A classic sequence in saltwater fly fishing starts with a fish moving across a flat at a distance. As the guide slides the skiff into position, the angler begins the cast, working out line in a couple of false casts. He lays out a long, perfectly placed overhand cast at a fish 60 or 70 feet away. The fish sees the fly drop, swims over, and promptly eats.
These are the shots fly anglers prepare for, practicing accurate fly presentations at the edge of their range with minimal false casts. We should all be ready for this type of shot, but just as important are the close-in shots a few feet from the boat. Seeing a fish mere feet away, quickly and accurately dropping a fly in front of it, making the fly come alive, and watching the fish’s gills flare as it sucks in the fly is every bit as exciting as a long shot on the open flats.
Close shots happen for a variety reasons. Some are dictated by the environment. You will rarely find yourself making a long cast in a mangrove lined canal, creek or small cove. If the visibility is difficult due to poor light, cloudy water, or deep water, you likely won’t see some fish until they are close. Even on wide open flats with clear water, high sun, and the best polarized glasses, fish can appear right by the boat. Regardless of whether you are looking for close shots or just taking them as they come, being prepared will give you an excellent chance of capitalizing on your opportunities.
Many anglers hesitate taking close shots, assuming that any fish close enough to roll cast to will never eat. It is true that these shots can be difficult. You need to react quickly without spooking the fish. Casting angles are rarely ideal and hook sets can be difficult. Even when moving as stealthily as possible you will spook fish. Just like any skill that takes practice to master, the more you do it the easier it will get.
If you have a setup tuned to close casts and you practice, you’ll be able to make an extremely accurate presentation and control your line and fly very precisely. You will know what your fly is doing and how the fish is reacting. You can change the fly’s movements based on how the fish is reacting and entice it to strike in a way you could never do from 50 or 60 feet. As you get more comfortable with close shots, you’ll have many throughout the day and will catch more fish.
The Right Gear
Consistently catching fish close starts with having the right gear. A rod that is ideal for short casts must bend and load easily with just a few feet of line out of the tip. A line with extra weigh up front, such as a redfish style taper, will help with this.
If you’re fishing in a tight environment, consider fishing a shorter than normal leader, allowing you to have more line out of the rod tip. This will keep the line/leader connection from getting stuck inside the rod tip and the weight of the extra line will help load the rod. I prefer a heavier leader with a long, heavy butt and a quick front taper. My tippet, also, is on the heavy side. You don’t get much tippet protecting line stretch on a twelve foot cast and often it is essential to pull fish away from cover as you set the hook.
Flies I use for close-in fishing are tied with materials that move and dance in the water. Because you'll have little room to move the fly, it is essential that it look alive with the shake of a rod tip or a two-inch strip. Most of my close-in flies incorporate craft fur, marabou, rabbit strips, and other materials that move on their own.
Fishing a setup that works close doesn’t mean you won’t be able to make longer casts. With the exception of the shortened leader, I often fish the same setup in tight areas and on open flats. Unless you go excessively heavy on the line, an outfit that will make short casts also performs well at longer ranges. You probably won’t be able to pick up and reposition 80 feet of line but that’s a good trade for the ability to make controlled, accurate casts from five to sixty-five feet out.
Making the Shot
A quick reaction is important when sight fishing, and even more so when the fish is only a few feet away. Ideally you will be standing in the bow with someone else poling or paddling. It is essential that you both are paying attention and that you are ready to make the cast as soon as you have a shot. You should be holding the fly in your line hand (either by the bend of the hook or by the tail of the fly past the bend) with enough line out of the tip of the rod to load the rod. If you are expecting a short cast, make sure you don’t have so much line out of the tip that you will be casting past the fish. You need to be ready to roll cast the fly out of your hand, either directly to the water or into a false cast that will be followed by a presentation. Try to keep false casts, as well as the initial roll cast, from going over or casting a shadow on the fish.
