Skiff Fly Fishing Etiquette 101

Skiff Fly Fishing Etiquette 101

A skiff is an all-encompassing name for a class of small boats usually no greater than 18 feet in length and generally even smaller than that. Historically they were rowed, but now powered by outboards, they have evolved over the years to a number of different configurations. For the most part they are designed for inshore coastal waters, bays, estuaries and have multiple uses from shellfishing and work boats, to yacht tenders and inshore fishing.

As flats fly fishing developed over the years and anglers pursued bonefish, tarpon, permit, redfish, and other species, flats boat design evolved with it in the pursuit of access to places where normal small boats couldn’t go. The result is the modern flats boat, or flats skiff of today. In some cases, they operate in less than six inches of water when poled and can run on plane in less than a foot of water. Modern technology has created hull designs and hull materials that are super light and sit on top of the water with very little displacement. Engine jack plates, shaft configurations, and tunnel hulls allow the engines to work in remarkably shallow water. The modern flats boat is a marvel in evolutionary design, based on the desire of passionate anglers to pursue flats species in places that heretofore were inaccessible.

When you hire a guide to go flats fishing fly fish the flats, chances are pretty good you’re going to be riding in one of these modern lightweight designs, perhaps by yourself, but probably with a companion. That means there are three adults in a very small boat, and while they’re designed to handle that, there are some rules of fly-fishing etiquette that will make your day a pleasant experience, productive, and perhaps most importantly, keep your guide happy and focused on finding you fish.

Skiff Fly Fishing General Rules of Etiquette:

  • At the dock, don’t try and help the fly-fishing guide launch the boat unless he specifically asks. Most guides have a set routine and if you jump in unannounced it upsets the routine. You can ask if there is anything you need to do, but chances are he will smile and say “All set. Thanks.” While he’s doing that take the time to pull your fly-fishing line off the reel and stretch it with your partner’s help to remove the “set” from being stored on the reel.
  • Ask your guide where to store your packs or extra outerwear to keep it out of the way. These boats generally have places to store your fly-fishing gear and the last thing your guide or you want is stuff flying out of the boat or rolling around underfoot.
  • Take a reasonable amount of fly-fishing gear. One small pack, your fly-fishing rod outfits, and some rain gear should be sufficient. Carrying your personal boat bag, a backpack, and a cooler is not going to go over well. There will be a cooler on the boat and you don’t need all your fly-fishing accessories. The guide will have all of that. Your personal rods and reels will have a place to be stored under the gunnels.
  • Sit where your guide tells you to sit when the boat is running, as he or she knows exactly how to distribute the weight for the boat to run efficiently, particularly when it’s running in very shallow water.
  • Seems minor, but keep your fishing hat on your head. At high speed hats can blow off, and turning and stopping a flats boat in super shallow water can be difficult. There are places out there where if you stop, getting back up on plane can be difficult if not impossible, and the guide may end up having to pole his way to deeper water after retrieving your hat. Not the best way to endear yourself to a guide.
  • Wear light shoes with light colored, non-marking soles. Big black marks on a gleaming white deck is not something you want to leave behind. At the end of a long day, the tired guide will be scrubbing these marks off his boat and thinking of you.

