Novice On The Flats
Tips to avoid bonehead goofs with bonefish guides.
By Jim Dean

You’re in a Caribbean state of mind, on salt flats surrounded by water every shade of emerald, turquoise and amber. It’s blissfully warm, the beer is cold, the flats are full of fish and adrenalin is squirting out of your ears.

What could possibly go wrong? Even if Lady Luck proves to be a malicious bitch, you’re likely to catch lots of bonefish and maybe, just maybe, a permit. Which is all great, but there’s a good chance your fishing could be better . . . if you and your guide could communicate effectively. Fortunately, there are ways that you, your fishing partner and your guide can become an efficient team even before you head out to fish.

While it’s a good idea to let your guide initially decide where to fish and the species to target, if you and your partner prefer to split a day between bonefish and permit, or perhaps wade a bit instead of spending all day on a boat, this is the time to discuss a plan.

Going over preliminary details is particularly important if you have a different guide each day (which is typical), and also provides an opportunity to get to know them, their preferred tactics and command of English. They may also contribute helpful tips because they are eager for you to catch fish; people who don’t catch fish typically don’t tip as generously as those who do.

Throughout much of the Caribbean, Spanish is the common language, and while that may occasionally present a problem, most guides—typically male—speak pretty good English. They’ve also developed a nearly universal set of terse commands to quickly relay instructions to an angler, although a little interpretation might help.

“Cast,” “Cast now,” and “Cast again” are usually issued with an added clock direction (the bow of the boat is always 12 o’clock) and an estimated distance. Even if your guide’s first order is a mildly disconcerting “Cast again,” you get the idea. “More right” or “More left” update your casting direction, while “Longer” or “More longer” update distance. “Drop it,” on the other hand, is not to be taken too literally, as I learned on my first saltwater trip when I obediently “dropped” a backcast 40-feet behind the boat when the fish were actually 40 feet in front. Drop it is a guide’s way of urging you to stop wasting time with false casts and to get your fly in the water. “Strip,” (also “Streep or “Estreep”) means you are on target and should match your strips to the pace of the guide’s commands. “Wait” usually indicates fish are near and may not see your fly. But that command may also inform you to stop stripping momentarily for any number of reasons. These commands work fairly well, but not always.

For instance, let’s say your guide spots fish and orders you to “Cast 10 o’clock, 45 feet.” But what if his notion of 45 feet is actually 50 feet or more, and yours is closer to 40 feet? And what if the fish are moving fast, and you haven’t seen them? Then, not only is your first critical cast likely to fall short, that 10 o’clock directive is rapidly becoming outdated. And maybe the wind is blowing in your ears and you didn’t understand the original command. By the time the guide spins the boat for a Hail-Mary your chances may be no better than trying to spray an F-18 with a garden hose.

Here are nine topics/techniques that every angler—fledgling or advanced—should cover when meeting their guide.

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.

Coordinating distance

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.

Coordinating direction

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.

Taking control

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.

Jim Dean
Jim Dean was an outdoor freelance writer for various notable publications during a career that stretched for more than six decades, beginning as a sports/outdoor writer for the Burlington Times in North Carolina in the mid-1960s. His passion for hunting and especially fishing was passed down from his beloved grandfather. Together, they fished various mill ponds and rivers in eastern NC in the ‘50s and ‘60s. While serving as an Army courier at Fort Holabird, Maryland, Jim became a member of the prestigious Baltimore Angler’s Club. It was there he met Joe Brooks, Lefty Kreh and Boyd Pfeiffer, among others, all of whom had a profound influence on his outdoors conservation writing. In 1970 he started writing for the North Carolina Wildlife Commission’s magazine, and was eventually promoted to its editor before retiring in 1997.
Jim had many interests, but fly fishing was probably at the top of the list. He and Lefty often fished for smallmouth bass in Maryland rivers. But probably his greatest influence came from A.J. Johnson, a man Jim credits for inventing the tandem fly system. Over many years, A.J. taught Jim how to fish for those skittish trout in the clear running streams in western NC. In later years, Jim’s passion turned to the Caribbean’ salt flats where he stalked bonefish, permit and tarpon.
Sadly, Jim passed away unexpectedly in November 2017 still able to do what he loved to the very end. To many, Jim was an accomplished writer, a good friend and great fishing buddy. To me, his son, his true legacy is he was the best father a son could ever hope for, hands down!
—Scott Dean