12 Sins of the Flats

Instruction By Dusty Sprague

Redeem your wicked ways by recognizing your flats-fishing flaws, and fixing them.

Capt John Kumiski wrote those words 14 years ago as a lead-in for his article on the same subject for Saltwater Fly Fishing magazine. John identified 10 sins common to flats fly fishermen – mistakes that resulted in refusals – rejections – no hook-ups. We continue to make the same mistakes and I’ve added more that plague us as we seek success on the flats. Many of these sins can be avoided with a little fore-thought and practice.

1. Wearing bright colors. Wear subdued colors. Bright colors and movement alert the fish to your presence. When the fish sense danger they just won’t eat. Wear subdued colors. White, bright orange, red or yellow and certainly bright lime green or chartreuse clearly stand out and make one conspicuous to the fish — wear those before and after but not while fishing.

2. Being slow to get ready to fish – be ready to cast within a minute or two of your arrival on the flat. I can’t count the times we’ve arrived at a flat and I’ve taken too long to get ready. Who is up next – my buddy or me – we argue about it — suddenly we see the fish…right there !… and neither of us is ready — and the opportunity is lost. If you are fishing with a friend decide before you get to the flat who will fish. Before the boat comes to a complete stop the rod should be coming out of the rack and you should be moving to the casting deck ready to strip line from the reel and either make a clearing cast or re-stack the line preparing for immediate action. If you can be ready to cast within no more than 2 minutes you should be able to take advantage of any opportunities that come quickly.

3. Being noisy – be quiet and observant. When a fish hears an unusual sound they go on alert and often develop lock-jaw. If you want more shots at fish on the flats conduct yourself like you are stalking the wary wild animals that they are. If you can approach the fish and present the fly without the fish becoming aware of your presence, your probability of success increases significantly. Be quiet and observant.

4. Can’t see the fish – Seeing fish requires good vision, polarized sunglasses and a practiced eye. If you need corrective lenses to see well and you are a serious flats fishermen, the most important investment you can make in your hobby is to get your eyes fixed or buy prescription polarized sunglasses. You’ll be able to see the fish you seek. Copper, amber or rose colored shades are best for the flats.

With good vision and polarized sunglasses good anglers have learned to use a relaxed scan of the water, moving side to side, first out at a distance, then moving closer, looking for subtle differences in water movement that may indicate fish – nervous water, wakes, tails, and pushes – and then when something grabs their attention looking for fish shapes, parts of fish, and subtle differences in colors. The more you are on the flats the better you will get.

5. Hesitating to cast – don’t hesitate. If you hesitate once a fish is in casting range you may miss your best opportunity. Hesitating allows the fish time to move, possibly further away or get too close or change directions such that the retrieve of the fly will pull the fly into the fish, a very unnatural move. You won’t need to cast 90 feet….a 40 to 60 foot cast will likely do the job.

6. Excessive false casting – Minimize false casting. A waving rod, the reflection of sun on an unrolling line or leader, the flash of a fly, the movement of arms and body….all can frighten a fish or put them on alert. Minimize false casting and unnecessary movements. A goal ….no more than 2 false cast cycles…delivering the fly on the 3rd forward stroke. If you can deliver the fly with fewer strokes by all means do it.

7. A related issue is the plane of the cast….more vertical or more horizontal. Vertical casting planes are useful for accuracy and for long casts, to prevent the line hitting the water as gravity pulls the line down as it completes unrolling. The horizontal casting plane, casting side-arm, with the rod traveling parallel with the water, can be an advantage in that the low-to-the-side rod plane keeps the rod, line, leader, and fly lower to the water and less visible to the fish. You will have to increase the tempo of the casting cycle to prevent ticking the water but that is a small adjustment to make for the advantages this plane offers.

8. Attacking the fish with the fly – bad retrieve angle – reposition before casting. In nature, prey will not attack a predator. A fly moving unnaturally toward the fish will most often spook the fish. Consider the angle of your retrieve before making the cast. If the retrieve will pull the fly into the fish try to reposition to avoid that angle of retrieve.

9. Bad Presentations – recast. If you make a cast that is too short, the fish will never see your fly. Don’t hesitate to recast after a silent pickup — strip in line until a quiet pickup can be made. Ripping the fly from the water frightens the fish and most often results in a very poor back cast. Conversely, if you make a cast that is too long, several things can happen none of which will lead to a hook up. The essence is to make an un-hurried but fairly quick and accurate cast the first time. Practice by casting to small targets are varying distances, for example, a scattering of paper plates on the lawn. Begin with the fly in hand and try to hit the plates, scattered from 20 to 50 feet, with minimum false casts. Try to get the fly to the target within 7 seconds. Poor casting skills along with an angler’s inability to see the fish are the two most common reasons for failure on the flats.

10. Using the rod to manipulate the fly – move the fly with the line-hand. If you move the rod to move the fly you will have undoubtedly put an angle between the fly line and rod, with the rod angled off to the right or left of the line, or angled upward. If the fish takes the fly and you then strip-strike the flexible rod tip will absorb the strike and you will not likely hook the fish well, if at all. Its best to keep the rod pointed straight down the line to the fly, creating a straight path from your line anchor point on the cork handle to the fly. With this straight path established, when you strip-strike the hook moves immediately into the fish and you can get a solid hook-up. If the hook does not set the fly will have been pulled forward only a foot or two and the fish may take it again offering you a second opportunity for a hook-up.

11. Lifting the rod to set the hook – use the strip-strike. Lifting the rod to set the hook works best for small, thin, very light-wire hooks, using weak tippets, on soft-mouthed fish, like cold-water trout. Many saltwater species have hard mouths and we use thicker-wired, larger hooks that are more difficult to penetrate tough mouth tissues. The strip-strike is much more reliable for the reasons stated above.

12. Setting the hook based on visual clues – set the hook when you feel the fish. If you set the hook based on seeing the fish take the fly you will often miss the hook-set.

Hopefully being more aware or being reminded of these wicked ways will lead you to improved performance on the flats. Tight lines !