Interview with Mike Michalak from The Fly Shop

Mike Michalak makes the third person from The Fly Shop that I’ve interviewed.  It isn’t really hard to see why… I used to live in Redding (at least for a couple of years) and in Northern California, The Fly Shop is a dominant presence for fly anglers.  In fact, The Fly Shop is the world’s largest fly shop, in terms of revenue.  They’ve been in the international travel game for about thirty years and played a roll in opening many fly fishing destinations that  anglers dream about.  Mike is the owner of The Fly Shop and he has a passion for bonefish and has traveled the world in pursuit of the Gray Ghosts.

As owner of The Fly Shop in Redding you’ve been in the fly fishing game for a long time and you’ve kicked around the globe a fair bit. Do you think there are still bonefish fisheries yet to be discovered?

Good question.  Ya know, our travel company has been in business for over 30 years and for a great part of that my one dimensional focus was bonefishing.  We were the first licensed anglers and the first people to really fish Los Roques legally in 1988.  We helped open up Christmas Island with the Frontiers team and Bob and Carol Faro (sp), but honestly I don’t think there are any bonefisheries yet to be discovered. I do think that there are probably three or four (parts of Cuba, the South Pacific, New Caledonia, French Polynesia, maybe one archipelago in South America, some of the coast line of Venezuela) that are yet to be fully explored and fully developed as bonefisheries.  Having said that, I don’t think there is anything left to be discovered. Lefty Kreh in his book Saltwater Fly Fishing made the comment once that there are no bonefish found south of a particular latitude.  I don’t want to be that definitive because I’d probably be, and I hope I would be, proved wrong. I hope that someone finds something really great, but I don’t think they will. I think that the best of it has been discovered.  I don’t think the best of it has been completely explored or understood.

An example, we found some phenomenal fishing in French Polynesia, but it was in the middle of the summer.  It wasn’t when anyone would think of going there. It was incredibly consistent int he middle of the summer.  What we were told was that if we thought it was nice then, we should really see it in January, February, March, April, when everyone wants to come to French Polynesia. So, we promoted the hell out of it and fell flat on our face because what happens is that the waters were entirely too warm in French Polynesia, but we didn’t know it.  We put out a lot of effort and Polynesia got a bad rap because of it and because of us. We hadn’t done enough due diligence.

Cuba is hardly new, hardly undiscovered, but it has yet to be developed and anyone with a brain in their head is sitting on their hands instead of going to Cuba and they are waiting for normalization of relationships.

If you fly the coastline of Venezuela, it is just incredible. It looks like an exponential map of Florida, but it is totally undeveloped as a fishery.

Another question there is why would anyone want to go there?  To go two-thirds of the way around the world when there is fantastic fishing within a single day’s flight.  Whether it’s Christmas Island to the west or going to the Bahamas to the East.  It just isn’t necessary to go to the other side of the world to have great fishing.

Think about your favorite bonefishing flat.  What makes that place a special place for you?

For me the best of bonefishing is the chance to wade, the chance to do it on your own without some guide peering over your shoulder and saying “Bonefish at 11:00, mon.” It is the wading experience.  In my mind’s eye, there are those evenings walking some flat in the middle of nowhere, especially in the early days when we were at Los Roques and seeing schools of 4, 5, 7, 10,000 fish.  Tails that look like gillions of pieces of cellophane that stretch to the horizon. Those were the best of the best days I’ve ever had.  On foot.

Do you remember your first bonefish?

Absolutely.  You remember your first trout?

I don’t know if I remember my first trout, really.  That was a long time ago.

I remember my first trout.  I remember first bonefish and my second and third and forth.  Years ago I took my wife on vacation to the Inn of the Sun on the island of Guanaja of the coast of Honduras.  What an incredible place that has long since changed.  It was an absolutely breathtaking resort.  A country boy like me, I’d never been treated like that. It was just incredibly historic. It was where Columbus had made landfall on his second voyage. Tiny little island about 50 miles off the coast of Honduras.  I could definitely remember my first bonefish.  It wasn’t very big.  It was on foot, all wading.

I’m more than a fisherman, I don’t want to say that, being a fisherman is enough, but I absolutely enjoy the hunting experience.  I don’t entirely enjoy the killing experience.  I enjoy the hunting experience, I enjoy the shooting experience.  Bonefishing is hunting.  Wing shooting ducks, leading bonefishing, bonefishing encapsulates every skill as a hunter and as an outdoorsman.  It is something primal.

In bonefishing there is the 80/20 rule. In bonefishing it is easy, really, when you do it right.  If you do it right you’ll have an 80% chance of success on your first cast.  You have a 20% chance of success on your second cast.

