So, you're finally ready to take the jump into saltwater fly fishing. Maybe you've got a family vacation coming up at the beach, and you are hoping to slip away for a morning on the water. Or maybe you and your buddies are heading down to the coast for a few days of hardcore fishing.
Whether it's stripers, redfish, tarpon, or any of the other premier saltwater species, your best chances of success will come by booking a local guide. Even if you have some saltwater fly fishing experience, the chance of landing your target fish will be greatly increased when fishing with someone who knows the area and the fish like the back of their hand.
As a fly fishing guide, I truly believe the cost of a trip with an experienced captain is worth every penny. That being said, it is far from cheap, so I'd like to share a few tips to help you get the best out of your experience.
Before you pick up the phone, read through your potential guide's website. A lot of questions will be answered from the site, but make a list of questions that you can't find answers too.
Guides don't mind answering questions. I would much rather spend 20 minutes on the phone chatting with a client, than have them come unprepared. Most captains and their clients discuss the basics like time, location, food, payment, etc., but you shouldn’t hesitate to ask more detailed questions.
Discuss the types of fish you will target and how you will fish for them. Ask about the equipment they provide and what you should bring. If you have a favorite fly rod setup you would like to bring, ask if it will work for the trip. Say you like to tie your own flies, ask which ones they would recommend you tie for the trip. Ask your captain what his casting expectations are, so that you can practice before the trip.
I'll be completely honest with you. There is nothing worse than working hard to put your clients on fish, and them not being able to get the fly in range of the fish. It's tough on the guide and even worse on the angler. So, once you know what types of casts you'll need to make, practice them until you feel confident.
Although flats fishing can vary situation to situation, there are a few elements that are important to the cast.
Distance. Most saltwater fish are caught in the 30-50ft range, but being able to cast 60-70ft will come in handy in lots of situations. Whatever distance you can cast in your backyard, it will be cut in half when you add a bulky fly and a stiff breeze in your face. Take a fly like what you will be fishing with, cut the point off, and use it when you practice. Take advantage of windy days and go practice your cast. Cast into the wind, with the wind, etc. to get a feel for how different wind directions will affect your cast.
Learning the double-haul is the single most crucial factor in being able to successfully make quick, long casts from a boat while dealing with the wind. If you don't know how to double haul, find someone locally who can give you a lesson, and if that's not an option, there are plenty of online tutorials.
Accuracy. The need for accuracy can vary depending on the fishing situation. When casting to near-shore species such as jacks, mackerel, blitzing stripers or false albacore, accuracy is much less of a concern. In those situations, it's much more about making a quick, long cast to moving fish. In most other situations where you are truly sight-casting to fish on the flats (or up under mangroves) accuracy is very important. In a tailing redfish situation, if the fly lands 2ft from him while he's digging for crabs, he may never see it. If you hit him on the head or tail, it's usually game over. So not only are you trying to make a 30-50ft cast, you are also trying to very quietly and accurately land your fly 6-12 inches from his face to get an eat. A straightforward way to practice accuracy is to scatter a few paper plates around your yard and make casts to them. Place them anywhere from 20ft out, on out to 60 or 70ft. Make sure you are using a full leader and a fly when practicing. A lot of people practice with just a fly line and practice hitting the end of their line on the target. When they get out on the water they end up over-shooting the fish because of the way they practiced. Instead, practice with a leader and fly, and focus on getting the fly as close to your targets as possible. If you can hit a garbage can lid at 50-60ft, your chances of catching fish have greatly increased.
Speed. We're not talking about a fast casting stroke, but how fast you can react and get a fly to a fish, once you see it. The two things that will help with this, is being in a ready position, and being able to minimize your false casts.
When standing on the front of a skiff, try to always be ready to make a cast as soon as your guide calls out a fish. The best way to do this is to strip off enough line from your reel to make your longest cast and neatly pile it on the deck of the boat. Then shake out your leader and about 10ft of fly line out your rod tip. Grasp the tippet right above the fly with your non-casting hand and let the 10ft of line and leader dangle between the rod tip and your hand. When you see a fish, toss the fly out over the water and begin your cast at the same time. The 10ft of fly line out the tip should be just enough to start loading the rod for you. Always manage your extra line on the boat and make sure it doesn't wrap around something or fall off into the water and drag alongside the boat. These are the things that will blow your shot at that fish you've been dreaming of.
The other thing that you need to practice to help with speed, is reducing your number of false casts. Six to eight false casts may work on the trout stream, but it will rarely ever be to your advantage in the salt. An efficient angler will be able to punch out a cast to a fish with an average of two false casts. For every false cast after that, your opportunity for a hookup will decrease as the fish moves away, disappears, or spooks out. The double-haul will not only help you with your distance casting, but will help you minimize your need for false casts. Learn it. Practice it!
Hook set. Trout setting is a hard habit to break when going from years of freshwater fly fishing to your first trip in the salt. To be effective at sinking a hook into the mouth of a large saltwater fish, make sure you practice your strip strike and be mentally prepared to do so when on your trip.