Practice Skiff Etiquette When You’re Fly Fishing

  • When you’re up on the deck, you have a few responsibilities. Fly-fishing line management is one of them. When you first get up on the casting deck, strip out your line, only what you think you’ll need as excess line can create more problems than it will solve. Generally, 40 to 50 feet will do, as a good fly-fishing guide will put you in position to make a reasonable cast before he calls for you to take the shot.
  • Cast your line out and strip it back into the well of the boat. Stretch any curled sections again as you pull it back in. Leave about eight to ten feet of line outside the rod tip to allow you to make a quick roll cast and hold your fly in your hand. If all your line is inside the rod tip, you will waste valuable time false casting to get your line out and you will probably miss the shot and drive your guide crazy to boot.
  • When the guide puts you in position to cast, simply roll cast your line into the water, pick it up and shoot your cast toward the target. One false cast should be all you need to gain a bit of line speed.
  • Don’t over false cast. That’s the one mistake everyone makes. One or two is fine, Four or five is not. By the time you do all that the fish is probably somewhere else.
  • A little practice in shooting 40 feet of line in one to two false casts maximum, in the front yard, will go a long way toward creating success.
  • Do your best to stand still and don’t move your feet. The more you move your feet the more chance you have of stepping on your fly line. Wear the aforementioned light shoes, move as sparingly as possible when casting or positioning yourself for the cast. Thumping around on the deck creates vibrations in shallow water that will easily spook fish, particularly when moving in close for the shot.
  • Some anglers fish barefoot as it eliminates the noise and has the added advantage of allowing you to feel the line if it is underfoot. Beware. This is great until the end of the day when the tops of your feet are badly blistered. If you choose to do this, cover your feet heavily with SPF 50+ unless you happen to be impervious to sunburn, and then do it anyway.
  • When the guide calls the fish, RELAX. Take a deep breath, point your rod where he is telling you and he will guide you with the clock. 12 o’clock is the nose of the boat. 9 o’clock is 90 degrees to the left, 3 o’clock is 90 degrees to the right and so on.
  • Once you’ve located the fish, roll cast your line into the water and make the cast. Do it as calmly and quietly as possible. Getting too excited and casting too hard and too fast will inevitably cause your cast to deteriorate. It’s like trying to hit a golf ball as far as you can by swinging as hard as you can. It doesn’t work. Again a little practice in the yard casting smoothly and quietly with the a minimum of effort will produce excellent casts and better results.

Practice Skiff Etiquette When You’re Not Fly Fishing

  • When you’re not on the casting deck, you have responsibilities as well. Number one is to sit quietly where the fly-fishing guide tells you to sit. The guide is up there on the poling platform and if you’re standing up and moving from one side of the boat to the other it makes his job harder.
  • Talking to the guide is fine. They’re glad to share their knowledge, but they’re busy trying to find fish. Don’t distract them with incessant conversation. A few relevant questions are fine. You can talk to him all you want when you stop for lunch. Besides, part of the beauty of being where you are is how quiet it is. Enjoy the silence.
  • Don’t get up on the casting deck except under special circumstances. Occasionally the guide might point out some really cool creature or natural phenomena, but at that point the fishing stops momentarily and it’s okay to get up and take a look.
  • Like on the casting deck, the sound of your feet can spook fish. If you need to move, do it as quietly as possible.
  • The guide will land the fish. Don’t reach for the fly-fishing line or the leader to try and help. Stay back and get your camera or phone ready to take some shots. If you want to take some cool angle shots, just tell the guide and your partner what you’re doing. Don’t go leaning over the same side of the boat as they are when landing the fish or you might send someone for an unexpected swim. These boats are stable, but they’re still small boats.
  • Be ready to take the hero shots and do it quickly. That fish is suffocating while you’re messing with your camera. Be ready, take the shot, and get the fish back in the water.
  • In general, being off the deck is a great time to relax and enjoy the surrounding environment. You are probably in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Take the time to revel in it.

Fly-Fishing Etiquette for the End of the Trip

  • Tip your fly-fishing guide. Assuming you had a great day, which generally you do, your guide worked hard pushing that boat around. Some days the fishing is off. It happens, but chances are he or she worked even harder that day to find fish. $100 is pretty standard, but in many cases people pay more, particularly if they’ve developed a close relationship to the guide over multiple fly-fishing trips. Find out what is standard in the area you are fishing and go from there. There are plenty of people to ask at the local shop or the outfitter where you booked the trip.
  • Make sure you get all of your fly-fishing gear off the boat.
  • Just like the beginning of the trip, stay out of the way as the guide puts the boat back on the trailer.
  • If the opportunity is available, invite your guide for a cold one. It’s a great way to recap the day, further develop the relationship with a guide you like, and pave the way for the next great fly-fishing trip. In the long run, it’s all just about common courtesy, common sense, and respect for the skill and hard work of the guide. Pay attention to these few rules and not only will you have a great time, make a great friend in your guide, but probably catch more fish.