If you get the urge to try blue-water fly fishing, these tips and techniques will greatly expedite your success.
* Dan Blanton: “I recommend 8- to 9-inch mackerel or sardine patterns. On long-range fly-fishing trips off Baja, the boats take lots of live bait and use sonar equipment to spot schools of marlin. The boat circles the school and shuts down, then a few live mackerel get tossed out. All of a sudden a marlin comes near the top, the boat goes to neutral, and out goes the flies. The boat’s still sliding even though it’s in neutral, so all you have to do is twitch the fly as it flows back. When you feel a bump, set the hook. If nothing happens, work the fly back as the mates toss out more chum. Use a sinking line and let the fly get down 25 to 30 feet and work the fly back up. For sailfish, I like big streamers, small poppers or Deceivers with flash. A small head’s all you want for a popper, because if the fly’s too big, the sail holds onto it and won’t let go – you can’t set the hook. You just want something that makes noise so they can find it right away.”
* Richard Stanczyk: “I use a 9- or 10-weight for white marlin. A good teaser is a bonito strip with a bubbler in front that lets ’em taste it. You don’t want a fly that will snare the bill of a billfish and stick to it, so go with a feather-type fly and two hooks at 90 degrees to each other.
* Winston Moore: “If after your cast the billfish doesn’t see the fly, it’ll sometimes spin around frantically, so you may have to recast two or three times until he sees it. When he opens his mouth, stop stripping and let him take it a bit deeper before setting the hook. You can usually land a sail fairly quickly if he jumps a lot and gets tired, but if he only jumps once or twice and then sounds, it can be a long battle. The best thing to do in that circumstance is take all the drag off and trick him into thinking he’s no longer hooked up. Often he’ll come back to the surface and jump, but if he keeps sounding, you might as well break him off.”
*** Stu Apte: **”When it’s rough and you’re using a popping bug, you stand a good chance of the fish not seeing it, so put it closer to him and work it slower than when it’s calm. When the water’s calm, fish get more time to scrutinize the fly and you may get fewer hits.”
* Stanczyk: “Although dolphin will eat on calm days, windy conditions often work best because flying fish are more active. Make sure the teaser rod has a high-speed reel, because dolphin will chase it down quickly while sailfish tend to swat it and play with it. Stun a few live pilchards or whatever live bait you have so the dolphin get turned on and stay at the surface. Watch for a large, aggressive bull near the transom and toss the teaser bait at him. I like a fly with a prismatic head and a strip of Mylar in the feathers. Use long, fast strips and keep your eye on the fish — if it comes in fast, drop the fly and you’ll hook up.”
* Apte: “Always investigate anything floating in the water on a hot day that provides shade. In 1964, at Panama’s Tropic Star, we found a big mahogany tree about a mile offshore of Pinas Bay. We pulled up to it in our single-screw diesel, and I could see three big dorado about 5 feet under it, with their pecs lit up. I cast a 3-inch popping bug with a 2/0 hook and bounced it off the tree. After the first chug, all three moved to it and the smallest one ate the fly. It turned out to be 58 pounds — the longest-standing saltwater fly record.”
* Blanton: “I use a clear tarpon line with a streamer or popper fly, and keep one rod handy with a fast-sinking, lead-core shooting head. When you find rips, grass lines or something floating, don’t just troll by; instead, cast a noisy popper to see if anyone’s home. If not, then try the sinking rod to get the fly down about 20 to 30 feet, which is particularly effective when the sun’s high and surface temperatures warm.”
*** Moore: **”I’ve found that dorado won’t take a fly that’s moved slowly — you have to strip it hand over hand. They’ll follow the fly if it’s stripped normal speed but they won’t take it and instead turn away. But if you make them chase the fly, they’ll grab it.”
* Apte: “Use a smaller fly and strip it fast. If you’ve been teasing with live pilchards or sardines and they’re crashing them, then make a tarpon-like strip.”
* Stanczyk: “April through June is really hot for blackfin tuna off the Keys, as well as the best time for shots at the biggest dolphin of the year. Tuna will hit dolphin flies, but I’ve done best on flies with large eyes and a plastic tail on the hook — the tail puts out impulses that drive tuna nuts. As with dolphin, sometimes you can hook up a tuna on spin tackle and keep it in the water so the rest of the school stays around, then get them ‘drunk’ with live pilchards before you toss the fly — they’ll even skyrocket on the pilchards. Go with a 9-weight rod and use a sink-tip fly line, cutting it back to about 7 feet in length to let you load the rod without false casting. Try a steady strip — nothing fancy — and when a tuna boils on it, recast if you miss him.”
* Blanton: “When chumming with live bait, any fly that hits the water on a boil gets bit for the first five to 10 minutes, then the tuna look at the fly and veer away, especially if the fly doesn’t have girth or profile. If you’re chumming with sardines and mackerel, use a fly that sinks head-first rather than level and you’ll get bit faster – this also works with wahoo and kingfish. Sometimes a no-retrieve works better than a fast strip because the fish are coming back and picking up cripples, and not expecting the fly to swim away.”