as published in South Florida Sport Fishing Magazine...
Just as you have to learn to cast, pole a boat or tie a proper knot, out on the flats, you’ve got to learn to see the fish on the bottom. It was a steamy late afternoon back in 1982 when after work I stopped by the local fly shop in Islamorada. Mike Hyman, the owner wasn’t there but Don Gapen (the inventor of the freshwater Muddler Minnow fly) was in the process of putting out the “gone fishing” sign. It was a bit early for closing time if memory serves me correctly. “Gonna look for some bones, you’re welcome to tag along,” said Don in his quiet slow drawl. Before he took a second step, I had my inexpensive fiberglass fly rod in hand. Don sauntered across old US Highway 1 to a flat behind an aging Mom and Pop motel. Once there Mark Meade, a local jeweler, joined us. I watched in amazement as the two made casts to seemingly endless schools of bonefish. Softly they called out fish to each other. "Two O’clock Don!” “OK, I got em.” “There’s several more seventy feet out!” I however, struggled to get the fly to the few bonefish that felt sorry for me and offered their glimmering silver tails above the calm surface. The two experienced anglers had far more opportunities than I that evening, for they could see the fish.
For those new to fishing the flats, one of the most difficult barriers to overcome is the ability to see a fish below the surface. Sunlight, clouds and wind combine to produce glare on the water’s surface. Although the depth may be only inches, the fish remain masters of camouflage beneath it. When most beginning anglers are searching for a distinct fish, the subtle clues are actually much less obvious.just as you have to learn to cast, pole a boat or tie a proper knot, out on the flats, you’ve got to learn to see the fish on the bottom. Just the purchase of an expensive pair of sunglasses won’t help. You have to master looking below the surface. Before beginning a day of sight fishing with any new client, I’ll often start with an exercise in concentration for my anglers. We begin by focusing on the bottom alongside the skiff. Once I’ve got them picking out the sea grass or sponges beneath them, I'll have them slowly move their visual concentration on the bottom further away from the boat. There will usually come a point when the angler will not be able to discern objects on the bottom and find themselves squinting into the glare on the surface of the water. This is the most crucial point. You’ve got to know when you’re looking through the surface glare and at the bottom below and not at the surface. I’ve once read it described as standing in front of a window and either looking at your reflection in the window or looking through the reflection to the world beyond the window. Often the fish reveal themselves indirectly. As some flats species feed they disturb the bottom either by blowing or by rooting into it. The resulting sediment cloud drifts upward and lengthens in the direction of the current. These “muds” as they are commonly called, can provide valuable information on the speed and direction of feeding fish and help you find them. As predatory species make their way into the shallowest reaches of a flat, they reveal their presence by pushing the water ahead of them. The movements of fish are echoed on the surface by the manipulation of the water just above them. Flats fisherman refer to this as “nervous water”. On a calm day, one may find it easier to pick out moving fish. On a windy day, it becomes increasingly important to recognize the directional pattern of wavelets created by the wind. Any disruption of this pattern should be worth investigating Additionally, there are other ways to help in sighting fish upon the flats. While searching a prospective flat, position your skiff or body so that you’ve got the sun at your back. If there are low, dark storm clouds on the horizon, try to position the darker clouds as a backdrop ahead so that you’re looking into them. Perusing the shade of overhanging mangroves will often help to provide a glimpse of the fish at the roots beneath. On extremely cloudy days, searching over a lighter bottom, such as sand, will help to provide the contrast you need to find the bonefish. If the wind is up, one may find it helpful to look through the backside of each wave. Often the angle provides a glare free opportunity into the water below. Having a dark underside on your hat brim will act to absorb rays reflected up from the waters surface. If you are fishing with a friend, learn the clock system utilized by most guides in the Florida Keys. By agreeing to a set of predetermined directions, it can get an angler looking and casting in the proper direction very quickly, even without one’s ability to spot fish. While on the water, I often find it difficult for folks to gauge distances. By using the length of a push pole, skiff or rod, we can both agree to a predetermined distance. If fly fishing, mark your fly line in ten foot increments. Make one slender mark for every ten feet. At fifty feet, utilize a thicker, quarter-inch mark. You’ll know immediately how far you’ve cast. Practice the aforementioned techniques and you may find yourself picking up fish before Old Salty on the stern.
As the intense reddish colors faded from the horizon and the low clouds turned to grey, the two friends each landed a bonefish that evening. After an unproductive effort on my part, I sat humbled and a bit frustrated on the beach behind them. It was however, pleasure enough to admire their artful casts and listen to the fly line glide through the air as they cast to unseen targets. I learned much about sight fishing that late afternoon. It is much more than the tackle, the flies and one’s casting ability. It was on that day I learned why they call them Grey Ghosts.
On selecting sunglasses... Sight fishing without a pair of polarized glasses is like driving at night without headlights. You simply have to have them. Their capacity to filter a certain spectrum of the sun’s rays is not as important as their ability to remove the glare from the surface of the water. How can you tell if a pair of glasses is polarized? If you take a pair that is polarized or suspected to be and place it in front of another pair, slowly rotate one pair ninety degrees to the first, while looking through both pairs. If both are polarized, your vision through both pairs will blacken. If one or both are not polarized, you will be able to see through both pairs without any noticeable difference. With an increase in price, one can expect a higher quality lens with less distortion, multiple color choices and a better lamination process. Generally, most guides here in the Keys choose amber or a vermilion tint for the flats. Some may even have multiple pairs for different lighting conditions. Choices include bright yellow tint for early morning or overcast days and a darker tint for brighter, sunnier days. For those deprived of perfect vision, manufactures do offer prescription polarized glasses. Luckily, one need not spend a fortune on sunglasses particularly if on the water only two or three days of the year. One can purchase a suitable pair of polarized sunglasses for less than twenty dollars. If the style is not of a “wrap around” type, and the manufacture offers side shields, invest in them. They will help immeasurably to prevent sunlight from reflecting off the inside of your lenses. Anti-reflection coatings will also help in the same manner.
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Specializing in sight fishing for bonefish, tarpon, redfish and permit on fly or light tackle.
Capt. Barry Hoffman's
Sight Fishing Basics