If you’ve had the same angling partner(s) for a while, you probably instinctively know right where he’s looking when he says 11 o’clock, 50ft, and if you’re really used to fishing together, you can probably tell exactly where he’s looking just by the sound of his voice. But when you’re fishing with a new partner or client, being on the same page in terms of casting distance can be a challenge. Often before any real fishing has begun, I like to pick out a stick or pothole within casting range and ask how far to that particular spot, it’s a great way to get a good feel for how you and your guide/partner perceive distance. The first shot you get could be your best chance of the day, take the time to be prepared. Here are a few other tips from Deneki Outdoors on how to make sure you’re on the same page as your guide.
I’m lucky to get to fish with a variety of guides, all of different bents and trajectories even if we do have a common language. This past week I fished with Robb Kessler, who’s been guiding in Key West now for a decade. He comes from a long career on the Madison River, where he spends four or five months a year. Guide talk being what it is, we eventually talked about fish pressure and resource protection.
With a couple of my old clients, I shared the sentiment that if we caught a fish in a location, we could move on and fish somewhere else. It was always acknowledged with irony, since we knew staying where we were was an easy win. But we’d also proved our point, and we didn’t want to punish the fish there. Besides, I was much too anxious to want to see new (and even find) new spots, see how far we could take a little bit of success.
Does that sound counterproductive? Does that mean we’ll catch fewer fish?
In the short run, yes. In the long run, definitely not.
“I’ve seen many flats ruined by guides who sat on them day after day,” I mentioned to Rob. “Forcing yourself to move not only teaches you to find fish, it means you can come back to that spot where you just caught a fish tomorrow–or better yet the day after tomorrow–and catch a fish just as easily. The added benefit is that you get to see a lot of country.”
Rob pointed out that guides sometimes need to fish the same spots on consecutive days/tides in order to keep clients in fish. I concurred. You do what you gotta do. I did the same when I guided. But I think we both agreed that working to plan made a lot of sense. And planning not just for tomorrow but for next month and next year actually means you will catch more fish in the long run.
Suddenly faced with the prospect of having to catch a nice bonefish for the camera(s) this week, I began thinking What’s my strategy?
I thought back to the mid-1980s when I had to catch a bonefish for the Key West aquarium and what I did then: even though it was the middle of December and water temps were in the low 70s, I knew I could hit the outgoing tide on Marvin Key’s ancient flats and lure some big bones off the reef with the smell of shrimp. How did I learn that? One of my first charters, who was desperate to catch a fish on cold day, inspired me to try something I’d never tried before. It was just a theory–that it wasn’t always about the actual water temperature that made fish appear, but relative water temperature. I still include that in all of my assumptions about finding fish.
At least 50% of what I know about fly fishing in saltwater derived from baitfishing in saltwater. I probably saw 1000 permit landed on live crabs before I ever saw one caught on fly. So chunking smelly heads and tails into the outgoing tide isn’t a repugnant thought. It’s just that it takes time away from doing what I love best, which is the hard stuff.
So please, take your picture and let’s get on with it.
Because fly placement is critical, it’s probably more important to see permit than it is to see any other flats species you’ll stalk.
Contrary to rumor, permit are not harder to see than other fish; they are just different. Standard advice is to look for the darkest part of the fish — their coal-black, forked tails. This is especially true when trying to spot smaller permit. But the longer you pursue permit, the more you will begin to look for the whole fish. Permit are generally larger than bonefish; yet they typically frequent darker-bottom flats and don’t cast a telltale shadow as often.
Head-on, however, the dark band that runs down their back from just behind their head to their tail is a dead giveaway. This is why a permit can seem to suddenly appear and then disappear as he first turns toward and then sideways to the angler. Also, despite previously published claims to the contrary, permit do in fact mud, and their muds are especially visible when they hold in current on dark, grassy bottoms or move across the current on a favorite flat, leaving short “smoke trails” each time they dig into the bottom.
“Nervous water” is a giveaway too, especially places where permit are comfortable high up on a flat. Disturbances on the surface may not always be made by permit–but sharks and rays can both have permit following them, so any nervous water is worth checking out.
