Life On The Edge
When you step out onto the shore for the very first time with a flyrod in hand, particularly if you’re a river fly angler, the first thing that dawns on you from an angling perspective is that that you’re faced with an awful lot of water, which can be pretty daunting. If you’ve come to saltwater fly fishing from another angling discipline, particularly the beach-casting fraternity, you may be a less phased by that but you’re likely to make an immediate assumption made that the key to success will be getting your fly waaay out into the deepest water possible. Makes sense; the bigger fish are further out, right? Why else would all those beach fisherman expend so much effort to propel their baits 150m out from the shore if that wasn’t the case.
Yep. Definitely makes perfect sense.
Either way, there’s a tendency to look to the zone you might consider to be the furthest you could possibly cast to as being the one that’ll be most productive.
And at this point, I sense many novice or aspiring saltwater fly anglers reading this are immediately feeling raised anxiety levels: “Hang on…exactly how far out are we talking here? My fly line is only 30m long as it is, and a third of that hasn’t seen the light of day since I wound it on! Will I have to learn the dreaded ‘double haul’ I’ve heard about? What if I can’t! What if I have all the grace and coordination of a stack of broom handles being dropped down a flight of concrete stairs? What if, to cut to the point, I can’t reach those fish?
Being able to Double-haul helps... but NOT being able to doesn't necessarily hinder!
First off, don’t panic.
I came into saltwater flyfishing almost 15 years ago as a complete fly-fishing ‘noob’. I’d never held a fly rod before, let alone taken one into arguably one of the most challenging environments you can wave one in. I can also assure you that I have lived an entire life as someone who, for example, stands in front of the bathroom mirror grinding his teeth in agony whilst trying to remove his contact lenses, only to find out I hadn’t actually put them in that day. I was also one of those people who was utterly useless at sports at school (really - I was terrible. I used to play basketball and actually scored an ‘own basket’. Just think about that for a minute.) The point I’m trying to make is, don’t become preoccupied with or worried about the casting skills required and read-on.
Before deciding to take up saltwater flyfishing, I had in fact spent the previous 25 years fishing by walloping baits out from the water’s edge in sheltered estuaries, pounding surf beaches, imposing rocky outcrops, and surging shingle banks. I’d eventually managed to scrape together enough skill to master a ‘pendulum cast’ in order to reach those distant specimen fish I craved, and you know what? I became pretty good at it. I refined my gear, stayed in tune with the latest technologies in rods and reels, practiced casting regularly, and I caught a lot of fish. It was all about distance. Distance, distance, distance.
Being able to smash a bait out long distance did seem to produce the goodies!
The first inkling that it might not be was when I became friends with a talented angler and writer in the early 90’s by the name of Richard Stapley. Richard was a bank manager by day, a columnist for Sea Angler magazine in the evening and, every other waking moment, a superb and highly successful beach and boat fisherman.
Beach anglers are notoriously tight-lipped about their marks, but Richard was generous, and one day out on a boat fishing trip with him he told me he’d reveal one of his most closely guarded bass fishing secrets. And so, huddled over bucket of rather pungent defrosting squid, he spilled the beans.
A few weeks later, following his explicit instructions, I turned up at a particular beach-side carpark on a dark, frosty November evening with my mate Steve, and crunched across the ice-encrusted shingle to a shallow and unremarkable bay. Following Richard’s advice, I set up a beachcaster and heaved my bait out. Within minutes, the rod tip was twitching and I pulled in two small 6 inch whiting. Steve filled a bucket with water and I dropped the fish in. Next, I tackled up a second rod and presented the little whiting as a live-bait. Whilst I was used to this on a boat where the bait was dropped, wiggling enticingly, straight over the side, there was obviously no way I would be able to pendulum cast that out 120m – nobody wants to arrive at their beach hut in spring to find a broken window and the inside redecorated by a ballistic member of the cod family. So, stifling doubts about the veracity of the advice I’d been given, I walked to the almost-entirely-still water’s edge and ,contrary to every fibre of my accrued beach fishing instincts, held the rod out horizontally and simply dropped the live-bait into the water.
