Go With The Flow!
Updated: Nov 12, 2021
This is an article aimed at the first time (or inexperienced) saltwater fly angler, because stepping out to onto the coast to target fish with a fly rod can be a particularly daunting experience!
To paraphrase - The coastline is a big. Really big! I mean you won’t believe just how hugely, vastly, mind-bogglingly big it really is. You may think it’s a long way down the road to the tackle shop, but that’s just peanuts compared to the coast…and so on (thank you Douglas Adams, you were a genius!).
Where do you start...where do you start?
Now its worth saying right up front - Don’t go asking and expecting any generous tips from fellow saltwater anglers to start you on your way…sea anglers of any discipline guard the locations of their most productive marks vigorously. They're not being antisocial or uncharitable; that knowledge is hard-won and often the result of many years of trial and error, and careless talk can lead to a mark being over-fished or even completely wiped-out if the commercial boys get wind of it.
So...Knowing where on earth to start looking with a fly rod is tough. If you’re making the transition from bait-fishing, it can make it even more so. How? Well, if you radically change your method for fishing that favourite mark of yours, it may render all that hard-won knowledge nigh-on useless, which can be a demoralising start. After-all, what use is a mark that produces bass at 150yards to nice smelly peeler crab, when you’re suddenly faced with trying to tempt your quarry with a scentless fly at just 20 yards? It’s a conundrum that anyone hankering to give saltwater fly fishing a go must get to grips with.
So none of this kind of stuff with a fly-rod then! Crikey I look young!!
To some extent, making the transition from lure fishing is a much smaller leap but again, the physical constraints of how far and in what conditions you can present a fly mean that many marks suited to lure fishing are yet again completely excluded from the mix.
Of course much of this is equally true even of the experienced fresh-water fly angler, who is completely at home on the river fishing for trout and grayling, but fancies making the transition to the salt. Sure, they may have an advantage in being able to cast, and understand the mechanics of presenting a fly. Indeed, some of the ‘water-craft’ learnt on the river is eminently transferrable to the shoreline, but... its still an equally bewildering prospect; the environment you’re moving into is huge!
Certainly I’ve known many anglers commit to giving ‘swffing’ a go, acquire the gear, learn the lingo, take the casting lessons, and then tear their hair out in frustration and disillusionment as the weeks and months tick-by with scarcely a notable fish on the score card.
In my early swffing days, I was pretty pleased to get anything!
All of which may lead you to wonder why anyone would want to undo all that accumulated knowledge and put themselves back to square-one in the first place. But with a little research and observation, there are some very significant shortcuts to getting the aspiring swffer back onto the fish.
Let’s think about the problem at hand. Whilst saltwater fly fishing is a highly productive and enjoyable method once you’ve cracked it, the very nature of fly fishing does present some physical limitations.
The method of casting a flyline is restricted in several ways;
Firstly, there’s the room to cast. I’d spent many years fishing the rocky ledges and boulder-strewn shores of the Jurassic coast in Dorset for bass, wrasse, garfish, Pollack and mackerel. It’s dramatic, productive and exciting coastline, and I was pretty happy with my specific marks. But for fly fishing, many of those marks are a no go…for the simple reason that the narrow beaches or ledges are backed by sheer cliffs and there’s no room to cast a flyline!
Secondly, even with space and consummate casting skill (the latter of which I don’t have in spades!) you can’t expect to get a fly out any distance beyond about 30 yards, indeed for most it would be nearer to 20-25 yards in typical decent conditions.
Thirdly there’s the weather and water conditions…like it or not, flylines don’t mix well with a blustery force 6 onshore wind, pounding surf or water choked with weed!
You can 'swff' in any environment...providing it meets a few basic criteria. Dorset's Jurassic coast has a few spots suited to casting a flyline.
So it would seem that swffing presents nothing but handicaps. But it’s all about preconceptions and adaptation. As a bait and lure angler on the shore for 25 years before I picked up a fly rod, I was, in no small measure, preconditioned with the idea of banging casts out as far as I could in order to maximise my chances of catching more. With the exception of one specific night-time mark for summer sole, which required a gentle 30 yard lob, that preoccupation for distance was a constant for me. What drove that was a general perception that deeper water houses the fish. Of course there are many species for whom water depth does play a vital part, but…the truth is that you’d be amazed how many really decent fish there are busily foraging away in water little deep enough to cover their backs!
The challenge I therefore undertook with swffing was to ‘unlearn’ that conditioning, tear my eyes away from the horizon and begin to look at what was right at my feet…literally! You see, if you can’t cast great distances and cover huge areas of sea-bed, and your offering exudes no scent to draw fish to it, then the answer is painfully logical…you need to find fish right in that small zone that you can get to, and drop your fly right on the button! Thankfully, there are some basic, consistent rules anyone can follow and adapt to your available coast to help you do just that.
