Fly Fishing for Coastal Gamefish
Many people vacation on Caribbean islands, but few fish them with a fly rod. That's a shame, because there are a lot of opportunities for good fishing. While a boat can be helpful in getting to good fishing spots, access to a boat is generally not necessary. Fishing from shore or wading in the shallows can produce some excellent fishing. So, if you are heading down to a Caribbean island on vacation, be sure to pack your fly rod.
The typical fishing show or magazine article depicts images of people in a flats boat with a guide on perfect flats of seagrass or open sand. The anglers are generally hunting for bonefish or permit on the expansive shallow flats of Belize or the Bahamas, or stalking tarpon along channel edges in the Florida Keys. In my experience, fishing most Caribbean islands is a different ballgame. There are spots with flats and channel edges like those on the shows, but the more common fishing opportunities will come on small pocket flats, backreef shallows, rocky and sandy shorelines, and mangrove creeks. Many of these good fishing locations are accessible from shore.
A word of warning; On many islands, local knowledge of inshore sport fishing opportunities, especially fly fishing and flats fishing, can be non-existent, so don't be discouraged if your questions about local sports fishing go unanswered by the locals. While living in the U.S. Virgin Islands, I worked for the local Division of Fish and Wildlife. As head of the recreational fisheries program, I fielded many calls about inshore sport fishing from tourists. All had searched for information from residents and local businesses, to no avail. Calling my office was usually a vacationer’s last resort, but the call paid off because I gave them a long list of shoreline fishing locations. This article is intended as a primer to get the Caribbean-bound angler headed in the right direction.
While living in the USVI, I also guided on weekends, and heard some interesting stories from clients about searching for information on flats fishing. So don't be discouraged by the apparent lack of local information. The intent of this article is to provide the Caribbean-bound fly fishers with enough information to find the best fishing spots on their chosen vacation island, and to provide a list of proven fly patterns with which to stock their fly boxes.Pocket Flats
It is common to come across small flats of seagrass, sand, or coral rubble as you drive around an island. Many times, the road on which you are driving will pass very close to the water along a flat section of land. The land topography often continues into the water, providing a small wadeable section of shallow water. Most of these small pocket flats are worth a look. Flats that are adjacent to busy roads or walkways will be most productive at dawn and dusk, when traffic is low. However, fish that are resident in busy areas sometimes adjust to the activity and are not so easily spooked. That doesn't mean these fish will be easy to catch - they might not be easily spooked, but they might still be picky eaters or wary of poorly presented flies. It is also more likely that fishing pressure on these easy-access flats will be high, especially during the height of the tourist season. There is one particular flat on St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, that will often see a dozen anglers in a day during the winter tourist season. But during the off-season summer months the flat is empty for weeks at a time. While still wary of poorly presented flies, the bonefish that frequent this flat are much more likely to take a fly during the summer months than during the winter assault of hopeful anglers.
Other pocket flats are tougher to find, but can be worth the effort. The small flats off the beaten track will likely have less fishing pressure and may hold more fish. These isolated flats have provided me with great fishing over the years. If you have time before your trip, do your best to find a boater’s map, or at least a topographical map. The United States Geological Survey is a good place to start. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is currently developing high-resolution photography outlays for some Caribbean islands. In addition, private conservation organizations have such information for some locations. Most islands have a government fisheries bureau, which is worth a phone call (results are certainly not guaranteed). I've found some very good maps in old fishing and sailing books. You don't need a map detailed enough for navigation, just one that shows you general patterns of inshore water depths and reef locations. Time spent searching the World Wide Web may also pay dividends.
Strategies for fishing these flats will vary. On the narrow flats that parallel the shoreline, I prefer to slowly walk the shoreline searching for signs of fish. Walking on the shore provides me a higher vantage point so I can see fish at a greater distance. I am also able to quickly move to a location down the shoreline should I see activity such as a tailing fish. Don't be surprised to see fish right up against the shoreline, especially at high tide or at dawn or dusk. If you don’t see fish after a pass along the shoreline, you may want to wade the middle of the flat. If this strategy doesn’t work, wade to the outer edge of the flat and try casting into deeper water. Such blind-casting might result in a nice jack, snapper, or barracuda, and even the occasional small tarpon. If you don't see fish on your first visit to a flat, try again at a different time of day or at a different point in the tidal cycle. I know of a few flats where large schools of bonefish cruise the flats in the last hour and a half of the incoming tide but are completely absent at other points in the tidal cycle. Still other flats have feeding fish at dawn and dusk, regardless of the tide.
