Before embarking on your first saltwater flats fishing trip, research often advises what to do when you get to the flat. Take this advice, and use it to its full potential. However, knowing some common mistakes that a freshwater angler makes their first time on a saltwater flat can be wildly beneficial. You have been practicing your double haul, spooling up your bonefish line, and waiting for your sparkling new flats boots to come in. Now let’s put them to the test. Coming from a freshwater-only background, you will need to grant yourself time for some adjustments. Like any fresh body of water, each saltwater flat is completely different. The tides, sun, moon, and time of day will all impact your fishing significantly. If you have never fished for bonefish, permit, tarpon, or snook, keep these things in mind when first surveying your surroundings.
1. If it looks like something is moving subsurface, cast at it.
In the same way, you should not spend your whole day casting, you should also not become timid to cast! When hunting fish, your eyes will most likely deceive you. This is a natural progression due to the consistent movement that a flat provides; dark grasses, weeds, and even small baitfish create nervous water around you, so don’t feel strange casting at these targets. Trust your instincts, if you think you see a shadow, nervous water, or small twitches or movements, throw your fly towards it. The worst thing that will happen is, well...nothing
2. Fly selection should consist of less patterns with a wide variety of weight.
Walking through the saltwater section of your local fly shop can induce heart palpitations for the usual trout angler:
Are you sure they won’t see this tippet? Twelve pound?
They will really eat something this color?
This is a pretty thick hook.
Listen to the folks behind the counter, they are there to help. When I sit down to tie a box of saltwater flies, specifically for bonefish and permit, I focus on four or five patterns I have confidence in and tie them in a handful of sizes. By sizes, I mean weights. Based on the tide schedule when you are fishing, water depth can and will increase and decrease throughout the day and trip. One spot on the flats could merit a heavy lead eye crab in the morning, and a bead chain shrimp in the afternoon. You just never know what the water will do, and when the surroundings provide more variables, your fly box should serve every situation possible. When you take a look at your box, make sure you would feel confident throwing every single flight. Visualize throwing them in many different conditions, and ask yourself if each one can withstand the strength of an ocean-dwelling fish.
3. Don’t cast all day.
An 8wt is not a 5wt. If you are used to casting a 5wt all day, you should not expect your shoulder to be very happy with you if you translate this strategy to the flats. Wind, weather, and heavier tackle will not be kind to your body if you are dedicated to blind casting for the duration of your trip. In addition to that, when the fish actually show up, you will want everything to be fresh to deliver an accurate and strong cast. It will feel strange walking and holding your fly, but trust your eyes and make the first cast at every target count. Casting all day will diminish your chances, so just be patient!
4. Dissect the flat.
When a first-time flats angler looks at the expanse of salt water that lies in front of them, it can be overwhelming, confusing, and disorienting. The angler that is used to pitching a streamer or a nymph set up behind a rock in a riffle should not forget about the principles in freshwater fly fishing methodology. Fish like structure and that doesn’t change where ever you fish. They like feeling secure and safe, so when you are on a flat, look at your surroundings and run yourself through the paces. Ask yourself where the structure is - shelves in the flat, depressions in the ground, and places a fish, or a school of fish could theoretically move. Make a digestible strategy and break up the flat in pieces before wading through a potential school of fish. Just because the horizon line is bigger, it doesn’t mean the fishing has to be more difficult.
Stalk the flats with confidence
The PATH 890-4 rod is perfect for any flat. Its medium-fast action design is easy to load but still offers enough power to punch short to moderate length casts into the wind. Pair the PATH 890-4 with a BEHEMOTH 7/8 and you're ready to conquer the salt with enough coin left in your wallet to fill up on gas.
5. set realistic expectations
You might be royalty of your local trout stream, but the flats at times are unforgiving. Targets that disappear in seconds, 15 mph plus winds that always feel like it's blowing in your face, and lastly the dreaded trout set, can turn a dream trip into a nightmare. Setting realistic expectations can help many novice saltwater anglers enjoy their first experience on the flats. Make sure to practice casting the exact rod you plan on using on the flats, as you will develop instrumental muscle memory for when the fish is in range. If you can accurately hit targets up to 60' only using 4 false casts, then your chances of hooking up will increase when you get to the flats. Weather can make or break a saltwater trip, so casting in all conditions is key to your success. The fact is, weather in tropical destinations is highly uncontrollable, so accepting that you might lose a few days each trip to weather will help your attitude for when it does rain. You can't control the weather so just accept it for what it is. Most likely your first few trips to the salt will not result in a grand slam. Yes, people do go to the salt and land a monster tarpon their first time or catch 3 permits in a day, but that is extremely rare, no matter how good of an angler you are. Manage your expectations and your day will become that much better. As a guide once said down in Belize to a novice client, "big expectations early in the day only brings big disappointment later."