And of course you’ll sometimes see a permit tail or tail tip, especially when a permit is nose-down in shallow water. On especially calm days, permit tail tips often pop up when the fish are “floating” or hanging in current, as they look for crabs and shrimp on the surface.
It is often true that you don’t want bonefish or especially tarpon to see the fly until they stumble across it. If you use the same strategy with a sinking fly for permit, such as the standard Merkin, it will do more to frighten them than stimulate their feeding behavior. After all, crabs don’t jump up off the bottom when they see a 30-pound permit moseying toward them.
Try to drop the fly far enough away from the fish that the splash will not spook it but close enough that it will first notice the fly when the pattern drops through the water column. This will vary from 2 to 15 feet, depending on the depth and clarity of the water, the speed at which the fish is moving, and whether it is actively feeding or tailing. If you are tempting fish with a floating fly or shrimp-type streamer, which are usually stripped, this rule does not hold, as you typically want the fish to see the fly only after it has been in the water for a second or two. The all-time permit champ, Del Brown, whom I had the pleasure of guiding for almost 200 days over the years, used to say that he threw the fly “right at the fish.” He usually finished by adding, “But I always miss by at least a foot or two.”
It’s been only weeks since the last of the baitfish populations pushed out of south Florida. With them went some fairly predictable fall tarpon fishing. But now we are only weeks away from the months when tarpon begin responding to warm, calm winter days by moving up into the rivers and basins of the Everglades and other sheltered inshore areas.
Some of the best tarpon fishing you can do happens in January, February and March in Florida. It’s not well-known or well-understood, but the winter fishery is something to behold if you get the timing right and know where to look. We’ll be publishing some tips on winter fishing over the next few months. Here’s one to start:
When looking for winter tarpon, think dark bottom and no wind. Dark bottom–be it the tannic sand of the Ten Thousand Islands basins or the long dark turtlegrass in water that is 10 feet deep or so in the Keys–holds heat. And the absence of wind brings tarpon closer to the surface; there are different theories for this, but my favorite has to do with the fact that wind (and cold) oxygenate water and enable a tarpon to stay deep without rolling.
So to begin your search for winter tarpon–assuming you don’t know the locations they’ve preferred historically–start by looking near deeper water or pockets in basins in about 10 feet of water. And look in on calm days with bright skies so that you can see fish that are sometimes laid up 8 feet below the surface. You may have a hard time getting the fly down to them without an intermediate line, but don’t worry–they’ll come up. And if the weather has been calm and hot for a few days, don’t be surprised to see some very big fish lollygagging right near the surface.
Wired to Fish just published these instructions on how to tie a high-breaking-strength knot that doesn’t cinch down or over-tighten–ideal for braided line and fluoro.
I was schooled in fishing for laid-up tarpon back in the late eighties, and the first thought anyone had about how to get a tarpon to eat a floating fly back then involved throwing a crab or floating minnow imitation. They both worked (especially the deer-hair “crab”). But it’s easy to get locked into a pattern, and as the fish saw more of these flies, they seemed to get a bit harder to feed. Enter the monster mullet fly.
A client, Fitz Coker, showed up one day with mullet-gray streamer pattern that was about eight inches long and was tied–as he liked to say–”with half a chicken.” Anyone who watched the progression of tarpon flies toward smaller and smaller sizes would have done what I did: I laughed. But that giant mullet fly–when thrown into a line of big tarpon looking to the surface in the early morning–made them absolutely nuts. They had to eat it. I’ve seen the same thing happen when throwing flies that are near double the standard size to redfish and bonefish.
So don’t rule out the truly outsized fly. And never assume that a large fly will always scare the fish. Especially if you’re in the mood to try something different.
Hell’s Bay just posted this story from the 1960s by Chico Fernandez about dropping 7-inch barracuda flies into pods of 40-pound fish after drifting in silently in a skiff.
“But when one of more of these big cudas parted from the pack and push a big fast wake in the direction of your fly the level of excitement in the boat was tremendous. And if he took the fly, it was generally a big explosion on the surface, followed by a one second blurred as you cleared the fly line.”
We recently spent about two hours with Chico talking about canoes and poling for snook and can’t wait to share some of his knowledge on that subject.