Getting Started Flats Fishing

News & Tips: Getting Started Flats Fishing


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A bonefish comes in on a fly.

Picture the scene. Palm trees and lush red mangroves swaying in a soft ocean breeze. Pelicans, egrets, crested cormorants and ibis stalking sun-soaked shallows and gliding through the warm salty air. A pure white sandy beach. Vast shimmering flats with water so clear it seems unreal.

And fish galore. Tarpon, bonefish, barracuda, permit, lemon, black-tipped and bonnet sharks. In the crystal clear water they look huge — like scaled-down hovering battleships.

If this sounds like an angling paradise, you're right. It definitely can be. Fishing the crystalline flats of Florida, Texas, the Bahamas, Mexico, Turks and Caicos, or Central America has the potential to be one of angling's richest and most fulfilling experiences. But all too often, the newcomer to flats fishing has just the opposite experience.

For those who arrive unprepared for the special challenges and requirements of this unique sport, the angling can turn into a nightmare of frustration, mental anguish and physical pain. The sad results can mean lots of time wasted, money down the drain, opportunities for fish of a lifetime bungled and severe sunburn and dehydration.

If you approach flats fishing with the right attitude, though, as well as thorough planning, proper gear and a rudimentary understanding of the quarries you'll be pursuing, you'll soon find yourself hooked on this sport. I know I am.

I was lucky to receive my flats introduction years ago from a guide who knows how to prepare his clients and gently tutor them until they become adept at this special type of angling. He's Captain Mike Vaughn, who pilots his Helicon charter flats boat in the lower Florida Keys.

Vaughn grew up fishing in Pennsylvania and New York, mostly for trout and bass, and ran a tackle shop there, so he knows how to introduce freshwater anglers to this special sport. He's a past president of the Marathon Guides Association and past secretary of the Florida Keys Guides Association.

Wherever you choose to fish the flats, whether in Florida or a distant country, the steps for success are the same. And they start with solid research and preparation to choose a good area, the right time to go and a quality guide. Check references and talk with locals and lodge managers about timing the trip and also the experience of your guide.

Certainly you can break into flats fishing by yourself, but you'll save lots of time and frustration by going with a guide at least the first time or two. To get the most out of this fishing, it takes one person poling the boat and helping to spot fish and direct your cast while you stand in the bow or wade in front making the presentation to spotted fish. Vital things like knowing the best locations to be at during different tide and wind conditions are the types of knowledge that only a veteran guide or local can help with.

Before booking a trip, talk with the guide about just what kind of fishing you want to do and with what type of tackle you are familiar with. Also ask when the best seasons are in his area.

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An angler lands a bonefish while wade fishing the flats in Los Roques, off of Venezuela.

Whatever season you pick, try to book a minimum of three days of fishing. Bad weather can strike any time and knock out a day or two, but if you have several days booked, at least the trip won't be a complete washout.

Preparing for conditions on the flats is also essential. The sun's ultraviolet rays are far more intense here than in most areas and it's vital to wear lots of sunscreen and clothing with sun protection built into it. Also wear a hat with a long bill and a kerchief around your neck. Polarized glasses are also useful for relieving eye strain and helping you spot fish. Finally, bring lots of liquid. Dehydration is a real risk.

For tackle requirements, letting the guide provide everything is the safest approach. But as you grow in the sport or if you visit a remote, primitive location and need to bring your own, here's what you should have.

For casting lures and bait, start with one spinning or baitcast outfit in the 12-20 pound class with a top-notch reel and rod with plenty of backbone. This will handle sharks and large barracuda. For bonefish, snappers and small barracuda a lighter setup with 6-10 pound line is preferable. Rods should measure 6 1/2 to 7 1/2 feet.

For fly fishing, two outfits will suffice-a 7-9 weight rod with a weight forward or saltwater taper line for smaller species like bonefish and an 11-13 weight rod for tarpon and large sharks.

Besides the right gear, it's important, according to Vaughn, to get yourself physically in shape before a flats outing. Standing in the bow of a boat or wading under a hot sun all day, casting with heavy outfits and fighting fish sometimes up to an hour can be grueling. Also practice casting, to firm up the arm muscles used and improve your accuracy. Many clients, says Vaughn, wear down and want to quit before the eight hour day they paid for is over. Don't be one of them. As an alternative, you can also sometimes book a half-day trip.

A good mental attitude is also crucial for a pleasurable flats trip. Try not to be mad at yourself if you bungle a cast or don't set the hooks properly in a tarpon. Take a deep breath, soak in the beauty around you for a minute, then remember that this is supposed to be fun.

Most guides will offer instructions and criticisms, not to be mean, but to help you improve, learn the sport and get the most out of it. Don't take it personally, even if they bark the advice at you.

Once you're on the water, standing on the bow with rod in hand or wading, you'll face the first big challenge of this fishing-seeing the quarry. Just like on a big game hunt when the guide sees more animals than you, your flats guide will see more fish and more easily than you will. He does it every day, plus he's often higher up on an elevated platform.

Remember you have to look through the water's surface and see the bottom. Then fish will show up there against the sand and turtle grass.

"Look for dark, bluish-green or gray elongated forms," Vaughn counsels. "The bottom will begin to look uniform as you stare at it. Eventually fish will stand out against that background."

If bonefish are feeding in thin water, tails protruding above the surface may tip you off as to their location. Tarpon and bones also create what guides call "nervous water." It has a quivering, alive appearance. 

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Capt. Mike Vaughn lands a tarpon the author caught on a fly near Big Pine Key, Florida.

"Tarpon sometimes swim near the surface and gulp oxygen with a porpoising motion," says Vaughn. "On still days you can hear this. Turn quickly and you may see the big tail going down after the fish takes air."

Clear sunny skies are best. Gray clouds are tolerable, but whitish clouds make visibility very poor.

When the guide sights fish, he'll tell you where they are and position the boat so you can cast to them. His directions will take the form of a clock hand position. "Tarpon, 50 feet, 9 o'clock." That fish would be 50 feet straight to your left. Twelve o'clock would be straight ahead.

Don't try to present the fly unless you see the fish yourself, unless your guide tells you to just cast to a certain general spot. Usually he'll want you to see it and lay the fly, lure or bait an appropriate distance ahead to intercept it when it sinks to the fish's level. This is very challenging to do, sort of like a wing-shooter leading a bird. But when it works, there's no thrill in angling quite like it.

Bonefish, permit and sharks like a fly or lure that's inching along slowly. Tarpon want a slightly faster retrieve, with flies pulled back in spurts of 6-12 inches. Barracuda want a super-fast presentation. Speed up or slow the progress according to how the fish reacts to the lure or fly.

Set the hook either a second or two after you see the fish take or when the guide tells you to. Jam it home hard, several times. Most of these fish have tough mouths.

Never try to stop a flats fish when it wants to make a run. Once the run stops, pump hard and work the fish. Don't let it rest. Bonefish will typically take 5-10 minutes to land, tarpon 15-60 minutes depending on their size.

Flats fishing is a vast subject, but with these basic insights you should be a step ahead on your quest to break into this fascinating form of angling. And once you land that first bonefish after a line-stripping run or subdue your first tarpon after half a dozen spectacular water-spraying leaps, you'll know why flats fishermen consider theirs to be the greatest outdoor sport of all.

Visit to learn more about Capt. Mike Vaughn.