Gamefish that inhabit saltwater flats are famously skittish and even the slightest disturbance will almost always send them packing. That’s especially true when those fish are tailing in water barely deep enough to cover their backs. In that situation, there’s no leeway for an errant cast, a hasty pick-up, or a noisy presentation.
Mention “tailing fish” and most anglers immediately conjure up visions of bonefish, redfish, and permit. But many less popular species feed in shallow water with their tails protruding above the surface including triggerfish, black drum, sheepshead and others. I even ran into a situation in Florida’s 10,000 Island area where many snook were tailing with regularity on a broad, grassy flat dotted with small, sandy potholes.
Although each of the various shallow water species may show a marked preference for one type of fly over another, the pattern must be combined with an accurate cast, a silent presentation, and an effective stripping technique. Even when the entire process seems to have been executed to perfection, the fish may either detect something abnormal with the situation or otherwise ignore the offering and hurry away. Here are a few tips that can reduce the chances of alarming tailing fish and increase the likelihood of drawing their interest.
• Choose a line weight and taper that is suitable for the situation. The right line will turn over the selected fly and leader so that they land softly. Avoid line weights that are unnecessarily heavy for the circumstances and steer clear of forward tapers that are extremely abrupt, such as lines designed specifically for wind, as they may unroll too harshly and land too noisily for tailers. I use a RIO Bonefish Line for much of my flats fishing, especially when stalking tailing fish, as I believe that line best delivers the fly under the widest range of conditions. However, when casting comparatively large patterns, especially weighted ones, I sometimes opt for the RIO Redfish Line instead.
• Long leaders between 12 and 14 feet long will help make the presentation a quiet one, but a shorter version may be necessary in high winds. Regardless of length, make sure to choose a tippet diameter that will adequately turn over the fly and, at the same time, dissipate the casting energy sufficiently for a soft landing.
•Determining how far to lead a fish is tricky business under any circumstances, but it can be especially difficult for tailers regardless of whether they’re feeding while on-the-move or in a stationary position. If a fish is cruising the flats and pauses occasionally to feed and tail, lead it the same way you would any moving fish. That is, mentally estimate its speed and then cast far enough ahead so that it has to swim a moderate distance to ingest the fly. If the fish stops to feed before it notices the fly, wait until it resumes swimming before beginning any stripping action.
On the other hand, a fish that continuously tails in one spot must be approached differently. In that situation, I prefer to make an initial cast on the periphery of where the fish is tailing so that the fly lands just inside the fish’s field of vision or within an area where any movement of the fly can be easily detected by the sensitive lateral line system. Then I wait for a temporary pause in the feeding action so that the fly is likely to be noticed when I begin the retrieve. Stationary fish can be especially difficult quarry as they often feed so intently in one spot that they may not notice a fly even after repeated flawless presentations. In their frustration to get such fish to notice an offering, some flyfishers end up casting too closely and scaring the fish away.
Regardless of the scenario, dropping the fly directly in front of a fish’s nose and landing the presentation in the midst of a school of tailing fish are critical mistakes.
• After the presentation, I recommend beginning the stripping process with a long, slow, and steady pull on the line until the fish reacts by surging toward the fly. After that, increase the rate of retrieve so that the fly simulates some type of escaping prey. Sometimes short and sharp strips that hop the fly along the bottom are the most effective while in other cases a long and steady retrieve produces the best results. Not moving the fly at all is the standard method of presentation for tailing permit and I’ve also had bonefish and black drum pick up a stationary fly in a few rare instances.
• `To reduce the chances of alerting a tailer to your presence whenever another presentation is necessary, first slowly strip the fly far away from the fish and then execute a silent pick-up by simultaneously sliding and lifting the line smoothly off the water immediately prior to the turnover (or “speed-up”) for a back cast. Any pick-up that creates a noisy surface disturbance will almost never work.
• Choose a fly that will settle quietly on the water and sink quickly to the bottom where a tailing fish is most likely to look for prey. To help a fly sink fast, I often tie a fluorocarbon tippet to a monofilament leader because fluoro has a faster sink rate than mono. Avoid using heavily weighted patterns as they produce an audible splashing noise when they hit the surface. A weighted fly is also more likely to hang-up in areas with thick seagrass or coral.
• A line passing overhead and its shadow are just as likely to spook a tailing fish as a noisy presentation is. While casts need to be quick and accurate, hovering the fly over a fish to gauge accuracy will almost certainly frighten it away. Also, remain aware of the sun’s location and adjust the casting angle to eliminate any chance of throwing a shadow over the fish.
Utilizing these tips in combination with a stealthy approach, good casting technique, patience, and a watchful eye, the prospects for consistently hooking marine gamefish tailing in skinny water will increase significantly.