5 – Stay in Their Depth
This is perhaps the most critical element of fly selection. If your fly is not at the depth at which game fish expect to find their prey, your presentation will likely not succeed. Some game fish, such as stripers and tarpon, may move up a bit in the water column to feed, but usually not by much. Fish feeding right on the bottom, as bonefish and redfish often do, rarely rise up to take a fly. Your fl y must be at the depth the fish are feeding when a fish first encounters it. (Permit are an exception, however, as flies that descend in front of them can be quite enticing.) Knowing your quarry’s feeding behavior and observing it closely are paramount to proper fly selection. Appropriately weighted patterns—either with lead, bead chain, or none at all—that promptly reach the fish’s feeding zone in five seconds or less with a reasonable lead in front of the fish will result in far more successful shots by day’s end.
6 – Placement
Fish feed primarily by sight and smell. Fish swimming in the mid- to upper-water column and advancing into the current receive a great deal of scent information. With the scent at their olfactory, these fish become visually focused farther off and readily spot flies presented as much as 20 feet ahead. For fish in clear water, a cast that positions the fly 15 or 20 feet ahead is often sufficient.
By contrast, fish that are slow moving, feeding very close to the bottom, or feeding with the current are not receiving a rapid stream of scent information and hence look intently for prey at very close range, hunting almost exclusively by sight. These fish require that you position your fly very close to them. Certain species, such as permit, demand that flies be dropped very close to them in order to be seen. Others, such as redfish, bonefish, and stripers, will spook frantically from flies that land too close. The trick with these fish is to lead them appropriately and within their path of travel such that the fly is settled on the bottom and within their focus area (about the size of a basketball hoop in front of the fish’s head) as they approach. Again, the key is knowing your quarry’s habits and presenting the fly appropriately.
But be prepared for exceptions. Tarpon, for example, generally fi t the description of fish focused at long range, but they usually won’t leave their school to chase a bit of prey very far. It must be right in their face for them to bother with it.
7 – Hard to Get
throughout the natural world is that the prey (whether baitfish on a saltwater flat or antelope on the plains of Africa) should always move away from predators and never move closer— never. Experienced anglers are careful not to draw their offerings back toward the fish. But if you imagine that bringing a fly across the fish’s path is a good idea, you’re in for disappointment—such a retrieve narrows the distance between predator and prey and will spook fish every time. This is also true of presentations that settle beyond an advancing target but then are retrieved rapidly to recover a position in front of the fish—this, too, will alarm the fish.
Anglers must be mindful never to present the fly in such a way that it opposes the nature of things: The predator must close the gap between itself and the prey, never the other way around. Evolution has programmed predators to expect such. Shallow-water game fish are high on the flats food chain and must sense that they, not their prey, are in charge.
Maintaining this element of presentation is simple when casting to fish head-on, when all one needs to do is to lead the fish appropriately and land the fly in front of the fish to create a favorable retrieving angle that mimics escaping prey. When casting to fish crossing at a perpendicular angle, however, one must lead the fish appropriately and drop the fly directly in the fish’s projected path, or slightly inside it, in order to ensure that the fly does not encroach on the predator during retrieval.
8 – Tackle Selection
Anglers are inclined to select tackle based solely on the size and power of their target species: 8-weight gear for bonefish, 9-weight for stripers, 12-weight for tarpon, and so forth. When flats fishing, however, overcoming the wind, maintaining delicacy during calm conditions, and presenting a fly with speed and accuracy— all from a fly-in-the-hand start-up—are considerations that may not be satisfied just by matching strength for strength.
I don’t recommend straying too far from the caliber best suited for the species, but I’ll often dip as many as two line weights below standard to preserve a soft presentation (especially for ultra-calm or shallow conditions) and as many as two line weights above to compensate for a difficult wind. Bonefish may be realistically pursued with 6- to 10-weight gear, stripers 7- to 10-weights, big tarpon 10- to 13-weights. The ideal rod-and-line setup depends entirely on the wind conditions.
I highly recommend over-lining (more appropriately, under-rodding) by one line weight. Over-lined rods are far easier to load when starting your cast from a fly-in-hand position than rods and lines that are evenly matched, and they enable quicker presentations with fewer false casts. This advantage is amplified with short shots of 40 feet or less where accuracy will improve, as well. Contrary to common notion, most flats presentations—for any species—are at ranges of 50 feet or less.
While flats fishing is a tough game that takes practice to master, awareness of these eight concepts—and a diligence toward the details—will surely help bring you success on the flats.
Alan Caolo is an addicted flats fisherman and is the author of Sight-Fishing for Striped Bass and Fly Fisherman’s Guide to Atlantic Baitfish.