Although a variety of fish species can be found on pocket flats, there are some generalizations regarding which species to expect on the different types of flats. Flats that are primarily turtle grass are most likely to harbor bonefish, jacks, and barracuda. Pocket flats with a good bit of coral rubble are often good for permit, but you might also find barracuda and jacks. Small tarpon occasionally cruise the deeper waters along the edges of pocket flats.
This shallow water island habitat is my favorite because it is the home of permit on many Caribbean islands. Even if you don’t find permit, you may still find jacks, barracuda, and small sharks on the backreef flats. This type of flat is protected by a coral reef, offshore of which is deeper water. Behind the reef, coral rubble and sand collect, forming the shallow flat on which scattered corals and seagrass grow. The reef breaks up the larger waves, but the remnants of those larger waves roll across the flat, making fly presentation a challenge. In general, fishing the backreef flats is best from the latter half of the incoming tide through the first hour or so of the outgoing tide. In addition, backreef flats that hold good water throughout the tidal cycle often are great places to search for fish at dawn and dusk. I am not a big fan of early mornings, but I will often drag myself out of bed before dawn to walk my favorite backreef flat at first light.
On backreef flats, the permit generally come through the reef, often riding the energy of the remnant waves into the shallow water. I have seen large fish swimming sideways to get through particularly shallow areas. Once on the backreef flat, permit can often be seen cruising, dorsal fins above the water. They occasionally stop to feed, digging their noses into the bottom. This is when you can see their large forked tails waving above the water. Prey items for permit in these areas include small clams and snails, sea urchins, crabs, and shrimp. After feeding along a stretch of backreef flat, the fish usually head back through the reef to deeper water. In my experience, fish that feed on a flat will generally feed in the same general pattern; they will cross the reef in specific areas, travel along the flat in the same direction, and be more abundant in some sections of the flat than in others, often at the same time in the tidal cycle. Often, an individual fish's feeding pattern will persist for a few days (unless this fish is spooked by an angler!).
Once you have spotted a fish, the challenge is to present the fly close enough so the fish will see the fly but not so close that you spook the fish. When feeding on the bottom, a permit's circle of vision is limited; they seem to focus on a rather small section of bottom just in front of, or directly below, their swimming path. One option is to cast your fly directly in front of a slowly cruising fish. This is tough because a fly that splats down on the water will often spook the permit. A second option is to anticipate the path of a cruising fish and cast the fly along this path, well ahead of the fish. As the fish approaches the fly, give it a small twitch. This option can be very tough to impossible in these backreef areas because the small waves rolling across the flat will move your fly out of the fish's path. A third option is to cast directly in front or to the side of a feeding, tailing fish. Let the fly drop to the bottom. If the permit doesn't react, give the fly a slight twitch. In all of these scenarios, the small waves rolling across the flat make fly presentation very difficult. Of course, there are times when the sea is calm, and the water surface is like a mirror, but the permit are very, very wary and easily spooked under these conditions. It’s a challenging situation under all conditions, which is part of what makes fishing for permit on backreef flats so much fun.
If you are lucky enough to hook a permit, you will be faced with the challenge of keeping your leader in one piece as the fish heads to deeper water – directly through the coral reef. Of the numerous permit I’ve hooked on the fly on the backreef flats, I’ve lost all to leaders which were cut on corals. The closest I came to landing one of these backreef permit was when the tippet parted as the leader came to the rod tip at the end of a 20 minute battle. The best strategy seems to be to give the fish plenty of line to run through the reef to deeper water, then really work the fish with the rod and a tight drag. If you are lucky, the fish will get through the reef without breaking the leader. Once the fish has tired it will come to the surface. At this point you want to work the fish back over the reef onto the flat. This is the stage of the fight where I have lost many fish, due either to bad luck or impatience on my part. So take your time even though all of your senses tell you to hurry.
When conditions aren't good for permit, or if I'm in the mood for a less intense day of fishing, I enjoy walking shorelines in search of fish. Sometimes this involves sighting fish, but blind-casting is often rewarded with hook-ups. Both rocky and sandy shorelines can hold fish. Sandy shorelines are great because non-fishers can enjoy a day on the beach and you can get in some fishing time. My preferred outfit for fishing shorelines is a 9 foot six weight rod, which is perfect for most of what you will find along these shorelines. However, I have been overmatched on occasion, so carrying along an 8-weight isn't a bad idea. Perhaps the best argument for taking the 8-weight outfit is to combat the breeze. My general routine is to walk a shoreline looking for signs of baitfish (e.g., members of the anchovy and herring families). If I find baitfish, this is where I concentrate my efforts. If there are no obvious signs of baitfish, I generally stop along the beach at intervals of 30 yards or so and blind cast for a few minutes. The most common catch along these shorelines is the barjack, although palometa (a member of the jack family and relative of the permit), small barracuda, cero mackerel, and various types of snappers may also grab the fly.
