Caught a few redfish and snook on fly? Try your luck offshore for a humbling experience that will certainly elevate your skills to a whole new level.
Florida is known the world over for its tropical climate and sunny skies. While mild winters, 2010 aside, offer unrivaled shallow water opportunities I still yearn for winter's end, as flimsy fly rods aren't just for idyllic flats. Every year the predictable weather patterns of spring and summer lure me over the horizon in search of extreme challenges and new accomplishments. While I'm a hardened shallow water aficionado hopelessly addicted to snook, redfish, tarpon, bonefish and permit, I yearn to fill my offshore fix with a welcome change of scenery and target species.
It's important to realize that blue water fly-fishing isn't for the weak of heart. Not to say that battling a powerful 100-pound tarpon won't raise your pulse, but the aggressors and elements involved in offshore angling can pack a whopping punch. Pelagic predators are larger, faster and meaner. Oh yeah…unlike shallow water gamesters that can often be found laid up, these fierce predators never stop moving.
Since the open ocean is such a broad expanse you obviously won't have the benefit of finding shelter from the wind. This will be your first limiting factor and should dictate how your time is spent on the water. The harsh conditions of the open ocean will also require you to utilize larger outfits and offerings that can withstand the abuse from a group of opponents that will put your tackle and stamina to the ultimate test.
While my favorite 8-weight for typical backcountry targets is always onboard for calm days, it can be found behind my 10 and 12-weights that get the nod day in and day out. In general, blue water forage is much larger than that found in the shallows. To match the hatch you will be forced to fish heavier rods and line classes to propel larger profile flies. Many anglers who are well-versed in offshore fly-fishing often step up one line weight to increase casting accuracy and distance. Hand in hand with larger rods are large arbor fly reels capable of holding an incredible amount of backing while sporting a super smooth drag system.
Pelagic predators are on a constant hunt for food to support their high metabolism lifestyle and use their incredible swimming abilities to chase down their prey of choice. When game fish hunt along the surface and shower baitfish, it is no doubt spectacularly exciting, but often short-lived. You will see mackerel, bonito and other gamesters corral baitfish again and again, but to catch them you must anticipate where the feeding fish will surface next and position yourself well ahead of the pack. Take the time to study their movements and try to discern a pattern. It will serve you well to approach the melee as stealthily as possible and setup on a drift that will bring you within reach of the action. Charging up on a school is a sure fire way to send them packing.
There's one crucial facet that separates offshore fly-fishing from traditional angling with spinning or conventional outfits. It's probably the least recognized factor and the greatest source of anguish for the offshore fly-fishing newbie. Consistently successful blue water fly fishermen live by this one simple rule; never retrieve your fly line in the direction of the boat's movement. Because pelagic forage is fast moving your fly must follow the same suit. When you try to retrieve in the boat's direction of movement, you must overcome the momentum of the boat before the fly will even begin to budge. For beginners the result is often slack fly line, little fly movement, no fish, and lots of frustration. Once the boat has stopped moving you can fire off a cast in any direction, but you must be ready as the boat will inevitably catch the wind and begin to move again. This isn't all that bad, as you can use the boat's drift coupled with the wind to increase your fly's speed in the water. However, there becomes a point where the boat's downwind movement trolls the fly, and there has always been and will always be a debate as to whether trolling a fly downwind or trolling it under power is truly fly-fishing. We'll save that for the philosophers.
When it comes to tackle, it will serve you well to be prepared for any situation that may arise. It's a good idea to have several outfits rigged and ready with a variety of specialty lines to entice various game fish under different scenarios. I generally rig a light, a medium, and a heavy rod to cover all of the bases. On the lightest outfit, an 8 or 9-weight, I spool with a floating line for surface action. The medium 10-weight will generally sport an intermediate line to increase casting distance in high winds while simultaneously offering a bit of sink. Last but not least, I will have the stoutest rod, maybe a 12-weight, loaded with a fast sinking line for presenting flies well below the surface to big cobia and smoker kings. While three complete outfits may be out of reach, at the very least you should have one well-rounded setup with spare spools to offer a bit of variety in your presentation. Leaders need not be fancy and it is best to keep it simple. Fluorocarbon is pricey, but will be a huge benefit if the water is clear or the fish are finicky. The overall length of your leader shouldn't exceed 12-feet and unless your dealing with toothy predators, a 40-pound bite tippet should suffice.
As for flies, stick with tried-and-true patterns like Clousers and Deceivers. An assortment of flashy baitfish imitations should also take up space in your fly box right alongside poppers and shrimp patterns. Overall fly lengths should be one to six-inches, with blue/white flies effectively imitating flying fish, yellow or chartreuse flies matching forage that typically hangs near sargassum, and chartreuse/white flies covering most other situations.
A saltwater fly fisherman's nemesis is unfavorable winds. Fortunately, the winds wane and the seas flatten during the late spring and summer offering the prime opportunity for superb blue water fly-fishing action. Wind is a fact of life for offshore anglers and instead of letting a little gust ruin your day, you have to manage it by proper planning and knowing how to adapt fishing tactics to varying weather conditions. Anglers should understand that wind in small doses can be advantageous. During glassy calm conditions a slight breeze can create a bit of disturbance on the surface of the water and prevent the fish from getting a good a look at your fly.
Another aspect fly anglers should be aware of is that wind velocity is always lowest at the surface of the water. Because of this you want to drive the forward cast towards the surface and let the loop unroll just above it. Extreme wind conditions will frustrate even the best casters and there are times when you'll have to recognize that enough is simply enough.
To aid in controlling fly line many utilize a stripping basket. Some anglers will anchor the basket to the deck using some sort of stabilizing mount, while others use a waist-type striping basket. Another option is to make your boat a stripping basket. First, remove or stow any unnecessary equipment to lessen the chance of snagging your fly line. If there are cleats or other items that may become an issue, non-marking, removable blue painters tape can be used as a quick fix to temporarily cover them. Used properly it is a simple, cheap, quick and effective way to turn your deck into a relatively snag free fishing platform.
Successful offshore fly-fishing is highly dependent upon the skill of the angler with the fly rod in hand, while keeping in mind that fly-fishing is definitely not the most effective way to fill the cooler. However, the reward of landing trophy blue water fish on fly is an accomplishment that you will never forget. Fly-fishing over the horizon will require you to overcome a serious learning curve, yet with practice and preparation it can be an extremely fulfilling experience.
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