Written by: Robert Morselli
There are times when you just can’t get to your ideal fishing spot. Travel constraints, time constraints, change of plans and so on. On those occasions, I hit the beach.
Casting from a beach is one of the more undervalued methods of fly fishing. Consider this: Florida sports 1,200 miles of coastline, which includes 663 miles of beach. Not bad. What this translates to is space, and lots of it. Fishers have their very own, ample space, so no cramped quarters and jostling for position. No worries about hooking vegetation during that back cast; all you really have to look out for is the occasional person taking a stroll. And if there are swimmers, all you have to do is walk 100 yards off. They’ll appreciate it, and you’ll fish worry-free. For good form, I recommend going one step further and retrieving your fly if a swimmer looks like they’re going to intersect your fly line path.
Predictably, the best times to fish are early mornings or late afternoons/early evenings, when fish traffic and fish activity peaks. Tide charts are a good way of determining optimum fishing hours, too, but mostly I look for low-wind occasions. Proficient casters can get a fly out to 80 feet, even with a headwind, but wind equals wave action, and those waves will bring in your fly line – and fly – pronto. Aside from allowing you to cast easier, low-wind days mean adequate time for your fly to settle (if it’s a crab pattern or other stationary fly), and permit you to retrieve or twitch the fly at whichever pace is required.
The list of fish you’ll find in shallow water is endless (see below for an abbreviated one), so it’s best to head out with a large and varied batch of flies. Take along crab patterns, shrimp imitations, Crazy Charlies, baitfish patterns (Deceivers, etc,), and needlefish patterns if you know that barracudas are frequent visitors. Also make sure that you’re carrying weighted and unweighted flies. There isn’t much of a spread between the surface and the bottom when you’re fishing from a beach, but some species (such as rays and sharks) are decidedly bottom dwellers, whereas others prefer to almost bask in the sun, as barracuda often do.
I normally head out with a 7-weight kit. A 9-foot medium/fast rod is mandatory for fishing in salt. Shorter rods will amount to nothing but misery. The 7-weight kit can get a fly out to a good distance and is comfortable to fish for at least a couple of hours. My reel is loaded with 125 yards of backing, a sinking-tip saltwater line, finished off with an 8- to 10-foot nylon leader ranging from 8- to 12-pound test. Some beachheads insist on fluorocarbon leaders – something I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with for general saltwater use – except that fluorocarbon is not essential unless you know that coral and structure are part of the terrain, usually not the case in beach fishing. I think that the main leader ingredient should be a stout butt section that enables fly turnover in case the wind picks up, as it often does.
At times, fish can be cruising in just inches of water, so you can just about fish without even getting your feet wet. Be practical, though – chances are your feet will get wet, so wading shoes are a good idea.
Even if you wade waist deep, chances are you won’t be casting in water deeper than 8 to 10 feet deep, so a sinking tip line will serve you well. A 10-foot sinking tip with an 8- to 10-foot leader will allow you to take the fly right down to the sand bottom. A full floating line is an acceptable choice, and a little more versatile in the event that poppers are part of the picture (they should be), but you may have to extend your leaders somewhat (1’ – 3’), if you’re casting flies that need to rest on the sand.
Check out seasonal species calendars and adjust your gear accordingly. For example, if snook are travelling through, then bring it up a notch and go with an 8-weight kit. For smaller mackerel, you can use a 6-weight kit.
A final note on poppers: Jacks and barracuda love them. There are few kicks that equal seeing a fish charge your surface fly from a distance. No need for large poppers, since your fishing kit will be a little on the light side. Medium-size poppers will make enough commotion for the fish to zero in on. White, chartreuse, and deep blue are usually the most productive colors.
The most common fish you can expect to encounter at the beach are sharks (smaller species), jacks (small to medium), barracuda (small to medium), snook, boxfish, puffers (large and small – all highly aggressive feeders), mackerel (various types), rays (a prize catch on a fly), and tarpon, as well as bonefish and permit if grassy flats are part of the terrain.
In time, you might even regard beaches as a preferred fishing ground: no longer plan ‘B’, but plan ‘A’.
Robert Morselli is the research director for the television show “How It’s Made.” A compilation of Robert’s fly fishing articles can be found at Fly Fishing Insider.