Rules of Engagement

Rob Sloane looks at the fundamental rules governing successful fly fishing encounters in fresh and salt water

It was a subheading in Craig Rist’s tarpon story in FL#83 that got me thinking about the common elements that determine success or failure in fly fishing. Tarpon and trout might seem poles apart when it comes to our approach, flies and presentations, but perhaps they are not. This isn’t exactly warfare, and there are endless ways to catch fish on fly, but sometimes it helps to define the actions that might prove unacceptable. Of even greater interest are the principles that apply across a range of species and habitats, salt and fresh. Here are my rules of engagement. The first rule is to conceal your approach. Seems obvious, but it does not come naturally to those who lack a solid fishing and/or hunting background. To them, the water surface must seem like a soundproof mirror, rendering them invisible to the fish below. They soon learn otherwise. Cover-orientated fish and ambush predators will be less concerned about a careless approach, but open water feeders — salt or fresh — are ever alert to anything and everything going on around them. If they see or sense you coming, they will scarper. Adequate vigilance doesn’t necessarily imply creeping around and hiding in the bushes. You can still walk the shore or bank, or wade carefully, provided you have confidence in your own fish-spotting skills and/or knowledge of where the fish are likely to be, but you have to be aware of the water you might be ‘sacrificing’ in the process. Carefully doesn’t necessarily mean slowly, but whether you can actually see fish or not, always wade smoothly, move quietly, and make every effort to stay out of sight. Don’t slosh, thump, bang or crunch. Move when a sighted fish is moving away, not towards you. Keep off the skyline wherever possible and don’t attack the fish directly if cover is available. And it’s not just you that needs to be careful — same goes for your mate who might be moving past, watching on, or spotting from a higher bank. Less haste, more speed. Herons aren’t slow but they are smooth and cautious. They know how to stalk their prey, and know exactly when to strike without missing. The main thing to worry about is your casting-arm waving about. Fish are sensitive to overhead movement and sudden flashes and splashes. Even a faultless caster can benefit from a little camouflage. Avoid bright clothing, gaudy fly-lines and shiny rods and reels. And let’s not forget boat fishing, where all thoughts of stealth and concealment are so often cast aside. When approaching good water you need to make allowances in terms of minimal wake disturbance, adequate distance and appropriate positioning. You don’t need to stand on a casting platform to fish loch-style for example, or to target selective caenid feeders that might otherwise come within a rod’s length. In fact I often find myself sitting or crouching low in my dinghy and making side casts rather than overhead presentations, or I’ll duck right down to below gunnel level to allow a rising fish to come within close range. The more you stand bolt upright, waving arms and rod around from bank or boat, the more you will extend that exclusion zone around you, limiting your chances and pushing the action further away. Of course, those stealth and concealment rules can be adjusted to suit the conditions. No matter what species you encounter, broken water offers more protection than a glass calm surface and this can be used to advantage, allowing you to move closer, whereas bright sun, long shadows and foggy backdrops all warrant extra care. Basically the more flambouyant and extravagant your casting strokes, the more fish you will alarm. If you are prepared to spend time at practice, then work on accuracy and minimising false casts, not just on gaining extra distance. “Your first presentation gives the best chance of a bite, so make it count. Many are single-presentation fish.” No, not trout — this is Geoff Volter talking about tropical tuskfish (FL#83). You see, the rules are much the same across the board, from fresh water to the salt, from cold alpine streams to tropical beach flats. That first shot has everything going for it, so make it count. Don’t be hasty but don’t miss the chance. Know when to shoot and when to hold. Sometimes it’s a split second decision and reflex shot to cover a fast moving fish — speed is everything — but at other times it’s a tactical game of watching, waiting, calculating and moving to improve your position before placing that perfect cast. There is no going back from an errant cast made in haste, a clumsy shot that falls short, or a fly-line crash-landing right on top of the fish — all can spell disaster. Don’t be half-hearted or unsure. If in doubt, hold fire and regroup. Do everything possible to make your first cast your best cast. I can understand the idea that the further you cast the more fish you will catch in a stocked pond ringed by competition anglers, and it’s good to be able to cast a long way to take a stab at a fish moving quickly out of range, but a compulsion to cast as far as possible can be a handicap in everyday fishing situations. This is inextricably linked to the previous point, because the further you cast to cover the fish, the more likely you’ll undershoot or overshoot the mark. The sheer physical laws governing our visual depth perception imply that the odds strongly favour holding fire, allowing the fish to move closer before making that one per- fect shot. When blind fishing, the long cast should only follow a series of shorter exploratory casts unless you are targeting a specific feature, such as a channel or drop-off that you can’t reach otherwise. In small boats you need to be balanced when casting, and can do without that heave-ho generated by extravagant double hauls. Nine times out of ten, in a hatch situation, beginners miss out by putting the fly anywhere but in front of the fish. Sometimes a fish will turn on its tail or deviate a long way sideways to take your fly, but ideally the fly needs to be on track, right in front of the fish, and moving or sitting correctly. It all comes down to interpretting the fish’s speed, direction and feeding pattern. You want the fish to see the fly first, without needing to floss the leader across its face. If the fish sees or senses the fly land or suddenly appear and move, then your chances of an impulse take are greatly elevated. The longer the fly drifts idle on the surface the less likely it will be noticed or seen as food. Lead distances will depend on the speed and feeding mode of the fish, the depth of water and strength of the tidal flow or current. A fast moving, open water feeder might