Stealthy Tactics for Skittish Saltwater Fish
It was a May Saturday morning in Big Pine Key, and tarpon were our intended target. As anyone who has chased silver kings in the Florida Keys during peak season would imagine, we were not alone. Five other skiffs were keeping us company on the same oceanside flat hoping for a score. And the start of the daily jet ski hatch, which inevitably happens shortly after a nearby rental place opens at 10:30 a.m., was about an hour away from closing our window of opportunity.
But then… “Eleven o’clock, 150 yards!” I said in a soft voice to keep from alerting our competitors. A westbound pack of tarpon had suddenly divulged its whereabouts as several members took turns rolling and gulping air. The group had stayed down long enough to sneak past a boat ahead of us, then bounced off another aboard which an angler flailed incessantly to no avail. The school split, then reunited and altered course, eventually settling down and returning to its original track along the edge of the sandbar before us.
With the tarpon some 50 yards away, I leaned on the push pole, turning the skiff to port to let Greg, my buddy on the bow, line up his shot. I cleared the air space behind him for the ensuing backcasts and, a minute later, his fly landed softly in the path of the approaching squadron. Then my partner in crime started stripping slowly, keeping his feathery shrimp imitation near the surface without covering much ground. He was just biding his time, letting the tarpon get close enough to start the proverbial game of cat-and-mouse. But the leading fish suddenly sped up, the group’s formation became more compact, and the 15 to 20 fish—that a moment earlier had been lollygagging about—now scurried away, dashing our chances. I wasn’t sure that we’d been made, however, the school was definitely feeling the effects of fishing pressure.
READ THE SIGNS
Some anglers would be quick to get on the trolling motor and chase the fish. Others would crank up the outboard, leapfrog the school and shut down in their path to get in a few shots in hopes of a hookup. But, more often than not, said strategies will only exacerbate the angst in fish already spooked, making them exponentially less receptive even to the best-executed presentations. That, by the way, holds true whether the fish you are after are tarpon, bonefish, permit, redfish, snook or just about any other inshore game species.
Whenever fish exhibit a noticeable change in attitude, be it a pronounced skittishness or something more subtle, such as an increase in traveling speed, one or more abrupt course deviations, suddenly holding or swimming lower in the water column, or an apparent lack of interest in feeding, it’s time to take stock of the surroundings, assess the factors likely to be having a negative effect, and take measures that will improve your chances for success despite your intended target’s heightened caginess or distress.
One early fall morning in southwest Florida, a friend and I were staked out on a grass flat, hoping to intercept a marauding school of more than 100 redfish that we’d discovered a couple of days earlier. Although we located the reds in the vicinity of the spot where we’d first found them, they were now pinwheeling slowly along the edge of the Intracoastal Waterway, never straying far from the channel and the immediate safety of deeper water. Perhaps bothered by the boat traffic, angling pressure, or both, the fish refused to move up the flat to forage during the rising tide.
Fan-casting around the outskirts of the school to keep an errant shot from triggering a mass exodus, we managed to get our flies in front of several reds. Most of them had to have detected our offerings, yet they repeatedly snubbed our baitfish and crustacean patterns. The fish did not spook or move away, they simply appeared disinterested. “Lockjaw,” said my friend perched atop the casting platform, chalking our poor results to an affliction that somehow forces coveted inshore quarry to pass up chance after chance to grab an easy morsel. While I don’t buy into fictional conditions that neatly excuse anglers’ lack of skill or awareness, I must confess that all attempts to change our luck proved futile. We simply could not find the key to open the flood gates to steady action.
But, sometimes, a little patience is all it takes. About an hour later, the tide turned and with it our fortune. With the water falling, the reds put on their feed bags and we quickly picked off a pair of brawny 7- to 8-pounders. Much like a change in tide, wind or atmospheric conditions, a marked decline in boat traffic or fishing pressure can also trigger a bite. So it frequently pays off to stay out an hour or two past the time when local guides and less-committed anglers head back to the dock.
SILENCE IS GOLDEN
Once you pinpoint fish, whether they disregard your flies or spook at first sight and high-tail it to parts unknown, it’s imperative you stay calm and persevere smartly. That starts with covering swaths of potentially productive water without loudly announcing your presence. It’s not uncommon for a school of fish, like the reds I mentioned earlier, to move several hundred yards only to turn right around and swim past your boat a moment later.
At times, there’s more than one school working an area. On other occasions there may be small packs or a number of singles cruising or staging, waiting for the right tide phase to reach their preferred hangouts or feeding stations. This is frequently the case with reds, snook, tarpon, stripers and the larger seatrout. Aware that a noisy and fast-moving boat is easier for fish to detect, anglers who consistently do well in popular or easy-to-find places tend to tread slowly and quietly. They either drift or use a push pole to poke about the shallows, then resort to a stakeout pin, Power-Pole or similar shallow-water anchoring system to stop and hold the boat in a strategic spot while waiting for fish to come within casting range or making blind casts from a safe distance to cover a fishy bottom feature or stretch of shoreline, before advancing another 20 or 30 yards and repeating the process.
