Fly Fishing for Coastal Gamefish
I was recently reminded of the potential for great fishing on days with weather so poor that most anglers stay home. I was in Belize, the outskirts of approaching tropical storm Alex were soaking the coast. Early in the day, some lightening and thunder was mixed in, which kept the boats in port. But in the afternoon, squalls had for some time been only rain, and any breeze was rather minor. So I grabbed another angler, jumped in a canoe, and headed into a backcountry lagoon to look for tailing bonefish. It ended up being the right choice.
It took us about 10 minutes to paddle to an area where we might see some bonefish, and only another 10 minutes before we saw our first fish. Unfortunately, we spooked them both – they were holding or feeding in a little depression that was just deep enough that they could feed without showing a tail. Plus, the bottom in that area was dark, so they were invisible until they spooked away from the canoe.
I was wearing sunglasses that I purchased especially for this type of situation – low light, cruising fish. In these situations, strategy is everything. First, it’s important that the background (the area behind the portion of water you are searching for fish, or put anther way – the sky in the direction you are looking) is dark. In this situation, the skies were rather dark in all directions, but I did my best to keep the darkest skies in the background. I also focused my searching along mangrove shorelines because the mangroves provided a dark background with little glare. But more importantly, the mangroves protected the water from the breeze that was just strong enough to ripple the water surface, and created a slick water surface. I also tried my best to find stretches of light bottom to focus my search for cruising fish. In the slick water with a dark background, the visibility into the water was rather good, and in areas of light bottom the fish were easy to spot.
We only had a couple hours before we had to be back at camp, but we made the most of our time. We only saw a few tailing fish, and they were just quick pop-up fish – one or two swishes of the tail and then they disappeared. We didn’t get a solid shot on any of those fish. But we did get solid shots on some cruising fish, and managed to land three. Given more time, I’m certain we would have been able to land more.
I have had other experiences that reminded me that good fishing can be had in poor weather. I had one of my best bonefish fishing days ever during a day of overcast and on-and-off rain. Again, the water was slick calm, the tide was incoming, the skies were dark, and I was able to find calm water. The fish were very dark, so even though the bottom was dark and mottled, I was still able to pick out the fish. Plus, I think the weather had the fish in a relaxed state, and they tailed aggressively in very shallow water.Later on that same trip, I ventured out after the worst of a strong tropical wave had passed through in the morning, and fished the lee side of the island. The skies were once again dark, and in this location the bottom was white sand. The bonefish stood out like flashlights in the night and were very aggressive to the fly.
I had a great day of fishing for redfish in similar conditions – dark skies, rain, light breeze with plenty of protected, slick-water areas. This was an odd situation because it occurred in southwest Florida in late summer. Usually, rains here during summer are accompanied by lightening and thunder, which will force me off the water every time. But on this day, after sitting at home for the morning, it became clear that there would be no lightening and thunder, so I launched the boat, and searched for redfish. The redfish weren’t tailing, even though the tide was right for it, but they were laid up in water shallow enough that I could pick out many of them before they saw the boat and spooked.
One of the best things about these types of days is that few or no other anglers or boaters are on the water. Another is that the fish are typically in a pretty agreeable mood, so catching can be very good. And the rain tends to dampen sound, so it is often very quiet. I also like the depth of the subtle colors of the flats under these conditions – the bright pastels and sharp edges defined by high sun on the flats is replaced by muted, gray-tinged colors and softer edges.
To summarize, there are a few factors to take into account when fishing on rainy days. First, find areas where you are looking into a dark background, whether dark skies or brush shoreline. This reduces glare on the water. If, instead, you are looking for fish with a lighter sky as a background, your visibility will stink and you will miss a lot of fish.
Second, find areas that are protected from the wind so that you are fishing as slick a surface as possible. This will greatly increase your vision into the water – you will see more fish and will see them farther away. Giving you more time to get a fly to the fish.
Third, although fly presentation is still important under these conditions, I find that a soft landing of the fly is not nearly as important as on calm, sunny days. The weather seems to put the fish less on edge, and they are less likely to spook than on calm, sunny days, when they can be very tough.
It’s also important to fish shallow areas – low tide is very helpful. If it’s too deep, you’ll never see the fish in low light conditions. It’s hard enough to spot fish in deep water on sunny days.
If you don’t have yellow-tinted, polarized sunglasses, get a pair. They make sight fishing possible in low light conditions when the usual amber or other dark lenses don’t do the job. The yellow really brightens op the view, and helps to light up the flats and fish. The contrast is fantastic.