require a long cast, well in front, whereas a slow-moving bottom feeder might need a closer, pin-point presentation allowing time for the fly to sink. An ambush feeder will demand a bold cast right into and under cover, with the fly dangled and pulsed right in its face. As I’ve said before, trout provide a great training ground for all manner of tropical and saltwater species because trout occupy the full range of habitats from fast flowing to deep and still, from open flats to heavy structure, and feed on everything from flashy baitfish schools to inert worms and molluscs to drifting and crawling insects and crustaceans. Sometimes a little unnatural movement will provoke a response or second look from a disinterested fish (like the last brown I caught at the weekend!), but this is more of a last resort. Ideally, you want to present the fly in a natural manner. This is where observation pays dividends because the behaviour of the fly needs to match the natural in any selective feeding situation. Floating snails hang suspended under the surface, windfall terrestrials wriggle and drift, grasshoppers splash down and kick, baitfish flash and scatter at high speed. Your fly needs to be that prey, in the way it sits or swims, creeps or crawls, rises or falls. Size, shape and colour need to fit the mould, but the overriding need is for the behaviour of the fly to gel with the hunting mode of the fish. At times your fly might not look quite right but you might be able to tempt or tease the fish into taking — by repeated presentations for example, stop start retrieves, or a slow draw or lift. We’ve all had fish nearly pull the rod out of our hands when our eyes and minds have wandered elsewhere. Barramundi and the like will pull the line right out of your fingers and suck and spit the fly in an instant. If you make a cast you have to be committed to the retrieve from go to whoa. Murphy knows that the takes always come when you are looking elsewhere or momentarily picking your nose. If you have written a mental shopping list, sent a text message, planned an assignment, or dreamt of a long lost lover whilst fishing, then your mind has not been on the job. The competition guys are masters at this, totally absorbed in the drift, the cast, and constantly watching and feeling for the slightest twitch in the line. Every cast relates to the previous one, covering new water and exploring every possibility that might produce a fish. If the fish fails to notice your fly on that first attempt, don’t be too hasty to snatch the fly out for a recast until the fish is well clear. The last thing you want to do is spook it when the fly bloops or the line slurps off the water. The accompanying advice is to lift as smoothly and quietly as you can. An important proviso is the need to fish every retrieve and drift right out, particularly when blind searching, as though that imaginary fish is following and ready to grasp the fly at any stage, right up until the very last second. Even then, it pays to ‘hang’ the fly momentarily before lift-off, just in case an eager mouth is about to snatch it. Don’t be too hasty to swap and change flies unless you are sure you are getting genuine refusals. A fly change is no solution to a poor approach or presentation. It might seem obvious, but so often an assumed refusal is simply that the fish didn’t see the fly. We have all at some time copped a hiding from someone fishing close by and we usually look for answers in our fly boxes. Sure, that bloke hooked up to a fish might have a more effective fly, but it could also be that he is retrieving that little bit faster, or making subtle mends in the line to drift his flies more naturally with the breeze or current. Subtleties count for everything at this end of the game. In salt water it might be that a Clouser drifted a little slower and deeper in the tidal run produces hookup after hookup on giant herring. Or a fly cast just that bit further into structure produces an instant strike from a barra, bream or cod. The penny finally drops when someone else is catching fish, using exactly the same fly, and you aren’t getting a sniff. We all know that a trouty strike is no good in the salt, so where is the common ground here? The reality is that a strip strike can be equally effective when fishing heavy tippets and sinking lines for trout, whereas a trouty lift can be just the thing when fishing light rods and light tippets in the salt. Whatever the situation, set the hook firmly and decisively as soon as you are sure that the fish has actually taken the fly. Feeling for the take might work at times with bonefish, but for just about every other species I can think of you can’t be tentative when setting the hook. But how do you know when the fish has the fly in its mouth? Strike indicators (pinch of wool, foam, or dry fly dropper) can help in certain situations, but otherwise it comes down to closely watching the fish’s body language and/or relying on that mystical power known as ‘judgement’. If you are relying on feeling a tug, seeing the leader move or watching for the line to move under the rod tip when fishing blind, then good line management is the key. At no stage, from the initial sink to that final lift, do you want to lose contact with the fly or let lazy loops gather on the water. Stay in touch and in tune. And, again, the rules are the same whether you are fishing a sink-tip for trout or a berley trail for garfish, mullet or even giant Spanish mackerel. One tip that sticks in my mind from my early days of saltwater fly fishing is Steve Gresham’s advice when I was a bit non-plussed having just hooked a big tuna on fly at Cape York. Basically he told me that I should be winning line or losing line, but nothing in between — no stalemate time allowing the fish to rest and regain strength. It was good advice, and after plenty of practice I achieved the seemingly impossible and broke the 3-minute barrier (from hook-up to in the boat) on tuna, though I did destroy a reel in the process (FL#29). I now appreciate that for any fish on any tackle, this principle holds true. You have to be fully in charge of the situation from go to whoa, particularly when dealing with those structure bound brawlers like triggerfish, jacks, emperor and, of course, trout. Easy to say, but so much of fly fishing is mind over matter. Perhaps this is what sets it apart. I’m no sports psychologist, but I’ve seen enough series on Netflix to know that if you lose your chi, your kung fu will suffer. Nothing beats time on the water, and time with your fly actually in the water. Confidence is everything. If you lose it, don’t go searching in your gear bag or fly box. It’s all in your head.

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