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Presenting the Fly to a Billfish

Preparation leads to a successful connection

August 17, 2020
A billfish caught on a leader.
One of the most exhilarating moments in sport fishing: a billfish behind a fly. Capt. Chris Sheeder

By failing to prepare, you prepare to fail. While the actual presentation is not rocket science, nor is exceptional fly-casting skill a requirement, it is the preparation that is most important, long before a cast is even made. A cool head and the execution of a series of planned steps is necessary to make sure any one of the many things that can go wrong, don’t go wrong.

Ready…

With your tackle set, double-check that the fly is snugged up tight to the hooks. Doing so will keep the hooks ready for their job and prevent the fly or hooks from flipping over on the shock tippet during the cast or when it is tossed in the water.

A right-handed angler will usually make a cast from the right (port) side of the boat; left-handed casters can easily cast from the right side also. It’s easier for an angler to adapt to a change in sides than to have to switch the entire spread for the tease.

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Our preferred setup is to place a wooden stopper into a rod holder on the covering board, from which a looped cord hangs. The butt of the fly rod is placed in this loop to keep it from going overboard, with the rod tip on the transom, allowing the rod to lie perfectly in wait. The amount of line for exact casting distance has been loosely placed on the deck in the aft corner out of the way. All possible obstacles on which the fly line can snag have either been moved or taped off, and the outrigger is usually left in the up ­position so it does not interfere with the backcast.

Watch: A swimming Spanish mackerel is an outstanding marlin bait. Learn to rig one here.

The drag has been preset at strike just enough to set the hook. For Pacific sailfish, this is generally around 5 to 6 pounds on 20-pound-test tippet. For blue marlin on the same tippet, we set the drag at about 3 pounds. With the lighter drag, and the added bulk of the larger popper head and fly we use, the angler should know that the fly itself might pull line off the reel. This rod can be kept ready in the rocket launcher, so if a blue marlin shows up, you can easily have the secondary setup ready and waiting.

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Once a fish is raised, the angler should calmly toss his fly into the water. Only now does he pick up the fly rod from its resting place. While the boat is still at trolling speed, the captain and the mate are both concentrating on the tease and keeping the fish’s interest. The drag on the fly naturally pulls it away from the boat, and the fly line that is lying loosely on the deck will spill into the water. Once all the line is off the deck, the angler steps over to the right aft corner, bracing his legs into that corner in a well-balanced manner.

Set…

It is very important that at this stage the angler take a quick look down at the reel and fly line to be sure the line has not looped over the reel handle, the back of the short fly-rod butt, or around anything else that could result in disaster.

The casting process starts long before the cast is made, so in order for a fly to be presented correctly each time, these steps must be followed prior to the presentation. Almost every time that an issue with the presentation has occurred, it is as a result of a prior problem, and the actual cast isn’t the issue.

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At this stage of the tease, the angler is calmly waiting for the captain to call out, “Cast!” The boat will come out of gear, giving the angler the chance to make an IGFA-legal cast. While waiting, the rod is held with both hands, almost like a baseball bat. The only exception is that if light drag is being used for a marlin or on light-test tippets, then the angler should hold the line between two fingers with his hands on the rod grip so the line is not pulled any farther off the reel than the desired ­presentation distance.

Most prefer a cut-down, heavyweight, thinner-diameter shooting-head fly line for ease in presenting a big fly; another benefit is less line drag during a billfish’s blistering runs. The angler should be acutely aware of where the wind is hitting their face and how the apparent wind will affect their backcast and forward fly presentation.

An angler and wireman pull a billfish boatside.
Recently refitted, the nimble, ­40-foot Gamefisherman Decisive is the perfect platform to sharpen your billfish-on-fly skills. Mark Hatter

Cast!

With the fly rod pointing at the fly, the angler is ready to make the cast when the timing is right and the captain makes the call.

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The angler should load the rod with a swift, deliberate and powerful backcast, and make a purposeful pause on the backstroke before commencing the forward part of the cast, which allows the fly line to load the rod. A forward cast is then made with a similar movement as the backcast, but slightly more to the left side of the wake. Always remember that the fly follows the path of the rod tip. Do not bring the rod too far behind you on the back-cast or you might hook the boat or the upright rigger. In my opinion, on the presentation, its preferable for the fly to hit the water with force. This is no time for a Brad Pitt soft-trout presentation. The incoming billfish is hopefully enraged at the escaping teaser and needs to be made aware of the fly’s presence—a forceful presentation into the clear-water lane on the left-hand side of the white water helps to get his attention.

Read Next: Be ready with the Charlie Tuna teaser.

The entire scenario is discussed with the team so the angler knows exactly where the mates will tease the fish to, and the captain can further open up the clear zone by turning the boat, giving the angler a greater area for presentation. Some teams prefer to tease a fish that comes in on the right side of the spread on that same side, with the cast made to the right of the white water. This can be done, but most find that teasing all fish to the left side of the spread is a more ­manageable option.

Ideally, the cast should land between the prop wash and the incoming teaser. Finally, the teaser is ripped right past the perfectly presented fly and yanked from the water in the same swift motion, just after the fly has landed. With a great presentation and a well-coordinated sequencing of events, the ­billfish should rapidly turn and eat the fly. And after seeing an irate billfish devour it, you’ll want to see it again…and again.


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