Saltwater fly-fishing destinations are very different from one another, and each presents unique challenges for tackling fast-running fish. Because of this diversity, it pays to research your destination and plan well in advance. The more questions you ask about your destination before you go, the more successful you will be when you arrive. The following 16 tips can help you prepare for your next saltwater fly fishing dream trip.
Contact the Locals. Call the guide or outfitter you are considering fishing with before you make firm plans. He wants your business (and return business), so he will give you honest answers to your questions. Ask the guide for a half-dozen names of his clients for references — and call them. Good guides should have a long list, not just two or three names.
Talk with others who have experienced the kind of fishing you seek. If you plan to visit a lodge that's new to you, contact people who have been there. Get their opinion as to who are the best guides; all lodges have one or two guides that are a cut above the others. Those are the best ones to hire. If you request a top guide in advance, you greatly increase your chances for success.
Use the Internet. Use an Internet search engine or web site to find articles about the places you want to fish. Fly Fisherman's Virtual Flyshop (www.flyshop.com) has many Fly Fisherman magazine articles and other destination features on tap. Visit Internet bulletin boards devoted to fly fishing, and ask other people for their advice about different destinations.
The Virtual Flyshop's Marketplace section has pages of sites that offer travel information. Click on Marketplace, then Business Directory, then Guides, Lodges & Outfitters to access the businesses that can put you in the salt. The Florida & Caribbean section, for example, has information from 21 different businesses, many of which also book trips to other regions.
Search online for cheap air fares. Check out priceline.com, travelocity.com, or cheaptickets.com. And don't forget the individual airlines' sites. They often have special discounted rates for Internet users, especially if you are willing to go on quick notice.
Determine the Best Time to Travel. Many fly-fishing destinations are best fished during certain predictable times. Find out those peak dates and plan to be there for the best fishing action. I've heard too many anglers say, "We just missed the big stripers; they weren't in yet." Don't leave it to chance. Plan your dates carefully.
Many East Coast fly fishers, for example, know that the fantastic run of false albacore at Cape Lookout, North Carolina, occurs from the last part of October through the first two weeks of November. Sure, the run sometimes starts earlier and lasts longer, even into mid-December, but why take that chance? Be there at the peak.
Know the Tides. In salt water, the best times to fish are determined by the tides. Tide has everything to do with the habits offish. Tides move and concentrate bait, and the predator fish know where and when to take advantage of the situation. You should, too. For example, when a tide floods a shallow flat, the big fish move in to feed on the bait. Plan to be there at the right time.
Tides also have a major effect on water temperature — often critical for finding fish. For example, in the hottest part of summer, shallow flats positioned far from deep water become too hot for most fish. Shallows closer to deep, cool water, however, get relief when the tide rises and the cooler water floods the flats, permitting predator fish and bait to move in. The reverse works in the winter. Flats far from deep water get too cold in winter months, and fish flee to the warm, deep water. Flats located near the warmer, deeper water, however, receive the warmer water with every rising tide.
In the shallows and near shore, tidal change is easily recognized. Offshore tides are harder to read, but don't be misled; they also have a major effect on fish behavior. Ask any experienced billfisher whether an offshore tide affects the fish behavior and he'll tell you it's a major part of the game.
Tides can also ruin your fishing. During a few weeks in some areas, for example, floating grass and debris drift in and pile against shorelines; a spring tide (an extra-high tide) sweeps all of the debris to the surface and makes it difficult to fish.
Plan on Bad Weather. Before any trip, ask what the weather will or could be like and prepare for the worst. I follow this rule: It is going to be hotter than they say, colder than they say, wetter than they say, and someone will forget the lunch. It has saved me on many trips.
Wherever you go, plan on rain and bring the appropriate gear. If it doesn't rain, a raincoat or rainsuit also makes a dandy windbreaker and will keep you dry from splash when fishing from a boat. Always put on your raingear before you motor out to the fishing area; your raingear serves no purpose after you get wet. (I prefer the bib-type pants instead of conventional pants that often slip down when you sit, exposing your waist and bottom to the elements.)
Book in Advance. Once you have determined where and when you are going, book your flights well in advance. I rely on travel agents to do that for me, and the ones who specialize in working with fly fishermen are invaluable. By booking ahead, you can usually get a lower-priced ticket. Again, the Internet is one of the cheapest places to buy plane tickets.
On the plane, try to get an aisle seat between rows 15 and 20 so you can get on and off quickly and there will be plenty of overhead storage for your rods and carry-ons.
