May 16, 2011
By Ben Taylor
Lessons learned on one flat carry over to the next. Each one presents a puzzle to solve.
By Ben Taylor
Careful positioning of the caster led to this snook; and it's just as important in tarpon fishing.
There's nothing like a seductive fish tail to get you into trouble, and I'd done it again.
Crawling into the shallows to throw at a single redfish had left us hopelessly out of position for the school now chugging down the edge. I could get the boat almost close enough for my friend to try a shot, but with a 20-knot wind I knew I wouldn't have time to get in front of the fish. His cast was five feet short, but may as well have been in a bathtub for all the good it did.
Given time, most of us can find fish but I'd failed my basic responsibility. I didn't consider how I'd arranged the boat relative to the fish so my pal could get a decent cast. Thinking back on that judgment error, I'm reminded of the simple fact that most of us are better off getting a few really good shots, instead of lots of bad ones.
What do I mean by a good shot? Finding hungry fish, and getting into position for an effective cast. Sounds simple, and it can be, but sometimes it involves compromise.
Most of us throw baits, lures or flies best slightly down and across the wind. If you can find fish that are facing the wind, this angle is easy to attain. With the boat pointing downwind, and fish at 11 o'clock for right-handed casters, or one o'clock for left-handed casters, everything works at maximum efficiency. It also keeps the boat out of the caster's way. Excited spin and plug anglers are apt to wrap line around misplaced rods or upright push-poles. Polers only stand once in the way of a fly caster.
The tougher conditions become, the more critical a comfortable casting angle becomes. Luckily for us, while lighting and wind conditions change daily, Florida's coastline has thousands of bends, curves and points that allow us to approach fish from the best possible angle. Maybe you're reluctant to leave a consistent spot, but if the wind's all wrong you might be better off finding a lee, or perhaps reconsidering how you approach a productive flat.
One of my favorite fly tarpon spots is the edge of a bank shaped like a giant backward question mark. Fish push into it from the east with a rising tide but as they come around the bottom of the C, they come out of the morning sun. I can set the boat up to handle winds from northeast to due south by adjusting along a 100-foot swath. I can move to the far side of the C if the wind comes up from the north, for right-handers.
With north winds, the fish may be tough to see for a while early in the morning but we can throw at those we can identify. Leading into the C is a small point where the fish roll. That allows us to see where they are--if not the individual fish--and make a good cast to them.
I have to leave with lefties when the wind turns north, but half a mile up the road my flat points again toward the sun. We hide behind a small point the fish bounce water on so we know where they're at and have a head-on shot. Little of this path offers good visibility without glare.
I didn't always have my question mark figured out. The light bulb finally went on when I realized some less experienced anglers caught more fish there than seasoned veterans. With anglers capable of handling a bit of wind on the wrong side of the boat, I tended to take a position where we could reach every fish we could see. One of my best anglers spent two days here without a fish.
When he left, I had some first-timers who could not deal with any hint of wind. I made the 100-foot move to put their fish down and across the wind. In two days they hooked nine fish and landed three. It was a rude awakening for me but the revelation that great shots were more important than covering all the fish served me well a few weeks later.
Angie Lucas and I faced a 20-knot north wind on the second day of the 1990 Women's World Invitational Fly Tarpon Tournament. There are few good north-wind tarpon spots for fly fishing in the Upper Keys, which was what we needed to find.
We needed a downwind shot at fish we could see in time to get a cast to them, so we staked out upwind of a ditch tarpon used to cross a north-south bank.
It wasn't the easiest place to fish, but if Angie could drop a fly into the middle of a school and let the current work it, she'd have a chance of hooking up.
That's exactly what happened, and the fish Angie caught that morning won the tournament. The combination of her skill and ability to take advantage of the setup made the difference.
There are particular configurations on flats that consistently funnel fish, and you'll notice certain patterns that stand out.
A shallower edge like my backward question mark also works on bonefish, redfish and snook. Various parts of the edge provide easier angles for approaching laid-up or feeding fish, as the wind and currents allow. Depending on wind and visibility, feeding fish may work into the current or across it.
Permit leave little room for guesswork.
You won't find spots like my question mark by looking at charts. They're small chunks of much larger edges. You've got to pole and search them out, though sometimes fish give them away. Redfish or bonefish running edges in a hurry may turn to travel around what seems an insignificant mound of grass, just inches shallower than surrounding water. It might turn them into the sun and wind for you and they'll likely hump water so you can identify them.
As you search edges you'll recognize all types of terrain that can position fish for you. Many are obvious barriers, some only the fish understand. Many submerged terrain features serve as edges, too. Oyster bars, grass beds sprouting from light bottom, interconnected potholes, flats, shorelines, or even jetties might all define a travel path across the flats.
