The Square End, The Pointy End

One of the advantages to spending time on both the square and pointy ends of a flats boat is that it provides two perspectives. From the bow, it has become automatic to quickly figure out where a fish has been spotted from the vantage of the poling platform before I can see it, when the boat will be positioned for a cast, and what that likely position will be. It’s also my responsibility to quickly spot the fish, figure out the best cast, and execute it. After all, the person on the poling platform is fishing vicariously through the angler in the bow, and has been pushing the boat and angler around the flat in a slow motion dance.

From the poling platform, I am a bit more attuned to melding the wind, current, tide, light, and skills of the angler on the bow into a strategy for approaching sighted fish. The goal is to make the shot at the fish as straightforward as possible. It’s also important to succinctly direct the angler on the bow to the fish – position, distance, and presentation.

Successfully catching fish requires good teamwork between the people at each end of the boat. Below is a short list of things to keep in mind, whether you are fishing or poling, to give you a better shot at catching more fish.

Perspective from the Platform

Be Ready
Probably the most frustrating from the platform perspective is when an angler isn’t ready.  This situation occurs when we have been searching for fish for a while, a fish is finally spotted, and the angler just isn’t ready. Sometimes it’s because the angler never finished getting things ready to go during the initial setup, but usually it’s because the angler has lost focus, is thinking about other things, and line is underfoot or the fly is tangled in the fly line.  This is especially frustrating on days when the opportunities to cast at fish are few and far between. 

Stay Focused It can be tough to stay focused during a long day on the water, especially during those inevitable lulls when fish might not be seen for a while. But the guy on the platform remains focused, so the angler on the bow can stay focused as well. This is especially true if anglers are splitting time on the bow – each angler is on the bow for a short enough time that focus should not be a problem (but it certainly can be). Conversations with the guide are nice, but don’t stop looking for fish, and switch into fishing mode when the guide calls out a fish. Lack of focus tends to lead to an angler not being prepared when a fish is sighted, and a blown shot at a fish.

Stay Still
When on the bow, stay still. Remember that whenever you move on the bow you change the point of balance on the boat.  Anglers who move around a lot can make poling a real challenge because the guy on the platform has to also move around to counter the change in balance.  More important – moving around causes the boat to rock, which sends out pressure waves that can alert fish to your presence.  This can be especially problematic on the small boats that are used to track bonefish on shallow flats.

Listen to the Guide
When the guide calls out a fish, make sure you either see it or help the guide lead you to the fish. Use your rod to point in the direction of the fish. The guide will tell you to swing your rod left or right until you are pointing at the fish. If you still can’t see the fish, start to false cast so the guide can direct your cast in the correct direction and at the right distance.
Listen to when the guide tells you:

  1. where the fish is and in what direction it is moving
  2. where to place your cast
  3. how and when to move the fly
  4. when the fish has taken the fly and when to strike

Know Distance and Direction
When a guide calls out “bonefish at 9 o’clock at 60 feet”, you will greatly increase your chances of catching that fish if you have a general idea of where to look for the fish.  The guide shouldn’t have to say “no, the other 9 o’clock” as you look for a fish at 3 o’clock. Sometimes, a guide’s estimate of distance is different than yours (he may say 60 feet, and you think it is more like 40 feet). Don’t get into an argument of whose distance estimates are more accurate, adapt to the guide’s distances.

Line Management
Assuming that there is an accomplished angler on the bow, based on my view from the platform, I think the biggest issue is line management. Line management means:

  1. Making sure the line is not piled up on itself so that it ties elegant knots as it rises toward the first stripping guide;
  2. Not standing on the line;
  3. Making sure the line stays in the boat and doesn’t fall over the side into the water;
  4. Properly guiding the fly line through the first stripping guide once a fish has the fly and is off to the races.

We all know that this is basic stuff, but above all else I think this is what blows most shots for an angler on the bow. So after the guy in the poling platform has humped across the flat to catch up to a big fish, watching a cast stop short because the angler was standing on the line is, to say the least, a downer. Watching the angler on the bow do the Texas Two-Step to keep from standing on line as a fish takes off for the horizon can be damn funny (personal experience), but the punch line isn’t nearly as good if the line gets stuck underfoot and the tippet parts.

