Fly Fishing for Coastal Gamefish
While living in the Caribbean, I did some wade-guiding on weekends. Most of the anglers who hired me were from the northeastern region of the United States, and most of their saltwater fishing experience had been along the ocean beaches from New England to North Carolina. I quickly learned that my first task was to teach these anglers that shoreline fishing on most Caribbean islands would be unlike fishing the beaches of their home fishing grounds, and that fishing the habitats found along tropical shorelines would require an understanding of these habitats and a different approach than they were used to.
For this discussion I will categorize the shorelines an angler will encounter in the Caribbean into 3 types – sandy beaches, beachrock pavement, and rocky coasts and points. Caribbean coasts provide anglers with access to a variety of habitat types, often overlapping along a single shoreline. Since I have discussed mangrove and seagrass habitats in earlier articles in this series, you might find that referring back to those earlier articles will help in your devising a strategy for fishing these shorelines.
Sandy beaches in the Caribbean are of two general types - exposed and protected. The exposed beaches are usually on the windward coast, and are areas of high wave energy. The grain size of the sand is large on exposed beaches, the beach slope is often steep, and since so much sand is moved by the wave energy and associated currents, the diverse bottom community (seagrass, clams, shrimp, etc) that is often found in more protected areas is replaced by a short list of more hardy species. In these respects, the exposed beaches of the Caribbean resemble beaches along the northeast coast where many of my clients had prior experience fishing. Bottom dwelling (benthic) species that are able to take advantage of high energy environments include several species of mole crabs and coquina surf clams. Mole crabs found along Caribbean beaches are oval in shape, are generally tan, brown and white, or gray, are up to one inch long, and are eaten by numerous fish including palometa, bonefish, permit, and pompano. There are several mole crab (aka sand flea, sand crab) fly patterns made of wool, chenille, spun deer hair, or a combination of these materials, and weighted to ride on the bottom. Coquina clams may be the only clam that could be imitated with a fly, although I am not aware of any successful attempts to date. Coquina clams are small (up to 3/4 of an inch long), triangular in shape, are varied in color (from white to purple) and can emerge in groups from the sand, wash up the beach in the surf, and re-bury in the sand. They are most abundant in the wash zone.
Fishing on exposed beaches can be difficult due to high winds and surf, and although there certainly are fish to be found along these beaches, the abundance and diversity of fish are generally greater along protected beaches. Beaches that are protected, either by being sheltered from the wind or by an offshore barrier reef, are areas of low wave energy that allow the establishment of bottom (seagrass) and intertidal (mangrove) organisms that support diverse communities that have been discussed in previous articles in this series. Beaches that are semi-protected – they are occasionally exposed to waves during storms or especially high wind periods, for example – often support an even more diverse community than completely protected beaches, so may in turn support more predators, including gamefish. This is because the occasional wave energy mixes the water column and keeps the bottom waters from becoming depleted of oxygen, maintaining a diverse benthic community. This does not imply that low energy areas are not healthy ecosystems, only that a wider variety of species is often able to take advantage of semi-protected areas.
Protected beaches often have lush seagrass beds ending right at the shoreline. Sometimes there is a thin strip of sand between the beach and the beginning of the grass bed, especially along semi-protected beaches. Although these aren’t the kind of beaches that resorts prefer, these types of shorelines are fantastic for fly fishing and provide a better habitat for gamefish and the prey they rely on for food. As I discussed in Part 2 of the series, seagrass provides essential habitat for fish, shrimp, crabs, clams, and many other prey items for gamefish, and healthy seagrass beds that reach the shoreline bring this productive habitat right to the feet of shoreline anglers. Depending on the slope of the bottom, you might be fishing from shore or wading some distance into the bay. In either case, you shouldn’t bypass the shoreline – bonefish, permit, barjacks, and barracuda will search this landward edge of the seagrass for prey.
It may be that the water is deep right next to shore, so sight-fishing is not realistic. In this case, you should use flies that mimic moving prey, such as streamer imitations of baitfish or juvenile reef fish. Species I have seen using these deeper water shorelines as foraging areas include barjacks, horse eye jacks, permit, bonefish, barracuda, and the occasional tarpon. Barjacks and horse-eye jacks cruise along the shoreline on hit-and-run attacks on baitfish schools or in search of small fish that wander too far from the safety of the seagrass. Permit will cruise along the shoreline in search of crabs, shrimp, or clams that lay hidden in the seagrass, as will bonefish, but bonefish will also take advantage of a vulnerable fish (whether a baitfish, juvenile reef fish, or a small goby) as prey. Small barracuda will lie motionless in the vicinity of small patch reefs or rocks that are inhabited by small fish and take advantage of any fish that lets down its guard.
In some locations you will find that the water remains shallow a greater distance from shore, providing wading access to large areas of seagrass. In this case, selecting a crab or shrimp pattern, and then slowly wading across the grass flat looking for fish might be the best strategy.
