Last weekend I tried my hand at saltwater fly fishing for the first time. I did not catch any fish. I will not romanticize that fact.
It was February and I was invited to tag along on a weekend-work trip to Charleston with my dad. Needless to say, I didn’t take much convincing. Warm weather, time with the old man, and a chance to fish somewhere that wasn’t iced over. I thought I was prepared. For months I had been fawning over magazine articles and binging YouTube videos of people fishing the salt. I wouldn’t say I was confident, but I was optimistic. I mean, how hard could it be to catch a rat red?
We decided to rent a two-man kayak for the day and at first, it almost felt fishy. The tide was moving in as we rigged our rods. Our spirits were high. The water looked good. For a few hours, we worked our way back into a creek, looking for any signs of life that would betray fish. We threw around some docks for a while. We had good visibility and saw nothing but the occasional bird. No spooked fish, no bait. I thought back to the videos and magazine articles but didn’t remember seeing this.
“I guess let’s head out into the bay a bit,” my dad said as the tide began to drop.
Open water felt even more alien, especially in the kayak. Sitting so low made sight fishing seem improbable, and standing wasn’t an option with the wake from boats full of college kids who seemed to be having a remarkably good time considering the fishing was off. We saw a sandbar in the distance and figured if nothing else we could “get out of this goddamned thing” and drink a beer. That was simple enough. As we paddled to the sandbar we saw that surrounding it was a large flat, with knee-deep water for a hundred yards in every direction.
“This is what we’re looking for,” I said, not really knowing what we were looking for.
We drank our beers and fished off the sandbar for a while before deciding to get back in the kayak and keep searching. We paddled around that flat for about two hours. Blind casting, looking for tails, and chasing the few stray birds that smashed what we assumed to be invisible bait. We never saw a fish. This was about the time I really began to question my reality and the questions began to flow.
There have to be fish here, right? Are we doing something wrong? Are we doing anything right? How much did this kayak rental cost? How much would a guided trip have been? Are we in the right spot? Why have we seen no one fishing? Is this the right time of day? How does anyone fly fish from a kayak? How do all these frat kids have boats? If trout like popping corks so much, why can’t you just throw poppers? Would a redfish even eat this fly?
You don’t know what you don’t know. It wasn’t the difficulty of the fishing that bothered me, it was being exposed. I am not a saltwater angler by any means. I thought maybe I could pretend for a day, but the ocean pulled back the curtain. On a river you can get skunked but feel like you fished it well, this was very different. 50-feet feels pretty damn inconsequential when you’re blind casting in the ocean. It doesn’t take much to make sense of how the numbers are very much against you.
Eventually, our rental period came to a close. We decided to go to a pier to throw bait and drink away our sorrows as the sun set. My dad caught a trout while I was in the bathroom. Only fish caught off the pier that day. The locals were pissed it took his frozen shrimp over their live ones. I smiled and thought of ways to work that irony into this story.
My dad and I had a great weekend, and to be honest I’d take bumbling around aimlessly in a kayak over numb fingers any day. Hell, I even got a little sunburned. This was not written to complain, but rather to come clean, at least to myself. To a kid from Ohio, the allure of saltwater fly fishing is undeniable. Images of crystal clear water, impossibly powerful fish, and beautiful scenery are...sexy as fuck. And they are everywhere. Nothing will ever change that. That being said, it’s important to remind yourself that Facebook and YouTube are bullshit as often as possible. At least in the sense of expectations. Watching a video of someone explaining how far to lead a bonefish or how to tie a shrimp pattern is a lost cause if you have no idea where the fish are or how to find them. At some point I’d like to start over and learn about this vast new world the right way. At least now I can rest assured I know the whole story to a degree: saltwater fly fishing seems hard as shit, as it should.
Nick Minesinger makes videos and stuff at SmithFly when he's not getting skunked.