Welcome to Salt Water Fly Fishing

Welcome to Fly Fishing The Salt! If you are just discovering the joys of fly fishing the salt (or salt chuck as some call it) here you will find information to steer you in the right direction. Tips on what equipment to use, why, where and how to fish. And we will try to include a little inspiration to get you going. For the experienced salt water angler, there will be personal stories about real fishermen and their experiences, tips on what flies for which fish and techniques that work. Your stories and articles are also most welcome. Share the knowledge and adventure. Pass it on! This is for you.

Fishing the Flats: A Guide's Primer

By Becky Garrison

Capt. Paul Dixon

To the ardent saltwater flyfisher, flats fishing embodies the ultimate fly-rodding challenge. As Capt. Paul Dixon observes, flats fishing gives you a unique window into the fish's world. Since the clear shallow water allows you to see the fish, you can note how a fish reacts to different flies and manner of your fly presentation. You assume the posture of a hunter stalking your elusive prey, as you watch a striper or bonefish swim near your boat and then try to get him to grab your fly.

From the Florida Keys to the tip of Cape Cod, the Eastern Seaboard presents ample opportunities for a sensational day poling or wading the flats. As more Northeasterners discover the allure of fishing the flats, New England stripers are becoming almost as sophisticated and finicky as the bonefish, tarpon and permit found in the Florida Keys.

If you think that trophy catches can only be found offshore while deep sea fishing, Capt. Rich Benson has spotted some 50-pound stripers on the Monomoy flats and Capt. Paul Dixon has seen 40-pound stripers in Gardiner's Bay. Also, Capt. Tom Mleczko caught a 47-pound cow while wading the Nantucket flats and Florida Keys guide Capt. Dexter Simmons landed a 160-pound tarpon aboard his skiff "Flatsmaster."

Feeding Frenzy, Montauk Point

Even though the geography and species of fish vary widely as a saltwater fly fisher poles and wades from the Keys to the Cape, the basic techniques of flats fishing remain the same. Casting accuracy and line control are the two most important techniques needed to fish the flats.

In order for a fly fisher to have a shot at landing the Florida Key's "big three" (tarpon, bonefish, and permit), Capt. Dexter Simmons recommends that prospective flats fishers should lean how to double haul the fly line. Mastery of this technique can enable you to make accurate long casts in windy conditions with rods ranging from 8 to 12-wt. While fly fishers desiring to fish the Floridian flats should aim for casting distances of 80 feet, a fish can be caught in the Keys with a shorter although very accurate cast.

As a general rule of thumb, fly fishers who can double haul and deliver an accurate 40 to 50 foot cast will have prime opportunities to catch fish. While some guides offer casting instruction, others prefer to focus on finding fish for their clients. So, if you want some casting pointers or a day of casting instruction with some flats guiding, be sure to ask the guide if he provides casting advice before stepping onto the boat.

Flats guides tell their clients where the fish are located by using the clock method. Imagine the bow of the flats skiff to be at 12 o'clock with the guide standing or poling behind you at 6 o'clock. So, when a guide calls out, "Fish 50 feet at 1:00 o'clock," that means you need to cast your line quickly 50 feet to your right front. If your guide spots a fish at 12 o'clock, give him a little time to poll the boat to one side. Otherwise, when you cast back, you have a very good shot at hooking your guide instead of a fish.

If Capt. Rich Benson has a right handed angler on the bow and the fish is at that imaginary one o'clock position, he'll tell the fly fisher to wait until he pushes the stern around until the fish is at the ideal eleven o'clock spot. He finds that nine to eleven o'clock is the best cast for a righty and one to three is the best for a lefty.

If you are uncertain regarding exactly where you should cast, point your rod in the direction you think you should cast. The guide can then tell you to cast slightly to the left or right. Unless the guide tells you to "cast right now," try to refrain from casting until you can see the fish. Casting where you "think" the fish might be will probably result in a bad cast. Also, you run the risk of spooking the fish or in the worst-case scenario, actually hitting the fish on the head with the fly.

