I remember coming home to Florida after I discovered fly-fishing, convinced by the lively, gullible rainbow trout of the Rocky Mountains that here, finally, was a sport at which I could succeed.
Then I waded into the world of saltwater fly-fishing. I've been eating humble pie ever since.
Saltwater fly rods and reels are bigger, heavier and just plain harder to cast than lightweight trout gear. Our home waters are bigger, with more places for fish to hide. Our mangrove-fringed shorelines leave little room for casting mistakes. The fish are governed by a maddening array of variables: Fish the wrong tide, the wrong front or the wrong moon phase and that wily snook will ignore a beautiful chartreuse and white Clouser minnow passing just inches from its lips.
And then there's the wind, the ultimate bedeviling factor for fly anglers well into May, resulting in many fishing days when the only object caught and released is the angler.
Saltwater fly-fishing isn't for everyone. But for those patient enough or stubborn enough to keep at it, the rewards are plentiful.
Capt. Rodney Smith, who guides in the Indian River Lagoon but grew up in Tampa, is fond of saying that "everything is better on a fly rod." He's right. Sure, your live-bait fanatics might catch more fish, but not always. I've had days of head-to-head competition with live-bait anglers and boated more fish. Of course, I would never gloat.
Nothing equates to the thrill of hooking a 100-pound tarpon on a fly, except maybe landing one, which I am still trying to do. Or the adrenaline rush of seeing a lunker snook under the mangroves, making a good cast then watching the snook streak out and engulf the fly, followed by that wonderful whirring sound of the fly line dancing off the reel.
I'm four years into this obsession and still a novice by fly-fishing standards. But what I do know has been learned the hard way. If you are getting started in saltwater fly-fishing or thinking of taking the plunge, here are a few tried and true lessons from the school of hard knocks, wind knots and sharp hooks:
Get a few lessons before you hit the water with that shiny new fly rod and reel. Fly-fishing, like other sports, takes practice and lots of it. Area fly shops offer fly-casting lessons, and the three fly-fishing clubs in the area (Tampa Bay Fly-Fishing Club in Hillsborough, Suncoast Fly Fishers in Pinellas and Mangrove Coast Fly Fishers in Manatee/Sarasota) have excellent instructors.
Don't expect to land a 150-pound tarpon your first time out, or even your 100th time. Cultivate an appreciation for ladyfish, jacks and trout. They hit flies readily and are a lot of fun, while improving your skills. Once you can cast 45 or 50 feet consistently and accurately set your sights on tarpon or even finicky tailing redfish. After all, the purpose of fishing is to catch fish, isn't it? So have a good time and gain some confidence while you're learning.
Learn how to double haul. If you don't, you'll never be able to cast the weighted flies required for saltwater fishing into the wind. Double hauling is a simple technique that involves small tugs on the line with your opposite hand at the beginning of the forward cast and the backcast. It increases line speed dramatically, thus enabling you to throw farther, even in the wind.
Hire a guide occasionally. Area fly-fishing guides are usually great teachers and well worth the investment. They also know where to find fish. Don't hire a guide, however, until you can cast with enough control so as not to imbed a razor-sharp 2/0 hook in the guide's nose, ears or scalp. I speak from experience.
Buy the best equipment you can afford. Sure, you can spend $1,000 or more on a fly rod and reel, but you can also spend $250 for a perfectly good setup. Temple Fork, Redington and St. Croix make good rods at terrific prices. There's no point in spending a fortune until you're sure you will stick with the sport, because no decent fly rod deserves to live in a dark closet. An 8-weight rod is a good choice for inshore fishing; many women prefer a 7-weight. Buy gear that feels comfortable and will hold up in our harsh saltwater environment, and it will last for years.
Of course, by then, you'll probably own a collection of fly rods, reels and accessories large enough to rival the Orvis catalog.
Nanette Holland is a member of the Tampa Bay Fly-Fishing Club and a contributor to the recently published Chicken Soup for the Fisherman's Soul.