I've been a Florida Keys flats guide for more than 25 years, and last year my son BJ Chard decided he wanted to do the same. As a father, knowing that your son is interested in following your footsteps gives you the confidence to believe that you've made at least a few good choices.
BJ dedicated most of his young life to the sport of hockey, playing for a nationally top-ranked AAA hockey team based in Detroit by the time he was 10, and moving to Sudbury, Ontario, to play Canadian Jr. Hockey when he was only 17. After playing a full season as the top minuteman on the team, BJ turned in his skates and revealed his desire to become a guide. The problem was, I hadn't spent enough time flats fishing with BJ during the peak of tarpon season, and my longtime friend Conway Bowman—host of The Outfitters TV show that airs on the Sportsman Channel—was booked to film a show with me right during the peak of the tarpon season.
This story is a behind the scenes look at the filming of The Outfitters episode "Tarpon Training", which is now available at MOTV.
When I explained my time crunch problem to the production crew, they loved the idea of a father/son team effort. Great. That left two months for me to train my son to be the best guide possible, and show his skills on national television.
I wrote down the top five areas we needed to focus on, and I later realized that these lessons are important not just for saltwater guides but for everyone who fishes the flats and wants to be successful at it.
Learning the Water
The holy waters of the Florida Keys create a vivid visual connection for most fly fishers that is filled with bright contrasting colors, and dreams filled with the highest expectations. To fill those expectations, BJ and I started by looking at nautical charts of the lower Florida Keys. Talk about intimidating! The Lower Keys make up approximately 400 square miles with hundreds of islands that span from the Middle Keys 60 miles to the West, all the way to the Marquesas.
Wherever and whenever you fish, starting with a chart or a map is a logical first step. They can reveal lagoons, ponds, oxbows, channels, and other places that might otherwise pass unnoticed. Whether you are fishing in a maze of mangroves or traversing canyons on mountain streams, charts not only reveal fishy places, they help you navigate to/from those fishy places, leaving more time for effective fishing.
However, charts are just a starting point. The real expertise comes through learning to read the water, and this takes time on the water at all different tide levels and with different wind directions and lighting conditions. One flat can take years to truly learn.
BJ started out by studying specific areas where the most fish should be moving during our expected filming dates. We focused on oceanside flats where huge schools of tarpon travel, and also on tidal bottlenecks where we might find the palolo worm hatch. We couldn't just scout these spots once or twice. It was crucial for BJ to see how the fish behaved at different tide levels, and how to pole the boat in different winds.
It's very much the same on a trout stream. You don't really know a pool until you've fished it during high water, low water, and during different hatches to see how the fish react to different circumstances. Reading the water is a skill that requires time to develop, but you've also got to know what to look for, and have a plan to use that information. Most important, you've got to develop the smarts to apply what you see in one spot to other situations. That way you can go to a brand new fishing location and read the water based on what you've seen in other circumstances. It's perhaps the most important skill a fishing father can pass to his son.
Sight fishing for tarpon centers around the visual connection between fish and angler. What sets a great tarpon angler apart from a novice is the ability to see not only the fish but the fly as well—and both at the same time. If you're a tarpon guide, this kind of vision is a prerequisite. You must know where the fly is at all times.
The best fly-fishing guides I have fished with have all been good fly tiers as well. When my guide has a strong connection with their tying vise, my confidence in that guide goes up immediately. It tells me they've put the time and effort into studying where and how the fish take a fly in the water column, and perfecting their own flies for the situations they see most often.
Any father can and should teach his son to tie flies. It's not merely a part of guide training. With BJ, I started by teaching him about different materials and hooks and how they should work together, not against each other. I didn't spend time teaching him specific fly patterns, I focused on functional principles like how the different weights and sizes of the hooks combined with different materials influence how the fly swims, and that determines whether the fish will even see it or not.
Learning fly profiles and colors was next, along with thread tricks and techniques to make the flies durable, and to tie flies quickly and efficiently. My goal was to create a fly-tying foundation from which BJ could develop his own patterns he could have confidence in.
Most of the things I've discussed so far—charts, reading the water, fly tying—are equally applicable to fresh and salt water, but the communication between a flats guide and his angler is unique to that universe. Conway Bowman has been a fly-fishing guide himself for years, so I knew he'd expect BJ to be well-versed, and give clear and concise directions from the poling platform. I knew it would be a pressure-cooker situation with the cameras rolling, and of course I wanted my son to be successful in front of a television audience of millions.
Communication is much more than being able to quote distances and positions on the clock. How you quickly instruct your angler to present and retrieve the fly, and with the right tone in each situation is key. A guide's ability to give constant positive encouragement along with precise instruction while in the heat of the moment can reduce buck fever.
You have to keep everyone comfortable and positive. This helps to focus on the fish and have the best reaction skills possible while under pressure. This also builds confidence in the fly fisher that flows toward complete trust in the guide. This solidifies a bond between the guide and angler, and creates an efficient team that takes full advantage of most opportunities.
