Big Fish, Big Flies, Big Bucks….. No Whammies!

“Don’t trout set!  Don’t trout set!”  The guide implored as my buddy came unbuttoned again from a juvenile tarpon that had bolted out from under an Everglades  mangrove to engulf his fly.  His shoulders sank in frustration and I could see the deflated look on his face through the back of his head.  I truly felt for him and despite his attempt to keep an upbeat tone, I could feel our guides frustration begin to show.

This is not an uncommon scenario.  Years of muscle memory and habits become engrained in what we do.  If you have spent the last 20 years high sticking a nymph rig or mending a size 18 dry fly on a 4 wt then this may be a familiar challenge.  Enter an 8-12 wt rod, size 1/0 hook, big fly, and a fish with a bone hard jaw and the scene is set for disaster.  Fly fishers who are hoping to make the transition into the salt or fresh water predator fish like pike or musky will have a whole new skill set that they must master if they want to become proficient in this new environment.  Luckily, many of the skills we already have translate very well like fish spotting, reading water, etc…  I thought it might be helpful to toss out a few general pieces of advice on making a successful transition for some of the other skills that might not be as transparent.

Bob with GT
Bob with GT

Practice and Training!

Would you go out today and sign yourself up for a marathon if you were not a runner and had a training plan in place to prepare?  No?  Good!  Then why would you plunk down 5K or more of your hard earned cash on a trip and show up without the proper skills to win?  Don’t let the Sunday morning fishing shows fool you.  It can take skilled professionals days and weeks of wearing the same outfit to cobble together enough footage for a 40 minute show that appears to have occurred on a beautiful day in the keys.

So what does it mean to you?  It means check our ego at the door.  I don’t care how often you school your buddies at the trout club.  Go out and practice… practice… practice… because even if you do, it is a virtual guarantee that buck fever will overcome even the most hardened fly fisher when you see a 35lb red fish approaching your  skiff.

Fish in Crappy Conditions!

When we are at home, we often have the luxury to decide whether or not we feel like braving the elements  of the day for a shot at fish.  Often times we opt for a different pursuit that is better suited or even just stay home.  Those options become infinitely less available if you have booked a guide for the day and are at a fishing destination.

Windless days are rare in the salt and to be perfectly frank not your friend.  Glass smooth water leads to spooky fish that are hard to approach with a boat and even harder to cast to.   A light to moderate wind tilts the scales in your favor and makes getting within casting range much more manageable assuming one important question.  Can you cast in the wind?

storm blowing in
storm blowing in

Most respectable fly fishers can make a decent cast when the conditions cooperate.  But what happens when they don’t?  Can you cast into the the wind?  with a tail wind?  with the wind quartering off of either casting shoulder?  Can you present the fly off of our backcast?  Broken record I know, but if you can’t….. PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!  A good guide will put you in a position as best he or she can to be successful but sometimes you have to make the shot when it is less than ideal so make sure you have all the tools in your arsenal.

Double Haul

One of the most common skills missing from most stream anglers is a good double haul.  A double haul is simply manipulating your fly line on the back and forward stroke to increase line speed which in turn increases distance.  It is akin to patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time in that it is not all that complex but does require some coordination and timing.  I am not planning  on turning this post into a double haul tutorial but suffice to say that a good double haul is your best friend  when casting large bulky flies, especially in the wind.  If you can make it up to the shop, ask for a casting session.  If not, check out the Orvis learning center as Pete Kutzer lays it out as well as anyone.  Did I mention practice?

Strip Strike

If the first paragraph resonated with you, then you feel my pain.  If you are hoping to actually hook up with most large predatory fish and not just go through casting calisthenics then get your strip strike wired.  Why not just raise the rod?   Several factors come into play.  Hard mouths, large gauge hooks, the flex of a fly rod, stretch of the fly line…. all contribute to not being able to effectively drive a hook through the mouth of a mature predator fish.

Lee with a nice FL Snook
Lee with a nice FL Snook

A strip strike is as simple as it sounds.  It is an elongated firm strip until the line comes tight and you drive the hook through the mouth of the fish.  Some will combine the strip with a sweep of the rod to the opposite side of the strip strike.  If you are early int the learning curve, you may want to concentrate on keeping the rod low and pointed at your fish and strip hard and long till you come tight and then give it another strip to make sure you are truly buttoned up.  Once you have this as part of the muscle memory, adding rod sweep can help you get the line to come tighter faster.

The other advantage of the strip strike is that if you miss, your fly is still in the water and often times the target will come back around for a second try.  If you lift your rod, the fly is out of the zone and often out of the water and you now have to re-present the fly which will decrease your chances of a hook up.

Line Management

So you are yawning at my first few tips?  You already know this you say?  Ok hot shot, I’ll buy that but how is your line management?  What do you mean line management?  Poor line management can come back to bite you at many points from the cast to the first run of a hooked fish.

I will always remember my first time on the bow of a skiff on a windy day waiting for my first shot at a tarpon.  I think I looked something like a monkey trying to hump a football.  Some of my slack was in the well, some around my feet, the rest wrapped around my reel and fighting butt as I tried to get my leader unwrapped from my rod guides as the first set of poon swam by.  Yes…. my guide just shook his head as he laughed.

By the end of the week I looked much more like a pro.  My line was stacked in the well behind me stripped out with the head of the line on top and the running line underneath ready for quick shoot.  I had the fly in my left hand hook pointed away from my fingers and about 20 feet of line laid across my finger tips ready to fire.  The leader and about 10-15 feet of fly line were hanging from my rod tip out of the way of any obstruction.

Ready on the bow
Ready on the bow

Wow, that sounds like a ton of detail…. who so important?  First things first.  Things happen fast in a sight fishing scenario.  Often times you have one shot at a fish and you have to be ready to fire.  A good rule of thumb is one or two false casts maximum and then you are shooting line.  If you have to false cast 4 and five times to get a respectable distance of line out then you have most likely either spooked the fish from the line whizzing above their head or missed the shot as they move out of the target range.  By having the fly ready to toss and back cast with line already out of the rod you are now ahead of the curve.  With your line coiled appropriately in the well behind you, you minimize loops around feet, line blowing off the deck, etc…  Believe it or not success in these instances have as much to do with what you do prior to the cast than what you do during.  Focus on your preparation!

By the way, this concept does not just apply to the skiff!  If you are a spey caster then you probably already know that it is awfully hard to fire your skagit or scandi head across the river if your running line is pulling 40 feet below you in the current.  Good line management makes part of the foundation of good casting!

One last thing… I do one thing every morning before my day starts.  I stretch my fly line from beginning to end.  You can do this one arm length at a time if you like but I prefer to have a buddy grab the business end while I go on a 100′ walk.  I will keep backing up till the line comes super tight and hold it for a few seconds.   It is amazing how much more line you can shoot when it is not coming off of your reel in coils that then try to make their way through your guides.

I know this all sounds a bit preachy but it is all out of love (OK, maybe a bit of tough love).  We all tend to fancy ourselves to be all that and a bag of chips and maybe some days we are.  This past year I had the pleasure of spending a week in Las Vegas with some of the true legends in the pursuit of fly fishing.  Lefty Kreh, Bob Clouser, Andy Mill, and many more.

Lefty Takes us to School
Lefty Takes us to School

I recall sitting there with a dumb grin on my face as we had a conversation with Lefty Kreh and he was telling an associate of mine that even at his age he still feels like he learns something from someone every time he hits the water.  Funny thing is I don’t think it was even an ounce of false modesty, he truly meant it.  As usual, we can all learn a bit from Lefty.

Tight Lines and Loose Pants,