Thursday, April 19, 2018

Winter's the perfect time for saltwater fly fishing

ST. PETERSBURG — Layne Smith spends most of his days thinking like a fish. Where most people see a feather duster or a brush with synthetic bristles, Smith sees a lure.

He is constantly tying flies. He said his St. Petersburg home is filled with fly-fishing materials. He makes them as a hobby, but it is also a vocation. He sells his flies in area shops.

Smith, 71, has been fly fishing ever since his grandfather took him out when he was 6 years old. He is an original member of the Suncoast Fly Fishers, a group of 135 who meet monthly and fish even more often.

Ever since the first fish gulped down his fly, Smith has been hooked.

"It's phenomenal; there is nothing like it," he said. "There is no better feeling than knowing you fooled a fish with something you tied."

Smith isn't the only one who has discovered fly fishing.

The sport is usually associated with northern states. Catching trout in a river or bream in a lake is common in the warmer months up north. Think about the 1992 movie A River Runs Through It.

But fly fishing in saltwater has gotten more popular, although it is more challenging than rod-and-reel fishing. It can be done from a boat or a kayak, but it's best to wade Tampa Bay's many flats.

"Fly fishing is something you can do year round, but I especially like it in the winter months," said Walt Durkin, president of the Tampa Bay Fly Fishing Club. "From November until about February there are strong low tides in the morning and you can wade out and fish the edges of flats. The water is clear, which is perfect for sight fishing."

Of course, in order to catch anything it helps to know what you are doing. It starts with the poles, which are usually between 6 and 9 feet. The shorter poles are better for freshwater, while the longer poles are used in saltwater.

The reel is at the bottom of the pole. The line is let out by hand then the lure is flung into the water by using a whip-like casting motion. It takes a little time to get used to casting, and it's never really perfected.

"In 20 minutes you learn the basics (of casting) and then for the rest of your life you develop the principals," Suncoast Fly Fishers president George Haseltine said.

Then there are the flies. In the Tampa Bay area, three types of flies will work for saltwater.

"You have to make a fly that looks like what the fish are feeding on," said Alan Sewell, another original member of the Suncoast Fly Fishers. "There's only three things they eat in Tampa Bay, a minnow, a shrimp or a crab. You tie flies that look like those three things and you'll catch fish."

A good cast will send the fly between 40 and 80 feet into the water. It's best to find an area that is sheltered from the wind. Obviously, it's more difficult to cast into the wind. Also, calm water is best for sight fishing. If you can see a school of redfish in the distance, cast out your fly on top of them and hang on.

Fort De Soto is a popular spot, but it isn't the only spot. Grass flat areas like Weedon Island or south Pinellas by the Skyway Bridge have proven successful. Durkin likes the area around Picnic Island. He also fishes off MacDill Air Force Base, but he is a veteran and only veterans and guests have access to the base.

"There's no secret spots," Suncoast Fly Fishers member Frank Moss said. "If you're catching fish, you want others to catch fish as well. At least that's how it is with this group."

Even when there are no fish around, it can be fun to practice casting. Or at least enjoying a quiet day on the water.

"What's fun about it is the older you get the better you get," said Tom Gadacz, president of the International Federation of Fly Fishers. "I think you just get more relaxed and you're not as uptight."


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