Beginners to the flats

A good place to start....

Hopefully this will prove useful to many. A list of negative things I have regularly seen on flats fishing trips with inexperienced fishers. Some are obvious and others you may be surprised to hear.

-- Lack of sun protection

So often, one person in the group will seriously under estimate the power of the sun. Even with only minor sun burn a person can still suffer from sun stroke and this can wipe a fisher out, usually knocking them sick and causing them to miss a day or two fishing. An expensive error! Shorts ‘n’ T shirt and drinking beer on the boat all day is a crazy approach. Don’t do it! Take care of yourself. Use a high factor sun cream and wear the right clothing for UV protection. And drink plenty water.

Sunburn at its worst!
Can lead to blistering.

-- Don't trout set

This is a fishing guide’s greatest annoyance and frustration with beginners. Breaking the habits of your past fly fishing is extremely difficult and some will struggle for a long, long time. Always, always, always point the rod at the fish. And keep it there until you’ve pulled tight to set the hook. Remember, these fish all have a seriously hard mouth and lifting any rod is not going to be enough to get a good hook set.

-- Why wear shoes in the boat?

Now I hear and understand the excuses, “my feet burn too easy”, “I’m worried I’ll slip without shoes on”  etc. etc.  But…. Without doubt, the best thing to have on your feet when fishing from a skiff, is nothing at all. Save the wading boots for when you are actually wading. Being Barefoot in the skiff you will feel flyline under your feet, and if your boat partner is barefoot, if you have boots on, then you’re going to be treading on his line or his toes on numerous occasions throughout the trip. So sun cream up three or four times in the day or keep your socks on if you must.

A note to manufacturers - we need a 'Skiff Sock'

-- Standing on the line

As mentioned above, this happens a lot when wearing shoes. After the guide has poled for ages to find fish and your best efforts to present a fly are hampered by yours or even worse, your boat partner’s boots, well, it doesn’t make for a happy camp in the boat at all. I’ve had days when I lose count of the amount of times this happens. And yet, my suggestion to go barefoot is most often completely ignored. Seriously guys, flats fishing is an expensive pastime and you need to take every opportunity seriously.

Try not to stand on the line

-- Stripping wrong

That familiar yet vague instruction from our fishing guide - “Streep!” This does not really help a beginner to undertake the most productive fly retrieve. Different situations will require different length or speed of strip but….  Take Note, the most important thing is not the strip, but the pause between the strips. Very often the fisher pulls the fly back so fast that a following Bonefish can’t manage to eat their fly. It needs that fly to pause and drop to be able to inhale it. Try to make the strips very positive. Not gentle. A turn of the wrist with each strip is usually enough. But try to be aware of the skiff moving toward the fish and also, the speed the fish are moving. If this is happening you will obviously need to increase your strip lengths to compensate. On occasion and especially with the smarter fish, casting and letting the fly just sink is the best approach. Simply watch for a fish reaction and take, before strip setting the hook. Two or three short sharp strips with sufficient pauses, followed by a long slow strip is a good all round approach for beginners.

-- Rod tip too far from the water

Affecting the fly action in a big way, with your rod tip a foot or more higher than the water makes for a soft strip retrieve where the fly is just hovering along rather than bumping. Also, the chance of feeling a take is greatly reduced and then the ability to hook set is lessened by having a slack loop of line between rod tip and water. Valuable advice is to keep that rod tip right on the water to enable positive strips and a firm hook set. Make every opportunity count.

School of bonefish top left and in the bottom right is the rod tip and fly line, showing that it is way too high above the water to make a positive strip.

-- Casting all the time

When the guide is working hard poling the boat and trying to spot fish, it is not a good idea to be constantly practising your cast. There is always that fish which suddenly appears right under your nose. The guide has perhaps missed this fish but if you’re ready, fly in hand. A fast cast delivered can result in a rapid hook up. Aside from this continuous and pointless casting activity annoying your guide so much, it also means that when he points out a fish, “11 o'clock, 40 feet, Bonefish going left” you are not prepared to make the cast and usually miss your chance. Inevitably, when a fish is spotted, you have a knot in the line or some weed on the fly or you just get in a tangle in an attempt to recover and rescue the situation. Think about it. If your guide is spotting, so should you be.