One of my favorite Bahamian guides, Freddie (from Andros, now at Abaco Lodge) shows his communication skills every time he's on the water. He sings between fish to keep people relaxed, and if his angler can't see the fish, he says in a calm, cool, collected voice: "Buddy, don't worry about it, just give me a nice straight cast at 11 o'clock.
As far as you can, mon." Then he talks his "buddy" through the retrieve to bring the fly back in front of the bonefish. He uses a completely different set of directions to deal with advanced anglers who can see the fish and throw more pinpoint casts. He uses the appropriate language and directions to match the skill set of his angler.
As the bond between fly fisher and guide grows, the guide learns the capabilities of his angler and can figure out how to anticipate according to the angler's abilities and experience. A good guide learns the maximum distance at which his angler can make effective shots, and won't waste time making shots outside that range. Guides should anticipate the time needed to get the slack out of the system, and build that component into the communication process. Like a comedian delivering a good joke, it's all about timing.
The best way I could share this kind of knowledge with BJ was to have him join me on my guided trips as much as possible before Conway showed up for filming. I couldn't explain exactly why I was saying the things the way I was, but after a few weeks of watching me with different anglers of varying skill levels, he began to quickly absorb and appreciate what it takes to be a good guide.
Even though BJ was in his rookie season, by the time the crew arrived, Conway was impressed with BJ's guiding skills. They became a great team right out of the gate, and that became the foundation of their success.
With BJ on the poling platform, Conway stuck a 120-pound tarpon he picked out of an early-morning school of daisy-chaining tarpon. Glassy conditions made the fish wary and tough to feed, but adjustments to techniques and rigging allowed Conway get hooked up. It was incredibly satisfying to teach these concepts to my own son, and see it bear fruit within weeks. All fathers know that feeling of satisfaction when their son succeeds, whether it's a 120-pound tarpon, a tie-breaking goal, or taking their first baby steps.
The Art of Poling
Learning how to dock the boat and pole the skiff in the right direction takes time to master. With BJ, I started in a protected canal where he could practice stopping and pivoting the skiff. Docking soon became second nature, and the confidence and control of his skiff were high within no time.
The real work began when we used those skills in actual fishing situations where the wind and tide play roles, and you need to turn the boat to provide the best possible casting angles. With his athletic background, BJ had no problem with the physical aspect of poling a skiff, and the mental aspects like anticipating wind and angles came quickly once he mastered the foundational skills we learned in the canal.
Just running around with the skiff was important as well. The average boat owner puts anywhere from 25 to 75 motor-running hours on their boat a year. To get BJ ready for The Outfitters, he was averaging 20 to 25 motor-running hours per week. By the time Conway arrived, BJ had accumulated more than 250 hours in 3 months.
A complete examination and analysis of your guest's tackle and rigging is the first thing that should happen at the dock in the morning. Both BJ and I knew The Outfitters host Conway Bowman was a great angler. We also knew that he was going to need the right tackle and rigging to take full advantage of all our Lower Keys opportunities—no matter what the weather.
"Rigging" covers the entire fishing/casting system, and starts with a deep understanding of fly rods and their actions; the fly line, and how it will present the fly in relation to the angler's abilities; and the leader system that needs to be adjusted for daily weather conditions and fish behavior. BJ soon learned that as a saltwater fly-fishing guide, you absolutely cannot afford to be lazy about any of these elements if you expect to have a successful hunt.
The best time to teach anyone knots and rigging is off the water. You don't take someone to a PMD hatch on a spring creek, and with trout rising everywhere say, "Now it's time to learn the blood knot." This is the preparation work that you do before fishing.
BJ and I used late evenings, tropical depressions, and windy days to practice his knots and rigging, and every day we fished, we used that time to analyze what we could have done better in terms of tackle to improve our chances. Honestly, it was a good chance for me to be more critical and get out of some of the ruts I was in.
Knots and basic leader construction are easy. The mental challenge comes when you try to figure out when to change them. If your angler is having a hard time getting the fly to lay out straight, weather and fishing conditions change, or the fish change their attitudes, a good guide needs to adapt.
BJ's rigging crash course not only made him more capable, but it made him a better educator. Tying the leader is the first step, but explaining why you did it that way, and how it makes a difference in your fishing, is next-level expertise. Being a guide is also being a teacher.
As I look back and realize how much work BJ did to prepare to fish with Conway and the film crew, I couldn't be more proud. He worked 18-hour days for a long time to ensure that we got the best results.
The response of viewers who watched the original airing of the show in late 2017 was astounding. Everyone loved the show, and the footage we were able to get of tarpon feeding on palolo worms was spectacular. I am so proud to be working with my son and watch him grow. His first success as a guide was better than catching my first tarpon. If you are a father, you know the feeling.
Bruce Chard has been a Florida Keys guide for more than 25 years. He is a frequent contributor to Fly Fisherman. His previous story was "Tarpon Caviar," the cover story of the June-July 2016 issue.
[The complete episode "Tarpon Training" is now available through the MOTV app or at motv.com. The Editor.]