Wise to the Wind
Gone with the Wind may or may not top Benbow's reading list, but it aptly describes his fishing philosophy: gone fishing with the wind. Rippled, moving water rings the aquatic dinner bell while masking fishermen from their quarry. "Don't hesitate to go out on breezy days because wind stirs things up and gets fish feeding," he says. "I do better in the wind than on bright, calm 'chamber of commerce' days. Bonefish in mirror-smooth water get hard to approach. They can see better and may spook when they hear baits splash down nearby."
A wind-ruffled surface can complicate the task of identifying fishy signs such as bulging water and barely protruding tail tips, but the added stealth factor makes an angler's efforts worthwhile. Speaking of effort, have you ever had to pole a boat against the wind?
Wilson tries to pre-select which flats he fishes according to wind direction on a given day. "Nobody can fight the wind for long distances," he says. "Start in an area that lets you pole downwind or at least crosswind. And if you can keep the sun at your back, so much the better."
Working downwind not only helps the person on the poling platform, but it can also enhance angler performance, as Patterson points out: "It's much harder to make long or accurate casts into the wind."
In a flats guide's ideal world, current and wind cooperate by moving in the same direction. When the two fail to align, Wilson observes which carries more clout and plans his route accordingly. "I look for fish to travel into the wind or current, whichever is stronger," he says. "Some flats don't have much current, especially on the crown. In this case, fish usually move into the wind."
Nobody needs a depth finder to navigate the flats, but dialed-in guides constantly read the bottom with a sharp eye to gather important information. Identifying features such as small humps or channels that affect current flow indicates where to fish, while determining the bottom type can narrow the choice of which baits or artificials to use.
"I prefer hard-bottom areas because I know fish get in there to forage, not loaf. A crusty, coral-and-rock bottom full of pits holds crabs, so bonefish like to root around in that stuff," Benbow says. For this reason, he advises fly-fishermen to use crab patterns when casting on hard-bottom flats.
Patterson, on the other hand, would rather search for bonefish over a soft, grassy bottom because resident shrimp tend to draw bones to such areas. The terrain offers an advantage when it comes to tracking down fish. "A soft bottom makes it easier to read bonefish because of their muds."
A dust cover protects a good book while it sits on the shelf between readings; a covering of dust on a flat represents an important yet frequently overlooked sign that anglers should read carefully at every opportunity.
"When I'm poling through an area of clear water and notice the bottom becoming dusty, I say, 'Aha!'" Wilson says. "A dusty bottom sends up a red flag that tells me to lean on the pole so the wind won't push me through an area too quickly." Plants and rocks wearing a thin coat of freshly settled sediment betray actively feeding fish that recently stirred up a mud. "I stop and take a careful look in all directions to try to follow the tail of that comet to a more active mud."
Since bonefish usually make a puff of mud, move ahead a few feet and mud again, Patterson can tell which way one is heading even if he can't see the fish itself. Some conditions, however, force him to speed-read muds written in disappearing ink. "In strong current, every mud you see is fresh because the clouds fade away quickly. You know where he is: where the mud is darkest."
Hungry fish on a feeding mission form muds and can produce a banner day. Benbow says anglers who find a group of mudding bones in 12 to 18 inches of water usually enjoy more success than those who try to sneak up on skittish tailers. Mudding fish usually act less finicky and take baits aggressively as they compete with each other for food.
Shallow-water fishermen should always do their best to locate muds with the understanding that they'll suffer occasional disappointments. "Muds are a good sign, although we sometimes get fooled because mullet create muds the same way bonefish do."
Stay in School
Avid readers never stop learning, and the same applies to anglers who read flats. Hlis warns there are no hard and fast rules that govern fish behavior and no substitute for time on the water to become familiar with the locals' habits. "You can learn to read flats while fishing with a guide or a friend, or by getting out often by yourself. And you won't learn everything on one trip. I feel fortunate to have had mentors like captains Bill Curtis and Marshall Cutchin," he says. Hlis also recommends reading Flyfisher's Guide to the Florida Keys by Capt. Ben Taylor (Wilderness Adventures Press, 2001).
Benbow stresses the importance of becoming a student of the flat. We all learned to read books in school; what better classroom to learn flats signs than flats themselves? "Get out not to fish, but to observe each flat as a living entity," he says. "I like to walk a new flat before fishing it, looking for food sources like crabs or shrimp. I then try to duplicate those colors with my flies, bait or lures."
Life as an eternal student gives Benbow the chance to teach his 15-year-old son, Donnie, how fish react to different tides, temperatures and wind conditions. "We often sit out there and just observe, or he and his friends wade to get a close look at the life on a flat," he says.
Taking notes has become part of Benbow's routine. He records details from every trip, good or bad, and puts the knowledge to use the next time he fishes. Studying on and off the water helps him understand the signs he reads on the flats.