I have spent my whole life as a trout fisherman. I have caught trout in almost every corner of the Rocky Mountains, but until recently, I had never tried my hand at salt water fly fishing. My first trip to the inshore flats of the Caribbean took place a couple of years ago during the April tarpon migration through the Florida Keys. To make a long story short, I got spanked. The tarpon were there and the fishing was good. The only thing missing was some skill on my part. I did nothing to prepare myself for the trip and that was evident to my good friend and fellow Vail Valley Anglers guide Captain Nick Varnberg who guides for tarpon, permit and bonefish out of Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo.
Everything from my casting to my presentation and line control needed work. I returned to Colorado without so much as a fish story. Even a little research and preparation could have changed the outcome of that first salt water trip. These are a few things to put on your pre trip checklist that I neglected.
Preparation: Practice and Research
I have written about the benefits of casting practice before and I believe that doing so is perhaps more necessary for successful saltwater fly fishing than any other kind. The weight difference alone is harder to get used to than many anglers anticipate and casting an eleven weight rod for the first time can feel like starting from scratch. Half an hour casting at the soccer fields or ballpark three times a week for the month before each trip to the salt will do wonders for all anglers, experts included.
Get familiar with your gear. Casting a twelve weight is nothing like handling a four or five weight. Wind is also constant factor. Practice casting on the windiest of days.
Line control was a huge issue for me. I remember struggling with long lengths of fly line on the bow of the skiff while trying desperately to keep my eyes on the fish and my fly. My friends tried their hardest to hide the frustration that was eating them up as I tangled and stepped on my own fly line. As a guide I know how hard that can be to watch and now the heat was on me. Had I simply been more comfortable standing on a casting platform and less excited in the presence of huge fish, I could have managed my line better.
Know Your Quarry
The next easy step to salt water success is to learn about the species of fish you are chasing. Having even a basic knowledge of your target species will give you a huge advantage on the water. I began that first tarpon trip with zero understanding of the fish, their food, or their migration. It is hard to sight and fool a wary one hundred plus pound animal when you don’t know where it is going or what it wants to eat. There are a thousand ways to learn more about new species and locations, but some of my favorites are books. A Passion for Tarpon by Andy Mill is considered one of the most complete tarpon manuals around. It is stuffed with great information for experts as well as novice salt water fishermen like myself.
It’s Just Fishing: Be Patient and Have Fun
Maybe the most important thing to take with you to the flats is patience. Remember the reason we fish. It is supposed to be fun. Frustration only leads to more frustration, and big, wild, saltwater game fish do not come easy to the fly, so be prepared to put some time in. Keep your expectations in check for that first trip and realize that putting twenty fish a day in the boat like you can during the caddis hatch on the Eagle River here in Vail is unlikely. Some anglers have been chasing their first permit for years. Try to stay calm. It is easy to get overly excited and get nervous and experience “tarpon fever”.
Do not forget that the staff here at Vail Valley Anglers is loaded with saltwater experience and knowledge so make sure to stop by the shop in Edwards before you head to the airport for more tips. They can recommend guides, locations and gear choices to make your first trip to the salt an enjoyable experience.
Andy “Otter” Smith, Guide and Content Writer