Your fly should be placed very accurately and, unless you need to get a fish’s attention, land quietly. Use enough energy to turn the leader over but not so much that the fly will smack the water’s surface. A line with enough weight towards the front and a rod with a flexible tip that loads smoothly will give you the control you need. A deliberate cast with a slower rod is far superior to a quick flop cast with a stiff rod.
When fish are 60 feet away you have room to lead them, sometimes by as much as a few feet. When fish are close you don’t have that luxury. The fly needs to land close enough that a fish sees it and has a chance to eat before it is spooked. Fine tune your presentation by sliding the rod tip to drag the fly where it needs to go. Fish don’t respond well to flies swimming at them. Your fly should move away from the fish, either directly in front or at an angle. If it isn’t possible to avoid a head-on shot, move the fly as little as you can so the fish doesn’t feel threatened.
There often is little room for stripping. Use a combination of short strips and rod tip movements to give the fly action. Wiggling the rod tip back and forth will telegraph tiny movements down to the fly, giving it action without much forward movement. Sweeping the rod tip will give the fly a steady motion you can’t easily duplicate with stripping.
When everything comes together you’ll watch a fish open its mouth and inhale your fly right under your rod tip. Getting a good hook set on a fish that is only a few feet away is not easy. Keep the slack out of the line so you are in direct contact with the fly. When a fish eats, play the angles with your strip-strike. Sweep the rod so that the tip moves towards the fish, pulling the fly into the fish’s mouth. Sometimes the angle is bad and conditions are so tight that all you can manage is the dreaded “trout set,” with the rod tip held high. When this happens, do your best to move the butt of the rod back to decrease the rod angle (i.e. point the rod tip closer to the fish) and hit the fish with enough energy to set the hook. If the hook sticks, it’s a good idea to follow up with a strip-strike when you have the opportunity.
Fly line and monofilament have significant stretch to them. On a long-range hookset, this springiness evens out the power of a strip strike. You don’t have this shock absorption on short range hooksets. Make sure you don’t overdo it and either break the tippet or pull the fly right out of the fish’s mouth.
When a fish is hooked 50 feet from the boat it is usually pretty tired and ready to be landed by the time you fight it to boat side. Not so with a fish hooked at short range. Often the first order of business is to keep the fish from heading into shoreline structure while your partner on the push pole backs you away as quickly as possible. Sometimes the fish will go directly under the boat, risking a broken rod. I’ve had to jump out of the boat more than once to continue the fight with a fish that has taken refuge underneath. In confined areas it is common to land a fish without ever getting them on the reel. It takes practice to keep from getting tangled while letting the fish take some line with the right amount of tension. A landing net will help you avoid broken gear and lost fish.
Dealing with Current
Tight environments are often tidal environments that share some characteristics with freshwater rivers. The current is often a determining factor for where the fish are and what they are doing. It also affects how your fly behaves once it is in the water. You usually want to cast up-current of the fish. Pay attention to where the fish you are targeting is located and use the current to your advantage. Knowing how to mend will help you to control your line in the current.
Current can help you determine which way a fish is facing. If the fish is facing down current it will most likely be moving. A stationary fish is usually facing into the current. Fish are used to food drifting with the current. The best presentation in moving water is usually to cast the fly “upstream” of the fish and let it drift or swim down to the fish. Current acts equally on your fly and your fly line. Make sure your fly line won’t drift over the fish before it sees and eats your fly.
What to practice
Practice starts with making sure your setup is suited for shorter casts. A rod with some decent flex from the tip through the midsection paired with a line with some extra weight towards the tip will work well. Most mid-range to high-end rods, with the exception of those made explicitly for distance or for big flies and heavy lines, will work fine. When buying new equipment what I look for is a rod that will load well enough with 10-12 feet of line out the tip to make a controlled, defined loop. I’ll then lengthen the line and make sure the rod and line combination perform well out to 65 feet or so. I want to be able to make longer casts as well but am fine sacrificing some control and the ability to hold a lot of line in the air.
