I think the ultimate experience in the fly fishing game is stalking a fish, seeing it, making a good cast, moving the fly properly and then having all of those steps come together as the fish eats the fly. Bravo! Fish on!
But if just one of those steps falters, the chance of catching that fish drops dramatically. Yes, we have all had that “suicide fish” experience where the cast lands ten feet behind the target — and instead of spooking, the fish turns around, comes all the way back and eats the fly. I love crazy fish, and being lucky rather than good is a blessing!
However, we all must admit that this scenario 99 percent of the time turns into one of those “shoulda, coulda, woulda” head-hangin’, lip-bitin’ episodes. Ask a hardcore fly angler if he’d rather catch a dozen fish blind-casting or a couple sight-fishing, and you’ll probably hear a consistent chorus singing the praises of that skill-meets-patience-meets-focus thrillfest we call sight-fishing.
One of the things that I hear most as I am up on the poling platform pointing out fish is, “I don’t see it.” Well, if you’re sight fishing and can’t see the fish, it’s going to be a long day for you and your guide. Spotting fish is a skill, and like casting or any other skill, it takes patience and practice to develop.
What will help you see fish better? Let’s look at some gear. We all know how critical a good pair of polarized sunglasses is to breaking the glare on the water and allowing you to see the bottom with more contrast. Along with protecting our eyes from errant fly casts or debris while running the boat, a good pair of well-fitting sunglasses is the first step into looking past the surface of the water into the fishes world below. I’m not trying to sell you any particular brand; there are many (Kaenon, Smith and Costa, to name a few).
Before you buy, make sure that they have a couple of key features. I like my shades to wrap around my face as much as possible, cutting down on the light that will cause side glare. Also make sure that the glasses have a good nonslip nose piece. The sweaty days of summer and tarpon season are just about upon us, and there is nothing worse than to be lining up on a silver king or queen and have your shades suddenly slide down to the end of your nose and threaten to fall your face completely.
Be sure your hat’s bill has a dark underside. This will eliminate the light coming in from above and causing glare, plus it will help protect your nose and face from the sun’s rays. One more glare-fighting tool to use is the buff. Put on your hat and shades, then pull your buff all the way up to the bottom of your glasses and up over your ears and hat in back. This takes care of the light coming up from the bottom and the sides. These little tricks will help immensely with cutting the glare as you look into the water.
Aside from the fancy lenses, what else can you do to better see fish? Elevation helps. If you’re on the bow of a flats boat, there is a good chance there’s a casting platform (or cooler) for you to stand on. This changes the angle from your eyes to the water, reducing the reflections on the surface that inhibit your sight.
By the way, if you haven’t stood and cast from a casting platform too often (or at all), make sure you practice before you go. Stand on a stool or cooler at home and cast. You will find it difficult and limiting at first.
Trying to keep the sun behind you as you fish is a good thing. This gives you the best light possible for sight fishing. Just remember that with the sun behind you, the fish can see and feel your shadow on the bottom. This will bring them to alert mode. With the sun behind you, you also create a stark silhouette for them to see.
When you are staring out over an expanse of water, look for something else besides fish. Look for wakes that a fish may cause by swimming close to the surface. Then look into the water and find the fish. Train yourself to see the fish. You may see a single shrimp or small baitfish jump by a mangrove or on an open flat. They probably jumped for a reason other than joy … Mr. Predator is close by. Look for him in the water or cast to that spot and hook up!
After you have landed and are now releasing that fish, watch very carefully as you start putting it back in the water. This is one of the best training tools you have for finding and seeing fish. Look at its color against the bottom and surroundings. Look at its shape and shadow as it swims away. Study that fish and try to find it again after it swims out of sight. This can be an invaluable learning opportunity.
The next time you get up on the bow, you’ll start to realize you’re looking for more than just a fish in the water. You are looking for movement, shapes, shadows, subtle color changes. Once these things start happening for you and you are not just watching water any more, you will be able to spot and identify fish. At that point, all you’ll have to do is figure out which end it eats from and cast to it.
Capt. Rex Gudgel is a fly fishing guide in the Boca Grande area and an International Federation of Fly Fishers Master Certified casting instructor. If you’d like to get casting lessons, book a trip or just need more fly fishing info, contact him at 706-254-3504 or visit BocaGrandeSlamFlyFishing.com or CastWithRex.com.