One way to learn how to fly-fish is right on the water with fish all around. That's where my assistant, Miss Amy, found herself several years ago, holding her first fly rod ever. Our Mayan fishing guides coached her as she waded along with them, giving her advice on casting and stalking bonefish. It's an exciting way to learn fly-fishing, much more thrilling than an empty lot with a casting coach.
A Mayan guide explains some of the basics of fly fishing to Miss Amy, shortly before the first school of bonefish swim by.
We were fishing Sian Kaan Biosphere Reserve (www.cesiak.org), just south of Tulum in Mexico. You can fly into Cancun, catch a ride south, and the next morning -- after riding a panga for 20 minutes -- hop out and wade a vast, saltwater estuary with a number of saltwater species, often without seeing another boat.
The Reserve is catch and release only and prohibits all fishing except with fly tackle. The guides show uncommon patience -- coaching, teaching and pointing out bonefish -- until the angler hooks up. Despite being a complete rookie at this, Miss Amy wound up landing a bonefish on a fly that very first morning.
What a wonderful sport, catching bonefish with fly tackle in a beautiful setting. In addition to bonefish, we caught bar jacks, barracuda and a sizeable mangrove snapper that day.
Saltwater fly fishing is labor intensive, so those who prefer sitting under a tree while watching a bobber need not apply. Casting a weightless bass popper around lily pads, where freshwater fish sit most the day without moving, often only 20 feet away, is one thing. Saltwater fish are far more restless; they shift with the tides and may only be in casting range for a few seconds. To catch them you've got to be practiced, somewhat talented and fairly decisive. Fearless, too, when a tarpon the size of a family couch grabs on and takes to the air, landing with a crash, ripping line through your rod guides quicker than a striking snake.
On prime days, when the boat is anchored and fish are feeding carelessly on the surface in the same spot, dropping a fly in their midst isn't so difficult. Those of us who can dump a fly out there 30 or 50 feet are bound to hook up without burning up energy "blind casting" for single fish. That's why it pays to carry a fly rod in a protective tube, or secure rod holder in the boat; you never know what the day might offer. If great conditions develop, pull out the fly rod.
Our Mayan guide from Sian Kaan gently holds up a bonefish for a quick photo before release.
Becoming a proficient caster simply requires practice. You can flail away in any open space without having a fly on the end of your line. After all, it's the fly line that delivers the near-weightless fly and hook to the fish. Most fly lines are 100 feet long and tapered. Some lines sink while others float. If you're in saltwater, chances are a sinking line is best. And it will sink. I've had friends in Texas catch big red snapper on fly rods. The water depth was 45 feet and the snapper were obviously a lot closer to the surface than that. (Seeing the water "turn red" is a rare treat, meaning red snapper are so hungry, they're schooling close to the boat).
That's a rarity, however, and there are many other marine species that lend themselves more readily to fly-fishing. Tarpon and cobia on the surface, Spanish mackerel and bonito busting minnows on top, or seatrout, bonefish and redfish on the flats. And don't forget dolphin (mahi-mahi) offshore. A dolphin will eat a ham sandwich on a good day; so a colorful fly looks like pure candy...and what a fight on fly tackle!
How to get started? It happens in many different ways.
Years ago, flush with cash after winning an offshore tournament, I was advised to acquire a 9-foot, 9-weight fly rod that would cover most of the saltwater scene. It was too light for big tarpon and sailfish, but I was more interested in wading for redfish, seatrout, bonefish and the like. I picked up an appropriately sized saltwater fly reel and loaded it with sinking line.
After a little casting practice in the yard, I began having success. I've had memorable times at the end of the local jetty, with eight or nine seatrout caught in the 3-pound class, using a weightless topwater popper. Also nearly a dozen tarpon hooked in the two- and three-foot range during a single evening, fish that offered a sporty fight from slippery granite rocks. I was then able to needle Joe Doggett, outdoor writer for the Houston Chronicle (who had traveled widely and fished overseas countless times) that I had racked up a dozen tarpon hookups in a single evening with a fly rod...and there was no airline ticket involved.
Another Sian Kaan bonefish before release.
The following May, I spent a day in the boat with fly fishing guide Dick Stammers in Key West, who nailed a pair of 80-pound tarpon on only two attempts. We positioned the boat in front of each oncoming school, and Stammers stripped line onto the deck, zipped a sinking tarpon fly out about 75 feet, showing me exactly how it's done. Each fish jumped like crazy with a spirited fight, a long battle wearing the fish out, with Stammers eventually breaking the will of each fish. With another guy poling the boat, I was allowed to swim after one of those hooked tarpon, taking underwater pictures that I still treasure today.
Next morning Miss Amy and I were (amazingly) on the very same flat, poling along in a borrowed skiff. We positioned the boat just ahead of each approaching school of tarpon, and I managed to flick an offering perhaps 60 feet as the school swam into range. I fought and released a 25-pounder, and then lost an 80-pounder on the fourth jump with that magic wand. The 9-weight rod was light, didn't even have a rod butt, and my casting wasn't so great. Fortunately, the wind was calm and the sun behind us, with each school swimming straight toward us in crystal clear water. What they call "ice cream" conditions. It was a morning to remember.
Without formal casting lessons, I'm self-taught and still dismayed at casting into a head-on breeze. Some fly anglers can drive a weightless fly straight into a brisk wind, over flats sprinkled with whitecaps. That's impossible for most people, but some of these casters are practically Zen Masters at their trade.
A few pointers on fly tackle: 9-foot rods are available in at least two pieces, but a 3- or 4-piece rod is more convenient and travels more safely. Modern fly rods have smooth tapers and ferrules, so even a multi-piece rod has a fine, smooth bend. Any fly rod priced below $100 might be regarded with suspicion; however, that's a good starting price for a beginner.
Your personal style of casting is ideally determined before buying the rod. That would require a casting lesson or at least an opinion from a friend who does fly fish that can help judge your natural method of working the rod. That should help determine whether to pick a rod with slow, medium or fast action. At the very least, give the rod the "wiggle test" in the store, to judge how far the rod bends from natural action. Vibrate it back and forth, and watch the bend gradually increase. Ideally you would practice casting with a particular rod before buying it. My fly rod was bought untried in the concrete canyons of Houston, where there was nowhere to cast. The snobby salesman probably thought I was a "potlicker" for buying a horse before riding it.
As a personal preference, go for a fly rod with "snake" line guides, which are very durable compared to ring guides. Some are chrome-plated, which wears off and then corrodes. Look for titanium snake guides that won't corrode. Also, an extension-butt on the rod, just behind the reel, gives you added leverage when fighting a fish. With a big fish, you don't want to jam the reel into your gut during a long fight; that would increase your reel's drag pressure. Always go with a cork foregrip on the rod; it has a natural feel and is easy to clean.
Joe Richard is a Gainesville, Florida, writer and photographer who owns Seafavorites.com, a stock photo web site of outdoor photography.