Short casts start right at the rod tip and extend out to around 25 feet. Practice the whole range. Depending on the conditions and situation, you may need to make a delicate presentation or punch a fly through the wind. Practice making short cast with just enough energy to deliver the fly to the target, with excess energy to drive the fly through the wind and punch it into the water, and everything in between.
Casts can come at any angle and you often have little ability to adjust the angle or wait for the fish to change positions. Practice shots at every possible angle, making sure to have the slack out of the line when the fly lands.
Close shots often occur in tight surroundings. If you have done some trout fishing in the small streams of the Appalachians you will likely understand what is needed to present a fly to a saltwater fish in tight environments. Here are some helpful skills and casts to practice.
- Steeple Cast: Stop your back cast early to keep the line and fly above trees and other obstructions directly behind you. Your forward cast will be directed towards the water. You can soften the impact by opening up your loop on the forward cast, “rolling” your line out on the water. You also can pull your cast back at the end of the presentation by lifting your whole rod up away from the water. This will shorten your cast by at least a few inches.
- Back Cast Through a Hole: Sometimes the area in front will be clear but you will have an obstructed back cast. Use a tight loop on your back cast to punch through holes or keep your fly between snags.
- Tight Loop in Front: Sometimes the obstruction is in front. Practice a tight loop on your forward cast that will punch your leader and fly through holes and under overhangs to get the fly to the fish. A sidearm cast helps too.
- Mending: An aerial mend, or reach cast, may be needed to work around obstructions and land your fly and leader at the right angle to move away from the fish. After your forward stop, move the tip of your rod in the direction in which you would like the line to lay out. You also can use an on the water mend to flip the fly line up and around obstructions.
Fixing Bad Casts
- Too Much Line: It is common on short casts to have too much line out of the tip of your rod. While you can’t easily shorten the line mid-cast, you can effectively shorten it on the presentation cast. Aim above the water and, as you lay the fly down, pull your rod tip back and up at an angle. This will create slack that you will have to quickly deal with but it will give you a shot a fish you otherwise might have to pass up.
- Pull Back a Bad Cast: Pulling back a presentation cast is difficult, but it can be done. If you realize at the last second that your cast is heading the wrong direction, it’s often best to just let it land and see what happens. If you want to try to recover the cast, quickly lift the tip of your rod, which should be pointing towards the target, to effectively shorten the line and pull the line and fly back towards you. Follow up with a short Belgian-style cast and lay the fly where you want it.
A Second Shot
In the case that the fish doesn’t eat, sometimes you can make a second shot. If you have room, simply strip the fly back, like you would on a long cast, and cast again. If the fish is right under the boat, use the rod tip to slowly sweep the fly away from the fish at an angle that will give you some room for a cast. Swing the fly up and out of the water, using the water tension to load the rod, and make another cast. It takes very little energy to load the rod for a short cast. Don’t overdo it or you risk spooking the fish. If the fish is very close and the fly is in the vicinity, it may work better to use your rod tip to reposition the fly in the water.
Practice giving the fly motion with your rod next time you’re on the water. Roll cast the fly a few feet away. Let it sink, then slowly sweep the rod tip, watching how the fly behaves. Try shaking the rod tip as the fly sinks, then shake the tip and sweep the rod at the same time. See what kind of action you can create. This technique is particularly useful when a fish follows a fly right up to the boat. Before you give up, stop stripping and let the fly sink while shaking your rod tip. If you don’t get a strike, sweep your rod tip away from the fish as you pull the fly out of the water. If you get a reaction but no strike, make a roll cast and try it again.
Practice these skills whenever you have the opportunity so that they are second nature when needed. If you have to think about what to do after a fish appears you will probably miss the shot.
To make the most of every shot you’ll need to be standing ready with line stripped out and your rod in your hand. Pay close attention to everything around you. Try to predict where you’ll see the next fish and how you will present your fly when one appears.
Developing the skills and mindset to take advantage of close shots will help you become a better angler and you’ll get more out of your time on the water. After the excitement of watching a big fish flare its gills to inhale your fly right under your rod tip, you may decide you like close shots as much as I do, and actually go looking for them.