Deep down and dirty!

The art of deep-water fly-fishing

Written by Graeme Field
Photographs by Graeme Field and Antony Diplock

"Longer, harder, faster, deeper – yeah, work it baby!" Ant yelled at me and I burst out laughing again, missed the line I was trying to strip and in turn missed the big fat strike that came at that exact moment. I turned to him, exasperated: "Ah come on bro, I just missed another fish – stop it now!" But he just grinned at me and told me I wasn't stripping fast enough. "Oh yeah? Then why are the fish hitting the fly, big guy? If you would just shut up and let me fish we might actually get one to the boat!"

And then I realized that he sounded just like I do when I'm the one doing the guiding. Now I was at the receiving end of it: the continual and mostly unwanted advice coming from a skipper relaxing in the shade of the T-top drinking an ice cold Coca Cola whilst you are working your butt off to try and get that fly going at top speed. The only difference is that I was actually stripping fast enough and Ant was just trying to wind me up – the usual deep sea antagonism and banter that takes place when it's just the two of us on the boat. But it really is true - if you want to catch fish in this environment you have to make sure that fly is going as fast as humanly possible. It's the biggest difference between success and drawling a blank, between landing the fish of your dreams or seeing that same fish turn away just behind the fly - and us guides harp on about it no end.

We were drifting over some deep pinnacles on 25-mile reef in the Bazaruto Archipelago and out here, nothing moves slowly. Big flies, heavy lines and no holds barred high speed stripping are the way to go in these conditions, and when I'm out there guiding clients I find myself repeating over and over again that the fly needs to move fast. And until you have done it yourself and done it properly, until you have fished with one of the few saltwater guides who really knows what he is doing, you won't truly understand what I mean when I say "fast"! You have to put your back into it, push your rod out in front of you, get a full arm swing going, take a deep breath and let rip. It's hard, sweaty work and the whole time you are battling against the swell and the rocking of the boat. This type of fly-fishing is not for the faint at heart - and this hence article is not for everyone.

This is an article about deep water dredging, fishing a fly in depths ranging from 10 to 60 meters. I do not want to start an ethical debate about what constitutes pure "fly fishing" and where we should draw the line – I'm not interested in partaking in those pointless discussions. What I am interested in is blood sweat and tears, bucking rods smoking reels and fly lines ripping holes in stripping gloves. I'm interested in battling swaying boats, tussling big fish, dodging sharks and gritting teeth as tackle is tested to the limits. I'm interested in drags cranked to the maximum and rods bending in the cork grips. I'm interested in real battles of strength that truly feel like man against beast. I'm interested in bruised stomachs, cut fingers and lame elbows. I'm interested in the limitless possibilities that exist when your fly stops dead in inky depths below the boat. I'm interested in not knowing what one earth you are attached to and what you have gotten yourself in for when your line slams tight. I'm interested in hard-core fly-fishing for big fish in extreme conditions, and that is what deep-water fly fishing is all about.

Deep water fly fishing in South Africa pretty much began off the coast of Mozambique and was pioneered by renowned guides such as Andrew Parsons, Craig Thomassen, Guy Ferguson and Antony Diplock. Like any new style of fishing, techniques are learnt by trial and error, by success and frustration, and gradually refined until the most productive and effective methods are established. Tackle is continually evolving; manufacturers are developing new specialist equipment for the task at hand, and these days deep-water fly-fishing is a well-defined and successful facet of fly-fishing, and specialized deep-water guides are worth their weight in gold.

So how does it all work? The general idea is to get the fly down to within a few feet of underwater structure, and then strip it back at pace up and away from the reef, through the water column and towards the surface just like a fleeing fish. This attracts reef species from the cover of the reef, and intercepts big predators patrolling the depths – and the possibilities of what you can hook are endless.

That for me is a big part of the thrill – never knowing what you have hooked or how big it is. With experience you will begin to figure out what species you have hooked, from the way the fish fights, the depth it was hooked and the terrain you are fishing over. But even then you will often be surprised with what comes out of the depths.

Species most commonly taken on fly around the reefs off the coast of Mozambique, Tanzania and Kwa-zulu Natal, are a variety of kingfish species such as GT's, blue fin, yellow spot, golden, yellow tail, Indian Mirrorfish and bludger. Queen and king mackerel (‘couta), and green jobfish (kaakaap) are commonly caught, and often save the day when nothing else is happening. In Mozambique in particular, the hard fighting and acrobatic queenfish make a fantastic fly rod quarry and Kawa-kawa always seem to make an appearance and streak into your backing. A vast number of reef species ranging from snapper to triggerfish and grouper will also take a fly, and you can quickly rack up your species count.