In general, the very shallow seagrass beds have a less diverse community of organisms than the deeper grass beds, and often fewer fish species, so invertebrates such as shrimp, crabs, and clams may be more important prey items for gamefish found in these areas. This is in part because the shallower areas are a more harsh environment. For example, these shallows can become very warm and very low in oxygen during calm, summer periods. And during extremely low tides, these areas can be completely exposed to the air. These phenomena are natural, and over time have eliminated species that can’t tolerate such harsh conditions from such environments. Species that can tolerate these conditions and reside in the shallow shoreline grass beds that are of interest to fly anglers include swimming crabs (very close relatives of Blue Crabs), snapping shrimp, mantis shrimp, walking crabs, and numerous species of the mojarra family (Gerreidae). Barjacks and bonefish will likely be the most common gamefish on these shallow shoreline grass flats, but at times of higher tides larger fish may venture up to the shorelines. Larger barracuda sometimes lay in wait in the areas of deeper sand that lie adjacent to the shoreline, and will make a meal out of the many needlefish and half-beaks that use the shallow water as a shelter from predators.
Along semi-protected sandy beaches with a small surf and a sandy bottom adjacent to the beach, fish will often forage just below the drop-off at the shoreline and will also ride the small surf up into the swash zone in search of prey such as small crabs, shrimp, and small fish. Standing on the beach and casting parallel to shore rather than casting away from shore will often be rewarded with hookups of palometa and small jacks, and even the occasional bonefish. Often, a cast away from shore will result in a hookup – but only once the fly has been stripped almost to shore! Small shrimp or baitfish imitations, like a Gotcha, small clouser, or Crazy Charlie are good flies for this type of fishing.
In larger embayments, these types of beaches will often have schools of baitfish moving back and forth along the shoreline. Often, smaller fish species (like silversides) will be closer to shore and larger species (like herring) will be farther off the beach. However, this pattern may change depending upon how active predators have been. Finding these schools is not always easy because they blend in very well with their surroundings, they are often well below the surface, and the fish may be somewhat scattered if they are not being actively pursued by predators. However, if baitfish schools are present, it’s a good bet that larger fish are not far away.
Many Caribbean shorelines consist of hard limestone pavement, called beachrock, which is the solidified remains of old coral reefs. One type of beachrock shoreline is low-lying, and may be bordered on one or both ends by sandy beach. On the seaward side, the beachrock often drops abruptly into the water. This drop may be only a foot or may be a few feet, but an undercut has usually been eroded by wave action. If the drop-off is deep enough, this undercut can provide shelter to numerous fish – juvenile reef fish and gamefish, and to larger gamefish. At first glance, it doesn’t look like great fish habitat, but this beachrock provides shelter in shallow water, so acts as a refuge for small fish. If you explore some of the tidepools in this beachrock you may find juvenile fishes there as well, so tread lightly. The juvenile fishes that rode a high tide into these tidepools are largely safe from fish predators, but are very susceptible to wading birds – and to trampling by people. Careful examination of tidepools with small fish in them may give an indication of size and colors of flies to use along these shorelines.
Undercut beachrock habitat seems to support the most juvenile fishes when it’s adjacent to seagrass because the beachrock habitat provides shelter next to a good foraging area. But leaving the shelter of the beachrock to forage in the adjacent seagrass carries risks, because jacks, palometa, barracuda, and other predators are always on the prowl in along these shorelines. In areas that have deeper drop-offs (a few feet or more) sub-adult and adult snappers and groupers may set up residence and will charge from their shelters if prey, or a fly, swims close by. In addition to gamefish that feed on the small fishes that inhabit the beachrock shorelines, other fish will take advantage of the invertebrate communities that can be found here. For example, permit and triggerfish can be found feeding on the small urchins that seem to inhabit almost every crevice in the beachrock.
Although beachrock that is bordered by a sand bottom doesn’t support nearly as many small fishes, it does provide a source of shelter in an otherwise open area, so small fish (especially baitfish species) will utilize this habitat as shelter, and predatory fish as a feeding area. Jacks and palometa are among the most common predatory fish found in this type of habitat. Beachrock that is bordered by rubble is also a popular spot for barjacks and blue runners since the rubble also provides habitat for small fishes, but you might also find permit digging along the edge of the beachrock or in the rubble in search of walking crabs, shrimp, and urchins.
