated resting features and line pile control fused into one constructed entity.
We both took time out of our busy schedules to fish one August day featuring good tides and as it turned out, fair skies dimpled with small (but not badly sun-obstructing) cotton candy clouds. Bob was glad to accommodate my choice of using light tackle. His spinning equipment for his light tacklers is indeed instructive. While Bob employs traditional ten-pound monofilament line on his spinning reels, he has modified spinning tackle tradition and moved to longer rods of 7 feet 6 inches and even more. Bob has found, as do I, that all things being equal, longer rods afford longer casts.
Bob's Islamorada 18 features a large livewell that we'd be sure to make full use of on our trip by filling it with live shrimp for bonefish and live crabs for permit.
The appointed day arrived and I met him at his usual boat ramp at Crandon Park Marina, only minutes away from downtown Miami via the Rickenbacker Causeway. The beauty of fishing with Bob in his home waters is that you can literally be fishing five minutes from the dock if need be. By mutual design, our trip to the flats was further away, taking about twenty minutes.
Since we were starting out on the last half of the falling tide, our immediate target would be tailing bonefish. Captain Bob said, "The beauty of fishing for tailers is that hunting for them is not dependent on overhead light to see into the water column. All you need to do is watch the surface film itself to be 'broken' with protruding tails, dorsal fins, or pushes." I mentioned to him that I often take off my polarized glasses to force me to focus my eyes on the water, not in it.
|Since permit often cruise the deeper flats, sunny days are best for spotting them.|
As we neared our flat, Bob cut his engine and mounted the tower to pole us in the remaining hundred or so feet. As he eased into inches of water, Bob positioned the direction and approach angle of his skiff to minimize the hull slap of the small wavelets generated by a light easterly wind — a nice touch!
Within minutes, Bob spotted a small school of tailing bonefish from atop his poling tower. He called out their position, "One o' clock, 80 feet out; moving to the left." I quickly spotted the fish, perhaps a pod of half dozen gray ghosts moving along and popping up to graze on the shelled creatures they found on the bottom. Their direction indicated that they were following the tide off the flat.
Bob adjusted his poling "track" to intercept the school and he closed in. I jiggled my rod tip to get a final sense of the weight of the live shrimp and tiny split shot at the end of the line. Bob was soon within thirty feet of the fish. I feathered my cast and the shrimp landed with the tiniest splash about five feet in front of the lead fish. Within moments, two fish eased over to the spot my shrimp was laying. One of the fishes' dorsal fins flicked and his tail came out of the water.
Both of us knew this was the clear sign of a "take" and as my line tightened, I struck hard. The fish ran about one hundred yards on its' first run and then made two shorter runs before we had it along the boat side. It was a fine bonefish of about eight pounds, which we posed for some photos. After we released the silver battler, we saw a few more tailers, but the tide was playing out.
Bob said that we should pick up and run south for about forty minutes to be on time for the beginning of the incoming tide and hopefully, some big permit. Our first spot was to be a rocky shoreline on the ocean side of Elliot Key, which is about halfway between the cities of Miami and Homestead.
Since we were looking for a glorious game fish that could push forty pounds, we were in a deeper poling depth of perhaps four feet. It took us about an hour, but we finally saw a big fish dead-ahead in the twelve o' clock position coming straight at us. I made a good cast about eight feet in front of the fish, giving it a longer "lead" so the crab could sink to the permits' swimming depth. There was no need. The fish swam quickly upwards, inhaled the crab, and was running well-hooked against my rod in a matter of seconds.
Our battle was much longer and Captain Bob needed to fire up the engine and give chase. In a see-saw battle that lasted almost 45 minutes, we finally landed the fish. It had a strange shape on its dorsal ridge. And this made its head even huger looking. We both estimated the fish at over 30 pounds. Again, we took lots of pictures.
During the remainder of the morning, we caught another bonefish out of a school of 50 fish and lost another big permit to the sea fans. When we called it a day, it was gratifying to see such careful planning and efficient team work between guide and angler produce such good results.