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by Tom Jindra
The target was about 40 yards ahead of us. A nice redfish from what I could see, and I could see a great deal. He was rooting around in mere inches of water, having found a buffet of crabs and other forage on the edge of a shallow weed bed. His dorsal fin was exposed to the air, tapering back to the submerged "wrist" that marks the beginning of the tail. And the tip of his tail fin was also exposed, giving me the benchmark I needed to estimate a fish of 5, maybe 6, pounds. He cruised back and forth, accelerating occasionally to pick up a morsel before it could escape -- but he never moved far. He seemed content to stay put as long as the food held out and we did nothing to spook him. So I urged my buddy, Steve Whipple, to bring the boat closer for a clean shot.
A good fish drives everything from your mind. Only moments before, I had been focused on the heat and humidity that are so much a part of summer on the Louisiana coast. I had also been watching the thunderheads building to the west out over the Gulf of Mexico. One of those storm cells, if it crossed our path, would be enough to run us off the water. But for now, the weather could wait. I had a fish in my sights.
Steve leaned into the pushpole, driving the 16-foot boat toward our target, and I stood on the bow with my 7-weight rod. But about 70 feet out, the mudflat rose up and buried the keel. We had reached our limit and could go no further. So I flipped my fly line into the air, sending the small yellow popper on its way. Then I waited to see what might go wrong, knowing that the possibilities were endless. If my fly fell off to the left, it would tangle in the weetates, you would be overwhelmed by the host of species they could name: redfish, bonefish, tarpon, striped bass, mackerel, tuna, sharks, and billfish. And that's a very short inventory of prospective targets. We could add bluefish, cobia, flounder, lingcod, salmon, spotted sea trout, and many others without compiling a complete list. Each fish has its own geography and behavior, and each demands a distinct set of angling techniques. In listing saltwater fly-fishing prey, we find ourselves describing a sport so diverse that it hardly seems fair to consider it a single endeavor. It is enough, however, to divide it into three primary forms based on three differing regional traditions: South Florida, the Northeast, and offshore.
We sometimes have a tendency to think that these three forms define the geographic boundaries of saltwater fly fishing; nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, these three schools represent the primary approaches to utilizing fly tackle in an ocean environment, and the resulting techniques have been used effectively throughout the world. The lessons learned on the South Florida flats, for example, have long been proven throughout the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and in the South Pacific. And techniques that had their origins from New England south to the Chesapeake Bay have for many years found a home on the West Coast and anywhere else that saltwater game fish are found. Meanwhile, offshore fly fishing springs from both the South Florida and Northeastern traditions. Yet offshore fly fishing is distinct because it targets species that were never before thought possible on fly tackle. Regardless of the geography, these special offshore tactics are effective wherever fly casters encounter pelagic species (those who live in the open sea).
The Florida Tradition
Those of us who fly fish on the coast tend to think of South Florida as our mecca. We even go so far as to describe it as the birthplace of saltwater fly fishing, but that is not entirely fair. History suggests that the British had taken their flies down to the sea in the early 1800s. Records also demonstrate that fly fishers were exploring the coast from New England to the Chesapeake Bay by the 1830s. The legacy of these early American anglers was a solid corps of fly fishers who were consistently taking stripers and blues in the Northeast by the 1950s and 1960s, while Florida fly casters were still perfecting their techniques on bonefish and tarpon. During those two decades, traditions were also being established on the West Coast, particularly on the Baja California peninsula in Mexico. Yet it was Florida that really latched on to our imagination for one very important reason: It offered an abundance of game fish that were susceptible to sightcasting in the shallow waters known as flats.
The flats are extraordinary. Far from being the barren expanse perceived by some, these shallow edges of the sea are among the most fertile real estate in the world, bringing together a rich blend of land, water, sun, and air -- all the basic ingredients for sustaining plants that form the bottom rung of any food chain. Other organisms follow: Small animals such as worms, shellfish, and various baitfish feed off the detritus that falls from the cordgrass, turtle grass, and other vegetation. These smaller creatures in turn provide the forage that attracts and sustains the large predators that anglers pursue.< P>Not all flats are the same. The most obvious differences lie in the flora and fauna and how this mix of plants and animals changes with latitude and temperature. Few animals from the tropics, for example, are suited to coping with the cold waters of New England, just as creatures from the North Atlantic are poorly adapted to tropical heat. The impact of the tides also changes. As you travel away from the equator, tidal range becomes increasingly dramatic. On a given day in New England, for example, an angler can anticipate the water rising several feet. Meanwhile, his counterpart in the Gulf of Mexico may measure the tidal variation in inches. This is an important distinction for the sportsman, for these smaller tides encourage the presence of predators such as bonefish, permit, and redfish -- the so-called "tailing" species on which sightcasters rely.
