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Fifty Feet: Fly Fishing's Magic Number

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On: Fri, Oct 22, 2010 at 11:08AM | By: Capt Gregg McKee

In saltwater fly fishing, a lot of people will tell you that an eighty-foot cast is necessary in order to be successful flats. You’ll read this in the magazines and hear it directly from too many guides. That’s a very demanding requirement for beginners and a really discouraging one, too.  In my experience it’s simply not the case.

Ninety percent of the snook, redfish, and even tarpon I’ve caught over the years were hooked within fifty feet of my boat. This is a distance that almost anyone can reach. Even if you’ve never touched a fly rod before, a decent guide or instructor can get you casting out to fifty feet within an hour. The key is to make this cast quickly and accurately, and this is the part that takes some practice.

In many flats fishing situations you’ll have about ten seconds from the time your guide spots the fish until the moment that you’ll start your cast. You’ll have the first five seconds to spot the target and the next five to get the fly in the water and in front of your fish. And yes, this is a really narrow window.

Here’s an exercise you should try if you’re thinking of heading to Florida or any saltwater destination with your fly rod in tow. To do this exercise properly you’ll need a partner, a measuring tape, two paper plates, and a stopwatch.

First, take the plates and find an open space, preferably outside, and place them exactly fifty feet apart. String up your saltwater rod with a small pattern such as a Clouser Minnow and stand on one plate. Start on the upwind plate and aim downwind.

Next, strip out most of your fly line from your reel. Leave at least a rod’s length line hanging from the rod tip and hold just the fly in your opposite hand by your thumb and forefinger.

Have your partner hit the stopwatch and start counting out loud. At the same moment start your cast, aiming for the downwind plate. When the count hits “five” stop your false casting and shoot the line.

How close is the fly to your downwind target?

If you realistically want to catch a tailing redfish or bonefish in the conditions you’re going to find in Florida this time of year, you should be within two feet of the plate. If you‘ve actually hit the plate then you‘re in great shape. If you’re consistently five feet short and taking more than three false casts to get there you’ll be seriously handicapped when it comes to sight fishing on the flats. Fortunately, fixing this is often very easy.

If you’ve been flailing away for hours and just can’t reach plate then it’s honestly time to stop what you’re doing and get some actual instruction. Your best bet is to head to your nearest fly shop and asking someone to take a quick look at your cast. The $50 you’ll pay a certified instructor for an hour-long lesson is bargain when you consider what you’ll be spending for your day with a guide on the flats.

I’ve seen a lot of self-taught anglers who’ve taught themselves some seriously bad habits. If you’re one of these folks you may be highly effective on a small trout stream, but it probably won’t come together on the saltwater flats. After too many years, a weak cast becomes part of your muscle memory, and is amazingly hard to fix on your own. One quick hour of being taught the proper saltwater techniques will go a very long way when the redfish are tailing.


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