By Joe Dahut
Working in a fly shop brings in all walks of anglers, and one of the best feelings is introducing new anglers to the endless possibilities in saltwater fly fishing. It’s a big ocean out there, and opportunities to interact with lesser known, or publicly recognized, species is a great way to get into the sport. While the movies, magazines, and social media seem to show that the Keys are only about tarpon, permit, and bonefish, there are other options for folks who want to feel the tug from our fishery’s misfit toys.
If you are a freshwater angler that likes throwing streamers and topwater flies to bass, trout, musky, pike, or other freshwater species, casting to saltwater predators is a great introduction to get your feet wet, so to speak. When anglers first come down to the Keys for a fishing trip, there are certain techniques that need the rust shaken off, like a strip set, implementing rod angles for more productive, safe, and efficient fish fighting, and adjusting to the optics of casting at fish you can actually see. These species offer a forgiving introduction and will allow new saltwater anglers to gain confidence in their casting, fighting, and sight fishing ability.
The Keys have some lesser known characters that swim in the same water as the big three, eat flies readily (sometimes), and will give your tackle a run for its money. For a freshwater angler, sharks are a great prerequisite for someone who wants to eventually graduate to catching a big tarpon on the ocean. For someone who is not used to sight fishing, the inevitable blown shot at a big cruising fish is no big deal, because these species allow many more shots in a condensed period of time. Like many other steps in fly fishing, you can catch sharks with confidence, and transfer those skills with more readily available species to eventually casting at the big three: tarpon, permit, and bonefish.Fly fishing for sharks is something that not everyone actually realizes can be done. Like anything in fly fishing, with the correct tackle and techniques, any angling goal can be accomplished. Fly fishing for sharks in the winter time in the Keys is a great way to practice fighting big fish because they eat readily, they are plentiful on the flats, and they offer great sight fishing practice. You can practice feeding a fish, leading them, and also delicately dropping a bigger fly in front of a cruising fish. They are the ultimate predator, and hooking one of these creatures is something anglers will never forget if they have not interacted with an animal of such size.
Sharks can be big creatures, and they need to be stopped by a 10, 11, or 12 wt rod. My choice is the Sextant, because it is a powerful, fast rod. For customers who come into the shop looking for a shark setup, I often advise them to choose a shark rod based on their rod preferences for tarpon. I do this because you can practice exactly how you play. So, if you like fishing an 11 wt for tarpon, use the same setup, paired with a wire leader and a big, red fly.
Another plentiful species that often gets passed over in pursuit for the big three is a big, mean barracuda. They hover over white spots on the flats and take surface and subsurface flies, just as long as they are moving quickly across their path of vision. They often inhabit ecosystems similar to those that Permit and Bonefish live in, and can offer an exciting burst of energy to an otherwise lackluster day of fishing. Cuda are another species that necessitate a wire leader and work in predatory ways, an awesome sight fishing target that will surely get the heart pumping.
Using the Exocett SS for barracuda allows you to throw a variety of lines and flies that are normally tough to cast. This rod throws quick, efficient casts that get the fly in the zone. This setup also works great if you are Permit fishing, because changing flies and leaders to wire and a large bait fish or cuda tube is easy.
Don’t be afraid to mix up your program when you are out on the water - there is no reason to pass over species that will put a bend in the rod. Sharks, barracuda, and many others will turn a mediocre day of fishing into one you will never forget!