Back Casting. Being able to back cast, isn't as important as the first four elements, but it is still an important one to consider. Back casts allow you to do a few things.
First off, they allow you to keep your travelling line out of the boat when casting. Anytime you cast and your line travels over the center of the boat, you are risking hitting another angler or your guide with the fly. Coming from experience, a Clouser fly hitting you at 150mph hurts, no matter what part of the body it makes contact with.
It you are standing on the front of the boat and a school of fish pop up 40ft to your right, and assuming you are right handed, you have two choices. You can turn the right and carry your cast over the center of the boat while trying not to take your fellow anglers out. Or you can turn to the left, and make a back cast while carrying your line out over the water in front of the boat.
There's another situation that can happen especially when dealing with fish busting bait on the surface. Say you have a school of albacore that are busting 30ft off the left side of the boat. Mid cast they disappear and instantly appear on the right side of the boat. This situation is not uncommon with busting fish. Your ability to re-evaluate the situation midway through your cast, and drop your fly on the back cast can put you back in the game.
Trust your guide.
Your guide knows what they’re doing, that's why you hired them. It's in his’ or her’s best interest for you to have a successful trip, so they will put all of their effort into giving you the best possible chance for success.
If you've been fishing a certain fly for most of the day, haven't had much luck on it, and they haven't changed it out...it's probably because they have faith in the fly, and it's something else affecting the bite. If you bring a box of flies you purchased, and the guide highly recommends using something he tied, there's probably a reason for that. If the bite has been tough, and the guide wants to wait it out in that spot for the tide change, trust him. If he wants to pick up and run 30 minutes to a different spot, he's probably doing it in your best interest.
Feel free to ask him why he feels a certain way or makes a certain decision, your trip should be just as much a learning experience as it is a catching experience. Most guides are more than happy to share what they know.
Communicate with your guide.
Communication is key when stalking fish with a guide. Most guides will explain how they plan to approach a certain area and what they expect to happen. They should also let you know when they are approaching an area that they believe will hold fish. They'll explain to you what they think the fish will do and where you should place a cast and how to retrieve it.
Some of the areas I guide, I will have my clients blind cast a certain bank, and other locations I will have them wait to cast until we spot a fish. Every situation is different and your guide should explain the differences. If they say something that you don't quite understand, don't hesitate to ask them to explain what they mean.
In true sight fishing situations, your guide will call out fish by giving you a direction and a distance. Most guides use the clock face to call out direction. The bow of the boat itself is always pointed at twelve o'clock. Three o'clock is to the right, six o'clock is directly behind the stern of the boat, and nine o'clock is to the left of the boat. When a guide calls out a school of fish at 50ft and eleven o'clock, they will be fifty feet out and slightly to the left of where the boat is pointed.
If you see the fish and can make the cast, go ahead and start your false casts. If you can't reach them, communicate that with your guide. If you can't see them, let your guide know and point your rod in the direction that you think they are, and he will guide you where to move your rod until you see them.
One of the biggest and most common mistakes I see with the clock face, is when the angler forgets that the boat is the clock and assumes he is the clock. For example, an angler can be facing to the left of the boat (what the guide considers nine o'clock), and the guide calls out ten o'clock. The angler assumes the direction he is facing is twelve o'clock and therefore the fish must be to the left of him. In reality, the fish are to the right of the angler. This is where a little confusion can last just long enough for you to miss your opportunity.
Set realistic expectations.
One of my favorite bumper stickers I've seen says "Guide, not God". It's so true. We've all spent years perfecting our skills, but that doesn't include performing miracles. I always tell clients that finding fish isn't the hardest part, it's making them eat when they don't want to.
Hundreds or even thousands of days on the water help a guide become in tune with nature and the different nuances that affect where fish will be and how they will bite. But a lot of things are still beyond our control. Weather patterns, storms, tides, and fishing pressure can all affect the bite. Some days the fish are extra wary and the angler may not have the casting skills to get a bite. Some days the angler is a flat out amazing caster and the fish are completely shut down. Whatever the situation is, just understand that the guide truly wants you to catch fish, so they are doing everything in their power to make that happen for you. It is fishing after all, some days you get to be the hammer, and some days you are the nail...it happens to the best of us.
Tip your guide based on how hard they worked, not on how many fish you caught.
This last section is a touchy one, and I've seen anglers go back and forth on forums about what is an appropriate tip for a guide, or if they should even be tipped at all. I won't go into any thoughts on how much you should tip. I fully understand that some clients consider the cost of a trip pocket change, while others saved up for months to go on this one trip.
What I will say is that if you have the extra money to tip your guide, base it on how hard your guide worked, not how many fish you caught. I can speak for most guides when I say that we work the hardest on trips where the bite is tough. That's when we are constantly switching things up, covering more ground, working hard to keep our guests entertained, and silently stressing-out to ourselves. So, when the trip is coming to an end and you are deciding how to tip, don't think about how many fish came to hand...think about how good of an experience you had, and how much of that was a direct result of your guide's effort.