As I quietly paced back to the rod-rest and stood the rod in it, I remember thinking “Really?? That water’s surely only a few inches deep… that’s ridiculous!”. Steve shrugged, and chewing our lips and sitting on our numb hands, we waited in the freezing darkness perhaps a whole 20 minutes before the rod slammed over and the ratchet on the reel screeched in alarm. A large bass had engulfed the bait quite literally 8 ft from the waters-edge. And it wasn’t a one-off; twice more that evening, the reel sang as unseen monsters stealthily patrolled the very margins of their world.
It was nothing short of a revelation.
Wind the clock forward to my first forays with a fly rod and even though it was still difficult to do so, I began to tear my eyes away from the horizon and start paying proper attention to what was immediately in front of me.
Rule no.1? Find fish! At the risk of repeating myself from other articles aimed at those starting down the ‘SWFFing’ (Salt Water Fly Fishing) route, the most valuable way to spend your time prior to wetting a line in anger is just to go and watch your proposed marks, preferably at different stages of the tide cycle if you can (for some pointers, see my articles The Lazy Mullet and Go With The Flow).
Make sure you scope out all the water in front of you for activity. If you’re new to it, it’ll take a while to spot fish activity at times, as it may be subtle – the odd glint or flash below the surface, perhaps a set of ripples going in a different direction to those around it, or dark moving shadows on a pale sandy bottom. In time you’ll ‘get your eye in’ (good polarizing sunglasses are essential). Of course, at other times it’ll be completely downright obvious!
Right: Sometimes the briefest flash in the water will betray a fish's presence...
Below: Other times it'll be a tantalisingly waggling tail... hard to miss!
So, let’s assume you found the fish and jump back to that nagging casting anxiety.
Whilst its entirely true that the better you are at casting, the more choices you might have to reach fish in challenging conditions (and you should certainly aspire to learn and hone those skills - lessons are invaluable if you can arrange them), it’s nonetheless also true that if you know your marks and you take time to find and study where the fish are feeding, a little savvy in your approach can mean you’ll do just fine, even if you consider your casting abilities somewhat modest.
Fly fishing in Saltwater has one massive advantage over fly fishing in rivers or still-waters; flexibility. Our coastline is mind-bogglingly huge and almost infinitely varied. If you feel that you have some limitations, and don’t we all (maybe its straightforward casting distance, perhaps mobility or, like me, the inability to deal very well with a spiteful onshore headwind), then the sheer scope of options on the coast will present something that will get you on the fish without reducing you to gnawing your reel-seat in frustration.
Many marks in the UK provide multiple options for the 'swff'er' to suit the conditions
Obviously there are many fish-holding locations where the water is shallow and safe enough to be able to wade. Just make sure that you know that both those factors are just so… don’t take chances in unfamiliar locations!
Viable wading helps in two ways; if you can see fish then depending on the conditions, currents and water-depth, you may firstly have a degree of flexibility over the direction you approach the fish from and secondly, if you’re very careful, how close you can get to them. That means even if you can’t smash out a 25 yard cast into a force 4 headwind, all is not lost. It may be possible to get to within 10 metres or less, or get the wind behind you (or both!).
Don’t go crashing in; take some time to just stand and watch. I’ve seen many opportunities ruined by unobservant anglers who blundered straight into shoals without even realising they were there, and then moaned about the lack of fish!
If you can see fish moving, then let your eyes wander further afield in every direction over the water. Establish the extremities of the shoal; Often there are way more fish present than you at first realise – wading in too close without being sure could well spook the entire shoal and leave you back at square one.
Often, staying well back and keeping a low profile can actually get you closer to the fish overall
Once you’ve established as best you can where all the fish are, consider your approach. Where is that annoying wind coming from? What about currents and wave direction? What’s happening with the tide? (Really important both from the fishing and safety perspectives!). What about other factors - perhaps floating weed etc?
A quick assessment will allow you to formulate a sensible plan of attack that will give you the best chance of getting your flies amongst the fish. Give the shoal a very wide berth to be sure, and make you approach quietly and patiently from some distance away. Don’t get any nearer than you feel you absolutely have to – the closer you get, the greater the risk of spooking them.
Now let’s remember those bass from earlier - and this is the real crux of this article… It genuinely comes as a huge surprise to most new ‘swff’ers’ at just how ridiculously close to the edge of the water many fish do actually feed! I’m talking within a few feet of dry land, sometimes inches!
