10 Pro Tips - Saltwater Fly Fishing from a Panga
Written by Rob Mukai on Dec. 13, 2018
For a first-time saltwater angler, or even a more experienced angler, getting up on the front of the panga and having a school of large permit heading toward you is an un-nerving experience. Your fly is hung up on your line, you can’t get your rod to load, and your fishing buddy is mercilessly mocking you. When a group of permit starts heading your way, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. This article will help you in preparation for that moment. These are some simple tips to help make sure you are ready for that cast.
1. Practice an accurate 50-foot cast
Before you even make your trip, understand that your median cast for permit is going to be about 50-60 feet. Bones 40-50 feet. For a trout fisherman that sounds like a long cast. However, with modern weight forward lines, the heaviest part of the line is the first 30-40 feet. With a 9-foot rod, and 10 ft leader, if you can cast just the weight forward part of the line, you are casting 50-60 feet. So, first thing before you get here, practice casting that amount of line. With a double haul is better. Use a hula hoop for a target. Try getting it from fly in hand to 50-60 feet in 3 or fewer false casts.
2. Measure your strip
When you first step on the bow of a panga, the first thing you do is rip off 30-40 feet of line from your reel. You don’t want to rip off much more than that because it will just give you more line to tangle, and if you don’t strip off enough, you will be short on your cast. So, try pulling 10 strips off your reel like you would on the front of a panga and measure how much you pull off. Another way is to use a tape measure, hold it in your hand like you would a reel, and pull as far as you would normally would when you strip off some line. For me, it is almost exactly 2 feet, so when I get on the front of the boat, I pull off 20 strips to get 40 feet of line. That prepares me for up to a 60-foot cast.
3. Get the front of the line on top
When you first strip your line onto the deck from your reel, the line closest to your rod is going to be on the bottom of the pile. This leads to line tangles because the first line to go through the guides must go through a whole pile of line first. The easiest way to fix this is to cast out all of the line you have stripped out and strip the fly back to the boat. Once you have done that, now the line on the deck is correct, the line closest to your guides is on top. I recommend doing it first thing when you get up on the bow of the boat.
4. Confirm distances with your guide
When you have cast out all your line, ask your guide how far you just cast. Most guides are pretty good with distances, however, sometimes they are consistently long or short. You know exactly how long you just cast, because you know how much line you pulled out, cast it all out and see how far the guide thinks you cast. Don’t correct him, just keep in mind if he says your 50-foot cast is 40 feet, that when he says the fish are 40 feet away, you are going to cast 50.
5. Pile line on the downwind side
On the flats, wind is a fact of life. It can make a mess of your neatly piled line on the deck. One thing you can do is when you strip your line back, pile it on the deck on the down wind side of your legs. Don’t pile it on the up-wind side (the wind will blow it onto your legs and feet), or between your legs (you will end up stepping on the line). Occasionally check to see if the wind has changed or the boat's orientation has changed to make sure the line is still downwind of you. And with more pangas having lean bars, make sure your line is going around the down wind side of the lean bar as well.
6. Be barefoot
When on the casting deck, take your shoes off. Barefoot you can feel if you are stepping on line. Cover your feet when you are not on deck so you don’t burn them.
7. Ready position
Have about 10-15 feet of fly line out of the tip top of your rod and hold the fly in hand. This seem like a lot of line, but this is where the wind will help you. The wind will usually keep that much line in the air. It also helps to hold your rod tip higher to keep your line out of the water. With 10-15 feet of line outside the tip top, it allows you to load the rod more quickly, with fewer false casts. With 10 feet out the front of your rod tip, your first false cast will go 30 feet and should be enough to load your rod. Make sure you aren’t standing on your line, and your line is clear and downwind of you. Also check that you have your casting hand holding the line ready to start your cast, and finally have the fly in your non-casting hand.
8. Understand the clock
Your guides will most likely spot fish and give you a distance and a position on the clock. Two O'Clock 50 feet. 12:00 is always the way the bow of the boat is pointing even if it is moving, 3:00 is 90 degrees to the right and 9:00 is 90 degrees to the left. And because you have already confirmed the guide’s distances, you know where to look. Always try to see the fish before you cast. This will allow you to lead the fish and have fewer blow ups from landing your fly on their heads. If you are having a hard time seeing them, point with your rod where you think the guide is telling you to look and adjust from there. Your guide should tell you more right, more left. But point with your rod if you have any doubt.
9. Start the cast
When you have found the fish and they are within casting range, start your cast. Start your back cast with your fly in hand. Don’t drop the fly in the water first. Go right into your back cast. And because you have 10-15 feet of line out the tip of your rod already, your first back cast will already be 30-35 feet. Try to shoot all 50-60 feet of line with 3 false casts or fewer. This usually means shooting line on your forward cast as well as your back cast. Practice this at home.
10. Know your strips
First thing, when stripping a fly, put the tip of your rod INTO the water. This will take all the slack out of the line and will connect your hand more directly to your fly. If your tip is out of the water, you will only get a fraction of your strip transmitted to the fly because there will be slack between the water and your rod tip. Bonefish flies like crazy charlies and gotchas are imitating small shrimp, they swim by snapping their tail. So, in order to imitate that, use short sharp strips. Permit flies like crabs or mantis shrimp are different. Crabs scuttle along and sometimes the best thing to do is let the crab just sit in the path of the permit. So, either let it sit or strip at a slow consistent speed. Mantis shrimp move by kicking their little legs under their body. For a mantis shrimp pattern, long slow strips. When you hit the end of your strip, try giving the fly a little slack to let it dive a bit. Permit seem to hit flies on the drop a lot. One of the great things about flats fishing is you can see the fish chase the fly and hopefully eat. Change up your strip based on the fish’s behavior. Try speeding up your strip, or stopping, or slowing down your strip and watch how the fish react.
If you can remember and practice those 10 things, I can't promise you won't screw up that cast to the permit coming right at you, but you should be in a good position to make that cast.
Bonus Tip - Set your drag
One thing that has lost a lot of big fish on the flats is a badly set drag. Trying to tighten a drag during a fight, will lose you a fish more often than not. One of the things that I like to do is set the drags on my reels before you even get on the boat. For bonefish, you will be using a 10-12 lbs tippet. I would set your drag to 2-3 lbs. For permit you will be using 16-20 lbs tippet. Set your drag to 4-6 lbs. As a rule of thumb you should go a quarter to a third the weight of your tippet. I tend to the lighter end of that. (This is also true for big tarpon, go 1/4 to 1/3 the class tippet weight for your drag) Also, make sure you have at least 200-250 yards of good backing on your reel as well.
How I set my drag, is use a gallon milk jug. A full US gallon of water weighs about 8.3 lbs. Which is a little heavy, so if you go 3 quarts of water in the gallon milk jug, that is about 6 lbs, half a gallon is 4 lbs and one quart it about 2 lbs. So what I do is fill a milk jug with the amount of water to get to the weight you are looking for. Tie the end of your line to the milk jug handle. Go direct, don't go through your rod guides. Now tighten your drag until you can lift up the milk jug with the reel without the drag slipping. With the milk jug in the air, slowly lighten the drag until the line just starts to roll out. You can test it by putting the milk jug on the ground, You should be able to lift it off the ground but the reel should also be letting some line out at the same time. Once you have set your drag, don't try to adjust it when a fish is ripping off line. If you catch a big Permit and it looks like it might spool you, tell the guide to start the motor and chase the fish.
Photos: Dustin Carlson, Douglas Barnes Photography