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Call Ahead for Licenses. Some states allow you to call ahead and use your credit card to get your fishing license. It can save a lot of fishing time.
Copy Your Passport. Make several copies of the first page of your passport and store them separately from the original. If your passport is stolen or lost, you will have the information needed to get a replacement.
Take Proper Equipment. Once you pick a destination, ask the guide or outfitter what equipment you will need. In the U.S. and especially in Florida, guides often have better equipment than you. And because they know their gear and their knots, they often prefer that you use theirs. This has two advantages: First, you get to use the right tackle for the job; and second, you don't have to buy or lug unnecessary gear. On the flip side, many anglers only trust their own gear because they are familiar with it. It's up to you.
Outside the U.S. is another story. While some lodges, such as Casa Mar tarpon camp in Costa Rica, have all the proper tackle, most places don't. Some don't even have flies, and almost none stock reels, rods, or lines. For these places, be sure to take the tackle (and spare equipment) necessary for the desired species, and pack enough for your entire trip.
Take a Waterproof Bag. A waterproof bag is invaluable in a boat, especially when the boat is in motion and water splashes over the bow. The bag keeps valuables such as wallets, cameras, film, flies, food, and clothes dry. They are available from L.L. Bean, Orvis and many fly shops. A clear-plastic waterproof bag allows you to see what is inside. Put the bag in a boat's dry storage for extra protection.
Consider Other Species. Be prepared to fish for species other than the ones you set out to catch, because conditions are not always favorable. On a billfish trip I took, for example, the billfish were not around, so I fished a light, 8-weight fly rod and caught small tuna, rainbow runners, different kinds of jacks, dolphin, and several other species. I had a ball.
It may sound foolish to say this in a fly-fishing magazine, but in some saltwater locations you may want to carry spin- or plug-casting gear, too. Unless you are a superb caster, there will be windy days when you'll be better off sitting on the dock than trying to cast a fly line. I'd rather fish with spinning gear than sit around.
Use Sun Protection. Take an extra hat, spare polarized sunglasses, and plenty of strong sunscreen lotion. Long-sleeved shirts designed for tropical use can reduce your exposure to the sun without making you feel uncomfortable. Consider wearing a sun glove if you burn easily. Apply sunscreen several times a day because it easily washes off your hands when you handle fish. Be careful to keep the sunscreen off your fingertips and the palms of your hands, because many sunscreen products can damage fly lines.
Pack Wisely. Carry two bags and pack half of what you need in each bag. If one is lost or misdirected, the other will provide enough to fish with. Luggage tags tear off, so I suggest you use duffel-type bags and label your name and address (but not your phone number) on the side of the bag. And don't forget to tear off any old flight tickets before your next trip. Wear a money-belt when traveling to countries where crime is a factor.
Carry your reading material, tickets, and other valuable items in a backpack; this leaves your hands free. Remember that some airlines in and outside the country will only allow one carry-on, and attendants are more serious than ever about enforcing size restrictions. If in doubt, check on this prior to your trip. While fishing, make sure your country exit document is stored in a safe place with your passport. Without them you cannot leave the country.
Think Comfort. Nothing is worse than being uncomfortable on a long trip, so pack accordingly. Take any medicine you might need in case you can't get it at your destination. Don't forget allergy pills, heartburn medicine, Imodium, aspirin, and lip balm. Pack things like tacky gauze tape, bandages, or a finger sock to protect the index finger of your rod hand when you are stripping line and fighting fish. Bring extra prescription glasses or contacts if possible, lotion for sunburns, and any other items you might need.
Go Early. Get to an airport more than an hour (two hours for international flights) before the flight. Know where you will park your car, pick up a shuttle (if necessary), and check your luggage. Carry small-denomination bills and change for airport meters, parking fees, tips, and snacks from vending machines. Take an apple or other healthy snack in case you don't get or can't eat food from the airline.
Take a Fly Swatter. If you are fishing in southern Florida or on tropical flats, I urge you to take along a fly swatter. I've seen many fish lost because someone was busy trying to kill a biting fly. A swatter is an essential tool in a flats boat; in fact, there should be a law requiring all guides to carry them. It also comes in handy around most estuary environments, where mosquitoes and horseflies thrive.
By following these 16 tips, I've reduced the number of problems encountered on my trips and increased my chances for success. I'm sure there are many other tips that can help you, and I encourage you to make these and others you might know a basic part of your trip planning. You won't regret it.