Summer kings oblige fly fishers who know how to bring ’em to the table.
Offshore flyfishing success requires such a wide range of angling skills that the “purist” might as well stick to the confines of the lagoons-especially when king mackerel are the target.
But until my old baseball coach, Greg Snyder, asked me for flycasting lessons, my flyfishing imagination didn’t stretch much beyond the beach. In hindsight that seems a shame because Palm Beach County, the area where I cut my fisherman teeth, is a great launch pad for the bluewater fly game.
Thanks to the protection from ocean swells that the Bahamas Bank affords us, seas are often calm enough for a jaunt in a fly-fisher friendly skiff or a bay boat. Plus, the Gulf Stream’s proximity and the narrow continental shelf attract huge schools of kingfish within a very short run of the inlets.
Snyder had already taught me much about conventional offshore tactics, so we began to synthesize conventional and flyfishing techniques that improved our ability to catch bonito, dolphin and kingfish on fly gear. Because kingfish make such spectacular runs, and since they proved to be the most difficult target, we became somewhat obsessed with them. As a result, we’ve honed a fishing system which just about always yields us at least a couple of kings, especially in the late spring, summer and early fall, when the schools are thick.
One of the reasons I so enjoy fishing with my old coach is that he always gets 100 percent prepared before we hitch the trailer, which is critical since our strategies require a variety of equipment. Plus, his 21-foot open fisherman is rigged for bluewater fly fishing. It has two large baitwells that accommodate heaps of different size baits. There are ample rodholders for an assortment of conventional rods, fly rods and sabiki rods. And his 12-foot- and 7-foot castnets stow easily under the open front deck. The whole process is rather labor-intensive, but we stow equipment as it’s no longer needed so we proceed from step to step fairly seamlessly.
Our bluewater flyfishing trips begin like most bait-fishing trips-we go fishing for bait first. If the practice of chumming seems to stray from the essence of fly fishing there is at least
a way to gather chum without anyone catching you with a spinning rod or a cast net. A few years ago, a rather high-minded brother of the angle recriminated me for my prowess with a cast net, so I tied a sabiki quill on a fly rod with a sinking line and caught threadfin herring one at a time. But I told him that we’d get offshore a lot quicker if I just threw the net while he cast the sabiki rod, which he eventually, but begrudgingly, agreed to do. Funny thing was he looked more enlightened after he landed his first king, which he hooked in a chumslick, than he did spouting all that sanctimonious nonsense.
Because the small-meshed net Snyder must use to catch baby sardines doesn’t sink very fast, we must net the schools in less than three feet of water, so it’s nice to be in the same boat we use to drift flats. We try to catch a few hundred small “chummers” first, then we look for bigger baits along the beaches, in water shallow enough to use the 12-foot net. If the bait is deep, we use sabikis. Snyder throws a cast net as well as a bayou shrimper, and every time I watch the flying mesh catch the morning sun, I realize that art is as visually captivating as a tight loop, and I feel proud of our diverse skills.
Although we often follow the commercial kingfishers to locate the schools, kingfish seem to like certain points along the reef which runs from 60 to 90 feet parallel to the beach from Boynton Inlet north past Jupiter Inlet. Kings usually hang in the bottom third of the water column, so a fly rodder’s best luck occurs when the fish are feeding in no more than 70 feet of water. Realistically, the fly won’t stay down long much deeper than 50 feet.
I once caught a kingfish that skyrocketed on a big Crease Fly (a topwater pop-per/diver of sorts) but usually, even when you chum them up, you have to get down as deeply as our present fly line technology will allow.
Although I’ve caught them easily enough on 8-weight rods, the sinking lines we employ best match 12-weight rods. Although the frequency depends upon the species, kingfish, sailfish
(yes, I’ve had shots), dolphin, amberjacks, rainbow runners and cobia show themselves on the surface. So, you are occasionally called on to make a cast. Therefore, it’s best to use a 10- or 11-weight rod to better cast a very heavy sinking line.
While lead-core lines make the fastest vertical presentations, they can cost you shots at fish that appear closer to the surface. It’s simply impossible to pick these lines up and re-present to surface-feeding fish. Conversely, sinking-tip heads attached to floating or intermediate-sinking running lines work poorly because you can’t effectively fish any deeper than the length of the head. They don’t sink uniformly, and huge bellies form when the current pushes against two lines of different diameters. But full-sinking lines, such as Scientific Angler’s Striper 4 line or one of equivalent weight, attached to a small-diameter sinking running line, pull the fly downward, plus are a bit easier to pick up and cast to fish on top.