Focus on the right locations and you swing the odds hugely in your favour: Steve Donald homes-in on some feeding Thicklip's only 10 yards away.
It helps to think of fish as being essentially bone idle! (See my article "The Lazy Mullet"). In effect, given the option, fish will always try and position themselves where their food comes to them, not the other way round. Sure, when push comes to shove, they’ll have to go looking, but they are hardwired opportunists. So, we’re looking for anything that might signal to fish there’s an easier meal option here ,as that will concentrate their numbers in a zone accessible to the swffer.
Essentially this falls into three categories:
Water flow & currents
Arguably this is the most consistent deliverer of opportunities for success in swffing.
Concentrated currents in water act as a conveyor belt which delivers food to waiting fish with the minimum of effort on their part. Feeding in these zones is often active and aggressive, as the fish snatch at anything passing. Bass and mullet in particular will take full advantage of this benefit, but it can also draw in other species too, from flounder to mackerel.
For the swffer, there is no better time spent than studying online maps and aerial views in order to identify and shortlist areas likely to develop such conditions during the tidal cycle.
Obvious targets are
• Small estuaries or rivers that flow directly out to sea across beaches.
• Spit heads and breakwaters in areas of strong lateral tidal flow that create rips or visible increases in the current.
• Narrow channels between sand/gravel banks, and constricted entrances to harbours and leys, where the movement of large volumes of water on ebbing and flooding tides are restricted, forcing the flow through at pace.
• Sand/Gravel bars where tidal currents or waves break over/around them.
Google Earth is a fantastic tool for finding those likely hot-spots. This view shows an excellent spot where the water gets funnelled through a narrow gap as the tide floods and ebbs.
Visible currents will greatly concentrate fish, sometimes presenting you with dozens of targets within a few square metres. Fish feeding in currents will often reveal themselves with swirls, splashes and leaps, and with the aid of decent polarised sunglasses, you will often see many more flashing below the surface.
Observation of such a venue through the tidal cycle is crucial to maximising success. Sometimes the currents created by the tide only have a relatively short lifespan during a cycle, and fish will feed frantically for perhaps only minutes before moving on to the next one.
A recent classic example occurred just a couple of weeks ago. I was targeting mullet lying in shallow water off the side of a sand-bank. The ebbing tide had slowed and stopped, and the fish, all clearly visible, were now lying motionless and spread-out over a large area – no sign of any feeding activity. This is a regular sight for a mullet angler with a fly rod, and not a welcome one… they will routinely ignore everything you throw at them!
But just as I was about to move off, some strange idiosyncrasy of the water movement in the harbour meant a secondary current, fast and narrow, suddenly developed from nowhere. The mullet reacted immediately, swiftly waking up, and vastly concentrating into a dark, solid band of fish, only a couple of meters across but some 30 metres long.
They burst into activity, splashing, flashing their silver flanks, and darting from side to side – all classic feeding signals. Sure enough, those previously disinterested fish were suddenly all over the fly, and within two casts I was happily engaged in a fierce tussle with a good, muscular, thin-lipped mullet, which tipped the scales at about 3.5lb.
Snatched from a brief opportunity when the current was running
It took 10 minutes to subdue that fish, and by the time I’d released it, that weird little current had died and the throng of mullet had disbanded and mooched off. But that instance is noted… next time, when the tides are similar, I’ll be at that specific location at that specific point in the tidal cycle, ready to grab that brief opportunity. Who knows… it could make the difference between a memorable catch or a blank session!
The key to unlocking the full potential of such locations is to record those movements and characteristics in chronological order, and move from spot to spot in anticipation until you exhaust those ambush opportunities.
In the right place, at the right time, casting flies across such flows and allowing them to tumble down-stream and come round in an arc before retrieving is a deadly technique, so long as you gently strip line in to ensure you stay in contact with the fly and ready to strike when the fish hits. Depending on the fish and the angle at which you approach, you may need to strip the line more dynamically. That bit you can experiment with once you have the luxury of knowing you’re actually casting at fish and not fishing blind!
On a drizzly, cold day, a good thick-lipped mullet gives me a run for my money - it took a sz12 grey shrimp pattern dead-drifted in a steady current
An important note here is don’t discount the ebbing tide; there is a tendency to automatically focus very much on the flood when you're new to the coast, but the fact is that plenty of marks I know fish frantically as the water is being sucked out, and bass and mullet take full advantage of helpless shrimp and baitfish swept along as the water drops.
