Flies, knots and drag
Show your flies to the guide and ask which patterns he/she recommends. Let them check the drag on your reels, and ask them to inspect your knots (or even tie them if you’re a novice).
Strips and hook set
The action you impart to your fly—the strip—is different for each species. Even if you’ve had lots of experience, ask your guide to demonstrate the stripping technique they prefer for the species you are targeting. Also ask them to demonstrate the strip-strike method of setting the hook (raising the rod tip as you might for a rainbow trout could provoke a well-deserved “Aii-yi-yi” . . . or worse).
Demonstrating your cast and reversing the line
When it’s your turn on the bow, make a cast, retrieve the line and deposit it in loose coils, out of the way, on the foredeck or behind in the well, so the line is ready for the next cast. This reverses the line, lessening the chance that it tangles when you cast to a fish (or hook one). This also gives the guide some idea of your casting skill, or lack thereof.
The cast to reverse your line should also serve another purpose; ask the guide how far he thinks you’ve cast. Make several more casts of different lengths and get his estimates. Now you know how your guide judges distance, and that should prove useful.
As mentioned, the boat is an analog clock and the bow is always 12 o’clock. Thus, a command to “Cast 10 o’clock” is a quickly understood command, although fast-moving fish, a wind-blown cast or slow reaction can easily defeat it.
Pointing your rod
This is the best way to quickly and more precisely pinpoint the direction a guide wants you to cast, especially if you haven’t seen the fish. Even while you’re false casting, the guide may order those “More right; more left” adjustments to get you on target.
Your fishing partner’s role
Your partner can relay commands in a loud voice, a huge asset if you’re having trouble hearing. He or she should also help you keep your loose line from tangling, wrapping around gear, or blowing off the deck. And they can warn you if you’re standing on your line. Many experienced anglers fish barefoot to avoid this (protect the tops of those feet with sun screen).
Watch your guide
Everyone wants to look for nervous water and see fish, but it helps to keep an eye on your guide, too, especially when he or she gets “fishy”—maybe they’ve abruptly stopped poling or even begun to turn the boat. Concentrate on where they’re looking and be ready to cast.
Ask for more info
Those terse commands (“more right; more left; longer; more longer”) can be greatly improved with an updated clock direction and estimated distance. If your guide doesn’t always add this info, remind them that it’s helpful to your effort.
You might also consider asking your guide to give you more advanced notice when they see something of interest—nervous water or distant fish headed your way. Few guides do this, and your first inkling is often a command that catches you by surprise. Some guides avoid a running dialog about possible targets—especially permit—because they don’t want you to get overly excited and mess up. Even so, I sometimes encourage more feedback because anticipation is a delicious part of the game.
Most fly fishers wouldn’t dream of failing to follow a guide’s expert advice or their commands (some guides might also resent it). Even so, there is at least one situation when most guides recognize that an experienced flats angler might properly take matters in hand. When you and your guide both clearly see fish, it’s sometimes better to trust your own judgment, even if your guide has just told you to “Cast now.” This may turn out badly, but it’s certainly better than rushing an errant cast that blows up a school of bonefish or botches a shot at a permit.
Finally, if this isn’t your first rodeo, and you have established a friendly rapport with your guide, you might even explain in advance that you’d prefer to make some decisions (and mistakes) on your own, especially when you see the fish. It’s certainly more rewarding for you, and most guides understand that.
I’ve fished the Bahamas, Cuba, Mexico, Belize and Honduras, but I’m still fully capable of innovative bonehead goofs. Hopefully, these tips will help you avoid some of your own.