A classic sequence in saltwater fly fishing starts with a fish moving across the flat at a distance. The captain slides the skiff into position as the angler lays out a long, perfectly placed overhand cast. These are the casts fly anglers prepare for, practicing accurate fly presentation 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, often just a few feet from the boat.
While I enjoy long shots on the open flats as much as anyone, I like the close shots at least as well. Seeing a fish mere feet away, being able to quickly and accurately drop 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 a scenario I will never tire of.
Close shots happen for many reasons. Sometimes the fish sneak up on you. Even with clear water, high sun, and the best polarized glasses, fish often appear right by the boat. If the water is off color, most of your shots may be close. At other times the situation requires close casts. You will rarely get a long shot in a mangrove lined canal or creek or in a small cove. 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 dread 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 yet without spooking the fish. Casting angles are often bad and hook sets can be difficult. Sometimes the fish knows you are there before you even see them and may not be willing to eat.
While close shots are not easy, they have many benefits. If you’ve got a setup tuned to close casts you can make an extremely accurate presentation and control your line very effectively. 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.
The Right Gear
Consistently catching fish in close starts with having the right gear. Saltwater rod/line combinations are often much better suited for cutting through the wind, picking up lots of line and making long casts rather than making a short, accurate cast. A rod that is ideal for casting close 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. Most rods, with the right line, will load enough to make a flop cast. These will work, but I prefer rods that will load to the point where I can make a cast with a defined loop and minimal line out of the rod tip.
A shorter than normal leader will help with short casts, allowing you to have a little more line out of the tip. I also prefer a heavier leader with a long, heavy butt and a quick front taper. My tippet is on the heavy side as well. You don’t get much tippet protecting line stretch on a 12’ cast and often it is essential to pull fish away from cover as you set the hook.
I tie flies used for close in fishing with materials that move and dance in the water. Because you have very little distance to work with, it is essential that the fly 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, silicone legs and other materials that move on their own.
Making the Shot
A quick reaction is almost always 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 poling or paddling you. It is essential that you are both 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. When the shot happens, 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 needs to be placed very accurately and, in many cases, must land very quietly. Use enough energy to turn the leader over but not so much that the fly will smack the water’s surface. There are times, for example, when a fish has its head buried in the grass or is facing directly towards shore, when you will want the fly to make some noise when it hits to get the fish’s attention. A line with enough weight in the tip 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. You need to get the fly close enough that they see it and have a chance to eat before they are spooked. Land the fly as close as you think you can without spooking the fish. You can fine tune your presentation by sliding the rod tip to drag the fly in front of the fish. 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 is often not much 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.
Getting a good hook set on a fish that is only a few feet away is not easy. A good hook set starts with keeping 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, sweeping the rod tip so that the rod tip moves towards the fish’s tail. This will help pull the fly into the fish instead of out of its 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 both 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’ 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 more than once to continue the fight with a fish that has taken refuge under my canoe. In confined areas it is common to land fish without ever getting them on the reel. It takes practice to keep from getting tangled while giving the fish some line with the right amount of tension.
Dealing with Current
Tight environments are often tidal environments and, in some ways, have more in common with freshwater rivers than with saltwater flats. The current is often a determining factor for where the fish are and what they are doing. It will also affect how your fly will behave once it is in the water. You usually, but not always, 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.
If you are new to fishing in current, keep these things in mind. Fish most often face into the current. They expect food to drift or swim down with 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. 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.
How to practice
Casts can come at any angle and, unlike long distance shots, you often have no ability to adjust that angle. 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 creeks, canals and other 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 can also 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 can also 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: It’s difficult to pull back a presentation cast, but it can be done. If you realize at the last second that your cast is heading the wrong direction, it may be best to just let it land and see what happens. If you want to try to recover the cast, lift the tip of your rod, which should be pointing towards the target, up quickly 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 get 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. You know you’re fishing close when you resort to cane-poling!
Practice giving the fly motion with your rod tip the 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 just shaking the rod tip as the fly sinks. Try shaking the rod tip while sweeping and see what kind of action you can create. Giving the fly action with rod tip movements works on longer casts as well but can add some slack to the line making it more difficult to tell what is going on. One situation in which it is particularly useful is 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 they are needed. If you need to think about what to do after a fish appears you will probably miss the shot.
No amount of skill is going to make a difference if you are not prepared when you see a fish. 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 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.