Capt. Tom Mleczko While a guide can direct you to a moving fish, you need to be able to place your fly line quickly and accurately in order to land a fish. Ideally, prospective flats fishers should be able to shoot the fly line without having the line tangle or fall in a pile at your feet. As Capt. Rich Benson notes, this is finesse fishing, so don't do the waltz while you're casting and have your line going all over the place.

Another common mistake made by fly fishers is standing on the line or leaving the retrieved line in a tangled pile on the casting platform. While many tropical fly fishers fishing from a boat don't use a striping basket, Capt. Tom Mleczko is working on developing a stationary striping basket for use on his flats boat. Also, be sure to pull out only the line you will need. Too many fly fishers approach the casting platform and then pull off 60 feet or more of fly line, when they will only need to cast 40 feet.

Saltwater fly fishers use to hauling a clouser into the surf with a resounding splash need to refine their cast, so that they can position the fly with precision and accuracy without making so much noise that the fish spooks and runs. Conversely, freshwater anglers often try to make a quiet delicate presentation, as though they were fishing for that elusive trout using a #20 blue winged olive rather than stalking a fast moving striper with a 2/0 chartreuse clouser.

Many flyfishers unaccustomed to fishing the flats tend to make too many false casts. Capt. Tom Mleczko recommends one false cast or a double haul and then a quick presentation to the fish or else your prey will be gone by the time your fly hits the water. Simply put, the more times you can put the fly on target, the more hookups you'll enjoy during your trip. Bear in mind that a windy day on the flats can provide for a challenging day of fly fishing for even the most experienced saltwater fly rodder.

While bass remains the predominant species on the Northeast flats, one can encounter the occasional bluefish. When you hook a fish and notice that when your fly has been bitten clean off, that's a strong sign that you're battling a blue. So, it's time to switch to a shock leader tippet (12" maximum) of monofilament leader or heavy wire to keep from losing any more flies.

The decision between using monofilament or wire boils down to individual preference. Some guides prefer using clear 60 to 80 lb. monofilament out of concern that a wire tippet is visible on the flats and will spook a wary fish. Rich Benson find that he is able to land blues on the flats using 27lb Malin stainless, coffee colored piano wire, tied with haywire twists, and then Albrighted from the tippet to the wire. Also, he makes up about two-dozen "clunker flies" that he doesn't care about anymore. On these flies, he uses Berkley Sevenstrand wire and crimps the wire to the fly and then crimps another loop to tie to the tippet.

When retrieving the fly, keep the rod tip well above the water and pointed directly at the fish. You should manipulate the fly by striping in the line and refrain from using the rod tip to tease the fly. Capt. Rich Benson finds that a fast retrieve in two to three spurts really attracts the Northeastern stripers. He cautions not to stop the fly, as this will cause the bass to turn away. When using crab patterns, he says, "Go slow." According to Capt. Rich Benson, fishing for Northeastern bass is probably the best way to learn how to fish for the elusive permit.

Capt. Paul Dixon recommends getting your fly down to the fish's level. Keep your line tight, so the fly moves when you want it to and it's not making unnatural random moves. Also, since you can actually see the fish, you should try to read the fish's body language. Once you learn how a given species responds to different flies, your success rate will increase.

One critical factor in flats fishing is the need for light. A full day flats trip tends to go from approximately 8am to 4pm. The optimal time for most folks to fish the flats is from 10am-2pm, when the sun is at its brightest. Polarized glasses are a necessity for spotting fish on the flats. Also, a hat with a dark under brim will help reduce glare.

Another crucial weather factor is the seasonal tides. Keeping track of the moon phases and how they influence the tides is integral in flats fishing. A new or full moon tends to bring the spring tides, which are stronger and tend to produce the best fishing. Flats fish tend to feed and move from deeper to shallow water depending on the tidal cycles, with each flat having its own distinctive characteristics.

Capt. Paul Dixon, happy client and tarpon

Flyfishers are noted for their gadgets and most flats guides make sure their boats are equipped with a Boga Grip scale that's certified by the IGFA for world record catches. This device is ideal for catch and release fishing, as the fish may be weighed by the official scale and then released unharmed. Other favorite tools include a pair of nippers and a Gerber Multi tool.