Perspective from the Bow

Stop the Boat

One of the challenges to presenting a fly to a fish is figuring out the movement of the boat relative to the fish. Unfortunately, I think far too often the boat is not stopped when an angler is casting, even though it could and should be. Appropriately manipulating the fly, stripping in line to keep a straight line to the fish, and setting the hook create enough of a challenge on their own. In my view, adding the problem of the boat moving closer to the fish while all of this is going on is something that often shouldn’t occur. Too many times, not stopping the boat results in fish that are missed because the angler couldn’t or didn’t get a tight line to the fish.
Sure, there are times when it’s difficult or impossible to stop the boat’s forward movement: stopping the boat may cause waves to slap the hull, or a push pole may bang on hard bottom, both of which may spook a fish. But as often as not, there is no negative to stopping the boat.

One reason for not stopping the boat may be the excitement of the moment. There are times when the situation is so exciting, I get so involved in watching the action that I forget to stop the boat.

Getting Too Close
One of the jobs of the person on the poling platform is to get the angler on the bow in the best position to cast to a fish. In addition to putting the angler in the best position relative to wind, fish position and movement, etc distance from the fish is a big item. Too often, getting the boat too close to the fish, on purpose, is a big frustration when I am on the bow. This is because the closer the boat is to the fish, the fewer chances the angler has to get the fish to eat. For example, let’s say that a bonefish is 30 feet away and moving left to right. The angler makes a cast to lead the fish by a couple feet, but as the fly reaches the water the bonefish makes a right turn to chase down natural prey. The bonefish’s right turn puts it on a collision course with the boat. Before the angler can re-cast, the fish sees the boat and spooks. Add another 20 or 30 feet to the distance and the angler gets another shot at that fish.

In my view, I think it is best to put the angler at as far a distance as he/she can effectively cast and accurately present the fly to the fish. This does not mean that if an angler can cast a maximum of 90’ that all shots should be set up for that 90’ cast. But it does mean that, if conditions are right, a 70’ cast should be set up as the first shot. In a perfect world, the first cast is always made, the fish always eats. But in the real world, casts are blown, the fish moves while the fly is in the air, the shadow from a bird flying overhead spooks the fish, or another of the seemingly infinite ways that what looked to be good shots fall apart. The farther away the fish, the more chances the angler has at a second or even third shot at the fish. If the fish is only 30’ feet away, second and third shots are unlikely. If the 70’ cast proves to be a bit too much, then the boat can be poled closer to the fish, or a different angle taken.

In this instance, I’m not referring to fish that mysteriously show up 20 feet from the boat, allowing only a quick dump cast. I’m referring to fish that are spotted well off, and the boat is poled close to the fish.

Give Clear Directions
Clear directions means telling the angler the direction, distance, and direction of movement of a sighted fish. Many times a guide will bark out “Big fish at 10 o’clock”, but give no indication of the distance the fish is from the boat. When swinging my gaze to find a fish sighted by the person on the poling platform, knowing how far away the fish is located is extremely helpful. Otherwise, 10 o’clock can go on forever into the distance. Knowing the distance also helps to prepare for a cast.

The direction that a fish is moving is extremely helpful as well. If a fish is sighted at 10 o’clock but is moving left to right, the angler’s search will be between 10 and 11. But if the fish is moving right to left, the search should be between 10 and 9. This can make the difference between a solid shot at a fish and a desperation cast.

Speak Loud Enough for Angler to Hear You
This should be pretty obvious, but too often the disjointed character of some days on the water is entirely because the angler was unable to understand the person on the poling platform. This doesn’t mean that you yell at the angler on the bow, but make sure the angler hears you and understands what you are saying. This is especially true on windy days.

Match the Fly to Depth
The depth of the water and depth in which the fish are moving are the important factors in selecting whether to use an unweighted or weighted fly. Even so, there is sometimes a disconnect between what fly a guide suggests for an angler on the bow and the conditions. When fishing for bonefish, for example, I’d rather change flies every 30 minutes to match the depth than cast the wrong fly – a lightly weighted shrimp fly to bonefish that pass underneath without a clue the fly is there.