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Fly Rodding the Flats

by Frank Thomas

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Pursuing flats gamefish with a fly rod may technically be classified as fishing, but this sport in my judgment is more akin to hunting. Unlike other angling methods where favorable areas are the target of the angler's casts, the fly rodder must actually see the individual fish, determine its speed and direction, stealthily maneuver himself until the target is in range and then place an accurate but quiet cast. Fish like bonefish and reds, whose feeding habits take them from the security of deeper water onto shallow flats, know they're vulnerable, and rely upon keen instincts to shield them from danger. Once hooked these fish will bolt to deep water with astonishing speed, and like a 15 round fight that's over in the first round, they're fully capable of taking your entire tippet, line, and backing with them when they go. In such instances, the entire confrontation from start to stunned may take less than two minutes, but the excitement of this type of "hunting" rapidly becomes a lifetime obsession.
FLY RODS, like everything else, are available in a multitude of actions and sizes (usually referred to as weights) but the weight of the rod must be matched to the line weight. A number six rod, therefore, is manufactured to throw a 6 weight line and so on. The heavier the line weight, usually up to 15 weight, the stiffer the rod spine and consequently the more effort required to throw it. Rods also vary in action from fast to slow. Fast rods rely upon the tip while slower ones utilize a broader portion of the rod's length to propel the line and fly.
My arsenal contains rods ranging in weights from seven to ten, and although each has its place in my heart, I find that I use my eight weight most of the time. The venerable eight is heavy enough to throw moderately large flies into a wind, can handle tarpon up to 30 pounds, and yet is benign enough to cast all day. Furthermore, an eight weight is the perfect size for bonefish, reds, and trout, and during windy days can be rigged with seven weight line, to facilitate throwing small flies into a brisk headwind. The smaller diameter line has less wind surface and seemingly pierces the wind better.
The rod's action again is a matter of choice, but your planned use should help you decide. Fish like bonefish that move along the flat rather quickly give you little or no time for false casting. When stalking this type of target a fast action rod will enable you to pick up the line from the surface and cast again in a single movement. Medium and slow action rods get their power to a large extent from false casting but feel very solid when fighting larger fish.
REELS - Fly reels are not that important in freshwater fishing but play a much larger role in fighting and landing saltwater fish. For that reason a smooth adjustable drag is critical. While there are hundreds of reels to choose from, they are either direct drive models or anti-reverse reels. The direct drive reel is simply a line spool that rotates both ways; when you reel line in the reel rotates one way and when the fish runs, it spins the other. When fighting a fish you must let go of the reel handle to allow the fish to take line against the drag.
To the contrary, an anti-reverse reel allows you to preset the drag and hold onto the handle while fighting a fish. On these models only the inside of the spool rotates, the handle remains stationary during the fish's run. Some reels also have an external rim that allow you to palm the reel to increase the drag or resistance.
Although reel selection is again a matter of taste, I prefer the direct drive models with an exposed rim for palming. When pursuing trout and other similar fish not known to exhibit a long fast surge, adjusting the drag just enough to prevent over-spin and palming the reel to provide fighting resistance works well. With explosive fish such as bonefish, tarpon, or barracuda it is best to let the reel provide the resistance in order to prevent burns. When the fish stops taking line, you take it - the reel never remains static.
FLY LINE - The rod should be outfitted with a weight forward tapered line for most salt water fishing. This simply means the line is broader and therefore heavier on the end where the fly is tied. Lines are labeled WF8F signifying a weight forward 8 weight floating line. WF9S or WF9ST would indicate a weight forward nine weight sinking or sink tip line.
For flats fishing use a weight forward line. Sinking lines although useful in some situations, seldom justify the expense initially, and can always be obtained later. A weighted fly coupled to a long leader in most instances can accomplish the same effect as a sinking line, but is easier to handle. At least 200 yards of 20# backing should be nail knotted to the back of your fly line. Saltwater fish are large and many species are very capable of emptying a skimpy reel.
The weighted end of your fly line is manufactured with a little extra length added to account for losses to the line when replacing leaders. Cut off about a foot or so of this extra fly line and instead nail knot a small section of 50# Mason mono with a loop in the end. It is to this loop that you will attach new leaders each time they are needed without losing valuable fly line.