Most fishing relies on detective skills: You assemble the best available information, and then you test for the presence of fish by making a cast. Sightcasting requires these same detective skills, but what makes this sport so exciting is that finding fish is only the beginning. When a target is spotted, the angler becomes a hunter and must stalk the prey. While maneuvering for position, the hunter often experiences a surge of "buck fever." In his 1950 book, Salt Water Fly Fishing, Joe Brooks described sighting a tailing bonefish. "You shiver and shake and tingle all over and your mouth goes dry," he wrote. "It is one of the great moments of all fishing experience, and the thrill of seeing his first tailing fish has turned many an expert into a tyro. It is a thrill that does not diminish with time."
Despite your jitters, you fight for cal m because you must still determine the proper approach to your target. If you have found a tailing fish, it may hold its position long enough for you to maneuver into casting range. More often, the target is moving, leaving you to calculate its speed and direction, and your odds of intercepting it. Whatever the situation, you become acutely aware of every sound and motion you might make. Even stepping too hard on the gunwale can trigger the alarm by causing a shock wave as the boat dips in the water. And you are instantly aware of any mistake, because it will cause your prey to scurry off for deeper water.
But if you have successfully maneuvered into position, the game continues and the tension grows. You still have to put the cast in front of your fish, and that means casting with accuracy. You also have to cast quickly. Saltwater gamefish are loathe to wait in any one spot and will routinely change direction or move out of range if you take too tong; so you learn to deliver a fly with no more than three backcasts. "Quick and to the point" becomes the mantra of any fly fisher who frequents the flats.
Amid the growing tension, you begin asking yourself whether you have the correct fly. The answer comes soon enough. If your fish flees or ignores the fly, you know you have chosen poorly. Being snubbed is, of course, part of the game. No matter how good you think you may get, the flats will inevitably put you in your place with fussy or flighty fish, or no fish at all. But that makes it so much sweeter when you see the fish accelerate toward your fly, inhale, and begin its initial run.
No species has been more important to this sport than the bonefish. Some would argue that the tarpon is the true sightcasting king, and it would be impossible to overlook this impressive animal. But there are relatively few places outside of the Florida Keys where sightcasters can tackle tarpon on the flats. Bonefish, on the other hand, make sightcasting accessible as welt as exciting. While tarpon and other big game fish require boats, bonefish flats are typically shallow enough for wading, though boats are also used. Nor do bonefish require the heavy tackle so necessary for large tarpon. But the greatest factor is that bone fish tactics are not limited to south Florida. The Caribbean is also well known for its bonefish flats, and fly fishers have discovered bonefish throughout Central America and even in the South Pacific.
Bonefish tactics are also effective on other flats species, chief among them the redfish or red drum. With a more northerly range than the bonefish, the red drum has made sight-casting on the flats accessible throughout Florida, in the other Gulf states, and north into the Carolinas. And by the 1980s, fly fishers from cities as widespread as Houston, New Orleans, and Jacksonville demonstrated that you do not have to live in Miami to enjoy a weekend on the flats.
As the tide swept our 20-foot boat toward the submerged rocks, Captain Mike Hintlian stressed the importance of the first cast. Make it count, he said. The target was a marker that warned boaters to keep a safe distance from the reef. If I missed, I might get a second shot, but a third attempt was unlikely. By then, the current would drag us out of range. Mike wasn't asking me to do anything difficult -- the distance was a little long, but it wasn't unreasonable with the 10-weight rod and shooting head I was using. The problem was that I had never fished New England before, and I had spent the whole morning fighting butterflies. I tried and tried, and yet I could not shake the image of big stripers and bluefish charging out from under the rocky ledges. Finally I told myself that this was just a routine-cast, like those I practice at home.
You can sense a good cast as the rod accelerates and bends overhead, loading the graphite with energy like a tensed spring. Suddenly, your hand stops and the spring straightens, unleashing the power and throwing your line. If you have done it right, that short burst brings the rod to life. If you have done it wrong, the rod is little more than a stick swinging in the air.
In this case, as soon as I released my line toward the rocks, I knew that I was simply swinging a stick, and I watched the cast fall apart far short of its mark. But before I could grumble about the flubbed attempt, Mike was telling me to try again; there was still time. So I stripped in line like a demon, rolled the shooting head back into the air and false cast. And I reminded myself to focus on technique, that it beats muscle every time.
We were drawing away from the reef when I released the second cast with a smooth acceleration and sharp stop. I did not know if I could cover the growing distance; every cast has its limits, even with shooting heads. But this time I felt the life in the rod, and I knew I had hit a good stroke. The running line shot off the deck, and the shooting head straightened on the water. "Close enough," Mike said. "Let it sink."
