How to get down where the fish are.
- Photography by: Louis Cahill
- and Chico Fernandez
Going fishing is an adventure, and no matter how long you’ve fished, you never know what awaits you. And this is part of the thrill, sometimes.
Once, on a flight to Belize, I looked down and all I saw were whitecaps, even on the shallow flats. A few minutes later we were on the small island of Ambergris Caye; the wind that met us had to be over 20 miles per hour, with stronger gusts. This was not good for any kind of fishing, but for a group of fly fishermen looking for bonefish, it was terrible.
That evening I gathered the small group before dinner and suggested they think of fishing some of the creeks and rivers in the area. They offer great protection against the wind and a variety of fish species to chase. But the group was set on bonefish. They had thought about bones for months, and they couldn’t give them up. I understood.
The next morning, my advice was to get as close to the bonefish as they could (the wind and chop would actually make that easier). In addition I suggested using a short leader, maybe nine feet or a bit shorter. Everyone agreed, accepted my blessings and got on their way.
Except one angler. This older gentleman was intrigued by the “other species” in protected waters, and wondered if we could try that approach.
So, while the other guides looked for flats on the lee side of keys, we ran generally north against a hard chop, for almost an hour, until we reached the mainland. It felt like that bumpy ride would never end, but when we finally reached the first river mouth, the tall mangroves and other trees provided enough protection to leave the water almost flat-calm.
Our guide then put-put slowly upriver for a couple of miles before tying the skiff to a mangrove branch and offering us a cold drink and a few cookies. Afterward, we took some time to rig four rods: two with fast-sinking lines and two with clear slow-sink lines. All this to give the fish time to settle down from the noise we caused coming upriver.
Then, slowly, we started to drop back down, with our guide mostly in the middle of the skiff using the pushpole to direct our drift. With my angler up front and me in the back we mostly cast side-current toward the shoreline on either side. By the time we reached the mouth, we had taken several nice snook and a couple of big mangrove snapper, and we’d jumped a couple baby tarpon. Boy, were we happy.
Then, after lunch, the guide poled us around the protected shoreline for a while and we took a few more fish, including some hard-fighting jacks. And yes, the ride back was rough, but by then we didn’t care.
That evening we learned that the “bonefish group” only took four or five bonefish combined. But in spite of our story, they persisted—for them it was bonefish or nothing. So for two more days my partner and I rode north to fish the creeks and rivers and continued to take lots of fish, including a double-digit jack that kept my friend occupied for the better part of 20 minutes.
Toward the end of the week, the wind settled and we had about a day-and-a-half of decent weather, with each angler taking a few bonefish. But I’ll tell you that by far the most exciting part of that week, for me, was fishing the rivers and creeks. And if I hadn’t brought my sinking lines—as I suggest to everyone who joins me on hosted trips—none of that would have happened.
I should also tell you about a trip to Los Roques for bonefish 20 years ago, where the wind started to blow so hard with an outgoing tide that it kept the water off the flats for two days. And I mean the flats were totally bare. Needless to say, all the fishing during those two days was done with sinking lines in six to 12 feet of water. And we took lots of bones, along with some mackerel, snappers and jacks. That’s why I always bring several sinking lines on my fishing trips. After all, they don’t take up much cargo room; I can fish deep in rivers and over reefs; around any structure like a sunken boat or marker; in channels between bonefish or redfish flats; and occasionally in blue water.
The species to be had in such spots are nearly endless. While fishing with sinking lines, in both salt and brackish water, I have taken tarpon, snook, sea-trout, redfish, tripletail, pompano, bonito, mackerel, king mackerel, bluefish, stripers, and many varieties of grouper, snapper, tuna and jacks. A sinking line opens a whole new world to the saltwater fly fisher; you learn to enjoy it all.
And, while sight-casting is my favorite way to fly-fish the salt, it is not always possible. The flat has to be at the right depth; too shallow and the fish aren’t there, too deep and you can’t see them. You need good light, and some cloud cover kills visibility. So there are times throughout the day, often entire days, where sight-casting is practically impossible and a sinking line serves well. In fact, the most exciting part of fishing deep is hooking a big fish that peels line well into your backing, and you don’t know what it is or how big it is.
