Take your fly gear offshore to open up a world of pelagic possibilities. I first got a taste of bluewater action with what was truly unconventional gear at the time as a kid in the 1980s. Whenever we got invited offshore, Dad would always sneak 9-weight Orvis aboard, and sometimes our hosts would set us up for shots at schoolie dolphin and "bonito" -- long before that species was knighted as "false albacore."
Later on, I fell in with a small but thriving subculture of fly anglers that were working together to hone bluewater tactics for an incredible variety of species. Fishing with fanatics such as Capt. Scott Hamilton and Greg Snyder, I quickly realized that this game is even more of a team sport than poling the flats.
Over the past 20 years, I've spent countless days offshore in my home waters of Southeast Florida and in many overseas destinations honing techniques to catch bluewater fish on fly. Here are ten tips to help you succeed.
1. Make fly fishing the focal point of your trip. Make sure the crew understands that you may catch fewer fish, but the challenge, fun and bragging rights make it well worth the initiative. The boat catches bluewater fish on the fly, not just the angler. Make sure the boat is rigged for fly fishing and all onboard activities revolve around the person or people with fly rods.
2. Choose a quiver appropriate for the fish. For small tunas such as smaller false albacore, smaller mackerels and schoolie-size mahi, 8- and 9-weight rods suffice. For mahi, tunas and cobia in the 15- to 30-pound range, 10- and 11-weight rods fit the bill. 12-weight rods are the most versatile of offshore rods, whether you're targeting big albies to monster mahi. But for all billfish, sharks and larger tunas, 13- to 16-weight tackle is best. You don't want to stress yourself or a fish you may plan on releasing any more than you need to. These heavy rods need matching reels with the strongest drags, and should be loaded with plenty of backing.
3. Use modern tools to find productive waters. Even if you're planning on covering a lot of ground by trolling hookless teasers, pick a finite area of likely productivity to fish. Check sea-surface temperature and chlorophyll charts to pinpoint color changes and upwellings that spell "bait." Overlay this information atop familiar bathymetric features, such as wrecks and reefs, and focus your teasing, chumming or dredging efforts there.
4. Live chumming pays off. Mahi, tuna and mackerel often charge into a spread without staying long enough to give the angler a shot. If you stop the boat and start scattering small, live baitfish odds are the fish will come right back. Live chumming along rips, over benthic structure and along weedlines is deadly effective. Just make sure the fly closely matches the species and size of baitfish.
5. Bring a box or two of frozen glass minnows or silversides. If live bait is scare, you can trickle frozen offerings into the current around structure and eventually you'll raise fish. Leave the fly "dead-sticked" in the water while you chum with dead bait, or let it fall back with the chum. Fine-tune the presentation for the species you are targeting. Blue runners, seem loathe to eat a still fly, but tunas, mahi and mackerel will attack a "dead" offering.
6. Don't pass up floating structure. One of the best ways to find out whether there's a predator lurking under a floating board or other type of flotsam is to cast a fly. It's often stealthier than dropping a lure or livey. Tripletail of all sizes absolutely inhale small flies such as shrimp and crab patterns if presented well, and small bonefish flies work great for them. Big poppers will call a fish up from the shadows, and by using heavy sinking lines and "depth charge" Clouser Minnow patterns, you can probe deep under floating structure. For the latter tactic, either use a short piece of wire leader or at least use a long-shank hook with the fly tied at the rear of the shank. This is a great tactic for wahoo, which everyone knows will make short work of fluorocarbon.
7. Hookless teasers help catch billfish. Many anglers get their first taste of bluewater fly fishing using this tactic. It brings the fish right to the boat hot so you rarely have to make a long cast. Keep in mind that casting a 14- or 16-weight rod with heavy forward-weighted or sinking line and a bulky fly is awkward. Experienced anglers can usually get the fly out with cross-cast, but find it easier to make a normal cast than to trying to cast across your body. Make sure you tell your captain ahead of time whether you cast right- or left-handed. That way he can set up the outriggers and/or dredge on the opposite side.
8. Use leverage to effectively fight big fish. A few years ago, I watched Stu Apte beat a large sailfish hooked off Guatemala in about five minutes. Stu turned 80 on that trip, but his movements were lithe, quick and effective. He fought the fish with the rod out over the gunnel, rod tip down, and pulled against it horizontally. He twisted from the waist, engaging his core muscles so that they acted like a ratchet, gaining line so he could put it back on the reel. Fight your fish down-and-dirty, and engage your core. High-sticking leads to longer fights, tired fish, tired anglers and broken rods.
9. Learn how to win the battle of inches. At some point you will get straight up and down with a big fish. Reel down until the rod tip is in the water and lift two to four inches while either grasping the spool or holding the line against the cork to keep from losing any more as you lift. You're winning if you get a crank or two each lift. Be smooth and relentless. No matter how tired you are, accept the fact that you may have to let the fish take some line. Only you can feel when to give a little. Stay mentally and physically connected, and don't rush it, or you will break off a memory -- and maybe a rod.
10. Fine-tune your endgame. Bringing the fish within range of the mate's reach can be dicey. When the fish gets close, cup the spool and back up until the mate can grab the end of the fly line or the leader -- or both. Once the mate has a good grip on things, pay out a little slack so you're not pulling against his grip. But make sure that slack stays free of anything it could catch on. Also, keep a tight grip on the rod until the fish is landed or released. If you've fought the fish effectively, it should come to the boat a little green. You may to go another round if the fish gets a second wind, so be ready.