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Bonefish - a great Florida game fish

As I See It

Friday, May 28, 2010

Being a lifelong resident of the Sunshine State and the current chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, one of the things that make me the proudest is that Florida is acknowledged as the "Fishing Capital of the World."

A big reason for this recognition is that our coastal waters teem with so many popular game fishes, including snook, tarpon, marlin, redfish, and one of my special favorites: bonefish.

South Florida is one of the few places in the country where anglers can enjoy fishing for bonefish.  The shallow, saltwater flats of Biscayne Bay and the Florida Keys are famous for trophy-sized bonefish catches, and some people call bonefish the "gray ghosts of the flats," because they are quick and crafty and a challenge to catch.

The University of Miami recently studied the economic impact of bonefish and found that a single fish in the Florida Keys is valued to be worth $3,500 each year.  Since bonefish can live more than 20 years, that fish can be worth about $75,000 to Florida's economy over its lifespan.

Fortunately, most bonefish anglers understand the importance and value of this species as a game fish in Florida.  That's why they usually release the bonefish they catch so that others can enjoy catching it again and again, year after year.

That's also why bonefish have been protected in Florida since 1988, when its commercial harvest and sale was prohibited and a daily recreational bag limit per angler of one bonefish 18 inches or greater in fork length was established.  And, it's why my commission colleagues and I recently agreed to implement new rules that will provide more protection for bonefish to help preserve Florida's valuable bonefish resource.

The newly approved regulations go a step further to protect bonefish by including all species of bonefish in our management rules to help ensure they are all protected in Florida waters, extending our bonefish regulations into adjacent federal waters to aid enforcement and enhance bonefish protection, and requiring bonefish to be landed in whole condition to help officers in the field identify bonefish and aid in enforcement of bag and size limits.

This action was our way of emphasizing how important the bonefish fishery is to Florida anglers, visitors and South Florida's recreational fishing industry.  These regulations also help us maintain a healthy and sustainable population of bonefish in Florida for everyone to enjoy.

Several kinds of bonefish can be found in Florida waters, but anglers mostly catch the common bonefish.  Not much is known about other species of bonefish, but bigeye bonefish have been seen in Florida waters as juveniles and leave before they become fully grown.  Our research staff is now working in partnership with the Bonefish & Tarpon Trust to identify and assess juvenile bonefish habitats in South Florida.

Bonefish become adults by the age of 3-4 years, when they are about a foot and a half in length and they can grow up to 3 feet long and weigh 15 pounds.  Peak bonefish season usually runs from March through October, but they can be caught pretty much anytime in the Keys.  Bonefish are thought to spawn in deep water or offshore from November through May.

Anglers often spot bonefish "tailing" on the flats, which means they have their head down looking on the bottom for food to eat, leaving their tail out of the water.  Anglers often like to use a pole to quietly push their boat or carefully wade through shallow sand flats where bonefish are usually found, and they prefer to use live crabs and shrimp or artificial lures and flies to attract bonefish.

It's also important to cast your line just right, because you can spook a bonefish if you cast too close to it, but if you cast too far from the fish, it might not see your bait or lure.  And if you're skillful enough to capture your prey, always remember to carefully handle and release the fish if you decide not to keep it to help ensure its survival upon release.

So the next chance you get, grab your line and gear, head to the flats, and see if you can track down a "gray ghost," truly one of Florida's wonderful treasures.

Visit the FWC's Bonefish page.



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