Having cut my fly fishing teeth in the famed, spring-fed waters of Idaho’s Silver Creek, I thought I had the skill of sight fishing down when I ventured into the world of saltwater flats fishing. As I look back at the lessons learned over the decades of flats fishing, my past ego took a beating as I recall the hard lessons learned.
Seeing a feeding, tailing or swimming fish in 3 feet of crystal-clear water over a sandy bottom is technically sight fishing, but if you mistake this glorious event with what sight fishing is really about, you may be missing out on opportunities that will change your life.
Seriously, every day of my life I rehash countless scenarios over the years of how I was able to detect, approach and cast to a fish in situations that were not the classic tailing fish scenario. All those moments left an imprint that I draw from with my demented, fly-fishing brain as I wade on a flat.
Here are a few things I’ve learned.
Size up your ground before you wade.
Take a few moments to study the details, such as water clarity and color, the bottom, the wind, the light, the clouds, the current, the tide, the profile of the surface with and without wind and shore break. Study the color variations of the flat such as vegetation, depth changes, bottom color, coral, rocks, and even man-made objects such as buoys and lobster traps.
After I get the big picture of the flat, I try to break the flat into sectors starting at the shoreline, moving to the middle, then to the deeper water. As you wade and look for fish, this fish bowl is constantly changing, and you need to change with it in your sight-fishing approach.
It may seem counter intuitive, but moderate-to-heavy wind can be your friend. Study what direction it is blowing, and how it affects the surface water. Many times, just profiling the surface water, and the effect the wind has on it, helped me detect a fish or school of fish by picking up on how the surface water reacts to fish swimming or feeding below. The surface water may show obvious clues such as a v-shaped wake like a boat makes, to very subtle changes to the consistent profile of the surface in that exact location.
Many flats anglers call this “nervous water”. While fishing moderate-to-heavy wind, this may be the only way you detect fish, so use it to your advantage. A bonus with wind also is its effect on the fish’s ability to detect danger from above. You will have a better chance to intercept, or get close enough for an accurate cast, than you will on calm days.
After you detect nervous water, try to identify the direction the fish are swimming. Look for fins and tails and even the fish itself. Don’t cuss the wind less it is mixed with rain, lightning and creating 4-foot swells, then damn it to hell and back.
Fins and Tails
Every angler has seen those great pictures of a permit or bonefish tail sticking out of the water like the mast of a schooner. You may see this on your ventures, or you might not, but don’t think of those classic photos as the norm. In many cases, detecting a fin in the water may be as subtle as a drop of rain, and to make it even more sporting, these subtle fins may be sporadic.
On a recent trek to a flat, my partner and I saw one of those classic, subtle fins showing three times in five to 10 minutes. But we were able to determine the fish was milling around this small patch of turtle grass feeding. Finally I was able to drop a fly in front of its path and connected on a nice little permit. I was happy this fish swam left and not right, or Roger might be writing as the self-proclaimed expert on sight fishing the flats. Dem’s the breaks, Roger.
Changing water level
I like to break the flats into sectors from the shoreline to the middle to the edge where it meets deep water. In these sectors, there are often very defined sections of incoming raising water that produce small waves or breaks near or on the shoreline. As the water rises and lowers, an angler needs to pay attention to the same section of the flat at both water levels.
I have learned the hard way by wading thru water that I thought was void of fish only to learn I would have spotted them if I waited for the level of water to lower before I moved on. Many times, a fin may be visible after the water lowers an inch or two.
I may be overly methodical about reading water and reacting to the changing conditions, but it has worked well for me and will for you, too.
Focus on the best percentages.
Wading when you can’t see or detect fish is probably going to end bad, real bad. Every time I have done it, I typically meet up with a permit at a few feet away, and we make eye contact at the same time, and the fish spooks away at mach four, and I cuss.
I now sacrifice some of this water in two ways. The first is I wait to wade and fish when the conditions are better. It may be poor conditions due to something like cloud cover, or the direction of the sun. It can be frustrating, but there’s no sense in getting pissed, and worse yet, chasing away fish that may be there an hour later if you wait.
The other way I fish is to use that water to get a vantage point over a sector of water with a higher chance of detecting and seeing fish. I carefully wade through this low-percentage water and look in a direction that is sun friendly, and usually have better results.
Do not step into the water just yet
No matter what the tide, don’t neglect the shoreline before you wade. I have been burned more than once thinking I knew where the fish were based on the tide or time of day. Everytime, I think I am the King, I chase off a cherry bonefish or permit dwelling along the murky shoreline. I often watch anglers in my home rivers in Idaho wade in and blow out fish a few inches from the bank, so this goes for both freshwater anglers as well.
Focus on details
When you see a fish in the flats focus on details. Seriously study and imprint everything you remember about the experience. Some fish may only be detected by the smallest characteristic when they blend with their underwater home.
You may detect something as small as a slight dash of black on the tip of its nose. Ask how the fish was viewed and compare it to every aspect of the sighting from sun, water depth, water clarity, wind, aquatic vegetation, sand and so on. The game may change a bit as you venture in different water, but as you connect the dots, you will start to look at each section of a flat in a different way.
Also, look for any vantage point you can find. Standing in a patch of turtle grass may hide you just enough to have a shot at a permit heading your way on one of its flats freeways. Although they call them flats, in reality contours, and I like to set up on the opposite side of a high section and use the rise as a buffer. It’s like this, say you find a little mound that is a foot higher than the surrounding bottom. I don’t stand on top center of it, I use 6 inches of it by stepping up the far side of the mound. The six inches will help tremendously, but standing on the top of it is taking a chance of being detected yourself. Hell, I spent the better part of a week once standing on a sunken sailboat in a caribbean flat. Thank goodness for those crappy sailors because it was the overturned hull that was a great sight fishing and casting platform.