Views from the Helm
After being on the boat for a few years I have picked up on some things from watching others while I am at the helm. I thought it might be useful to share some of those thoughts and get a dialogue going about fly fishing from a boat. I say that because I think there are distinct differences between using the long wand from shore and from a boat. Often I find that anglers, who don’t fish from the boat very often, think it will be easier to catch fish and require less skill as “you can just drive the boat to the fish.” While I agree that the boat does offer distinct advantages I also feel it presents unique challenges.
The first challenge is line control. While fishing from shore the angler’s feet are planted on solid ground. This is not the case in the boat, unless anchored. In the boat you will be drifting, with the rate of the drift dependent on wind and current. An angler needs to understand what the boat is doing and how it will impact the fly on the end of your line. When casting up drift your fly line will come tight on its own and stay that way with the fly being automatically retrieved at the speed of the drift. Casting down drift will achieve the opposite result with the boat over running the fly unless you retrieve faster than the rate of the drift. Casting at angles to the drift will help limit its impact and can often be a very effective way to get a good “swing.” While you could write volumes on the different situations you can encounter, I will address two to illustrate how different techniques can be applied to deal with the challenges associated with each situation.
The first situation, which I encounter very often while fishing for hard tails, is casting down drift. This is a very common cast as one of the best ways to get on these speedsters is to motor up wind and drift down on the pod of busting fish. This strategy allows for a long cast by the angler and quiet approach for the boat. As we discussed earlier, if the angler were to make the cast and do nothing the boat would over run the fly line and greatly reduce the chances of a hookup. The first and most important thing the angler must do in this situation is trap the line in his stripping hand before the fly hits the water. This allows the angler to begin the retrieve immediately and prevents any excess slack from forming in the line.
After that there are a few other things that can be done depending on the conditions. If you are fishing in strong winds with fish on top I advocate the use of a floating line or at least an intermediate. A sinking line creates a hinge effect that magnifies the impact of the drift with the line sinking back toward the boat. With a floater or intermediate the line will stay up in the water column and minimize the impact. An added benefit with the floater is that you can easily pick up and recast to moving fish! If you find the fish are feeding deeper in the water column and need to use a sinking line, I like to use a stripping basket and a two handed retrieve. When combined with the immediate trapping of the line this allows you to create a seamless retrieve that can easily be adjusted for the rate of drift. Using a sink tip with a floating running line should also help reduce the hinge effect.
The second situation is blind casting relatively shallow flats where I advocate casting at angles to the drift. In this situation casting in this manner achieves two objectives. The first is that you should be presenting to fish that have not been spooked by the drifting boat. The second is that you can vary your retrieve more effectively as you have minimized the impact of the drift. While this cast should be simple it does have its challenges, especially when two anglers are fishing. Most boats will drift down wind. That means that both anglers will be casting down the same side of the boat toward each other. The solution here is patience and communication. Both anglers need to wait till the other angler has made his presentation and let the other angler know if you are going to cast. This really applies to every situation but I find this is the one where most flies kiss!
Casting in general is the second biggest challenge I see on the boat. The additional variables again are moving water and wind. From shore the angler generally sets up in a single location and makes a presentation toward roughly the same area time and again with a similar cast. This may be a traditional forward cast with your dominant hand, casting off the back cast or even switching to your opposite hand. The difference on the boat is that you may need to make all three of those casts within just a few seconds while determining which one is appropriate at the same time. Further complicating this task is a boat that is rocking back and forth underneath you. While there is no substitute for time on the water, I do think there are a couple points that can be made that will help speed the learning curve for an angler stepping on a boat for the first time.
The first point is that it is better to make one good cast than three bad ones. If you need a few extra seconds to get your footing or get a feel for the wind it will be better than hooking yourself, landing on your butt, or worse hooking the captain! The second piece of advice I can offer is to do your best to find a rhythm with the boat. The guys I see having the most trouble casting in the bow are the ones that are constantly trying to fight the sway of the boat. In addition, if the boat has a good amount of freeboard, use it to your advantage by leaning against it for stability. The last suggestion deals with wind and choosing the appropriate cast. While on shore you can always adjust your cast so that the wind is coming over your opposite shoulder. On the boat this is not the case. For instance if you are in the stern and the boat is drifting toward the fish (downwind) you can not simply turn around or switch hands as you would be casting over the center of the boat and greatly increasing the risk of hooking your partner. Unless the wind is completely unmanageable, I recommend casting using water hauls and as much angle into the wind as possible. It is possible to use a steeple style cast in this situation as well but in the heat of the moment this can be very risky and I don’t recommend it.
I hope this has been useful and look forward to hearing others insights.