Seaward of many sandy shorelines in the Caribbean are large areas of seagrass-covered bottom. Barjacks frequently swim through these areas in search of small fish and shrimp that hide among the seagrass. I’ve caught many barjacks while standing in waist-deep water, blind-casting a chartreuse-and-white clouser minnow. Chartreuse-and-white clousers, size 1, are my flies of choice in these areas. Pack along a few white and blue-and-white deceivers (size 2/0) as well, just in case you run into some tarpon pushing herring onto the beach or large barracuda stalking baitfish. In my experience, tide is not so important for fishing the shorelines or seagrass beds, but time of day can be. Morning and evening are generally best for tarpon, while it is common to find jacks and barracuda eager to take a fly from mid-morning to mid-afternoon.
Mangrove Creeks and Shorelines
While mangrove creeks and lagoons can hold a variety of fish and provide some awesome fishing, these are perhaps the most dangerous places to try wading. My advice is do not attempt to wade a mangrove creek, lagoon, or shoreline. The mangroves act to filter out sediment eroding from the land (they perform an irreplaceable ecological role), which creates a soft-bottom, often a mucky soup of mud. This may be the case even if there is seagrass growing on the bottom - underneath the grass may be dangerously soft sediment. This is the area where a small boat, kayak, or canoe is perfect. I have waded a few mangrove areas, but only after thorough exploration, and never alone.
Mangrove creeks and lagoons are generally well protected, so are great places to fish when the wind is blowing along the beaches or on the flats. However, because they are well protected from wind, mangrove areas can be full of bugs - mosquitoes and 'no-see-ums', so take along some good bug juice.
Many species of fish can be found in mangrove creeks and lagoons; various species of jacks and snappers, tarpon, bonefish, ladyfish, snook, and barracuda. At high tide, fish such as bonefish and snappers may be well up among the flooded mangrove roots – you can often hear large fish thrashing through the roots in pursuit of prey. As the tide drops, these fish will move out of the mangroves into open water. Tarpon, barracuda, and snook can often be found suspended motionless in the shade of the mangroves, waiting for an unsuspecting fish to pass within range. These fish are often tough to spot and can be rather particular on the choice of fly. You will likely need to make relatively long casts, placing the fly very close to the fish to entice a strike. However, if you are lucky you may happen upon a school of aggressive baby tarpon willing to take anything that swims. Relish such good fortune.
A great way to fish the mangroves is to quietly move the boat parallel to the shoreline, at the greatest distance from the mangroves that you can cast. Cast your fly as close to the mangrove roots as possible. If you don't occasionally hang up on a root or branch, you aren't casting close enough. The complex habitat provided by the mangrove roots acts as a nursery area for juveniles of many fish species, as well as a safe area for herring and other baitfish. Also, a rather complex community of invertebrates (including tasty critters like crabs, shrimp, and clams) lives on and among the roots, as well as in the sediments. Snappers, bonefish, tarpon, and snook, among others, often cruise the edges of the mangroves in search of a meal.
In addition to fishing the edges of the mangroves, you may also find fish feeding in open areas of the lagoons. Many lagoons have flats that provide good sight-fishing for bonefish, and may turn out a snapper or two. As always, look for jacks to be cruising these areas in search of a meal. The edges of sand-filled holes in the seagrass are favorite areas for barracuda and snook to wait to ambush prey.
My Favorite Flies.
I’ve found that I need relatively few flies to successfully fish the shorelines of Caribbean islands. By far the most productive searching fly is a chartreuse-and-white clouser minnow, size 1. I also carry a few in size 2, in case I come across bonefish. The clouser is great when fishing for jacks and for blind-casting from shore, and is my all-purpose searching fly. I also carry a supply of deceivers, ranging in size from 1/0 to 3/0. All white, white with a blue back, and white with a chartreuse back make up my color selection. I carry a Keys-style tarpon fly or two, size 2/0, red collar and grizzly wing. The chartreuse and white deceivers have proven successful for barracuda, a needlefish fly or two should also make it into your fly box. For bonefish, I like to carry numerous patterns in sizes 2 and 4. See my Bonefish Selection for a complete list. My favorite flies for permit are crab patterns (Del's Yarn Crab and Raghead wool crab) in green or tan to match the bottom, shrimp patterns (Big Ugly and other mantis shrimp imitations), and urchin patterns (made from either splayed rubber hackle or spun elk hair).
While far from a complete description of island fishing, this article should get you pointed in the right direction on your next Caribbean vacation. As in any fishing situation, experience is the best teacher. And don't be surprised to get a few curious looks while you are fishing - depending upon your destination, you may very well be the first fly fisher to hit the shoreline.
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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