Flats fishing can be one of the most rewarding forms of fly fishing. Or it can be completely frustrating. Read below to learn about behaviors to use when you wish to scare off every fish on any flat, and of course the antidote for such foolish behavior. Let’s start with stalking mistakes.
If you can see them, you should assume they can see you, too. Flats fish can see bright clothing, especially brightly colored shirts or hats. My friend Barry Kent was disgusted with himself one day while we were fishing together, saying his white hat had spooked several fish. Wear subdued earth tones to avoid becoming a neon DANGER sign to your quarry.
Technical clothing printed with computer enhanced images taken from underwater photographs is available. Flats camo! If you make it harder to see you, you ought to get more good shots at fish.
Fish in shallow water respond negatively to noise, even the human voice. For example, on a picture-perfect morning, I was wading with a friend. We were surrounded by tailing redfish in water less than knee deep. My friend decided he needed to tell me something, even though he was 100 yards away. After he shouted over to me, every tail in the vicinity immediately disappeared.
Hopefully it’s obvious that bumping the inside of a boat, wave slap on the hull, and other sounds that alert the fish to your presence will not help you increase your catch rate.
If you want more shots at fish while on the flats, conduct yourself as though you are stalking wary wild animals that are intent on surviving.
“He who hesitates is lost.” Flats fishing proves this true. If you hesitate once the fish is in casting range, the fish either moves too close and sees you, or it moves away and you can’t reach it. It’s better to do something– anything – and learn from your mistake than to simply stand there wondering what to do and let the opportunity disappear.
I’m often asked, “How far will I need to cast?” For most flats fishing, speed and accuracy of delivery will be more important than distance. Fifty feet, on target and right now, will usually do the trick.
Now for the all-too-common casting mistakes. These happen all the time, even to accomplished anglers.
The Slow Delivery
The fisherman makes five or six false casts to deliver a fly 35 feet. The fish sees all the motion and flees. Again, assume that if you can see the fish, the fish can also see you. One of the things that attracts a fisherman’s eye to the fish is its movement. It works both ways, since fish are keyed to look for movement, too. A waving rod, a fly line passing overhead, a fisherman’s arms flailing wildly, all these things are guaranteed to spook skinny water fish.
Poor casters often use body English when struggling, trying for a little more distance. They rock the boat when doing this. When the boat rocks, waves move out from it to the fish. The fish are very sensitive to changes in pressure and feel these waves, which immediately make them suspicious.
Do NOT rock the boat when casting, or hookups will be rare occurrences.
If you make a cast that is too short the fish will never see your fly. If you make a cast that’s too long several results can happen, none of which lead to a hookup.
In extreme cases, the fish sees your fly line. This won’t bother fish that don’t see many fishermen, but pressured fish won’t wait around for an explanation.
A cast made slightly too long causes the fly to approach the fish. Again, in lightly fished waters this may work. In heavily fished waters you’ll get a good view of the fish’s tail waving goodbye. Fish don’t expect to see a minnow, shrimp, crab, or whatever attacking them. They don’t like it.
If you cast too far into a school of fish, you will line the fish on the school’s edge, spooking them. One spooked fish leads to a spooked school. When casting to a school, work the edges. There’s nothing like a good, accurate cast!
Another casting flaw is the splashdown. This cast is just a little too accurate. You hit the fish on the head (or other body part) with your fly. In lightly fished areas or in deeper water this actually works sometimes, but with heavily pressured fish in the shallow stuff you have a blown opportunity.
The opposite of the splashdown occurs when you lead the fish too far. Optimum lead distance varies depending on the species of fish, how fast it’s swimming, the depth of the water, the current, and other factors, but if you lead the fish too far it will not see your fly. Leading a fish too far and then moving the fly immediately doesn’t work. A too-far lead can still work, IF you leave the fly there and wait to see how the scene plays out. “Bad” casts can work if you’re patient.
Normally (where I do most of my fishing, at least), when you throw to a cruising fish, you want to anticipate exactly where the fish will go (never an easy task), put your fly directly in its path, and leave the fly there until the fish is close enough to see it when you move it.
The only way you can minimize casting sins is to become a more proficient caster. Never mind worrying about how far you can cast. Speed and accuracy are all-important in most flats situations. Get a few lids from five-gallon buckets, set them on a lawn at various distances, and practice hitting them in sequence with only one or two false casts in all kinds of wind and weather conditions. Good casters will always catch more fish than mediocre ones.
Now for a discussion of some presentation mistakes.
Using the Rod to Manipulate the Fly
This one is heartbreaking. You’ve stalked the fish successfully. You’ve made a good cast. The fish saw and took the fly, but you cannot hook him because your rod is out of position, with slack in your line.
In saltwater fishing, when you manipulate the fly, the rod tip should be on or under the surface of the water, the rod should be pointing directly at the fly, and with only one major exception (the two hand retrieve popular with striper, bluefish, and barracuda fishermen) all fly manipulation should be done with the line hand.
Setting the Hook Before You Feel the Fish
You see the fish take the fly (or even worse, you strike just before the fish takes the fly!) and in your excitement you strike. The fly invariably pops out of the fish’s mouth.
Using the Rod to Set the Hook
This is another technique that breaks hearts. You’ve done everything right. The fish sees and takes the fly. You respond by lifting the rod tip- the trout strike! Although this sometimes works, usually the fly is pulled from the fish and it noisily flies out of the water, scaring the fish. If the hook does stick the fish, too little force is applied, and the fish shakes it a short way into the fight.
When a fish takes the fly, wait until you feel pressure, then strike by tugging sharply with the line hand (the left hand for a right-handed fisherman). Unless you’re fishing for tarpon, this will be sufficient. If the fly pops out of the fish’s mouth, it’s only a few inches away from the fish. The fish can (and often will) move to the fly and take it again. Once the fish is hooked, then and only then should you raise the rod and try to clear the line to the reel.
Not Listening to the Guide’s Advice
One time I had a good angler out with me. A school of about 60 redfish approached the skiff from the twelve o’clock position. They were moving quickly and before the angler could respond they were all around us. My angler tried to present his fly to the fish who were already aware of our presence.
In the meantime, another wave of fish was coming toward us. I wanted him to ignore the fish already around us and cast to the approaching fish, still unaware of our presence. He just could not ignore the fish around the boat. Three more waves of 50 to 60 fish each came, at least 200 fish in all. My fisherman never got a strike because he ignored my frantic instructions and persisted in casting to already-spooked fish.
It doesn’t matter if your guide is a hired professional or one of your fishing buddies. In a flats boat he will usually have better visibility because he stands up on a poling tower. He should be able to see what’s happening better than you can. Ignore their instruction at your own peril.
No one catches every fish, or even one out of every ten fish. Have a sense of humor about your learning process (which after all never stops), use every mistake you make to increase your knowledge, try to avoid the Deadly Flats Fishing Mistakes elucidated here, and you’ll have more fun and more success when out fly fishing on the flats.