While the majority of flats fishing tends to be done from a flats boat, certain flats are accessible by wading. Awareness of your surroundings is key in wading the flats to ensure your safety and enable you to catch fish. In particular, be mindful of the rising tide, as leaving the flat and returning to shore can become difficult once the flat is no longer visible.

When wading the flats, look for bait jumping out of the water. If you don't see anything breaking on the water, look in the deeper water for darker areas. Often, these spots are fish or bait.

The cold Northeast waters dictate that most fly fishers wear waders with flats boots especially when fishing at daybreak. When fishing in more tropical waters, some fly fishers have found that the more inexpensive dive booties work just as well as flats boots for wet wading, depending on the bottom and sea life such as spiny anemone or rays. A stripping basket comes in handy to keeps your line clean and tangle free, a must on those windy days. While some fly fishers like using mesh basket, other prefer the hard plastic tubs.

If you've never fly fished before, Capt. Tom Mleczko recommends booking three half-day trips. On the first day, you'll receive casting instruction and then wade the ponds of Nantucket. The second day will be a trip on a fishing boat blind casting for bluefish and stripers. On the third day, you'll move to sighting and casting to striped bass from the flats skiff.

Keep in mind that the recent explosion of flats fishing has led to the proliferation of flats guides. The more experienced flats guides are happy to tell you about their background and can describe in detail their boat and the fly-fishing gear that they use for flats fishing. The local fly shops tend to be excellent resources for recommending qualified guides.

Finally, remember that this sport is called "flats fishing" not "flats catching." A flats guide can guarantee you'll see fish, while poling or wading through a breathtaking location. However, whether or not you land a fish depends on both your casting skill and how well the fish are feeding. As Capt. Tom Mleczko states, he's taken out novice fly rodders, who landed a striper during a blitz, while some days even his most experienced saltwater fly fishers get skunked. Capt. Dexter Simmons observes that if you are prepared skill wise and make the most of every shot you are given at fish during your trip, then your odds of a having a successful flats fishing experience will be greatly enhanced. ~ Becky Garrison


AREA GUIDES: Monomoy Island, Chatham, Cape Cod, MA
PREFERRED SETUP: 9-wt fly rod with a 10-wt intermediate or floating line and the best reel you can afford.
FAVORITE FLIES: clousers, deceivers, squid flies, sand eels, Tom's Rattle Crab.
CONTACT INFORMATION: 508-432-6264; stripercity@aol.com

AREA GUIDES: Gardiner's Bay, Long Island
PREFERRED SETUP: 8-9-wt rod and large Arbor reel, clear intermediate line.
FAVORITE FLIES: clousers, deceivers Dixon's Devil Worm, Gordy Hill's cobia fly, bonefish patterns.
CONTACT INFORMATION: 631-324-7979; CaptainPaulDixon@aol.com; http://www.flyfishingmontauk.com/

AREA GUIDES: Nantucket, MA
PREFERRED SETUP: 8 or 9-weight fast action rod with weight forward intermediate line or Teeny 250.
BOAT DESCRIPTION: Custom made 18' Maritime skiff with a forward casting platform (with lean rail) and a rear poling platform.
FAVORITE FLIES: clousers, deceivers (with blue or chartreuse back), black and chartreuse rabbit strip patterns, crab patterns.
CONTACT INFORMATION: 508-228-4225; capttom@nantucket.net; www.capttom.com (website)

AREA GUIDES: Flats of Key West, Marquesas and Lower Florida Keys
PREFERRED SETUP: Bonefish (8-wt. rod); Permit (9 or 10-wt.); Tarpon (11-wt.); weight forward intermediate or floating lines.
BOAT DESCRIPTION: Action Craft 18' 'Flatsmaster'
FAVORITE FLIES: In addition to the standard flats patterns for bonefish, tarpon and permit, Dexter ties a Sugarloaf Special and a Key West Special.
CONTACT INFORMATION: 305-745-3304; captdexter@prodigy.net; http://www.keywestflyfishing.com

Publishers Note: The above listing of guides is not an endorsement by Fly Anglers OnLine. Fly Anglers OnLine only recommends guides with whom we have personal experience or who are highly recommended by others whose opinions we respect.

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