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January 27, 2012

Sight-Casting Basics

Master the essential strategies of sight-casting, and discover a new world of fishing

It’s all about the hunt. Searching the water for hours. Spotting that fish. Sneaking up. Making the cast.

The fish lunges, bites. Hook-set. Fish on!

When it all comes together, nothing beats sight-casting. Heart pounding, adrenaline racing, blood rushing, breath stopped. From the skinny-water flats to the open ocean, chasing down a killer that is chasing down its prey is the ultimate challenge. That’s hunting the hunter.

Sight-casting is available anywhere there are fish close enough to the surface to be seen and within casting range.

It takes many forms. Casting to the visible wake of a redfish in shallow, murky water qualifies, as does pitching a bait to a billfish or tuna that has been drawn near the boat in the open ocean.

Looking closely at two classic sight-casting scenarios provides insight into skills that can be applied wherever fish swim within range of a sight-hunting predator.

The Source
Classic shallow-water sight-fishing first became a sport 70 years ago in the Florida Keys. Because the tropical flats are so demanding, the skills mastered here will serve you well in any shallow fishing situation. I got my first taste last September in Key West.

The sun was already burning when Capt. Dale Bishop poled his skiff into the mouth of a mangrove-lined creek.

“They should be here any minute,” he said. I searched the water for “ghosts”; that’s how Bishop described bonefish.

The tide filled in as the sun climbed.

“There’s a pair, 10 o’clock!” Bishop directed my eyes.

I saw nothing. “Where?”

“Forty yards, 11 o’clock.”

I squinted; nothing but swaying sea grass and clear water.

“Thirty yards,” Bishop urged.

I spotted two shadows slipping across a patch of sand. My arm responded, flipping the rod to pitch a tiny shrimp at the fish.

But the featherweight bait had another plan, arcing off to the left while the smoky shadows continued right. I’d messed up the cast and missed the fish. I felt deflated.

“Don’t worry,” Bishop said. “There will be more.”

Before I could blow another shot, I drilled him with questions. “These fish are so well camouflaged, a lot of times I see the shadow on the bottom before I see the fish,” he explained.

Ghost hunting requires absolute stealth. Bishop moved the push pole like a ninja, careful not to bang the hull or splash water. I did my best to stand still on the casting platform. We spoke in whispers.

This low-key approach extended to Bishop’s tackle too. For bonefish and permit, he gets sneaky with 10-pound-test fluorocarbon leader and a 1/0 mosquito hook. He counters the light tackle with light drag.

Even on giant tarpon he uses a light leader, line and hook. Contrary to what might seem logical, Bishop catches 150-pound tarpon on 60-pound fluorocarbon leader and thin-wire 5/0 hooks. Not only does the light tackle hide Bishop’s intentions, but he thinks the thin hook has a better chance of finding a chink in the tarpon’s armored mouth. “Heavier line and hooks aren’t going to stop one of these fish,” he reasons. “It’s better to hook the fish and break it off than to never hook the fish at all.”

Bishop makes every effort to maximize his advantage on the water. “Before I even launch, I consider the direction of the wind and the angle of the sun to set my course for the day,” he says. Bishop wants the sun over his back and the wind over his angler’s shoulder to facilitate casting. He likes a little chop on the water to break up his silhouette and absorb any sound he might make.

He hates clouds. But overcast skies don’t put him out of business. Even in a deluge, he can go sight-casting. “We’ll search out the shallowest water and look for pushes and fins,” he says. He also looks for the fish on sandy patches or stakes out his boat and chums the fish to him.

With flats-fishing, it’s all about the tide. “I’m looking for a nice flow angle on the flats,” Bishop says, explaining that he wants the tide slowly filling the area. “The fish will follow the tide shallower and shallower.”

Bones will go as shallow as possible. Tarpon will hold in deeper channels. Old heads say permit will feed only on an incoming tide. “That’s not true,” Bishop argues. “There are plenty of places where you can find them on the edge of a channel when the water is dropping.” Once he finds the fish at a specific depth, he searches the area for more.

Luckily, we had perfect sight-casting conditions. It was just up to me to catch one of these fish.

While we searched for the next sortie, I made a couple of practice casts. Good thing our next encounter involved a squadron of bones pushing under the water. I lobbed the bait, and it landed in the general area. Half the fish turned, and one attacked. Talk about living up to its reputation. That fish took me on a wild ride.

Since the birth of sight-casting, the sport has spread from bones, tarpon and permit to stripers, redfish, and even carp and bass. But it’s not only the skinny water that holds potential for fish hunters. Anglers working the open ocean are finding sight-casting opportunities too.