-- Keep the boat level

While poling the skiff, your guide will find it uncomfortable to be stood on a platform that is not level because you and your boat partner are both stood on one side of the boat. This is an obvious one, but in the excitement of a fish being landed or taking photos as its released, mistakes can happen.If all three people in the skiff lean out of the boat on the same side, someone’s in danger of going in! Whilst this sounds like an amusing episode, I’m sure it’s not what we really wish to happen.

-- Not enough line to load rod

This is a very common error which forces the caster to require too many false casts to load the rod for a presentation. Be prepared; have enough line to make a large roll cast and when you’ve spotted a fish and pointed at it with the rod, drop the fly, make a sharp swerve out and upwards opposite the target with your rod hand (much like the sweep upward of a Spey cast) and this creates your first load on the rod. Like doing a jump roll, but the line never lands, it simply helps load the rod with one movement and then you’re casting begins well, with minimal false casts.

-- Deodorant!

Now this one might make you laugh, but….. When the skiff is bombing along and the guy in front has bad body odour it is disgusting and hard to avoid for those sat behind with wind pushing the smell in our faces. Really not nice! It’s hot out there and quite naturally, we all perspire a lot. Wear deodorant. Plenty of it!

-- Sunglasses

Spotting fish is one of the hardest things to achieve when you begin flats fishing and something that remains difficult even to the most experienced. Many beginners bring the correct rods, reels, lines and flies but scrimp on sunglasses. Best advice here is to purchase the best polarising lenses you can afford. Cooper, Brown, Bronze type lenses are best. Avoid greys and yellows. These have their uses but for general purpose flats fishing they’re not good.

Nelson proudly spots fish in his new sunglasses.

-- Tapered leaders

Those used to trout fishing on still waters or salmon fishing on rivers may feel happy using a level length of leader material. But when the time comes on a flat where you’ve spotted one tailing fish and there’s a breeze, you will feel the benefit of a tapered leader without a doubt. It aids accuracy in casting with the leader unfolding directly down the line of your flyline landing on the water and this is extremely important. After the cost of a trip to these wonderful places, the additional cost of a handful of tapered leaders is minimal.

-- Wear an appropriate hat

We all have one, but so many beginners to flats fishing leave there’s off, maybe they’re hoping to catch some sun on their forehead, I don’t know?  Wearing a hat with dark under brim increases our potential for spotting fish. It enhances those expensive, polarised lens sunglasses. It’s also good practise to keep the sun off your head. Never underestimate the power of the sun.

-- Noise

Perhaps you’ve only fished a fast flowing river or walked the shore of a Stillwater? But once on the flats, with silence all around you, everything you do should be done keeping noise to an absolute minimum. Boat noises like the famous dropping of the hatch or just stomping around or dragging bags and equipment along the deck can cause vibration and sound through the water around you. Something I have even seen guides make mistakes on is screaming “Permit, Permit, Permit!!!” I’ve gotten to the stage now where I just drop my arms to my sides with rod in hand and turn to stare at him with open mouth! I know we all get excited but I’ve lost count of the Permit tails I’ve seen drop and disappear when someone speaks too loudly. Whisper, and whisper very quietly. Don’t spoil the opportunity or even the beautiful silence of the flats.

-- Rocking the boat

An experienced FLATSBAG Facebook group member gave a technical explanation on the negative effects of this. But, in simple terms, the boat moves steadily and calmly and doesn’t tend to spook fish, yet as soon as we start rocking this steady casting platform it most often spooks fish who are within casting range. It is the guide’s job to put the skiff in best position for casting and to avoid water slapping the hull, but it’s the fisher’s job to remain still when casting and not cause the boat to rock.

-- Watching your back cast

I’ve seen a great many folk struggle to break this habit, almost as much as the Trout set habit. But we all need to remember how tricky these fish are to see. Watch your back cast and you’re sure to lose sight of the fish on your final delivery. Making an accurate presentation is a key to success on the flats. We need everything in our favour, so keep your eyes on that fish! Remember, bonefish earned their name of 'Ghost of the flats’ for a reason. They can and often do, disappear in an instant.

Blind casting to Tarpon and throwing to the horizon. Don’t do this when you’ve spotted a fish!
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