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Fly Me to the Sea

Saltwater fly-fishing is more affordable and enjoyable then ever — and it’s easier than golf.

Text and photography by Larry Bozka

My introduction to saltwater fly-fishing was a bit like my introduction to golf, with one important distinction. I gave up golf before too many people got to see me be bad at it. I wasn’t meant to be a golfer, and fortunately, had the sense to figure that out by the ninth hole of my first round.

It was the waterhole that did it.

Unless it’s in a tumbler back at the clubhouse, water is the golfer’s mortal enemy. I, as a fisherman, found that concept surreal. (I’m sure my partner felt the same about my golfing.)

How, I asked him, can you concentrate on hitting a ball the size of a plastic bobber when at least a half-dozen bass are brazenly killing insects on the surface of the pond between you and the hole?

“You need to quit thinking about fishing,” he answered.

“Okay,” I answered. “I’ll get right on that. Soon as I stop breathing.”

And that was that. I let my friend play out the final nine in peace, the whole time quietly recalling the crisp spring day in 1971 when I hooked my first fish on a fly.

It happened at, of all places, a golf course.

As a high school freshman I knew nothing about golf. I had recently read, however, that all golf courses have waterholes, and that said waterholes are usually stocked with fish.

“Water hazard,” I deduced, was actually golfer’s code for “fishing hole.” My brother and I decided to personally test this pioneering theory by sneaking into a nearby country club course.

I carried my father’s old bamboo fly rod, along with a yellow-bucktailed popping bug that for years had been gathering dust on a shelf in our garage, waiting for my destiny to intervene.

Obi-Wan Kenobi picked up his first light saber with less enthusiasm.

Shortly after our arrival we were invited to leave. Still, it only took five minutes for me to hook, fight and break off a creature that, despite the inflated speculation of a hyperventilated 14-year-old, was beyond question a bona fide Big Honkin’ Fish.

Almost 20 years later, staring at that ball-defying body of water outside the eighth hole, I thought of that unforgettable day in 1971 and resolved to take up fly-fishing for real.

Fly-fishing couldn’t, I assumed at the time, be any more difficult than learning to play golf. And, though it may offend and pain proud legions of world-class fly casters to hear, it wasn’t. Not by a long shot (or even a short putt).

Unless one is born a club-swinging prodigy, he or she can easily invest a decade in gaining proficiency at golf. Fly fishing basics, on the other hand, can be learned — not mastered, mind you, but adequately achieved — with a few hours of instruction.

Initial attempts might not, and probably won’t, be pretty. My first efforts certainly weren’t, and with sufficient wind or tree limbs in the picture, they still aren’t. But I have come to realize that how one puts a fly in front of a saltwater gamefish is not nearly as important as the fact that the fly is put in front of the fish.

Golf is not so forgiving. It is, however, very similar to fly-fishing in that those learning the craft invariably do well to hire a qualified instructor. Ironically, the more accomplished an angler is at baitcasting, or even spincasting, the more difficult it tends to be for the same angler to conquer the straight-wristed basics of “shooting” a fly line through the ceramic guides of a loaded-up rod.

Take lessons and learn the essentials. It’s easy at that point to spend the rest of one’s life developing the finer points of roll-casting and double-hauling.

Many fishermen are intimidated by the difficulty of fly-fishing. It doesn’t help that experienced fly-fishermen sometimes encourage the notion that learning to fly cast is only a bit more difficult than flying the space shuttle.

Sure, anyone with an ounce of fishing blood who watched A River Runs Through It sat in speechless awe at the seamless choreography of Jason Borger’s fly casting on Montana’s Gallatin River. (Today, Borger is the director of fly casting at the Fly Casting Institute in Bozeman, Montana, where an angler can get — no kidding here — a “biomechanical analysis” of his or her casting stroke.)

I’ll wait a while on that one.

Every sport has its experts. Still, you needn’t be one to experience and appreciate the breathtaking pull of an angry redfish on a pulsating 8-weight.

Fly-fishing is an ancient art, imported from Europe and practiced on high-country streams for centuries before the first enterprising longrodder attempted the presentation of an oversized fly to a saltwater gamefish. Nowadays, coastal fly casters regularly catch everything from 15-inch school trout to 150-pound tarpon. They achieve this feat by drawing on the expertise of numerous authorities as well as countless texts and videos.

Over time, the quality of tackle in relation to its price has consistently improved. Many entry-level outfits are now actually superior to “state-of-the-art” rigs marketed as little as 15 years ago. (Remember the late 1970s, when “cutting-edge” graphite bass rods that sometimes broke like pencil leads were priced at a hundred bucks and up?) Technology, materials and manufacturing techniques have brought high-end fly-fishing gear within easy reach of the angler who’s willing to make a modest investment.

When I began saltwater fly-fishing in the early 1990s, it was common to spend up to $600 on a top-notch rod. Today’s well-heeled fly rodders still drop that much and more on prestige brands, but do so more out of desire than necessity. Like laptop computers, modern fly rods have become vastly more affordable with virtually no sacrifice in quality.

