FLATS FISHING 101
by Jon Covich

Last week I was talking to people about Cuba before the start of a showing of this year’s Fly Fishing Film Festival. A father and son were interested in going on a trip, but had questions about if they could cast far enough, etc. This recent discussion is one that I have had many times with people. I really think there are some misconceptions about what you need to be able to do in order to catch fish on the flats. The truth is, there are a zillion people more experienced at this than I am. But, these are some observations that in my fishing have seemed to work.

Let me start by saying that although some generalities exist between all saltwater destinations, other things will vary. I really believe that the best thing you can do immediately upon meeting your guide, is to talk to him about your experience level. Tell him what you need help with. And, tell him what you want to fish for and how.  And for sure, listen to your guide, and ask questions in between fish to make sure you are doing things correctly. 

I cannot emphasize enough how important casting practice is before fishing saltwater flats. Most trips to exotic destinations are expensive, and do not come along every day. Be prepared for success. How do you do that? Cast for 15 or 20 minutes every couple of days. Work at lengthening your casts so that with 8-12 weight rods you can comfortably cast 30-70 feet. Even longer is better if you can do it. Then, work on accuracy. Cast to hoops or garbage can lids, whatever you have, at different differences. And finally, practice casting quickly, with accuracy. This is crucially important for success. To do this, pull as much line off your reel as you can comfortably cast. Organize your line at your side, then hold your yarn or fly in your non-casting hand with about 15’ of leader and fly line extending out the tip of the rod. Drop the fly and cast simultaneously, trying to land your fly near your target with a maximum of two false casts.

One extremely helpful habit to get in to is pointing your rod to the area that you think the guide is referring to when he calls out seeing a fish. When you point the rod, from his vantage point on the poling platform he can then say “a little more right, a little more….” and suddenly you will see the fish.

BONEFISH:

Of the three big Flats species, Bonefish are generally the most plentiful and easiest to catch. That said, doing things well makes sure you catch the spooky big ones, or the tailer you spot at 70’.

  • Always be ready to cast, whether wading or fishing from the skiff. Fly in hand, flyline organized
  •  [endif]Listen to your guide, but in general terms, lead your fish if it is moving, and lead longer when the water is flat or very shallow. With tailing fish, a fly should be placed very close to the nose of the fish.
  • Stripping technique will vary, so listen to your guide. I like to make a long strip when fish are within 7 or 8’ of my fly to get their attention, and then shorter jerkier strips as they follow the fly.
  • When you think the fish has eaten the fly, strip long. This is the best way to think of setting the hook. If the fish did eat, the hooks sets, and if not you will generally attract the attention of it or another fish with that long strip. Do not lift the rod to set the hook!
  • Once you know the fish is hooked, raise the rod, and hold your line hand away from the rod butt and reel to clear the line.

PERMIT:

OK, let’s not be intimidated here!! Permit are renowned for their finicky, spooky demeanors, and coveted by fly anglers. Many of us get serious buck-fever when we actually have the chance to cast to one of these fish. Be prepared and success levels will rise. Remember that your goal is to find a Permit willing to eat the fly. Many are not. But having your fly placed quickly and accurately to these fish gives you the best chance for success. When a big Permit follows your fly within 10’ of the boat, and then turns and turbos off the flat at 50mph, take a deep breath, laugh, and know that this is often the nature of the beast.

  • As with Bonefish, be prepared to cast quickly. Longer casts are almost always better for Permit because they so often spook once they have seen the boat.
  • Again, listen to your guide, but lead Permit as well when they are moving, and land the fly close and softly when you find a tailer.
  • When casting to fish that are crossing your path, lead the fish but never land the fly short. Make sure to cast long, and then strip the fly in to the path of the fish.
  • Stripping techniques vary between location and guide preference, but generally slow, even strips are effective.

TARPON:

Tarpon are simply awesome fish. They are generally very willing to eat a fly, they grow big, and they jump and fight hard. That said, they can be hard to land. The first 20 seconds of a Tarpon fight is mayhem, often resembling the proverbial goat-rope. With things done correctly in those first 20 seconds or so, and the fish on the reel, your chances of landing the fish rise markedly.

  • Sorry to be repetitive, but again be prepared to cast, and to cast quickly and long. Tarpon often seem to be at the edge of our casting range. And, with a long cast to a school of fish, it is not uncommon to have a grab with no hookup, then have another fish eat, jump, and throw the fly, only to have a third grab it once it lands!
  • Lead the fish, but be prepared to start stripping immediately. Again, long even strips seem very effective.
  • DO NOT raise the rod to set the hook! When the fish eats, keep the rod down, hold the line tight, and then strip set. There are different schools of thought here. Some people advocate strip setting with the line hand, AND in pulling the rod away from the fish simultaneously. Others say strip set and keep doing it  as many times as you can before the fish decides to leave town.
  • Tarpon will then always jump, and take off. Try your best to “bow to the fish” when it jumps, and pay special attention to your line jumping off the deck of the boat as the fish runs. Clear your line carefully, get the fish on the reel, and do battle!
  • The longer you fight a Tarpon, the more chance you have of losing it, and the more tired you will get. Fight hard and constantly. Fight with the butt of the rod, changing direction often to keep the fish off balance.