If you're in an area of broad, shallow flats you'll likely find a variety of depressions and shallow ridges. These features all affect the path fish take.
Every flat, bank and edge is different, but that doesn't mean the quest to understand them has to be.
Learning how a particular bottom configuration affects fish offers clues that help you und
erstand other areas.
Terrain features can also help identify fish at times when visibility is poor and fish are hard to see. When fish travel across the flats according to the demands of the underwater geography, they create a disturbance on the surface, be it a wake, a hump or just nervous water.
Reading a wake is not always simple but a bronze or bluish ball of fish at its head gives you a pretty good idea where to cast. And once you begin approaching promising water with both casting ease and visibility in mind, you'll be in the best possible position to catch whatever swims by.
We all have some order of preference for seeing fish. With or without the advantage of good light, most of us see tailing fish pretty well, so a good casting angle is more important than good light.
Fish don't always tail, though, and in some conditions tailers may be tough to catch. If that's the case, look for spots with some combination of activity. Tailing fish, mixed in with waking fish and mudding fish give you a lot more options. The fish may be willing to eat when they are in slightly deeper water, and only get particular once they get into tailing depths.
The deeper the water, the easier it is to approach and feed fish. Many of us find our boats dragging bottom while chasing tailing reds and bonefish. This alerts fish and makes it tough to get a good angle. In most situations I find more fish close to deep water.
In bonefish tournaments I seldom fish for tailers unless they are on an edge; in deep water; or are the only fish I can see. Sometimes you have no choice. Sometimes you have to fish whatever comes your way. Remember though, edges don't have to be abrupt dropoffs where flats meet channels. They might be the edge of a depression in a big flat or a shallow ridge surrounded by deeper water.
With boat positioning basics in mind it matters little what you fish for. You can change depths for migrating tarpon, cruising reds or bones, or tailing fish. You can fish down sun for pothole huggers and most of your shots should be at good angles.
Once you home in on the best approach to a flat, maintain that position. When conditions get tough, it becomes increasingly important to protect your best angle of approach.
In some circles it's considered foolish to stake out and wait for fish to come to you. But when fish are hitting the boat perfectly and they're eating, there is a lot to be said for a consistent shot. We fish sometimes in stupid conditions and you have to take your fish where and how you find them. With a good understanding of how fish move along a flat, and a grasp of boat positioning basics, you can catch fish when you really shouldn't be able to if you are moving around.
In last year's Islamorada Spring Bonefish Fly Tournament, Tom Siska and I guarded a corner under leaden skies hoping for a few somehow downwind shots in a 20-knot wind. We had a few fish pushing wakes up one edge and some more puffing occasional muds in our corner. We could identify but not see fish. It was enough as Tom fed maybe a dozen and landed seven during the three prime hours of the tide. Only one was an official weight fish but he captured the tournament release title and third place when he added a couple more fish later in the tournament. By taking what we knew and sticking with it, we were able to deal with extremely difficult conditions, and do well.
It pays to be more aggressive as conditions improve. Setup angles aren't so important when wind isn't a problem. Part of aggressive boat work is staying away from fish. I crowded my redfish, as described earlier, and got out of position for fishing the majority of the fish traveling along the flat. Hanging back a bit gives you more options. If you wait until you have to commit to a particular fish, you won't be cutting off other opportunities that may come along. You can always move in on fish that are a bit out of range. It's nearly impossible to chase down fish you aren't in position to approach.
Leaving maneuvering room also provides a few extra seconds for the poler and the angler to spot fish and plan strategy. Plenty of time to make a cast is a seldom-found luxury while flats fishing. We can make time if we don't crowd the fish.
Flats fishing from a boat is a team effort, and the better the poler and angler work together, the better they'll do.
The first order of business is for both partners to see the fish. A trick or two helps.
The simplest way to come to agreement on the identity of a fish is for the angler to point with his rod. Then you can talk right or left, or maybe add a descriptive color, wave bounce, or terrain feature to the discussion. On close fish, distance is often a problem. With some of today's quietest boats, fish swim under rodtips. Don't keep secrets. If you can't see the fish, say so. Added description may help or you may cast in a general direction and let the poler adjust you from there. You may have time for another cast or time to retrieve the bait into better position.
Good communication allows the poler to keep the angler away from fish until you both are ready. You may only have seconds to get the boat in position and get the cast off. Why rush it if you don't have to?
Unless you're dead downwind or upwind, the boat won't sit still long, and you may lose your angle. Current is a factor, too. A swinging boat may drag a bait or throw too much slack in a line to work it. Speak up!
Poking around in the shallows reveals all kinds of surprises. You may sit a little deeper on a tailing edge and find more fish migrating with the current than tailing into it. The muds you can suddenly see now may be loaded with starving fish. Puzzles snap together far easier when you are familiar with the pieces.