And for those times when it’s painfully obvious that the fish are aware of your boat’s presence and won’t let you get within casting range, carry wading booties and be prepared to ditch the boat and sneak up on the fish on foot, being careful not to crunch shells or kick up a lot of sediment during your approach.
A cautious and strategic plan of attack is usually most effective, so keep these things in mind:
- Sound really carries in shallow water, where a slow and stealthily approach is always best, so avoid or mitigate things that will put fish on high alert. For instance, a boat’s wake, hull slap, loud stereo or the hum of a trolling motor are often enough to trip the alarm.
- If you choose to propel the boat with a push pole, be sure it has a nylon foot and tip instead of metal to prevent loud noises when either end comes in contact with bottom rocks or shell.
- If you opt to cover water by drifting instead, use a drift sock to control the direction and speed of the boat.
- The clearer and calmer the water, the farther and better the fish will detect potential danger, especially when the sun is high and the skies are clear. Then, making long casts and using the longest leaders you can turn over will increase the odds in your favor.
- Fish often use potholes in the middle of a grass flat to wait in ambush. Work the edges of a pothole first in case fish are lurking in the surrounding grass, then cast past the pothole and bring the fly across the center, where it will be easily seen over the sand or mud bottom.
- When fish are laid up along a shoreline or hiding under overhanging brush or behind some obstruction, cast away from them at an angle that lets you strip the fly into the strike zone. If the wind or current are pushing in the desired direction, you could also swing the fly into position. Just make sure the fly doesn’t appear to be coming right at your target. Fish know it’s not natural to be attacked by a small baitfish or crustacean and will spook.
- For fish cruising along a trough, cast 10 to 15 feet ahead and beyond their path (based on their traveling speed), then strip the fly in an intercepting course that lets the fish casually run into your offering.
- If you don’t see fish and opt for blind casting to likely spots, always work the deepest water next to the shoreline, oyster bar, rock pile or other submerged structure before casting around the perimeter.
- In areas where fish cruise the shallows in packs or schools, stake out near a point or topographical feature (a sandbar, oyster bar, shallow bank, etc.) that forces fish down a predictable path. When you spot an incoming school, determine its trajectory and gauge its speed so you can lead the fish properly with your first cast, allowing for a second shot or some quick stripping in the event they shift slightly, requiring last-minute adjustments.
- Casting to the fish leading a school can prove counterproductive. Should the leader spook or make a move to avoid your fly, chances are the rest will follow. So, pick out a couple of followers instead, one in the second or third position behind the leader and another farther back. That way, you’ll have time to regroup and present to the second fish if your first choice rejects the fly or doesn’t see it.
Flies that land softly and can be maneuvered into and within the strike zone without creating a major commotion will produce a take when many of the more popular choices fail. That doesn’t mean you should abandon proven patterns, only that you might want to try smaller, lighter or more dull or sparse versions when the fish appear skittish or uneasy.
For instance, if it’s bonefish you are after and the usual Gotchas or Crazy Charlies seem to be scaring any that come near, try duller variations of those patterns with little or no flash. If the fly landing in the water is what frightens the fish, lead them by a few more feet when you cast. If that doesn’t work, switch to similar patterns with less weight. Had you first used a fly with a #2 hook and medium dumbbell eyes, switch to one with a #4 hook and small dumbbell or even lighter bead-chain eyes. Take into account, however, that lighter flies take longer to sink, so alter the placement of your casts accordingly.
When you want a fly that floats or suspends just below the surface to tempt snook or baby tarpon, but the popular foam poppers and deer-hair sliders are not subtle enough for the fish you encounter, consider switching to a Tuscan Slider, which incorporates foam strips to create a buoyant head that lands quieter than one fashioned from deer or elk body hair. Another superb soft-landing option is the Sea-ducer. When kept dry with a couple of extra false casts between presentations, the palmered hackle up front makes this fly float. Otherwise, a thoroughly-soaked Sea-ducer still suspends enticingly a couple of inches below the surface film.
Another benefit of using smaller, lighter or more sparse flies is that they often allow you to also downsize your tackle, fly line and leader. Undoubtedly, an 8-weight fly line will create less of a splash than a 9-weight upon hitting the water. And while slight, the difference in the diameter of the butt and mid sections of the leader required for the lighter fly line will make it harder for fish to detect, especially if you opt for fluorocarbon, which has nearly the same light-refraction index as water.
KNOW WHEN TO QUIT
Of course, many things must fall into place for you to successfully coax a strike from a nervous or suspicious fish, and some are not easy to account for. Sometimes the fish simply happen to be looking in the wrong direction when your fly lands, or their field of vision is constricted by schoolmates or bottom vegetation like turtle grass or rolling moss. If they are rooting on the bottom, perhaps it’s mud or other sediment suspended in the water that keeps the fish from spotting your fly. While there’s a lot to be said for perseverance, there is such a thing as beating a dead horse. Occasionally, you will have to break the golden rule and leave fish behind in order to find others that might be more receptive to your wares.