Stream to Salt III: How to Cover Water

You don’t need a fancy flats boat to cover a lot of water in many places.
Photo by Evan Jones

The Stream to Salt series is designed to help anglers of all abilities identify and overcome specific challenges arising from subconsciously applying “trout brain” to saltwater fly fishing. The goal is not simply to provide a list of new habits to memorize, but also to foster a deeper understanding of why some of the habits and assumptions developed while trout fishing can be detrimental in the salt, and how to adjust. 

In the previous installment, we discussed the importance of covering water in order to find fish, rather than continuing to try different flies in the same unproductive spot. But “covering water” is easier said than done–especially for trout anglers who may be used to digging in rather than moving on–so in this installment, we discuss specific strategies for both wading anglers and boaters to maximize their time in the salt water. 

Anglers on foot will obviously have less mobility than boaters, making it even more important for wading anglers to have a plan in order to find fish more effectively. Start by researching different potential access points before you go. Select as many of them as possible to visit throughout the day (keeping wind direction in mind), and plan a route among them in advance. Visit as many different places as you can until you find fish.  

Getting even a little higher above the water can really help in spotting fish.
Photo by John Hohl

If the water is clear enough for sight-fishing, start off at each location by looking for a high point along the shoreline or flat and trying to spot fish from above. If you’re blindcasting, work in teams and spread out at each location in order to probe it more thoroughly in less time.   

If you have a kayak or boat, you’ll likely be able to choose a single access point for the day and explore from there, although prior research is still a good idea in order to identify specific areas that might hold fish. Try moving to the upwind side of a likely-looking flat or shoreline, standing up, and letting the wind push you across it while you watch for signs of life. If at any point you spook a game fish–or even see a large wake or mud that might have been a game fish–immediately drop your anchor and wait quietly for a few minutes before proceeding. Chances are good there will be other game fish nearby, and it might pay to move more slowly, or to get out and wade. 

If the water is not clear enough for sight-fishing, try arriving right at dawn, before boat traffic and bright sun put the fish down. Watch for subtle signs of wakes, tails breaking the surface, shaky water, wading or diving birds, or any other sign of life that might indicate where to cast. 

By getting out early, you have a chance at finding undisturbed fish.
Photo by Evan Jones

Whether you’re wading or boating, it might be tempting to make longer casts in order to help cover more water, but that approach is typically counterproductive for a number of reasons. First and foremost, more line on the water risks spooking any unseen fish between you and where your fly lands. Longer casts are also more likely to result in shock waves emanating from your feet as your weight shifts back and forth, which can spook fish. Another consideration is that having too much line out slows down your reaction time: if you happen to spot a fish with 70 feet of line out in the wrong direction, you’ll have to waste time recovering it before making another cast, and by then the opportunity could be gone. By keeping your casts limited to 40-50 feet, you’ll spook fewer fish, use less energy, and make quicker and more controlled presentations. You can always move forward in order to reach the next spot.  

Evan Jones is the assistant editor of the Orvis Fly Fishing blog. He spent a decade living on the Florida coast and now makes his home on the Front Range of Colorado.

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