When Skill Meets Opportunity: A First Experience Saltwater Fly Fishing
Let me preface this by making one thing clear: saltwater fly fishing is not for the impatient or un-coachable. Many people go into saltwater fly fishing with this expectation to catch some incredible fish. My foremost and best advice I can give you is ditch this image and all expectations you have. Your first saltwater trip will go nothing like you expect it to. Additionally, if you’re not open to learning and listening then you’ll walk away empty handed. Here are a few tips and some of the things I learned throughout my week in Belize and my first time salt water fly fishing.
No Expectations are the Best Expectations. It is very hard to prepare for your first saltwater fly fishing trip. You can face wind, weather changes, and abnormal fish behavior all in the same day. The odds are really against you in every way imaginable and no matter how much you practice, you cannot prepare for these variables. You might go into your trip expecting to catch a tarpon or a permit, but chances are if you are expecting it then it probably won’t happen- and’s that just saltwater fly fishing. On the first day of our trip we saw a massive school of permit very far in the distance and I made a comment about how bad I wanted to catch one on this trip. Our wonderful guide, Captain Alex, quickly corrected me and emphasized that this attitude doesn’t work out here. You cannot expect or want something. He explained that when you land a trophy fish, it is not because of luck, but it happens when skill meets opportunity. By our fourth and final day, I had accepted that a permit or tarpon probably wasn’t in the cards for my first saltwater trip. Just when I came to that acceptance, we saw a massive black wake at 11 o’clock coming straight for the boat. What felt like forever was really just twenty minutes later and we pulled out my beautiful Jack. With no expectations or luck, skill met opportunity.
Listen to Your Guide. Just as freshwater fishing goes- if you don’t listen to your guide, you’re going to have a bad time. We all know these clients exist, but in the realm of saltwater fly fishing it seems much more frustrating for these guides, as well as frequent. Do yourself a huge favor and go into your saltwater trip with an open mind, not only regarding expectations, but your skill level as well. Captain Alex often emphasized that it doesn’t matter if you can cast 200 feet or 20 feet, if your timing or placement is wrong you’ll miss the fish. Achieving perfect timing and placement is as simple as just listening to your guide. He needs to know your skill level to get you to the fish, so there is no point in saying you can cast further than you can, it’ll only end up hurting your chances. At one point on the trip, we were closing in on a notorious island surrounded by permit and there I was, ready to cast when all the sudden my excess line at my feet got tangled... What made it even more painful was in that exact moment a permit was about 3 feet off the bow looking up at me with those big eyes. And I wasn’t ready. This was a very hard lesson to learn, but I was always prepared and organized from there on out. Your guide will always point out fish, so you always need to be ready and knot free. Your guide knows where the fish are. Just because you caught a permit in one spot last year does not mean there aren’t plenty of other good spots. Do everyone a favor- listen to your guide, trust your guide, and do not be an asshole to your guide. Disobey one of these and you won’t catch anything. Most saltwater guides around the world are bred for this job and have been doing it since they could walk, so respect that they know more than you do.
Patience is a Virtue. It happens often that you go hours standing on the bow without seeing any fish. If this sounds unbearable to you, then fly fishing in general probably isn’t for you (sorry if it took this blog post for you to realize that). As stated above, I cannot empathize enough the need to be prepared and ready. You could be falling asleep at the wheel while a once in a lifetime fish passes by you. Depending on the fish you are targeting, it’s more than likely you won’t catch anything and you need to approach your day with that mentality. My fishing partner Kinsey and I decided to only target Tarpon for the last 3 days of our trip. We went two days without catching anything. Welcome to saltwater fly fishing. This is the reason we keep coming back for more. This is the mentality you need to have.
Cast Around the Clock. Everyone will tell you to practice your casting prior to going on a saltwater fly fishing trip. I can assure you it is for good reason. I had attempted to practice my casting prior to my trip but let’s be real- it isn’t easy casting in a busy apartment parking lot in downtown Denver. I did not practice as much as I should have. Upon arrival in Belize we got straight to work practicing with the head fishing guide at the lodge. Yikes. The first couple casts were rough and I was mad at myself for slacking the past couple of months. I will say, however, it ended up clicking for me after my first day. My advice is to practice accuracy over distance. Distance will come, accuracy needs to be your first priority since your guide can typically get the boat pretty close to your target. The know before you go: set up targets at the park and practice casting around the face of a clock while standing in one spot (this is the way most guides tell you where fish are, so it’s important to get comfortable with quickly knowing where each number is). Focus on accuracy, then distance, then add some high winds. If you want to practice these skills in real life, go steamer fishing. Focus on hitting the banks and get a good line stripping technique down.
Saltwater Fly Fishing is a Different Sport. Compared to freshwater fly fishing, saltwater is basically a completely different sport. Before you go, try to break some of those freshwater habits that will kill you. The biggest one being the classic trout set. This is a “duh” for anyone who knows anything about saltwater fly fishing. If you don’t know, in freshwater fly fishing you typically will raise your rod to the sky once a fish takes your fly. In saltwater fly fishing, if you do this you will inevitably rip the fly right out of their mouths. Rather, you do not lift and just continue to strip your line harder to set that hook in. According to Captain Alex, the trout setting seems to happen to every single first time saltwater fly fisher. The entire trip I hadn’t trout set once on a bonefish but as I watched a tarpon lurch for my fly, I panicked, I blacked out, I trout set, he was gone. My heart hurt and Captain Alex scolded me. Don’t be this person. This also goes back to the importance of listening to your guide- he told me from the start I would probably trout set at some point. I told him I wouldn’t. Guess what? It happened. It happened on an amazing fish. Guess what? My guide was right.
Walk Away Happy, No Matter What. At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter if you walk away catching your personal best or nothing at all. You cannot measure the success of your saltwater trip on the quantity or quality of the fish. You have to measure your success by the knowledge and experience you gained on your trip. You have to measure your success by the shots you took, to be in the presence of these amazing fish in the first place. I did not catch a tarpon or permit, but I walked away a much better angler. I loved the experience and the tarpon and permit will keep me coming back and keep pushing me to improve my fishing skills for the rest of my life.
Go Again. If you are primarily a freshwater fly fisher, taking a trip like this will really change your life. It can also be super affordable. Unless skill meets opportunity, it is unlikely that you will catch a trophy fish on your first saltwater adventure. Come into the trip with practice, an open mind, and no expectations. Returning home and knowing that these amazing and unique fish exist is enough incentive to make me want to go back and be a better angler. That’s what it’s all about.
And who knows, you may even make some new best friends on your journey.
Oh, and finally, be sure to use bug spray.