If you are going for bonefish or permit, by far the areas where I most often use sinking lines are the more remote places, such as many Bahamas islands, Belize, Yucatan, etc. If you are fishing the Florida Keys, or the Miami area, where reefs and channels are often fished by bait fishermen, then you are less likely to do as well with sinking lines. Still, I have been successful in the past fishing deep in the many channels of the Lower Keys, Key West and the Marquesas, especially during times of low light—early and late in the day, or on overcast days.
Selecting tackle for a specific type of saltwater fly-fishing, I usually start with the flies, then select a line that casts those flies, and then choose the rod. But with sinking lines, I prefer to talk to you about the rod first.
Because you often need to fight a big fish that may be trying to cut you off on the bottom or wrap your leader on some structure, I feel you need the heaviest outfit you can cast comfortably for hours. For most of us, that is probably a 9-foot, 9- or 10-weight rod. Personally, I find an 8-weight a little too light to stop a nice grouper from getting in the rocks and an 11-weight a little too heavy to cast for a long time.
THE FLY LINE
More often than not when fishing deep the line you’ll reach for is the fast sinker, either because you need to get the fly deeper, the area has a strong current, or both. Most rivers and river mouths, shallow reefs and wrecks, and channels between flats call for fast-sinking lines. These come in three configurations: a shooting-head rig; a line with an integrated head; or a full-sinking weight-forward line.
A shooting head usually has a 30-foot fast-sinking head with a loop, so you can loop-to-loop it to the running line (which you buy separately). If matched properly to your rod, the shooting head casts very far, and it gives you the flexibility of changing head weight and density, or running-line diameter. Neat. While this subject is fascinating, it is also very complex. I could write a long article on the subject. Heck, I could easily write a book.
The full-sink, weight-forward line is great when your fly needs to go very deep, often deeper than 50 feet, and stay there. But, to me it’s a specialized line and not the one you need now.
Instead, I recommend you get an integrated fly line, with a sinking head of about 30 feet with a floating running line, all in one. There is no bumpy connection between the head and running line. The only drawback is that if you want to change head densities, you have to change the whole line. Still, it’s a compromise I recommend, and my favorite sinking line configuration.
These integrated lines do not come in the usual line-weight designations (9, 10, 11), but instead are marked in grains. When you match the line to your 9- or 10-weight rod, you probably get a 275- to 300-grain line for your 9, and 350 to 375 grains for the 10-weight. This outfit may feel a bit heavy when you load the rod, but it will cast any big fly with ease.
For this type of fishing, like all saltwater fishing, any quality saltwater reel with capacity for 200 yards of backing should do the job. And of course, a large-arbor reel, with the advantage of faster retrieve, is a bonus I appreciate.
Contrary to what you may have heard, a short leader with a sinking line will not work well, especially in clear water. I think the dark fly line just a few feet from the fly spooks fish. If you use a four-foot leader, you’ll fish all morning over a Bahamas reef and find you only get little jacks and tiny yellowtail snapper. But if you tie on a longer leader (more than nine feet, and 12 feet is even better), then you start to hook the big fish you are after. It took me years to find this out, not to mention many frustrating days casting my arm off.
Use 12- or 16-pound tippet, and then a short (12 inches or less) bite or shock tippet of 30- or 40-pound test. And if you find mackerel or king mackerel in the area, use a few inches of wire instead. I use #4 copper wire, but the flexible cable you can tie a knot in is also fine. I just think copper wire is less visible. Experiment a bit and make your choice.
Depending on the species, try large three- to six-inch weighted flies. I like Clousers, Crystal Shrimp, or just about any minnow imitation. Large eyes are, I think, an advantage in many patterns. If these flies look too big to you, remember that in deep water even a small grouper or snook will eat a very large fly. My favorite colors range from a realistic white with green or blue back to all chartreuse or yellow, and all black in off-color waters. And I tie on most of these flies with a loop knot.
Approach shallow wreck, buoy or marker with the same care you demonstrate on the flats. An electric engine here could be of great help. You may not see a fish spook as you might on a flat, but they do spook if you run the engine very close, or make noises in the boat. Remember, if you are too noisy you’ll only catch the little ones.
Chico Fernandez is the author of Fly Fishing for Bonefish; order it at www.flyrodreel.com. Chico lives in Miami and spends many days fishing the South Florida flats and backcountry.
Fly Rod and Reel Magazine 2011