When you boil it all the way down, I think the reason we like to fly fish is because it’s downright hard. Fly fishing is a challenge, and it’s therefore very rewarding when we’re successful. I know for a fact that many people have taken the plunge into using the “long rod” because of the flowered, almost ethereal, commentary on TV shows, in books and articles, in the plethora of online videos, and of course from guides wanting business. In most of these messages fly fishing looks beautiful, romantic and so easy.
The decision is made: “I’m going to fly fish.” Ha! Gotcha!
After “sort of” learning to cast, and then finding some success in a small trout stream or pond full of bluegills (which is great, don’t get me wrong; I love it), another decision is made: “I’m going to go flats fishing in the salt.”
Maybe the dream is to go catch reds, or bonefish, or a Charlotte Harbor snook. But, if the angler sticks with it through all the trials, disappointments and tough times, eventually the graduation of fly fishing levels will lead to standing on the bow of flats skiff, staring out into beautiful turquoise water at a string of 100-pound tarpon coming at you.
Andy was standing on the bow of my boat recently, just in from West Virginia, and I could hear him talking. I asked him if he was talking to me or just answering the voices in his head. There was a pause and then he turned and nervously smiled. “I’m just going over what I’m supposed to do if they show up.”
I said to him, “I know you’ve read articles and watched videos on how to, and when to, and why to, but just relax. I’ll talk you through it — and they are going to show up. But you just can’t care if you catch one of these fish.” He stared at me quizzically. His jaw slightly dropped and he began to speak, but before the words came out I said, “Just throw the fly when I tell you to.”
I spotted a string of tarpon down the beach about a quarter-mile away. “Here they come. Have you ever seen tarpon roll?” “No sir,” he said. “Not in real life.” I grinned as I watched him trying to wipe the sweat from his hands on to his brand-new Simms shorts. I had a rag up on the poling platform with me, so I threw it and hit him in the back with it. It startled him so badly I thought he was going in the water. “Dry your hands off and get ready,” I said.
The tarpon rolled again. “There, did you see them? They’re at 10 o’clock.” “No,” he said. “10 o’clock is on the left side of the bow,” I said, as I could see him looking off the boat at about 2 o’clock. Then the ‘holy Toledo’ moment arrived — he finally saw the fish roll. “Jeebers, they’re huge!” “Yep, and happy too,” I said. “They’re coming right to us. Remember, lead the fish with your cast and keep the rod down as you strip strike.” “Should I cast?” he asked. “Only if you can throw 200 feet.” I said. “Just relax. Remember, you don’t care about catching any of these fish.”
The line of fish came closer and rolled again. I could see the sweat soaking through his shirt as he mumbled something to the voices again. “Now,” I said, “make your cast.”
Andy went into a hurried motion of flailing around with the rod, short erratic strokes with no pause, looking like an Olympic ribbon dancer jacked up on caffeine. Whap! — the fly smacked into the back of his ball cap and stuck there. I told him to be still and just wait and watch as the fish went by. He stood there in embarrassed amazement as the string of 20 or so giants swam by, seemingly paying no attention to us.
Andy looked up at me and said “I screwed up,” then asked if I was mad. From the poling platform I looked down at him — fly stuck in his matching Simms hat and leader still wrapped around his neck. “No, I don’t get mad,” I said. “I’ve got it all on the GoPro. It’ll make a great ‘what not to do’ video.” He laughed and started to pull the fly from the hat and unwrap himself of the leader and line.
Then I said, “See, I told you not to care about those fish. You let them get the best of you.” He said, “How do you not care about those monsters when they are coming at you like that … just like every video I’ve ever seen?”
Now that’s the right question to ask. Until you have done this enough to be comfortable, you have got to find a way to control the fear of failure, the majesty of the monsters, and the anticipation of the impending battle. Just throw the fly.
“Clear your line and strip it back into the boat,” I said. “Let’s get ready for the next school.” “Do you see some already?” he asked in almost shaky high-pitched voice. “Not yet,” I said. “Take a deep breath, relax and get a bottle of water — and one for me, please.”
After a drink and more shop talk, I saw another school coming in. “You’re on again,” I said, “here they come.” Andy turned, checked his fly line, got in casting position and waited for me to show him the fish. “Do you see them at ten o’clock?” Before he could respond, the school began to roll. He went absolutely rigid. I said, “Just relax and make your cast.”
He began to false cast and lost his tempo. He dropped the fly, made a couple of strips and started again. “Quick, drop it!” I said. At that moment, he reached out and made what was probably the best cast of his life: Nice tight loop, good line speed in perfect line with where it should be. If only it hadn’t been 20 feet too far! Before the line hit the water, the fish were blowing out in all different directions, creating wakes and boils of mass proportion.
He looked slowly back at me — expecting the worst, I guess. I said “Nice loop. Let’s find some more!”
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.