I wasted no time retrieving when Mike gave me the word. It had seemed like forever, and I was sure the fly I was using, the white deceiv er, had settled too deep into some crevice. But it was too late to change that now, so I began a quick, sharp retrieve -- one strip, two strips. The third strip stopped with a jolt, and I felt the friction burn as the line cut into my fingers. I thought the fly was snagged in a rock and I would have to break off. Yet this rock was moving away too fast to account for the boat's drift. I had a fish down there, so I jammed the hook home and held on as my "rock" began its first powerful run.
Soon, the rock became a 10-pound bluefish, and as it slipped into Mike's net I marveled at its gunmetal blue back, big shoulders, steely flanks, and forked tail. I also admired, from a safe distance, its impressive dental work, easily capable of taking off a finger. Then Mike eased my fish back into the dark, clear Atlantic waters. There was still plenty of fight left in that bluefish, and I was happy to share it with the next angler who might come along.
When fighting a good bluefish, you have to wonder why this grand sport lost its popularity, but it clearly happened. Perhaps it's because bluefish appear and disappear in random patterns -- no one has figured out why bluefish run in such irregular cycles. One year they're abundant, and another year they're rare.
Though bluefish have always been a staple of fly fishers in the Northeast, the historical basis for the sport is striped bass. Unlike bluefish, striped bass populations are better suited to changing water conditions. Stripers are widely distributed and could show up just about anywhere, whether deep in an estuary or out in heavy surf. This makes them a whole lot easier to get to than bluefish, who prefer much deeper waters in general. Add to that thei r enthusiasm for eating flies and their jolting strikes, and the striper became a prime target for the fly rod. The weakness was that stripers were a prime target for just about everyone, and for too many years anglers of all persuasions failed to find a bass that was not worth keeping. The result was an inevitable crash. The collapse began in the 1970s; by the 1980s biologists were calling for emergency regulations and an end to unlimited fishing. Given that situation, it is no surprise that fly fishers began looking elsewhere for their sport. The good news is that efforts to rescue the striper worked, and as word of the recovery spread, fly fishers began returning to the waters of the Northeast coast. Today, the bass are once again a regular part of fishing in the Northeast. Fifteen years ago, I thought they were gone forever. It is good to be proven wrong.
To understand the difference between fishing rivers and streams versus fishing offshore, all you have to do is imagine the difference between going camping in the mountains versus going to the beach. For the most part, the fishing techniques are the same. Your concept of clear water becomes a little skewed when you do most of your fishing in the Louisiana marsh. The influence of the Mississippi River makes you think anything short of café au lait is crystalline. So I marveled at the clarity as I looked down into the waters of Mexico's Sea of Cortez. Five feet, 10 feet, 20 feet -- I could only guess the depth of my vision, but I knew I could see far. Far enough that I soon lost interest in the shortage of dissolved solids and began to focus on the dorado schooling below.
Dorado, also known as dolphin but not to be confused with the mammal made famous on "Flipper," seemed to come out of nowhere. The water had been empty when Jesus, our guide, shut down his panga's outboard beside the floating bed of sargassum weed. Jesus was far from discouraged. Reaching into a livewell, he removed three sardines, each perhaps 3 inches long, and tossed them overboard. Disoriented, the baitfish skittered momentarily on the surface. When they gained their bearings, they vanished into the sheltering weeds. Jesus paused, then reached for three more sardines, but the second silvery trio never made it into the weed bed. They had scarcely touched the water when the surface erupted around them; the dorado had arrived. Swinging my 9-weight rod into action, I lobbed a large white deceiver 30 or 40 feet onto the water and began stripping. But the dorado needed no more time to find the fly than they took to locate the second bunch of sardines; I am not even sure that I had a chance to set the hook. All I know is that my reel was screaming, my fly line had vanished from the spool, and the greyhounding fish had taken who-knows-how-many yards of backing as he headed for the horizon. The only thing I could do was hold on.
Dorado are remarkable fish regardless of your tackle, but they are especially good on the fly. They are agile, they are fast, and a 15-pound fish is nicely matched against a 9-weight rod. More than anything, they are beautiful, with colors that are incomprehensible for anyone who has never seen the live fish.
On the wall of my living room is the mount of a 20-pound dolphin that I caught while trolling from a charter boat in Florida when I was twelve. My mother had visions of fillets when the skipper returned my broth ers and me to the dock. But the angst of having such a fish carved up for dinner was more than I could bear, so my dolphin found its way to the taxidermist instead. More than thirty years later, friends who have never seen a dorado remain suspicious of the bright greens, blues, and yellows of my fish. I explain that their skepticism is justified. I doubt any artist will ever capture the dolphin's true brilliance.
Compilation Copyright © 1999 by Balliett & Fitzgerald Inc.
|History of Fly Fishing||5|
|Lines, Leaders, & Tippets||37|
|Flies & Fly Tying||69|
|The Literature of Fly Fishing||201|
|Shows, Events, & Schools||209|
|Photography & Illustration Credits||226|