To some extent, structure may be inextricably linked to flow, as indeed it may be the structure itself that causes the current as the water is forced round, over or through it. But either way, structure also provides shelter for small fish and invertebrates, and where they cluster, predators will not be too far away.
Jetties, pontoons, groynes, broad rock ledges, even stands of bladderwrack; all provide enough interest to concentrate feeding fish into localised areas, with plenty of accessible choices for the roving swffer.
Left: Structure is a focus point for fish...but can be a hazard too!
Below: this small concrete jetty creates a calm patch of water out of a strong current, allowing mullet to browse.
Chokepoints can be a major assist too, especially in estuaries. If fish are routinely entering and leaving an estuary system with the tide cycle, anything which interrupts or holds-up that movement of water will tend to, temporarily, concentrate the fish. This could be a narrow entry or exit to a harbour or channel, tidal sluices, weirs etc. Essentially the fish will be forced to bunch up to get through until the tide allows them to bypass the obstacle.
Again, sharp eyes and patience will reveal tell-tale movements to signal the arrival of fish.
Open shore currents
Even on an apparently featureless, vast flat expanse of sand, such as you might find on the surf beaches of Wales of the South West of England, there are still currents to be exploited. The waves themselves move water, and therefore food, around, and fish take full advantage. That activity will take place where the waves have broken and the 'tables' of water are pushing up the beach. Mullet in particular will use the water to 'surf' in grab the morsels they find washing about, then ride the receding water table back out again. Presenting flies in that zone, often only inches deep, is exciting fishing, as a hooked surf mullet will run like blue-blazes back out through the breakers... say hello to your backing!
Other features like outfalls, rivers that empty directly onto the beach etc, all create focus points for feeding, and should be inspected.
Welsh mullet-master Darren Jackson plays another fine surf mullet, hooked at close range in inches of water.
Static food source
These can be a little less obvious, but good examples would be wave troughs, channels and depressions, seed-mussel beds and sheltered areas just out of currents where detritus settles out of the water. Again, the draw here is that small critters gather to take advantage of the bits and pieces, and are therefore themselves vulnerable from larger predators.
Eyes to the skies
Lastly, there’s one additional ‘tell’ to look out for that suggests something is lurking beneath the surface and may be eager to take your fly – birds!
Seabirds are also opportunists and can spot the activity of feeding fish from far greater distances than any human. Shoaling predators hitting bait-fish often leave stricken casualties just under the surface as well as pushing targets to the very top, within easy diving depth for gulls and terns.
Watch for birds congregating in the air over localised patches of water. As you can see them from a considerable way off, they can also frustrate by advertising that there’s something great happening that you can’t possibly reach… but it may equally be only 10 yards out, and a quick sprint to join the action could pay off big-style!
A blustery day on an open shingle beach, but birds gave away bass and mackerel hitting baitfish close-in, and a fantastic half-hour of sport was had!
In harbours and shallow water, feeding swans can also be a good option to check out; feeding in numbers, they rummage through the algae on the bottom and dislodge invertebrates and small fish. Mullet in particular can often be seen congregating around and following behind feeding swans. But take care… a hooked mullet isn’t daft and will often use those swans to its advantage, running hard towards them… and you obviously don’t want to endanger the swans or lose a good fish! If you hook a mullet close to swans take great care to immediately steer the fish away, walking some distance if you need to.
The mullet maestro, Colin MacLeod stealthily targets mullet feeding where the swans have disturbed the bottom
If you search thoroughly, all of these categories of opportunity can be found in abundance in locales where the topography of the coast is ‘swff friendly’, meaning you can cast freely, wade safely, even find somewhere out of the wind, and go home with your hair intact and a smile on your face! In all these locations a little experimentation with flies may be required to find patterns that reflect what’s on the menu.
In every instance, the absolute key activity is ‘watch’. Watch, watch, and then watch some more! Once your eyes become accustomed to picking out movements and tells in the water’s surface, it is frankly astonishing to realise just how much was going on right underneath the tip your beach-caster all those years! Some of my best fish have come to the fly in mere inches of water, feet from its edge, often with me standing in shin deep wavelets and casting back towards the shore! Who’d have ever thought I’d be doing that when I was getting my pendulum casting lessons all those years ago!
So, if I had to sum it all up and recommend just one scenario to ensure a new fellow swffer gets the best chances of chalking his slate, the answer would definitely be ‘go with the flow’!
As a brief footnote, these core principals work anywhere! I went to Portugal a few weeks ago. It was my first time there, and the potential swffing arena was vast, but by applying the rules, inside of a day I was able to pinpoint where and when the fish would be there, and the following day started bringing fish to the net!