Novice on the Flats

Here are tips to avoid bonehead goofs with bonefish guides.

Go ahead and take it easy. When you’re with a great bonefish guide, his eyes do the work—and rarely will a fish get by without detection.
by Jim Dean
Photographs by Greg Thomas
You’re in a Caribbean state of mind, on salt flats surrounded by water every shade of emerald, turquoise and amber. It’s blissfully warm, the beer is cold, the flats are full of fish and adrenalin is squirting out of your ears.

What could possibly go wrong? Even if Lady Luck proves to be a malicious bitch, you’re likely to catch lots of bonefish and maybe, just maybe, a permit. Which is all great, but there’s a good chance your fishing could be better . . . if you and your guide could communicate effectively. Fortunately there are ways that you, your fishing partner and your guide can become an efficient team even before you head out to fish.

While it’s a good idea to let your guide initially decide where to fish and the species to target, if you and your partner prefer to split the day between bonefish and permit, spend more time looking for other species, or perhaps wade a bit instead of spending all day on a boat, this is the time to discuss a plan.

Going over preliminary details is particularly important if you have a different guide each day (which is typical), and it provides an opportunity to get to know the guide, his preferred tactics and his command of English. He may also contribute helpful tips, because he is as eager for you to catch fish as you are (well, almost).

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Throughout much of the Caribbean, Spanish is the common language, and while that may occasionally present problems, most guides—typically male—speak pretty good English. They also have developed a nearly universal set of terse commands to quickly relay instructions to anglers, although a little interpretation might help.

“Cast,” “Cast now” and “Cast again” are usually issued with an added clock direction (the bow of the boat is always 12 o’clock) and an estimated distance. Even if your guide’s first order is a mildly disconcerting “Cast again,” you get the idea. “More right” or “More left” update your casting direction, while “Longer” or “More longer” update distance. “Drop it,” on the other hand, is not to be taken too literally, as I learned on my first trip when I obediently “dropped” a backcast 40 feet behind the boat. It’s the guide’s way of urging you to stop wasting time false-casting and get the fly in the water. “Strip” (also “Streep” or “Estreep”) means you are on target and should match your strips to the pace of the guide’s commands. “Wait” usually indicates fish are near and may not see your fly. But that command may also inform you to stop stripping momentarily for any number of reasons. These commands work fairly well but not always.

For example, let’s say your guide spots fish and orders you to “Cast 10 o’clock, 45 feet.” But what if his notion of 45 feet is actually 50 feet or more and yours is closer to 40 feet? And what if the fish are moving fast and you haven’t seen them? Then not only is your first critical cast likely to fall short, but also that 10 o’clock directive is rapidly becoming outdated. And maybe the wind is blowing in your ears and you didn’t understand the original command. By the time the guide spins the boat for a Hail Mary, your chances may be no better than trying to spray an F-18 with a garden hose.

Here are 10 topics/techniques that every angler—fledgling or advanced—should ask or demonstrate when meeting a guide.

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bonefish in water

1 Flies, knots and drag:

Show your flies to the guide and ask which patterns he recommends. Let him check the drag on your reels, and ask him to inspect your knots (or even tie them if you’re a novice).

2 Strips and hook set:

The action you impart to your fly—the strip—is different for each species. Even if you’ve had lots of experience, ask your guide to demonstrate the stripping technique he prefers for the species you are targeting. Also ask him to demonstrate the strip-strike method of setting the hook (raising the rod tip as you might for a rainbow trout could provoke a well-deserved “Aii-yi-yi”).

3 Demonstrating your cast and reversing the line:

When it’s your turn on the bow, make a cast, retrieve the line and deposit it in loose coils, out of the way, on the foredeck or behind in the well, so that it is ready for the next cast. This reverses the line, lessening the chances that it tangles when you cast to a fish (or hook one). This also gives the guide some idea of your casting skill—or lack thereof.

4 Coordinating distance:

The cast to reverse your line should also serve another purpose; ask the guide how far he thinks you’ve cast. Make several more casts of different lengths and get his estimates. Now you know how he judges distance, and that should prove useful.

5 Coordinating direction:

As mentioned, the boat is an analog clock, and the bow is always 12 o’clock. Thus, a command to “Cast 10 o’clock” is a quickly understood direction, although fast-moving fish, a wind-blown cast or a slow reaction can easily defeat it.

6 Pointing your rod:

This is the best way to quickly and more precisely pinpoint the direction a guide wants you to cast, especially if you haven’t seen the fish. Even while you’re false-casting, the guide may order those “More right; more left” adjustments to get you on target.

7 Your fishing partner’s role:

Your partner can relay commands in a loud voice, which is a huge asset if you’re having trouble hearing. He or she should also help you keep your loose line from tangling, wrapping around gear or blowing off the deck. And he or she can warn you if you’re standing on your line. Many experienced anglers fish barefoot to avoid this (protect the tops of those feet with sunscreen).

8 Watch your guide:

Everyone wants to look for nervous water and see fish, but always keep an eye on your guide, especially when he gets “fishy”—maybe he’s stopped poling abruptly or even begun to turn the boat. Concentrate on where he’s looking and be ready to cast.

9 Ask for more info:

Those terse commands (“More right,” “More left,” “Longer” and More longer”) can be greatly improved with an updated clock direction and estimated distance. If your guide doesn’t always add this info, remind him that it’s helpful.

You also might consider asking your guide to give you more advanced notice when he sees something of possible interest—such as nervous water or distant fish headed your way. Few guides do this, and your first inkling is often a command that catches you by surprise. Some guides avoid a running dialog about possible targets—especially permit—because they don’t want you to get overly excited and mess up. Even so, I sometimes encourage more feedback, because anticipation is a delicious part of the game.

10 Taking control:

Most fly fishermen wouldn’t dream of failing to follow a guide’s expert advice or commands (some guides might also resent you doing so). Regardless, there is at least one situation when most guides recognize that an experienced flats fisherman might properly take matters into his own hands. When you and your guide both clearly see fish, it’s sometimes better to trust your own judgment, even if your guide has just told you to “Cast now.” This may turn out badly, but it’s certainly better than rushing an errant cast that blows up a school of bonefish or botches a shot at a permit.

Finally, if this isn’t your first rodeo and you have established a friendly rapport with your guide, you might even explain in advance that you’d prefer to make some decisions (and mistakes) on your own, especially when you see fish. It’s certainly more rewarding for you, and most guides understand that.

I have fished the Bahamas, Cuba, Mexico, Belize and Honduras, but I’m still fully capable of innovative bonehead goofs. Hopefully, these tips will help you avoid some of your own.


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