I can remember the first time I saw a fish before the guide. That was almost as much fun as catching the fish.  We opened up Nettie Symonette’s on Abaco when she opened up the Marls.  We went down as her guests and I took down a couple dozen pairs of cheap sunglasses because they were all just getting started. The guides were all excellent “waterman” as they say down in the Bahamas, but they didn’t know anything about guiding.  Netti laughed and she said the guides would never wear them because the head guide, the guy they respect the most, Donny, doesn’t’ wear them. He thinks they aren’t necessary.  I said “give me Donny the first day.”  I said “Donny, your tip today is $100,” and Donny said “Wow, that’s great Mr. Mike.”  I told him, “But wait… there is a caveat.  Every bonefish you see before me I’m going to give you another $5.  Every bonefish I see before you, I’m going to subtract $5 from the $100.”  At lunch time he said “give me a pair of those glasses.”  There he was, up on the platform, he had the advantage.  Experience isn’t all of it… it’s tackle and everything else.

Throughout our fishing lives we often meet people that have a particularly big influence on us.  Can you think of someone who has really influenced your bonefishing?

Easy question.  The two people, it wasn’t so much that they influences my bonefishing, but they influenced the whole idea of travel.  Before I opened The Fly Shop as a single and reasonably successful young man, I used to spend the vast majority of my disposable cash traveling to fish. I did it because Bob Nauheim and Frank Bertaina, who owned Fishing International, gave me a love of travel.  They got my juices going about fishing travel.  I spent every cent I had on travel. They were huge and got me pumped up to go places.

I can remember going to a cocktail party in Pacifica.  I’m going and doing a lot of travel and I’m at this party and I’m listening to Frank Bertaina talk about this bonefishing trip.  He’s standing behind me and I’m holding a margarita trying to listen to his conversation. He’s got me all jacked up and I’m trying to pay attention to the conversation in front of me and I’m listening to his conversation and then I realize… wait… I’ve already been there! And it was nothing like how he was describing it!  He had such a great way of painting a picture and getting you juiced up about things.  They were wonderful about that because of their own passion for angling.

When you are out on the water a lot, you see things that others just don’t see. Is there something you’ve seen out there on the flats that stands out?

I used to lease a yacht off the coast of Belize for six or seven weeks a year and I’d invite down friends and we’d just bonefish and permit fish and dive.  From San Pedro down to the Honduras boarder.  One day we had gotten out of the skiff, probably around the Turneffe archipelago, and the guide runs over to this great, big bale of marijuana. It was the size of a kitchen table. It was all wrapped in plastic and had floated up against this island.  The guide said “Mr. Mike, would you mind if I take some of this?” and I told him I didn’t care.  He cut a great big x on the top of this thing and he dug down in it.  This was a long time ago.  It was all full of seeds, really low grade dope. He took the skiff and went back to the boat and came back with a big black garbage bag of his own.  We had this guy on the trip, I won’t give his name, but I was a kid at the time and we had this middle aged ex-marine along.  When the guide had gone back to get his bag the guy came up to me and asked what was going on.  I told him “put your nose down into that.  Don’t you know what that is?”  There was this big hole of marijuana where the guide had dug down inside to make sure it was all dry. The guy said “I don’t know man. It smells like my kid’s room.”  That might be the most memorable thing.

When you are out there, it is the other things in nature, besides the bonefish, that you remember.  It’s the 80 gillion little bait-fish jumping out of the water right by your boat and the backdrop is perfect.  The more you fish, the more you get them.  I’m lucky enough to have seen a lot.

What rod and reel is your go-to right now for bonefish?

Easy question. Winston BIImx and a Nautilus. It’s just an incredible powerhouse, a great rod that lets me deliver flies out at distance.  One thing I do that might be different from a lot of the answers you get is that I tend to use a 6 or 7 weight rod.  Even when I’m in Andros or the Keys, fishing for larger bonefish, I think it’s the reel. Delivering the fly is important, but once you’ve hooked the fish the reel takes on an awful lot more importance than the rod.  There are a lot of good reels out there.

I like Nautilus reels too.

So many of these reels are so much better than what you need, but I say “So what?”  I don’t fill my nose with coke for pleasure.  I spend my money on things that give me real pleasure and equipment is part of it.  I like the Hatch.  I love these Nautilus reels.  Flawless.

People make a big deal about weight, but you aren’t making a thousand casts.  Weight isn’t important. You need an incredibly reliable drag with enough capacity.

Thanks Mike.

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  1. Great interview!! Enjoyed that one. Cheers Mike and Bjorn for sharing.

  2. I caught my first bonefish fishing with Mike. It was March of 1996 at Los Roches, Venezula. As I slid into the flat water I, as green as they come, asked Mike, “Where do I cast?”. In typical dead pan fashion Mike replied “Anywhere you want”. What Mike had seen and I had yet see was that we were literally surrounded by hundreds of bones. My blind cast and unstable retrieve yielded a fish and I was hooked. Bones, tarpon, permit and trevally have be an annual pursuit for me ever since. Thanks Mike.

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