A good saltwater (a.k.a. “corrosion-resistant”) rig, both rod and reel, can be had for $250 or less. Expect to spend another $40 to $60 on fly line, and easily that much more on a modest selection of fly patterns, backing (line, often Dacron, spooled beneath the fly line), leader and line dressing.

A durable case is a must. For conservatively priced rods that don’t come with cases, a $40 to $50 zippered nylon case with PVC inserts is as good an insurance package as money can buy.

Accomplished saltwater fly casters often use 6- or 7-weight rods. It’s great fun to fight even modestly sized redfish and trout on lighter-weight blanks. However, for easier learning, without sacrificing the authority to counter constantly present coastal winds, most beginners fare best with 8-weight rods.

I tried to learn with a 9-weight, and don’t recommend it. It’s very difficult to feel the sensation of a blank “loading up” and to master precise line-release timing with a heavyweight rod and matching line. A slightly overloaded rod exaggerates the feel. For this reason, many novices start out casting 9-weight line on a 7-weight rod. It’s not wasted money, as most saltwater fly casters end up with two rods anyway, a 7-weight for optimal conditions and a 9-weight for the times when the wind commands more respect.

One constant is that most saltwater fly casters express a general preference for weight-forward floating line. After all, it’s the line being cast, not the lure.

Sinking line is appropriate for surf-casting, jetty fishing or plumbing deep bay troughs and reefs, but for the classic drill of stalking tailing redfish in calf-deep water, floating line rules.

Unlike lures and baits on conventional tackle, flies are retrieved via “stripping” the line by hand, not cranking a reel handle. Once there’s a strike, the hook is set with a firm tug of the line, not a swoosh of the rod.

As for reels, disk-drag versions are best for heavier gamefish. “Palming” a fly reel’s side plate is a time-tested practice, but given the option, one’s money is best spent up-front on a simple clicker-type reel with a smooth-operating drag. A saltwater fly reel should hold at least 100 yards of 20-pound backing below the appropriate fly line. Wide-spooled, high-capacity versions are available to fishermen who target larger species.

Fly line embodies two materials, the core and the coating. Most fly lines are approximately 30 yards long. Attaching the line to the backing is arguably a job best left, at least the first time or two, to a pro shop. In fact, pro shops are a beginning fly caster’s go-to source for everything from proper tackle setup to knot-tying to effective fly presentation.

Many Texas casters, both saltwater and freshwater, benefit from membership in the Federation of Fly Fishers (www.fedflyfishers.org), a group of avid longrodders with chapters nationwide.

I have encountered these folks numerous times at sports shows. They tend to defy the “elitist” stereotype. I usually leave with another fly pattern in my pocket and with the distinctive privilege of having watched a knowledgeable angler tie it. (Caution: Tying the same fly at home is another matter altogether. My homemade creations could scare snakes out of the water, but I enjoy fly-tying as a hobby all the same.)

It’s been my experience that fly casters are more willing to share their expertise than any other faction of the angling community. After all, fly fishermen possess a common passion, one that transcends the catching of fish.

Saltwater fly casters are among professional fishing guides’ least demanding clients. Most, given a couple of solid takes on a hard-stripped Clouser minnow, crab or shrimp pattern, walk away from the experience with a unique degree of satisfaction that’s not transmitted by a stringer of fish.

It’s not coincidence that most talented fly casters cut their saltwater fishing teeth with conventional tackle. No degree of fly-fishing mastery can counter ineptitude at “reading the water” and not recognizing the basics of when and where to find select species.

A good fly caster does not always a good fisherman make. You can, after all, be an excellent mechanic and still not know how to drive a car.

Just as effective archery requires highly refined hunting skills, fly-fishing increases the challenge of saltwater angling and calls on new skills. Occasionally, it can actually give the angler an edge.

When conventional lures spook skittish gamefish, it’s possible that a gently presented streamer can be just the enticement that draws a savage response from an unsuspecting predator. Even more impressive is the sense of control an angler feels when a blind cast is rewarded with the unanticipated sighting of a tailing redfish in the opposite direction.

Faced with that exciting but frustrating quandary, the hapless baitcaster can only crank the reel handle as quickly as possible and hope for a last-second shot at a fish that’s very likely to flee in response to the hurried impact of the cast.

A cool-headed fly caster needs only lift the line from the water, firmly pull it behind, load up the rod, aim and — given reasonable competence and a small bit of luck — quickly “shoot” an irresistible offering directly in the path of the unsuspecting fish.

Based on my history with golf, I’ll never be able to testify from experience on this conclusion. But I’m firmly convinced that, when a tailing redfish lifts its head and turns, slicing through an accelerated wake with a defiantly raised dorsal fin, and only seconds later lunges atop a saltwater fly like a bulldog on a rat, the feeling you get is as close to the feeling of making a hole-in-one as catching a fish can get.

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