LEADERS, KNOTS, & HOOKS - Like the fly line itself, leaders too are tapered. Knotted leaders or knot-less ones can be purchased from most fly shops. Knot-less leaders are usually better for shallow water fishing because they don't become snagged in rocks or pick up vegetation.
Leaders should be attached to your fly line loop to loop. Tippet also should be attached loop to loop to the other end of the leader to avoid having to cut portions of your leader each time the tippet is replaced. You then carry with you extra, already prepared "looped" tippet for fast easy replacement.
If you don't mind losing small amounts of leader each time you replace tippet, the back to back nail knot is an excellent choice since it secures together well two different weight lines and is both strong and streamlined.
The fly then is fastened to the tippet with an improved clinch knot. A good quality knot tying tool is extremely helpful with nail knots or tying small loops in tippet or leaders. Short leaders of about 8 or 9 feet seem to throw weighted flies better than longer leaders. Leaders of 12 or 14 feet place the fly farther from the heavy fly line and should be used in calm conditions to avoid spooking skittish targets. Barbs in my opinion are unnecessary, cause added injury to fish, and should be removed. For the same reason, I use hooks that rust and decay as opposed to the more permanent stainless ones.
FLY SELECTION - Flies can be floating or sinking, just like the ones used in fresh water, but in salt they are not normally referred to as dry or wet flies. Sinking flies encompass by far most of the fly types used in salt water. Some of them are "weighted" with lead or bead chain eyes and some sink only as a result of the weight of the hook.
When fishing weeded areas such as the turtle grass beds, shallow rocky areas or oyster reefs, unweighted flies with inverted hooks and a monofilament weed guard are preferred. On calm days when you find yourself using a long leader in order not to spook the fish, the lighter flies land with less commotion. Weighted flies however, such as the Crazy Charlie or Clouser Minnow sink quickly and, therefore, are exceptional for drop-offs and the edges of flats. These flies are also great for sandy flats. Oddly enough, unlike other forms of angling, the heavier the fly, the more difficult it is to cast.
When situations call for a fly that sinks quickly, I prefer the ones weighted with bead chain as opposed to lead. I think they are easier to cast, light with less commotion, and sink rapidly. Some of the tested and proven selections for bonefish are the Crazy Charlie, Bonefish Special, and Gotcha Flies. For reds or trout, the snapping shrimp or other similar shrimp flies in brown and white work very well. Additionally, reds attack small crab flies in both light and dark colors.
Fishing from a boat is both convenient and comfortable, but to me wading the flats is the essence of fly fishing. Stalking fish like bonefish and reds quietly in their own domain, family, friends and time forgotten, your eyes incessantly scanning the surface for protruding tails, muds or other evidence of their presence is what gives this sport its planned and deliberate nature.
If you're a little short on casting distance, wading enables you to approach feeding fish much better than from a boat.
Here are some tips that I have learned from flats wading that really help:
1. Always wear rubber shoes or old tennis shoes to protect your feet.
2. Carry tackle in a small hip or shoulder bag. Carry with you pliers, a line cutter, brown polarized sunglasses, fly boxes, extra tippet, insect repellant, sun protection and any other items you may need.
3. The delicate nature and small size of flies make removing them from a caught fish very difficult. A stainless de-hooker is inexpensive and well worth the purchase.
4. When changing flies or releasing a fish, if you place the handle of the rod on your shoulder with the front of your reel resting against your back both your hands will be free and the reel will remain dry.
5. When casting into the wind throw small loops forward and large ones on your back-cast; when the wind is at your back, do the opposite.
6. On mirror calm days throw large forward loops and bring your rod tip down close to the surface on the cast. Doing so allows your line to "roll out" and land your fly without noise or disturbance.
7. Walk a little and look a lot. Many times I stand in one place and wait to see the quarry before adjusting my position.
8. Line yourself up such that the fish is approaching you head-on before casting. Cast to the side of the fish and in front of it, then retrieve with short hops. Remember, he's hunting while on the flats too - if he sees your fly he'll probably take it.
9. Most fish venture onto the flats with the incoming tide. Get there early, at low tide just before the tide turns and wait.
If you haven't yet tried this form of fishing, I hope you'll give it a try. If you do maybe some of the information in this article will be of assistance to you on your adventure. Take warning though, fly fishing the flats is extremely habit forming.