To locate kingfish, we usually set a couple of stinger-rigged live baits out at different depths on conventional gear. Meanwhile, one fly angler plies the depths with a bulky but exact imitation of the baits we’re using. Sure, kings will eat an ugly Sea Witch when it’s trolled past them so quickly they don’t have time to think, but they’re keen-eyed creatures that finish the kill by sight.
So, when fly fishing for them, which involves a crippled baitfish retrieve, the slow-moving fly needs to look exactly like the real thing. Big Deceivers and synthetic-winged Puglisi baitfish patterns work well. But Capt. Scott Hamilton, a local guide who specializes in bluewater fly fishing, invented a streamer he calls the “Eat Me” which is deadly. He taught us to use prismatic eyes on our streamers, and to tie on a new fly the second the eyes get knocked off. We also adhere to his theories about fly colors in dirty versus clear water. In dirty water, which occurs frequently in summer due to freshwater runoff, Hamilton prefers pink-and-white, chartruese-and-white and yellow-and-white streamers between five and
seven inches in length.
“Longer than that,” he says, “and they just bite the tail end off.” Sometimes, though, 10-inch streamers are the ticket, but you have to tie them on tandom-rigged hooks, which is a royal pain in terms of casting and fouling.
When there’s a lot of bait around, natural colors, such as olive-and-white or blue-and-white, work best. Clearer water calls for longer leaders, but five feet of fluorocarbon usually suffices. There is some debate about the types and lengths of bite tippet. Both Snyder and Hamilton prefer to use No. 4 wire, but Hamilton calls a 12-inch piece “short.”
“I prefer No. 4 wire over the new supple wire that can be knotted, ” says Scott, “because a haywire twist has a much slimmer profile than a blood knot or a uni-knot. I think bulky knots lead to refusals. So, even with my haywire twists, I only make three normal twists before the barrel roll.”
Because we use it on our conventional gear, Snyder and I mostly use No. 4 wire, as well. That having been said, the knottable stuff is great when the action is hot because it’s so easy to work with. Plus, it’s easier to tie on very short lengths of it when the fish are picky. And if the fish really exhibit lockjaw, use a piece of 80-pound fluorocarbon and a fly tied on a ci
rcle hook. If you can remember not to set the hook, it will find its way into the toothless corner of a king’s mouth on 50 percent of your strikes. However, keep in mind that there has to be ample gap between the point and the shank of a circle hook, so use 3/0 or 4/0 circles without offset bends-the kind made specifically for fly fishers. A standard offset hook makes the fly swim poorly.
When you catch a king, or most any of the other coastal pelagic species, other members of the school usually follow the hooked fish up. So, once we hook a fish on conventional gear we begin to sweeten the water liberally with the live chum baits. If there are enough hands on board, we also cut the tails off a few of the bigger baits. They descend bleeding and wiggling, and the fly angler tries to get the fly among them. It’s imperative to not make a conventional fly cast-any horizontal presentation only slows the sink rate. Simply drop the fly straight down and shake out the running line by wiggling the rodtip.
But whether you’re making a vertical presentation in a chumslick or down to a school you marked on your fishfinder, there’s a trick to the retrieve. Yes, it’s glorified deep jigging, and it requires a short, very precise upsweep of the rod. If you sweep the tip up much past your waist, you won’t be able to set the hook. And when you drop the tip back down, do it slowly. Most strikes come on the drop, so you must maintain enough tension throughout the short descent to set the hook.
Because kings like to strike on the pause, and because the strike is often subtle, the trickiest aspect of fly fishing for kingfish is setting the hook. When fooled by a vertical presentation, kingfish often come back at you. Most people feel a bump and come up a little, which is the worst thing you can do because you can’t hook them at that angle and the fish drops the fly
the second it feels any resistance.
“When a king hits a fly, it overshoots the spot by 20 feet or more,” Hamilton says. “The fish will hold onto the fly for five seconds or even longer. So, it’s best to keep the rodtip down and strip like mad.”
In this situation, a Line Tamer or any homemade flyline bucket becomes indispensible. As soon as the fish feels the hook, it streaks back in the other direction so fast that you must clear 100 feet or more of line in a matter of seconds.
“I saw one guy get an earring ripped out of his ear, and we’ve lost one tennis bracelet, two watches and a cell phone during the first blistering runs,” Snyder joked. “And one guy had a pair of clippers hanging around his neck on 80-pound dacron. We weren’t sure whether he’d lose his head or go flying through the guides.”
But that’s the kind of excitement that makes all the work and the ribbing from fly purists well worth it. That and the sense of pride in knowing that such a variety of angling skills went into catching one of the oceans’ speediest fish on a fly rod.