How to Prepare for a Guided Fly-Fishing Trip

Written by: Capt. Steve Horowitz

Capt. Steve Horowitz (left) with a client who just caught his first ‘cuda on the flats.

photo Courtesy Rob Snowhite

Abraham Lincoln once said, “If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my axe.

Good advice for anglers and guides alike. I am a guide working the flats and shallows of Biscayne Bay and the upper Keys of Florida, as well as the inshore waters off Montauk Point, New York.

So many of my clients who fish one or two days with me compromise their time and experience by not preparing themselves for that trophy bonefish, tarpon, permit, or striper because they do not prepare well enough for their day on the water. Let me share some ideas with you, as well as some do’s and don’ts that should help.

A guide basically starts fishing the night before the next day’s charter. When I’m heading home from the water, I’m already thinking and planning for the next charter. Based on experience of that day, I put together a game plan. Check the weather, adjust for the tide change. Will the wind be the same? What flies did the tarpon eat? Was it an early bite? At what stage of the tide did we see the most bonefish? I start to formulate a plan. (I usually end up adjusting that basic plan accordingly as the day unfolds and variables come into play.) With my mental prep out of the way, it’s time to get equipment ready: boat and tackle.

The whole idea is to accomplish as many tasks as possible now. There is very little time in the morning when your charter starts at 6:30 or 7:00 a.m.

Is my client a right or left hand retrieve? Are they beginners? Should I bring some spin gear?
If I have not guided the angler before, I almost always bring some spinning tackle. If the angler is struggling to make casts in the wind it’s nice to have some spinning as back up. I always have a livewell full of shrimp and crabs for bait or chumming, if necessary. The last thing I do is contact the client and make sure they’re all set, as well. I go to sleep knowing I have prepared well.

As the angler, you have some responsibilities, too. Before you ever leave home, you should put in a little time practice-casting with the wind quartering from different directions. This is especially important if it’s midwinter and you haven’t touched a rod in three months or more. You never know if that 10-pound bonefish is going to give you the morning to get your casting rhythm. He might show up on the first flat of the day. We should be so lucky.

You should have a set of directions to our meeting place. Bring appropriate clothing. Even if you are from Minnesota and you’re in Florida in February, it can get cold. We get some cold fronts, and it might be in the forties or fifties to start the day. Add a boat run at 40mph, and it’s cold. Make sure your polarized glasses are the correct tint for the conditions you will be facing. Ask your guide ahead of time. He can always bring an extra pair for you if he doesn’t have one aboard. Most guides do carry spares.

If you are fishing with your own tackle, go over your selection with your guide before you make your trip. Have it ready to fish when you arrive at the dock. I can’t tell you how many times anglers have show up with rods in tubes, reels with no leaders, lines as dry as sand, etc. You don’t need to tie on a fly, as the guides will probably want to select that for you. Where I fish for tarpon, the bite is usually early. So if you have agreed to start at 7a.m. please be ready to fish at 7a.m. If you run late, please give a call. The scenario you want to avoid is arriving a half hour late, taking rods out and tying on leaders, etc. This can leave you almost an hour behind schedule, and you may miss the best bite of the morning.

I am on the boat at least a half hour before my start time. If my client shows early, so much the better. Please don’t show up with a hard cooler. There is really nowhere to stow it on most boats. Orvis guides provide lunch, but if you choose to bring your own food and beverage, there will be a cooler of ice for you. I always have extra water and Gatorade.

Here are some don’ts:

  • No glass bottles
  • No black soled shoes, which mar the deck badly
  • Do not use the type of sun screen that is dispensed with a continuous spray, as it gets on the deck and can be slippery and dangerous

Here’s a tip from one of my clients. Bring several rubber bands to hold your fly rod sections together. That way you can easily carry several rods completely rigged for easy transport in cabs, hotel elevators, etc. You can also use a couple of bandanas. Mark shows up at the dock with three rods in one hand, a plastic bag with lunch in the other, and a gear bag over his shoulder. He arrives on time, and we’re off the dock in five minutes. We tie on flies as we idle down the channel.

If you haven’t done much sight-fishing before, tell you guide. Go over the way you will be communicating. Your guide will help you locate the fish and position the boat for a forehand cast, if time allows. If you don’t see the fish let him know. One of the most common mistakes anglers make is over-casting. It is hard to judge how fast the fish is moving toward you sometimes, so when hear your guide clearly say, “Okay, drop it right there,” please resist the temptation to take another false cast. The next one usually hits the fish on the head and spooks him or the whole school. Trust your guide. After a short time you, the guide, and the boat will be in perfect synch, and your odds will go up. Once you and your guide have established your teamwork, you’ll probably not hear much from your guide other than, “Fish….11 o’clock…..about 60 feet.” It gets simple.

Hopefully with all this prep out of the way, we can concentrate on our goal. Catching a fish!
It’s supposed to be fun, not frustrating! Enjoy.

Capt. Steve Horowitz was the 2009 Orvis Saltwater Fly Fishing Guide of the Year. He guides out of Key Biscayne, Florida.

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