Beachrock shorelines can also take on more dramatic proportions above and below the water. In some locations, you might find that a low shelf of beachrock drops dramatically into the ocean, but more often the deeper drop-offs in the water are mirrored by steeper and higher forms above the water. These steep shorelines often occur as points at either end of a sandy beach, or may extend for a considerable distance along a coast. The deeper drop-offs usually support fringing coral reefs, so are home to reef fishes of all shapes and sizes, and provide the shoreline angler with access to some larger fish that inhabit deeper water. In fact, these steep-sloped beachrock shorelines may provide the shore-bound angler with the only hope of access to reef fishes. Of course, jacks of various sorts (barjacks, blue runner, horse-eye jacks, crevalle jacks) can be found cruising the edges of these steep drop-offs, and these jacks are often large. Snappers and groupers are usually resident on the fringing reefs, but are often well hidden within the reef’s many crevices so must be coaxed out of hiding by fishing your fly dangerously close to the sharp corals. And once hooked, these snappers and groupers will try their best to quickly get back into the safety of their crevices in the reef. These areas may also be in the home range of large barracuda.
Fishing along steep-sloping beachrock calls for larger flies than are used along the shallow beaches and grass flats. Although there are small fish, and fish that feed on these small fish, in these deeper areas, you should take advantage of the access to deeper water and larger fish. All white deceivers or white with blue or yellow backs (size 2/0), and chartreuse over white or yellow over white clousers (size 2/0) will do well.
These rocky coastlines are often in high energy areas that can be pounded by heavy seas, so fish these areas with caution and only in calm conditions. In addition, the limestone, and sometimes sedimentary rock, that makes up these rocky shores are constantly being eroded, and loose rocks make for difficult footing. Finally, erosion of limestone often creates sharp, craggy edges and crevices, which makes for tough walking and certain scrapes and bruises should you fall, so choose your steps carefully and wear strong-soled shoes.Fish with Care
As with the seagrass and mangrove habitats I’ve discussed in previous articles, shorelines – which are a mosaic of many habitat types – are under constant pressure and stress from human activities. For example, it is a common practice for hotels to import sand to create beaches for tourism. The sand covers and smothers seagrass and coral close to shore, and as the sand erodes it is carried by currents to adjacent areas where it further damages habitats. Hotels that incorporate the natural environment into their marketing and development plans are less likely to compromise the integrity of coastal ecosystems, and to provide better access to good fishing and ecotourism.
The ‘life on the edge’ nature of the shallow shoreline grass beds makes them especially susceptible to human impacts. For example, too many people walking across a shallow grass bed at some tourist locations has caused measurable damage. Along rocky coasts, much of the submerged beachrock has been colonized by coral. Stepping on the coral will severely damage this fragile animal, very likely killing it in time. So when you do venture into these areas in the pursuit of fish, take care in where you step.
Sidebar 1 – My favorite type of shoreline to fish is a protected sandy beach that has a ribbon of sand between the shoreline and the beginning of the seagrass bed. I like to walk slowly along the beach, with the sun at my back, looking for bonefish and other fish that are cruising along the shoreline looking for food. Sometimes the fish will meander between the strip of sand and the seagrass, while other times they will remain over the sand bottom for long distances. Walking along the beach allows me to be higher up off the water, so I can see approaching fish better (and farther away) than if I was wading in knee deep water. I am also able to backtrack along the beach to get a second shot at a fish that refused or didn’t see my initial offering. By stooping to keep a low profile and backtracking along the beach, I once was able to try three different flies on a group of three bonefish before I finally got a take on a large crab pattern. In hindsight, a crab pattern should have been my first choice since small swimming crabs (species very closely related to the Blue Crab) are often found feeding in that strip of sand that parallels the beach. Which brings me to an important point – fish that are cruising along this sand strip next to the shoreline in shallow water are certainly searching for food, so a good presentation and the right fly should be the perfect combination for a hookup.
Sidebar 2 - It is incredibly rare that I use a sinking line when fishing shorelines in the Caribbean, but fishing a mole crab pattern on an exposed beach is one of those rare occasions. A sinking line with a short leader will allow you to fish the fly so that it bounces along the bottom, making a good imitation of a mole crab.
Sidebar 3 - Examine the landward portion of the beach for signs of hermit crabs – a set of parallel walking tracks with a drag mark in between is evidence of a hermit crab. Other crabs – land crabs and ghost crabs – leave only the walking tracks. The land-dwelling hermit crabs will sometimes forage along the water, and will search the shoreline looking for new shells to move into. A permit or bonefish foraging along a shoreline may fall for a well-placed fly imitating a hermit crab out of its shell. In addition, these same shorelines can be home to marine hermit crabs, which may also be on the menu of some of our favorite gamefish.
Sidebar 4 - Protected shorelines provide a great opportunity for using your lighter fly rods. My favorite rod for fishing along protected beaches is a 9 foot 6 weight. It is often a long way to any substantial structure, such as reefs or rocks, along these beaches, so a long-running fish will remain in open water. And since you will often be casting small, lightly weighted flies, a 6 weight rod is perfectly matched to the flies and conditions.
The Fisherman's Coast approach focuses on how coastal gamefish interact with their habitats and prey. The more you know about the gamefish you pursue with a fly rod, the more often you'll be in the right place at the right time with the right fly making the right presentation. It's about catching more fish.
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