In order to effectively fish these reefs, a boat is required with a good GPS and fish finder. But most importantly you need a skipper that knows where the reefs are, knows how to use the GPS and finder properly, and knows how to position the boat to effectively fish the underwater structure. The ideal water depth is between 18 – 30 meters, but we fish water as deep as 60 meters in the right conditions. Once a reef is located, the drift is established. The drift is determined by currents, wind and tides, which combine to move the boat in a particular direction when it is stopped. Once this direction is known (a track will show up on your GPS), the boat can be re positioned up current of the reef and a number of drifts can be made over the area where the fish are holding, and the fly sent down into the depths.

The depth that you are able to reach with a fly will depend on the strength of the current and the wind, and therefore the speed of the drift. The stronger the current, wind or drift, the less depth your fly will achieve. In order to get the fly down, you need to use a "depth finder" style fly line, which is a weighted head and an intermediate running line. These lines are weighted in "grains", and my personal favourite line is the Airflo Depth Finder 500 grain Big Game. It is 45 meters in length and has a 50lb core with no join between the sinking head and the intermediate running line.

Once the boat has stopped at the start of the drift, the skipper should lock the engines towards the wind so the boat drifts sideways on. This is for two reasons: to try and slow the drift speed as much as possible, and to allow two anglers to fish at the same time, one from the bow and one from the stern. Anglers then cast ahead of the drift, only casting out the sinking part of the line (about 10 meters). The concept is to then slowly feed out the running line as the boat drifts over the line, and eventually when the running line is out (the length dependant on the depth you are fishing), the line should be pointing down at an angle of about 30 to 45 degrees – off the opposite side of the boat to where the original cast was made (down current). Now it's time to take up the weight of the line, let the line come tight and straight, and then unleash the super strip.

As I have mentioned, the general rule of thumb is that the fly must be going at full speed. But there are situations and species where a little more tact is required, where speeding up and slowing down at specific depths will result in strikes. This will come with experience but a good thing to remember with all types of fly-fishing is that if what you are doing isn't working, then do something significantly different!

Takes will often come on the first couple of strips just as the fly takes off from a stationary position. This is because fish will often follow the fly as it slowly sinks and the second it takes off they will attack it. King mackerel in particular often don't even wait until the fly moves – they eat it while it is sinking so be ready at all times! Takes also seem to about 10 meters below the boat – just as you start seeing your sinking head. So I often do something different with my strip at that point – a couple of quicker strips, or even a couple of long slow strips – and this often induces a take. Varying your retrieve with the rise and fall of the swells is also good practice.

When a fish takes the fly down deep, it feels very solid, and you need to strip strike hard, keep the rod tip down and keep the pressure on from the minute the fish is hooked as it is going to try and head straight back to the reef. 12 to 14 weight rods are the way to go out here, and often you need every ounce of muscle from them. The first 30 seconds or so are crucial, and it is vitally important to manage the loose line on the deck and try and get the fish on the reel as quickly as possible. Then drags must be smooth and tight and the rod tip must be kept low throughout the fight so you are fighting the fish through the bottom half of the rod. Pumping and lifting the fish and not allowing it to rest are keys to landing it – and landing it quickly. If you don't get it in quickly you run the risk of losing the fish to a shark, or the fish dying from exhaustion.

Flies are pretty standard, and there is seldom a reason to change from a chartreuse deep-water Clousers minnow. Remember that your fly has to sink faster than your line (else you will get big tangles), so they need to be heavily weighted (lead eyes and lead wire on the shank) and not too heavily dressed. I like a long thin fly, about 15 cm in total length. Good colours are chartreuse, olive and black. Flies need to be tied on Gamakatzu SL12's and sizes 4/0 and 6/0 are ideal. Deep-water whistlers and other variants are useful as well, but I firmly believe that the way the fly is retrieved is the most crucial ingredient for success.

I keep my tippets pretty simple as well: 4 - 5ft of 30 – 50lb mono, with a 15cm length of No. 5 brown piano wire joined using an Albright knot. The fly is attached to the wire using a haywire twist. If you are sure there are no toothy predators around, you can use a 60 – 80lb shock tippet instead of the wire. Remember that you are going to get stuck on the reef at some point (if you don't, you aren't fishing deep enough!) so you need to have a light enough class tippet in your leader that will break before your fly line does.

There is not scope in the article to go into too much detail about tackle and techniques but hopefully this will provide you some guidelines to give you the confidence to get out to sea and give this exciting form of fly-fishing a bash. As South African anglers we aren't blessed with easily accessible flats fishing, nor do we have many opportunities for catching big fish from shore, but we do have access to good offshore fishing for a number of prize game fish. The great thing is that this technique can be adapted to a number of different species and areas. So if you want to take your fishing to another level, if you think you are up for it for some hardcore battles, then get out there and get down, deep and dirty!


Air Flow Stealth Blue Water Shilton Complet Fly Fisherman