The simple fact is that food gets washed up against the edges by wind, tide and currents, and it concentrates there. If that’s consistent, then you’ll very likely find fish there too. As long as there’s enough water to give the fish access and an escape route, the chances are they will consider it worth the risk. In the case of those big bass, darkness provided the cover they needed, but many fish will happily come right in during broad daylight, though low-light conditions like dawn and dusk can often yield the best results.
First light in Spain... Mullet and bass move boldly in the shallows
Both Mullet and Bass will patrol the margins in water barely deep enough to cover their backs and often, to the casual observer, with barely a ripple to reveal their presence. Of course, with your newly acquired swffing super-powers, you do know they’re there! So how do you approach it? You could (and indeed often have to) simply stay right back from the water’s edge and literally cast your flyline onto the sand so the flies themselves just plip into the feeding zone. Often you’ll need to be on your knees to stay low and get as close as you can without being seen. It’s not easy, but it can be highly effective. Other times, it requires a different approach.
Let’s put together a scenario.
You’re standing on several miles of gently sloping, open, sandy surf beach. There’s a fairly big surf running and a horrible, brisk on-shore breeze coming in diagonally from right to left – a right-handed fly anglers worst nightmare. The tide is flooding. Looking along the beach there are a number of large, shallow depressions in the sand. Mullet are in the surf, but you’ve been struggling like heck for several hours to get casts out to them in the breeze and tumbling waves, and even when you have, the rough water is cloudy with sand and algae.
What’s your game plan?
I got a grade 'A' in O-Level Art you know. Simpler days.
Well, you can keep casting until your shoulder socket disintegrates or… take a few minutes out to consider what may happen in 15 or 20 minutes time.
Often the shoal will be moving with the onshore drift – the direction of the tide and or waves. In this instance, looking out to sea, they’re moving from right to left. They’re going to move into the channel that runs around a sandbar and into the large depression behind. Wait and watch. In the rough surf, the sandbar acts as a barrier so the water beginning to fill the depression behind via the channel is calm and clearer. Sure enough you spot a little movement and then see fins and tails break the surface and begin moving around. As the current runs in, it pushes food hard up against the very edge of the water, helped by the stiff onshore breeze.
At this point you could retreat back from the waters edge, kneel down some way back and creep forward to close the gap and try to get a short range cast in (against the breeze) to the very margins.
Keeping well back, walk back along the shore a way and once you’re sure all the fish have moved into the depression, approach from the sand-bar itself (or even behind it in the surf tables). This puts the shore…and the fish… squarely in front of you and crucially, the wind at your back. This makes it hugely easier to get a clean presentation from much further away without battling the surging surf and belligerent breeze, and the improved clarity of the water increases the chances of your fly being seen and snaffled by an inquisitive mullet!
This is casting ‘back to shore’ and it's a really viable and useful approach, especially in windy ‘onshore’ conditions. Because those fish are hunting at the very edge of the water, on shallow beaches there’s often room to carefully position yourself outside of the shoal and take an easier shot from the seaward side of them.
Casting back to shore has yielded many a plump Golden Grey for me
I used that scenario, because that’s an exact recount of the conditions I faced during a session on a surf beach in late September. It had been really hard work; the fish were mostly preoccupied with algae froth in the surging surf tables and the water was extremely dirty. The strong onshore breeze and tumbling wave tables had meant a battle with tangles and line management all afternoon, adding to the frustration. But a little time taken out to assess the situation and look down the beach for alternative approaches paid off hugely.
The above shoal produced the catch below! This was taken just minutes before hooking it.
As the fish moved in to the large depression and started showing literally a foot or two from the edge in the calm water, I seized the chance to get behind them, put the wind at my back, and cast back to shore.
Within 15 minutes I’d lost one and managed to land two, the first of which was an absolute monster of a thin-lip, well over 60cm, which gave me one heck of a scrap!!
I was genuinely shocked, as I’d assumed these fish were Golden Grey mullet of perhaps 2lb max, so shallow was the water they were moving in. To net a fish three times that weight was astonishing!
Even after 14 years, it never fails to amaze me what lurks so unbelievably close to the boundary between sea and land. So if you’re setting foot onto the beach with a flyrod in hand for the first time, don’t look wistfully to the horizon and waste time thinking “If only I could get my fly out there…”. Just hang back and consider life on the edge. Sooner or later, it’s really going to surprise you!