There is something very special about a vessel that connects a fly angler to the fish of this watery planet. Be it a drift boat, panga or flats boat, it will take you on a journey no other vehicle can. I am not just talking about point-A to point-B because the journey is magical.
The boat ride alone will take your mind to places that it will never venture on dry land. The boat actually comes to life. Every time I am in a boat I feel like the dude in the movie "Titanic" when he stood on the bow yelling “I'm the King of the World.” I hated that movie, and I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I watched it, but that scene captured a telling moment.
Jumping into an unfamiliar boat for the first time is a surreal experience. You may size up the vessel with a quick once-over, inspecting the overall condition, cleanliness and the tidiness of the boat. All boats have a personality and certain character about them. Try not to judge the boat by your first impression. What you can’t decipher is the connection between the boat, the guide, the water and the fish. Not until the entire machine goes into motion do you become an integral part of it. I can’t tell how often I have been in a weathered drift boat, flats boat or panga that purred like a kitten and felt awestruck by the skill of the captain, as he or she seemed to be one with the boat.
A boat for the flats
Pangas and flats boats are designed to motor you into new water then glide over the flats by being push-poled by the guide. The guide is also spotting fish from a vantage point that, in theory, will give everyone adequate time to make adjustments for an intercept. Everyone in the boat should be looking for fish. Sometimes while fishing the flats you will actually get out of the boat and wade for fish, but it was the boat that got you there.
Captains will generally call out the location of the fish by using a clock as a reference point. “Tarpon at 3 o’clock, 200 feet” is a sound that will prime the ol' adrenaline pump, and how you perform will become the question. The guide may also yell out what direction the fish is heading, so if the guide calls out the fish are heading away toward 2 o'clock and you look at your 3 o‘clock chances are the fish may already be at your 1 o’clock so you need to look that way first and scan back towards the spot called out. Some guides may adjust to the timing of your moving target, and they want you to look where they call it. Seconds really do matter in regards to getting a good cast in front of a moving fish. Trout anglers are accustomed to concentrating on a single spot, not a moving target. Your first priority is to see fish. Listen to the guide and think ahead or you may be 20 feet and a few seconds behind your target all day. A very helpful way to get on the same page as the guide is to point your fly rod to the position you believe twas called out and the guide will adjust your bearing from there. Seconds and inches matter, so it might also be a good idea to know if the guide is using the English or metric system as a reference point for measurement. Oh, I forgot to mention the clock face as a reference does not work so well if the guide is a Yucatan native speaking Mayan, trust me. In that case you may have to take a crash course in native tongues before your trip, or take a quick glance behind you to see where El Capitan is pointing. This is part of the fun and, even with a language barrier, over the course of a few encounters with fish it will get worked out. When I hear the word "tarpon" yelled out I have been known to forget where three o'clock is. Before your trip take a couple of weeks and look at everything with a clock face directions in mind, to build a solid reference point. It will really help when you hear "tarpon!"
Keep the casting area clear
From the clothing you wear to the shoes you have on your feet, try to avoid flaps on shirts and sandals that may catch line as you are casting . You may only get one shot at the fish so eliminate as many potential disasters beforehand as you can. Keep a consistent spot on the bow for your fly line. Some guides have line baskets that an angler can strip line into, to keep it out of the way. If no line basket is on the vessel, clear yourself a little spot on the deck opposite your casting arm. That includes your own fingers and toes. A small item in the way, such as a water bottle, may knock everything out of sync. This spot should
be off limits to everything but the line that lays on it. As you change position in the bow you need to have a new clear spot. I cast right-handed and leave a clear circle of deck just behind my left foot. This overlooked detail has crushed many dreams. Saltwater fish are really angry when hooked and this anger translates into violent, powerful runs where you can feel the kinetic strength of the fish. Line will be ripping out of your hand, screaming off the deck then testing the drag of the reel in less than a couple seconds. Keep the deck clear of everything, and keep your dang feet clear of your line. One time I was trying to clear line attached to an angry tarpon and came within a millisecond of losing my big toe, which was wrapped up in a pile of fly line. A good rule to live by in a panga or flats boat is to keep the casting area clear of everything but your feet and line.
