There are some places on the flats where big fish regularly feed, but they are crazy-difficult to catch. When I see these fish I go directly into stealth mode, with lots of crouching low to the water and slow-motion steps. Most of the time, no matter how stealthy I am, the fish turn and swim away as soon as I make a cast, sometimes even before my line touches the water. When I do manage to put a fly in front of them, they usually look at it with such scorn that it’s hard not to take it personally. As they swim away I can almost hear them laughing, “you call that a mantis shrimp?”
Early in the year, I tied some flies specifically to fool these big, smart fish. I went with a subtle tan body made from some puffy EP fiber. I attached some matching rubber legs, but I tied them in parallel to the hook shank. My idea was to fish the fly very slowly, like a small crab crawling sideways. I tried it out this spring, and was able to get a couple of big fish to follow it.
As spring turned to summer and we started seeing more fish, I spent a couple of days fishing an area of big sand pockets. Often, the fish will use these deeper pockets, even when the tide is pretty low, to access shallower patches of weeds and reef that hold a lot of food. The soft, light-colored sand is also good because it makes the fish easier to see from far away, and facilitates very quiet wading. The fish will often cruise the edges of the weeds, or make brief forays onto the shallow reef to grab some food before slipping back into the sand. Because these bigger fish are so spooky, I use their common behaviors to anticipate where they are headed and then cast way in front of them, sometimes 30 or 40 feet. Then I stand perfectly still and wait until they get very close to my fly. The calm water and sandy bottom are ideal for this kind of trap because you can leave a fly for several minutes without moving it. If you try this in the weeds, or where there is any wave action, your fly will almost always end up stuck on something. In many situations, I will make a medium to long first strip to make sure my fly is seen, but having scared dozens of these big fish, I’ve finally learned to give my fly only the tiniest of twitches.
So far, my little crab fly has been a big success. I have landed a handful of good-sized fish, but the new pattern really showed its potential this afternoon. We were walking through a narrow, sandy channel when I spotted a big tail on the weed bed about thirty feet away. I waded a bit closer and saw the tail pop up again. The fish was moving toward a small hole in the weeds so I cast my fly there and counted my heartbeats as the fish approached. Somewhere in the back of my mind I was wondering, why was the fish tailing like that, almost vertically in the water, and why did it have a little dark margin on it? The front of my mind, however, was focused on the task at hand, and I twitched my fly as the fish reached the hole. All at once, the pieces of my mind collided. This wasn’t a bonefish, it was a big golden trevally. In fact, it was two of them! I saw their sides light up, golden-green with black bars, as they suddenly rushed towards my fly. I felt a tap and I knew I had a fish on.
There was a split second of exaltation before the back of my mind interrupted. The fish on the end of my line was not nearly heavy enough to be a ten pound pa’o pa’o. And then I understood. A papio had been shadowing the goldens and had darted in and stolen the fly from them! My line went tight as the little trevally darted off. Unlike bonefish, the goldens did not panic. Instead, they got their hackles up and chased after the little thief! The three fish arced around us in a frenzy for several crazy seconds before the goldens finally realized something was amiss and broke off their chase. I watched them drift off across the reef as I reeled in my catch.
I’m not the only one who has had a close encounter with a golden trevally recently. Ed has been goofing around with an ultralight spinning rod and some over-sized flies and last week he hooked into a fat golden. Like a fool, I had left my backpack in the boat and had to “run” through thigh deep water to retrieve my camera while he fought the fish.