To Strip or Not to Strip

Shane Kohlbeck is a friend of mine who has fished in more places and with more success than I can really aspire to. He passed along this big of sound advice from the view of the angler and the guide.

It was 2001 and I was on my second ever bonefish trip in Los Roques, Venezuela. As with most foreign destinations, the guides had limited English skills, and I had limited Spanish skills, so communication was not what it could have been.

I was stalking bones on a pancake flat with my guide, when we spotted some tails just out of casting range.   As we tip toed towards them, being careful not to make any noise, we noticed the fish working toward us.  “Stop” the guide quietly said.  As we watched, the fish started working left to right. The guide pointed in the direction the fish were heading and said “Cast”.   So, without knowing how far, I cast.  Ok….maybe a good cast, maybe not. I look to the guide for guidance and he says to me, “Strip Strip Strip.” So I made three long, fast pulls, and watched as the water exploded and the fish turned into mere memories.  What happened ? I did what the guide said to do.

That same day, my fishing partner complained that his guide couldn’t make up his mind. The guide would say “Strip. Strip. Strip.” Followed only by “Stop! Stop!…Strip…STOP!.STOP!..Strip. Strip..STOP!”

The guides knew 4 words for guiding gringos.  Strip, stop, cast, and setdahook.   It was enough to get us into fish that first day, but I wanted more communication. I wanted to learn about the fishing and how to catch them instead of just ‘doing what the guide said to do’.

Four years later, I found myself living on that same tiny atoll in the middle of the South Caribbean, training new guides, and fine-tuning the guides that were already there (some of which had guided me years before).  I believed it was critical that they learned how to communicate better with anglers.

The main problem I found was the excitement level of the guides would affect the angler. A guide saying “Strip, strip, strip” excitingly fast would get the client to strip three times – fast. That would almost always spook the fish, as critters that are hiding from Mr. Bone aren’t going to make three long runs – basically saying “here I am Mr Bone….come eat me”.   The prey hides…or blends in with its surroundings.  You have to be that prey.

While living there, I found that the more I DIDN’T move the fly, the better I did (excluding baitfish imitation flies).

The guides eventually learned how to instruct anglers to make “one very small strip” and to “wait” and to “let it sink”.  It was amazing how much difference it made to the clients who were new to bonefishing.  Being able to understand what’s happening instead of doing what you’re told, is huge.

In general, when I cast, I lead the bonefish. Then I wait until the fish is near the fly before moving it at all. And when I do move it, rarely do I move the fly more than a few inches. If that fish saw the fly move a few inches, you’ll see his body language change. Let him come eat the fly.

If the fish hasn’t seen the fly, I’ll add more movement to ‘catch his attention’.  Once he has interest, it’s very easy to over-strip the fly and spook him.

So next time you’re with a guide, try communicating more.  Strip fast or slow? Long pulls or short pulls?  Cast further, or closer?   Good cast, or do another?

Also in foreign countries, knowing a few words in their language is a big help.  Slow, fast, deep, shallow, long, short, left and right.  8 words that can help to make or break a guided trip.  That and “mas cerveza por favor”.

That’s good advice, right there!

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