A Fish Out of Water – When Trout Bums Hit the Salt
In December of 2016 I had the opportunity to spend a week at El Pescador Lodge on beautiful Ambergris Caye, just off the coast of northern Belize. My dad (who had just celebrated his 60th birthday) and I chased bonefish, tarpon, snook, and permit throughout the flats, lagoons, and mangrove islands surrounding the Caye. As a lifelong trout fisherman (and a fairly competent one, I like to think), it was an awesome challenge to try a type of fly fishing vastly different than anything I was used to. Here are my major takeaways:
One will hear it from a million other sources, but it is imperative to practice your casting before your trip. Then practice some more. And more. I don’t mean getting out in your yard for 20 minutes the week before your trip. Start a couple months before you go. Find the rod you are going to ultimately use, and get out multiple times a week. Something I should have done was practice casting sidearm, and standing on a small stepstool. Sidearm casts are very useful for keeping the line out of the wind. If you are fishing from a boat, you will be a foot or two above the water. The raised platform will accurately represent your fishing situation.
As far as the type of casting you should practice, worry more about your ability to drop a fly in a hula hoop at 45 feet than to throw a 70-foot bomb. Accuracy is extremely important. In many cases, getting the fly 4 feet in front of the fish is not enough. Sometimes it will need to be 2 feet from their nose.
It is imperative that one get the cast out within 5-8 seconds of the guide calling the shot, as sometimes the fish will be moving quickly. The line needs to be sitting on the deck at your feet, the fly should be in your hand, and you should have as much line out the rod tip as you feel comfortable controlling (ideally close to twenty feet). This line can either hang in front of you in a belly, or sit on the water just in front of the boat.
I was very pleased that the wind was not as big of a hindrance as I thought it might be. I never had to cast directly into the teeth of the wind, or with the wind blowing towards my casting shoulder and trying to push the fly into my body. Our guide was good about setting the boat up so that the wind was coming from the 3 to 9 o’clock sector, partly to ensure the ease of our shots, but also because he doesn’t want to pole against the wind any more than we want to cast against it.
I confirmed my suspicion that a 7-wt rod is just fine for most Belizean bonefish. The 6- and 8-pound bonefish commonly found in places like the Bahamas are rare in Belize. Most Belizean bones top out at around 3 pounds, with most between 1½ and 2 pounds. A 7-wt adds to the fun of playing the fish, and can also double as a streamer rod for freshwater. However, you definitely should use a saltwater-specific line, as well as an anodized, corrosion-resistant reel. Overlining the rod is also not a bad idea as it allows the road to load more quickly and more deeply. I used a 7-wt Sage Method paired with an Orvis Hydros SL reel, and loaded with an 8-wt Rio General Purpose Saltwater line.
For snook and tarpon, we threw a 9-wt Orvis Helios 2. In December, the 100-plus pound migratory tarpon are not around. Resident tarpon can grow as large as 80 pounds, but most are between 20 and 40. A 9-wt is perfect for these fish, and can double as a snook rod. Most snook top out at around 15 pounds, but a heavy rod is necessary to keep them away from the mangroves.
Most instructional material one will find on tying saltwater flies emphasizes the need for sparsely tied flies. While that may be optimal in many situations, our guide looked at a lot of the flies I had tied and said they were okay, but would be better if they were tied a little puffier, with more material bulk to them, and slightly longer wings and tails. This led me to the conclusion that one could always tie their flies ‘medium’ as opposed to ‘sparse’ and just trim them down on-site if need be.
Bonefish, at least in Belize, do not seem to be particularly selective with flies. We threw primarily Christmas Island Specials and Gotchas, but many other patterns worked as well.
General Fishing Techniques
During my retrieves, I like to keep my rod tip in the water just below the surface. I use this technique when trout fishing in lakes, as it improves sensitivity to strikes. Since the water was often stained (it rained on and off throughout our stay) we were relying much more on feel as opposed to sight. Since you are stripping line over your finger for days on end, some type of finger protection is needed. We used Buff Pro Series Stripping Guards.
Strip set. I blew a strike from a tarpon because although I did not raise the rod, (the classic ‘trout set’) I pulled the rod backward into my belly (don’t ask me why) as I made the strip. It is important to not move the rod at all during the hook set and simply reef hard on the line to sink the hook. Our guide also recommended using all five fingers on the line hand, to allow us to make harder sets.
Communication with your guide is vital. Let him or her know of your casting abilities, fishing preferences, and so on. Use reference points on the bottom or nearby shoreline to enhance the “10 o’clock, 50 feet” system.
Lastly, remember not to take yourself too seriously. Stay relaxed, and remember that a blown cast or a missed fish is not the end of the world. Frustration is a process that feeds on itself. Always keep a cool head, even if you’ve just draped the leader across a cruising tarpon’s back.
Ed Mulhern has fished in four Fly Fishing Team USA regional events and one U.S. Fly Fishing Championships. He received a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Colorado School of Mines in 2014. Ed currently works for a software company in Denver.