I finally saw what my friend saw -a big bonefish mudding and tailing, seeming to beg for the fly. I made a roll cast, then a backcast, and as I confidently started my forward cast to deliver the fly, a gobstopper of knotted line slammed into the stripping guide, causing the fly to drop 20 feet short of the magnificent fish.
I panicked and fumbled with the mess of line as I watched the fish turn and slowly come my way. I felt as though I was hyperventilating-or maybe, I wasn't breathing at all. I shook the tangle; I tried to cast. My friend, as excited as I was, said "Just do anything, roll cast, throw it at him, he will eat anything."
It was too late to grab another rod, and too late to fix the tangle. Instead, I watched the monstrous bonefish swim within 10 feet of the boat, then spook. I felt nauseated; I hung my head and glared at the tangle in the bottom of the boat. I had seen this happen innumerable times to my clients, and I knew better. By not paying attention to my fly line, I had lost a great opportunity to catch a 12-pound-plus bonefish. As I sat down to fiddle with the knot, another fish tailed close to the boat.
What's the lesson I forgot? That line control in a flats boat is arguably the most important factor in determining fly-fishing success or failure. It's also one of the most overlooked techniques in the sport. Thinking about line control, and developing and incorporating some other angling habits into your flats fishing will ensure that you won't be staring at a snarl of line instead of being hooked up to the fish of a lifetime. Let's look at some flats fishing basics.
Fly-fishing on the flats is a team effort, and success is often a direct result of how well the angler and the guide work together. Don't impede the process by not being ready when the guide is. In other words, when you get to a flat and the guide says it's time to fish, get ready fast. Pull out the rod and get up on the boat deck. The first thing that you should do, even before surveying the flat or admiring the beauty of the fishery, is to strip out line from the reel.
Take some of the drag pressure off the reel and pull out 10 feet more line than you can comfortably cast. For quick reference, some anglers mark this distance with a waterproof marker. Strip this line into the cockpit of the boat; fly line on the forward casting deck will get kicked or blown into the water.
Setting Up The Cast
When getting set up for a day of fishing, some anglers choose to cast out and strip in the length of line they'll be fishing. However, when you strip the line off the reel, the head and belly of the line are on the bottom of the pile causing a tangle as the line shoots toward the rod's stripping guide. It takes valuable time to clear this mess, and can result in missed opportunities.
If you manage to execute a clean cast, you can pile the line nicely on the boat deck as you strip it back in, but then again you might catch a 3-inch snapper or lizard fish as you retrieve the line. These little fish will abrade the tippet and force you to retie, or worse, a tiny barracuda could snip the fly right off. It may seem just a nuisance to lose a fly, but it can chew up precious moments on the flats.
For example, the guide usually will have a specific fly he wants you to fish on a certain flat, which he ties on the tippet with a knot he has confidence in. When you get snipped off, the guide has to stake out or anchor the boat, open a hatch, and get another fly. This takes valuable fishing time and can result in missed fish. I've seen anglers miss schools of 100-pound tarpon because they cleared the line in this manner and caught a tiny fish. Standing there helpless, the angler watches the fish swim by before he can release his miniscule fish and make another presentation.
A less risky way to arrange your line is to "restrip" it. Here's what I mean. First, strip the line off the reel to the length you can handle. Then, place the running line (the line coming directly off the reel) under your stripping finger just as you would be fishing. Next, restrip the line neatly back into the boat's cockpit, till there is 20 feet of fly line outside the rod tip and the remainder of the fly line is behind you on the cockpit floor. Now your line is coiled neatly on the bottom of the boat, running line first. The wind won't blow the line in the water, and you won't step on it. Restripping is a tool that should be used often. If, during the course of the day, you look down and the line is wrapped around something or the wind has blown it overboard, take the time to restrip.
After you've restripped the line and are standing on the deck with 20 feet of line outside of the rod tip, holding the fly by the hook bend in your line hand, you are in what guides refer to as the ready position. From this position, you can cast very quickly with little effort and few false casts. When a fish appears, you roll cast and simultaneously release the fly and then shoot 10 to 15 feet of line on the first backcast. Now the rod is loaded properly and you're ready to present the fly at any distance. The best fly casters will shoot some line on the initial roll cast, shoot 20 to 25 feet on the backcast, and then unload a 100-foot cast to the target.
As you stand on the casting deck, keep your rod low and pointed forward. If the line outside the rod tip gets caught under the bow, hold the fly and make a few miniature roll casts to clear the line. Don't move the rod around too much-your guide will be intensely looking for fish, and rod movements will distract him.
Getting in the ready position is one of the most important skills flats anglers can practice. Yes, casting 100 feet is great, but that should not be the only thing you practice before your next flats trip. In fact, when people ask me what they need to practice, I tell them it's better to know how to cast 40 to 50 feet quickly and accurately than 150 feet slowly. Sure, you can practice throwing 100 feet of fly line (I recommend it), but also practice the basics. And make your practice sessions effective by simulating fishing situations.
On the flats, the presence of fish will rattle even experienced anglers, and making a bad cast is common when your under pressure. But of all the shots my anglers (and I) have blown, I've noticed that the vast majority were destined to fail before the fish even showed up. Many casts are botched simply because the angler doesn't pay attention to his fly line during his idle time, so keep an eye out for any potential problems in your line.
When you get a shot at a fish, don't panic. Breathe deeply and try to remain calm. Don't shuffle your feet, move around or begin to fiddle with your tackle. Keep your eyes on the fish and wait until your shot comes. Your guide will position you for the best cast.
Beginning the cast too early is a common mistake that results in tangles. Try to wait until the fish is in your range, or until the guide tells you to begin your cast.
If you make a bad cast and spook the fish, don't pout. Get right back into the ready position and concentrate on seeing another fish. Where there was one fish there will probably be another, and if you aren't ready, you don't stand a chance. I've seen anglers miss half of the shots in a day simply because they didn't get back into the ready position in time to make the next cast.
When your guide calls out a fish according to the clock system, remember that the 12 o'clock direction relates to the bow of the boat, not where your feet are positioned. (On the clock system, 12 o'clock is at the bow of the boat, 6 o'clock is at the transom, 3 and 9 o'clock are to the right and left of the angler, respectively.) If you have difficulty with this, practice keeping your feet pointed at 12 o'clock all the time. When your guide sees a fish and gives you a direction, immediately point your rod in that direction so that your guide can tell exactly where you are looking. From there, your guide can give you pinpoint directions until you spot the fish.
As simple as some of these tips may seem, I assure you they are all valuable. And it's not enough to commit them to memory-you have to practice these steps until they become second nature. Doing so will make you a better flats fisherman. Even if you're not a good caster at this point, don't be intimidated by the idea of flats fishing. Practice the above techniques and you'll improve.
You have a tremendous amount invested in a flats trip-the airfare, hotel and guide expenses, the time away from work and family, and all the time you've spent practicing. Maximize your investment by mastering the basics.
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