Flats Fishing by Boat

Flats fishing on foot and flats fishing from a boat are fairly different experiences. Like most things, each comes with it’s own advantages and disadvantages. I have spent quite a bit of time fishing solo from an inflatable boat or SUP board, but this was the first year I have spent any meaningful time fishing from an actual boat while being poled by another person. I have yet to really get the hang of it, but I have definitely learned some important lessons, which I thought might be useful to others.

Line Management

My friend Makani over at Fly Fishing Hawaii has a pretty deluxe flats boat. There is a raised platform at the front with a mesh stripping basket built all the way around it. We were out fishing the other week with light winds and no swell. I probably had about forty feet of line stripped into the basket and ready to cast when we spotted a bonefish approaching. I got my fly in the air and then made a quick cast. my line shot about twenty feet and then landed in a pile. Somehow, my neatly coiled line had slipped over the edge of the stripping basket, dropped about five feet and then looped itself not once, but several times, around the end of the push pole that was fastened to the gunwale. Needless to say the fish was long gone by the time I unraveled the mess.

No matter what you do, any time you fish from a boat your line will find a way to snag, hook or tangle. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to reduce this from a trip-ruining problem to a source of only occasional profanity.

First of all, do not have more line out than you can cast. If it’s windy, take that into account. If you are sight fishing, there is no sense in having 60 feet of line out when you can only see 30 feet. If you drift between two mangrove islands, reel in the extra line. Minimizing the amount of line off the reel will help to minimize problems.

Cast your line occasionally to prevent tangles. Given enough time, loops of line lying on deck or in a stripping basket will find a way to make a knot, it is a law of nature. To prevent this, cast out all your line every so often and retrieve it back neatly. This will help keep that extra line organized and ready to deploy smoothly. Just be sure to check that the area is clear of fish before making the cast.

Drift

The fundamental difference between fishing on foot and fishing from a boat is that the boat is moving. Unless it is really, truly, dead calm, the boat will drift with the wind. What this ultimately means is that you will be moving towards the fish you are trying to catch. This makes fishing from the boat time sensitive because if you don’t get a good cast out quickly then you will either scare the fish, or just drift past them.

Not only does the drift make the speed of your cast more important, it also effects your retrieve. If the boat is drifting forward at one foot per second, and you are stripping your fly twice per second, but each strip is only six inches, then your fly isn’t moving! In my experience this accounts for a fair number of “mysterious” rejections. A well placed cast to a hungry fish can be completely ignored because of this relative movement of boat and fly. The solution is simple in principle, just increase your retrieve to negate the motion of the boat, but in practice, I think it is difficult to achieve with any precision. Initially, just try to add some extra length to each strip and then adjust based on how the fish respond.

Depth and Distance

Here in Hawaii we often fish from the boat when fishing on foot is not an option. Usually that is because the tide is up and it’s too deep to wade. This added depth means you need to use a heavier fly in order to reach the bottom quickly. How quickly depends on how fast the boat is drifting, because the fly needs to get to the bottom and attract the fish’s attention before the boat scares it away. Generally speaking, more wind or more depth means more weight. A longer cast can give your fly a bit more time to sink, but when sight-distance is limited you will find yourself in a nearly impossible situation – unable to get your fly to the fish before the boat!

Deeper water also requires a slightly longer cast. Since we use floating fly lines, the fly will actually land on the bottom closer to you than where it lands on the surface. The deeper the water is, the more pronounced the effect is (see the pictures). 

S.U.P. Fishing

I mentioned fishing from a SUP board earlier, a style of fishing which actually belongs in a third and separate category. This category also includes things like inflatable boats, kayaks or canoes. The main differences between these crafts and full sized boats are weight and occupancy. It is difficult to put two people on such a small craft, especially when one of them is trying to fish, so most of this type of fishing is done solo. Full sized boats are also much heavier so they drift much slower. My SUP board goes from zero to sixty in the slightest breeze. Between trying to steer/paddle and trying to get a cast off before I blow past a fish can be extremely difficult. Therefore, my first and most important requirement for SUP fishing is calm wind, ideally less than ten m.p.h.

Taking all this into account, I have developed two basic strategies for SUP fishing. The first is just to anchor in a good spot and wait for a fish to swim by. I like to take into account wind, sun and swell direction to pick the most advantageous position I can and then anchor and fish on an incoming tide. 

If the tide is low enough to wade, I can employ my second strategy, which is to use the added height of standing on the board to spot fish at a distance, and then quietly anchor and close the distance on foot.

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