July 7th, 2003

The Premiere OnLine Magazine for the Fly Fishing Enthusiast.
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The Reality of Florida Sight Fishing
By John Brazelton, Stuart Florida

Florida is marketed as a fly fisherman's paradise and rightfully so. Florida saltwater sight fishing is a great challenge and anglers from around the world gather here to chase exotic game fish. The reality is, most are not ready for the challenge and head home disappointed, cameras filled with "scenic" shots of mangroves and wildlife. If you want a nice 8x10 of a 10 pound Bonefish on your office wall you need to be realistic. So when you finally step up on the guides casting deck, strip out a bit too much line and wait for that perfect shot, you know you'll make your guide proud.

A good guide will work hard to find you fish, listen to his advice when they show up.

The guide is your number one ticket to success. Listen to him. His is out to find you stupid fish. That way the casting is less challenging, poling is less stressful and the whole trip seems to be in control. A guide wants nothing more than to be able to "call it" before it happens. Obviously this is an ideal situation. In the Florida Keys, a popular Bonefish, Tarpon and Permit destination, you're usually dealing with very smart fish. The guide's wisdom is going to get you the trophy, listen to him no matter what.

On a trip of this nature, I recommend the most modest expectations. On a good day with a fly rod you may jump one tarpon and that's it. You might have one or two perfect shots at Bonefish. Make each cast count and listen when the guide says, "drop it," that means drop the fly right there with no further false casts. You may also hear things like, "strip, strip"!! and "strip strike"!! Know what these things mean before heading to Florida. Depending on your ability, you may also hear things like "that's the best I can do, that fish was tailing right there," "maybe we should go find some jacks" or "Brown trout huh. I released a boneless one in the mangroves the other day."

A guide sees a shot as a hookup. So at the end of the day he can tell his buddies at the dock that he "should have had three bones." If you make an accurate cast, the fish sees the fly and you strip like you're told you have done everything you can do. Savor that moment.

Flats fly casting is a challenge, be ready.

Casting is the most prevalent deficiency one can prevent; practice saltwater casting as much as possible. Simply casting as far as you can is not practicing for sight fishing! An accurate, quickly delivered 60 footer is all that's needed. To practice, lay a hula hoop out at 60 feet. Strip off at least 70 feet of fly line. (That way you can practice stopping the fly on its way to the target.) Leave about 12 feet of fly line, depending on the rods stiffness, out of the rod tip and hold the fly. Arial roll cast BEHIND you, arializing as much of the line and leader as possible, you should be able to shoot about 10 feet on your first forward-cast and 15 feet more on your next back-cast. Deposit the fly on the next forward-cast into the hoop. This technique minimizes the chance of line spooking a fish. If you can do this consistently you are ready to throw at moving targets.

I like to go out on windy days and try to hit leaves as they blow by. It's the best off-water practice I know of. I also try hitting mullet out in the river to warm up before fishing. If you are having trouble completing this exercise you need to work on your double haul and timing. There is, however, one way to cheat. If the fish are tailing close to the boat, uplining the rod can be very effective. I have done this in Titusville Florida fishing for tailing redfish with Captain Rob Blake. In the morning, the fish are so engrossed in feeding, that you can sneak right up on them; sometimes within 15 feet. The fish have their faces buried in the grass and mud, looking for crabs and clams. This is when they are most vulnerable. The more keyed in to the bottom the fish is, the better the chances are of hooking up. If this happens, let the fly sink to the eye level of the fish before stripping, as not to bring his attention to the surface and your 16-foot flats boat. As the sun rises and visibility gets better, the fish are usually stationary, more cautious and not necessarily feeding. Long casts will be needed in this situation. You're looking for an instinctive strike, and accurate cast and teasing strip will be ideal. Your ability to drop the right fly softly, 1 foot in front of the fish will decide how successful the afternoon will be. Practice realistically.

On a slick calm day, a long accurate cast will be rewarded.

Being able to see the fish at great distance will be crucial on a full day trip. The sun rises and shadows begin to appear farther and farther from the boat. Being able to distinguish shapes early will allow your guide to position the boat for a comfortable casting angle. Usually, the guide on the poling platform will spot the fish and try to direct your eye to it. The best way to respond to a "called out" fish is to point your rod tip in the general direction and ask "where is he from here?" The guide should respond with "to the left out at 40 feet." This will only work when there's enough time. Usually it's more like " tail at 12:00, 30 feet, you see 'em?" Never cast until you see the fish, unless the guide tells you to. I have seen anglers cast to fish they don't even see, simply because one was spotted and called out. There is only one thing more frustrating than not being able to see a called out fish, having an angler say he sees it.

If you tie flies, you'll probably be tying an arsenal of patterns copied from all of the best fly fishing magazines. Make sure you get a hint as to what to tie. Guides will encourage the use of proven patterns, not necessarily that "exact" replica of a crab you tied. Trust local knowledge. Usually the fly that worked there yesterday is the first one wet the next morning. Call ahead and request the recipe for the most used flies. A good guide will be willing to help. I have actually scanned flies into the computer and e-mailed the pictures to friends visiting the area. Make sure you get specific instructions; the detail you overlook may disqualify the fly and render it useless.

I have had this happen while fishing with Pete Moore on Lake Okeechobee. We were bass fishing and I insisted on using one of my very "detailed" poppers, tied by a description given to me by an angler who had just fished with him the week before. I waited for the other two anglers to catch 4 bass before I switched and began catching fish. As a form of redemption I must add that I caught a bunch of fish on my own flies later that day. Pete found some stupid fish for me before the squalls pushed us off the water.

Hide from wind in the mangroves if you're pushed off a flat.

Bad weather and wind will absolutely kill a sight fishing trip. Visibility is diminished, casting ability is challenged and poling the skiff becomes difficult. Weather is not something neither you nor your guide can control. However, the laws of probability can be used to add quality days on the water. Any trip to Florida, especially the Keys, should be no less than 7 days. I can almost promise one fair-weather period in that timeframe. You may have to sneak out quick, so keep in touch with your guide. Sometimes two great hours of catching fish is all you need. Fill the camera, tip the guide and head home to the wife. Do that twice in 7 days and you can congratulate yourself with a new 8x10 in your office.

When it all comes together there's no mistaking it.

To limit the possibility of a weather problem, book trips that focus on "backwater" fishing. Most Florida fly fishing guides consider sight fishing the ideal. Rather than risk a whole trip for a day on the flats, find some river fishing. Snook, Tarpon, Redfish and Peacock Bass can be found in areas protected from wind. Throwing flies deep into a mangrove to a fining Redfish or teasing a bedding Peacock out of its bed can be every bit a rewarding experience as flats Bonefishing. There are so many places in Florida yet to be discovered by the angling public. Don't overlook places where isolation can be your main advantage.

A tailing Mosquito Lagoon Redfish, moments before he is caught.

There are so many elements that must come together to feed a fish a fly. Many more than can be named here. But as we plan a sight fishing trip we should keep in mind that what we are set out to accomplish is a reward for wisdom. ~ JB

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