Keep your leader and fly out of the water
As you are standing on the deck scanning the water for fish you should have enough line stripped out of your reel and laying in your cleared area that it will enable you quickly and smoothly make a cast. I always know the length of line I have laying there so when a fish pops up I only have to pull off the reel and load the amount I feel is short. Hold your fly in your non-casting hand. I also keep the entire leader out of the last guide and let it hang to my non-casting side. I have seen many anglers leave the fly and leader dragging in the water only to screw up their shot by trying to get a fish to eat an 8 inch blade of turtle grass or clump of moss, with a perfect cast.
Do not stand on the tip of the bow
If you are crowding the tip of the bow to gain a couple feet in your cast, your cast is probably the least of your worries. Pangas and flats boats can get a little rocky for a standing angler trying to find their sea legs, so give yourself a buffer to avoid going overboard. A tarpon’s first move after eating a fly is often to jump, and/or they get the hell out of dodge, and everyone has been told to bow to the silver king when it jumps. Bending forward puts your center of balance forward, you don't want to fall in the drink when you set the hook on a legendary fish, a step or two will help immensely. The added few feet in front will also help when you have to adjust your position to cast, as well as when fighting the fish.
Adjusting your cast
Freshwater fly anglers that wade or fish from the bank are conditioned to fly casting a line close to the surface of the water so when they are standing on the bow for the first time or even on a raised casting platform on the bow of the boat many fail to adjust for the added height. The lack of adjustment is obvious when line often hits the water hard on the forward cast as well as a number of other casting issues resulting in frustration and frightened fish. Before you get into fish many guides will size up a new client by asking the client to make a few practice casts. The guide may offer up a few basic suggestions. Do not get hurt feelings as they are trying to fine tune the entire mechanism not just your cast. Hurt feelings should not be brought into a boat while fly fishing. If they don’t ask you to make a few practice casts ask them for a few minutes to get your bearings down on the general cast’s you will be making. Don’t brag about how great of a caster you are, let the guide determine your ability and they will use what they learn from watching you cast to position the boat for your best opportunities at glory. If you boast you can hit a beer can on the lawn at 100 feet with your fly cast some salty old guide may set you up that way on a fish so be careful with what you say.Don’t forget there is a dude directly behind you when you cast.My face has been on the receiving end of a fly on more than one occasion standing on a poling platform or even sitting in a drift boat at the oars. I also have dealt out my fair share of fly to the face punishment to the faces behind me.
Two anglers in a panga or flats boat
If you're sharing a boat I have found the best way is to use the third wheel (angler) as two more eyes to locate fish. The other angler may also help keep the casting area clear of obstruction while the active angler tries to work their magic. Break up the day by taking turns, you can learn almost as much by watching as by performing during any fish encounter. When I share a boat we typically take two opportunities before we change, or sometimes we break it up into 30 minute shifts casting from the bow. What is not a good idea is to both be casting during a tarpon, bonefish or permit encounter. It’s hard enough to synchronize the grand event with one angler, and nearly impossible with two. Sharing a boat has some advantages, in that long hot days on the water can be taxing on your mind and body, taking a break may keep you sharper during your time on stage. The third wheel can also capture your moment of glory in the sun by taking pictures of you and your conquered quarry.
Some of the best flats anglers I know have a middling casting game, but what all of these great anglers have in common is a boat-savvy while standing on the bow, along with an understanding of hen of the other elements of fly fishing. Some great casters I know look like a football rolling down a rocky hill when they are in a boat. That pretty, long cast does not mean a thing if you can't get a shot at a real fish in situ.
If only boats could only talk; The stories of what really occurs on the water would be epic, and possibly hilarious.
Wait...when I stop to think about it; I guess I'm glad they remain silent.