In my first edition of The Salt, I figured that I’d take you to my backyard—the flats—and introduce you to the basic knowledge and skills needed to become an accomplished flats angler. I’ve tried to cover a bit of everything, but in subsequent columns we’ll address each one of these skills and bits of knowledge in much greater detail.
You may find that many fly fisherman comment on how challenging fishing in saltwater can be, and I would agree . . . up to a point. If fishermen can learn to become anglers, and understand the differences between the two, their odds of catching fish and their ability to deal with all the variables the salt presents will not be as challenging as expected.
A saltwater fly “fisherman” is a person who simply enjoys fishing in the saltwater ecosystem. A “fisherman” is happy just to be away from work, in the warm sun and beautiful gin-clear water, and in the presence of some of the most spectacular sport fish the world has to offer. To actually catch fish is a bonus.
A saltwater fly “angler” definitely shares these same pleasures, but there’s a lot more that goes into achieving “angler” status. A true angler has a dedication to, and passion for, the sport. These attributes are some of the many reasons anglers are able to take full advantage of most fish-catching opportunities. For hockey players to make the starting line they must work harder and play smarter than the other players on the team. In other words he earns the chance to get more ice time, and play on that first line. I believe anglers earn the numbers of fish they catch. I live by the saying “you get out of it - what you put into it.” This is true in everything we choose to do every day. Here in The Salt, I will share with you the basic information there is to actually learn about the sport of saltwater fly fishing. I think if you know what and how much there is to learn about the sport in the first place, you will then know how much more you have to learn. So let’s get started!
The most important skill for saltwater fly fishing is the cast. If you can’t put the fly where it needs to be, your odds of catching fish go down dramatically. First and utmost, understanding the importance of loop control is huge. A tight loop will cut into the wind, providing improved accuracy and increased distance, whereas a controlled, even-powered, wide loop is optimal for presenting a fly softly down wind. A Belgian (or continuous-tension) cast is great for casting heavy flies in the wind. The Belgian cast—with its side-arm backcast, elliptical motion, and overhead release—helps keep the end of the line moving, which doesn’t allow heavy flies the chance to drag your line downward toward the water.
Some other key casting techniques are also important to understand and employ. Water hauling—the loading of the rod with the tension created by the line on the water as you pick it up to make your cast—can aid in a quick delivery when time is of the essence, as it markedly increases line speed without false casting. Side casting is a useful technique for casting in heavy wind, or for presenting flies under mangroves or docks.
Casting more aggressively—speeding up your tempo by adding more line speed—will help reduce slack in the line, load the rod deeper to help increase distance, and allow you to control your line easier in the strong winds
Double hauling is an extremely important technique used to increase line speed and add power to your cast. Do yourself a big favor and learn to double haul.
PRACTICE, PRACTICE and PRACTICE some more! Yes, practice does make perfect, and in this sport the more perfect you can be, the more fish you’ll land.
Constant awareness of all the environmental variables while flats fishing is essential. Here are the major variables you need to take into account.
1. Cloudiness: Clouds shorten your visibility, so you’ll need to move your scan in closer and prepare yourself for a quick, short cast.
2. Sunlight: When good light is present, many anglers don’t take advantage of it, and don’t scan far enough out. Knowing that you can look farther out when the sun is bright will help you to see fish farther away.
3. Water Clarity: Clear water allows you to prepare for a shot as far away as you can see.
4. Current: Knowing the speed and direction of the current lets you make any necessary adjustments in presentation to ensure that the fish and the fly meet at the right time, in the right place.
5. Fish Speed: Like current, the speed at which the fish is swimming must be taken into account to determine your presentation.
6. Fish Depth: Ditto with the depth at which the fish is swimming, especially when presenting crab or shrimp patterns that must sink to fish level to be effective.
7. Tide Stage: Knowing the tide stage will let you predict what the fish will be doing and position yourself accordingly.
8. Wind Speed & Direction: Realizing how the wind direction will affect your next cast, and preparing mentally beforehand, will reduce mistakes.
9. Watching The Fish: Watch the fish at all times, especially while casting. They don’t always go where you expect them to go.
10. Hook Setting: Know the proper hook setting techniques for the different flats species.
11. Fly Presentation: Present the fly appropriately for the species of fish you are casting to during different weather conditions.
12. Fly Retrieval: Retrieve the fly in the correct manner and at the correct speed for the species you’re fishing for and the kind of critter you’re trying to imitate.
13. Line Management: Keep your fly line on the deck or in the water in a manner that will decrease the probability of tangling.
14. Knots: I don’t care if Jesus tied it, if a knot breaks it’s your own fault. If a knot your guide tied breaks, it’s still your fault for not learning how tie your own knots in the first place.
15. Rigging: Every angler should know how to connect his backing, fly line, leaders and flies with confidence. Understanding how to tie your own leaders, add your own tippets and tie on your own flies is essential.
Tackle for Saltwater
From fly lines to leader material, and fly rods to fly reels, there is no shortage of fly tackle on the market today. Choosing the appropriate gear is one aspect of the sport over which you have complete control, and which can make a huge difference in your performance on the water. Spend the time to research the best rods, reels and general tackle that are most suitable for the type of fishing to be pursued. The more research you do on each item, the more confident you’ll be that you have the right equipment to increase your odds.
One of the most important tools to a saltwater fly angler is the rod. Fly rods used on the flats range from 7- to 12-weights. Relatively lightweight, fast-action rods are very important in helping the flats angler to throw a tight loop. Fast-action rods can store more energy and efficiently transfer that energy to the fly line. That transmitted energy translates into line speed, the most important element in forming nice, tight loops.
As the line weight of a rod increases, more strength is necessary to cast it, but plenty of practice will take care of that issue. The more time you spend practice casting with a heavy rod, the more strength and muscle memory you’ll build up in your casting muscles. As you get stronger, your new-found strength will allow you to efficiently apply more power to load the rod deeper, help increase line speed, throw tight loops into the wind, and increase distance and accuracy—all of which allows you to take advantage of every possible opportunity.
Relationship of Angler & Guide
The positive interaction between guide and angler is essential for saltwater fishing success. Both learn to understand each other’s personalities, abilities, expectations and tolerances, which leads to the creation of a successful fishing team. The biggest asset any angler can bring to the flats is the ability to understand and process instructions from the guide in real time. The one thing you don’t have in saltwater fishing is time to screw around. Quickly understanding, processing and executing the instructions from the guide increase the odds of being able to take advantage of every possible opportunity.
The guide is a mentor, teacher and motivator. The greatest asset a guide has to offer is his or her ability to teach, and consistently instill confidence in the angler. Confidence is a key ingredient in putting an angler at ease, and a comfortable angler can quickly process information, and react accordingly, leading to success.
No one cares how you cast or fish except yourself, and getting down on yourself will do nothing but create frustration. Learning how to focus and control your emotions when that school of 200 triple-digit tarpon come rolling right at you is, indeed, challenging. But where else in the world can you experience something of that magnitude within a sport you love?
Capt. Bruce Chard is a Florida Keys flats guide working out of Big Pine Key, and we’re excited to have Bruce on staff as our saltwater contributing editor. E-mail him at captpermit [at] aol [dot] com or log on to www.brucechard.com