I had another good couple days of fishing in pre-tropical storm conditions on a trip to Casa Blanca lodge in Mexico.
Wind is your friend. How many times have I heard that one? In many ways, this is true. But wind is fickle, and can turn on you in an instant. If you formulate your strategy to take advantage of the wind, fishing can be pretty good. I’m often asked – all things being equal, would you rather have a windy, sunny day or calm, cloudy day when sight fishing or fishing the flats? The answer is easy – I’ll take sun and a nasty wind. If it’s cloudy, other things have to be just right to make it work (see my commentary on rainy days, above).
On a sunny and windy day, the first priority is to line yourself up on the flat so that you have good visibility (sun at your back). If you can’t see the fish, whether or not you can cast in the wind just doesn’t matter. Once you have the sun worked out, then you can incorporate the wind into your fishing strategy. On a perfect day, the sun and wind align, and you can work your way across the flat with both the sun and wind at your back. But even this scenario has its shortcomings.
If you’re fishing from a boat, a strong wind can make it difficult to control the drift of the boat, and a wind from behind can make it almost impossible to stop the boat. This means that if you spot a fish downwind, the movement of the boat will quickly close the gap between you and the fish. This requires a quick cast and a strip fast enough to keep up with the movement of the boat so that there is no slack in the line (the latter probably being the most difficult for many anglers). One way to combat this is, once a fish is spotted, pole the boat to one side as it drifts downwind. This can create the challenge of a sideways cast to the fish, but at least you won’t run over the fish. It’s also easier to keep a tight line.
A very windy day can cause enough surface chop on the water to reduce your ability to see fish, so be ready for quick, close-quarters casting. Close-quarters casts (and by close quarters I mean less than 20 feet) can be difficult – there is little fly line out of the rod tip for false casting, so making an accurate cast is tough.
The advantage of the surface chop is that you can usually get much closer to the fish before the fish sees the boat and spooks. I think this is for two reasons. First, the noise of the surface chop masks the noise made by the boat moving through the water. Second, the constantly changing angles of the water surface, and the associated changes in direction of light refraction through this surface, make the boat less visible to the fish. This means that those close-quarters casts are often successful, even if the fish seems impossibly close to the boat. The chop also masks the sound made by the fly hitting the water, so the loss of a soft presentation that typically results from a short cast matters less.
With close-quarters casts, it is a good idea to try to place the fly so that when the fish sees the fly, it is facing away from the boat. For example, you see a bonefish just off to the port side of the boat, 15 feet away. Cast the fly so that it lands in front of and to the outside of the fish (the side away from the boat). As the fly falls and you give it a small twitch, as the bonefish turns toward the fly it will be facing away from the boat and more likely to eat the fly. You note that I suggest just giving the fly a small twitch. The tendency for many anglers is to strip the fly, as they normally would. But this will bring the fly toward the fish – an unnatural direction of movement by a real prey – scaring off the bonefish.
In contrast, if you cast the fly between you and the fish, when the fish turns toward the fly the boat and occupants are going to immediately be in the background. So as the fish moves toward the fly it will likely see the boat and spook.
Of course, having both the sun and wind at your back is a best case scenario, and you are more likely to have the wind at an angle. The best angle is for the wind to be hitting your non-casting shoulder so that as you cast the fly line will be moved away from your body. There is nothing quite like the WHACK! of a clouser minnow slamming into a back or head. If you hit yourself with a fly, it’s no big deal. But if you impale the guide or a buddy on the poling platform, you will probably hear about it.
Lefty Kreh gave me a simple tip a few years ago that helps in the side-wind casting situations. The tendency is to make a cast at a fish and for the fly line to be caught by the wind and blown off course, usually downwind of the fish. To combat this, Lefty suggested dropping the rod tip to the water after completing the forward cast. This allows the cast to be made, and then brings the fly line down to the water as it lays out, greatly reducing the amount of downwind drift.
If you are wading, you don’t have to deal with downwind drift of a boat, but the angles of wind and sun are just as important. Many times on windy days I have crisscrossed a flat, moving nearly perpendicular to the wind, keeping the sun and wind behind me, or at least at an angle, searching for fish downwind. Opportunities come on both forward and back-cast angles. And while my casts often are low on style points, the key in these situations is to just get the fly in front of the fish.
I’ve used these strategies and techniques to great effect on many occasions, resulting in good days of fishing for bonefish, redfish, snook, tarpon, and striped bass. So the next time the weather turns sour, think twice before throwing in the towel. You might be surprised.
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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