Fly-Fishing the Florida Keys Flats & Backcountry


with flats & backcountry fishing guide Capt. Luke Kelly

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First and foremost, realize that haul casting is a must know whenever fly-fishing the open flats of the Florida Keys. For those unfamiliar, the double-haul cast is a technique that enables fly-fisherman to cast against a wind, heavier lines and flies at longer distances with less effort.

The fact that haul-casting allows one to do all of this with less effort is irrelevant. It is simply the only way to achieve a casting distance needed to successfully catch wary gamefish while fly-fishing the various conditions Florida Keys flats have to offer.

For beginners, what to expect when fly-fishing the Florida Keys flats.

Expect to learn allot, and see allot of very beautiful/secluded fishing habitat. Though very important, be sure to take it upon yourself and practice your distance casting before booking your first fly-fishing charter. It is possible to learn the basics of haul castings in one day, but you will not catch gamefish without first knowing how to shoot your fly and line far from a flats boat in a somewhat accurate fashion.

How far is far? An entry level flats cast would be 40 ft from the tip of your rod to the end of your leader or fly. That’s less than half the length of most leading saltwater fly lines purchased today. Forty feet of line gives you enough room to strip your fly-line back towards the skiff, thus giving your fly on the end of your leader the life needed to achieve hook-up from targeted fish.

Saltwater fish of the flats swim nomadically through shallow water in any direction they please. They are fast, and they sometimes eat things that are fast. In almost all cases, the angler will see their fish at a distance before casting to it from the bow of a flats-skiff. The angler must then judge the distance, make an accurate cast, and bring the fly to life with sometimes quick and/or long strips of fly-line in hand; all of this within a short window of opportunity. It boils down to a challenge, and should be viewed in no other way. A never ending chance at something great.   

After a thoughtful cast and well placed fly, small consecutive strips of fly-line in hand should tease the bonefish into eating the fly. Once taken, a slight strip-set will ensure hook-up as the challenge then becomes clearing the remaining tangle free fly-line from the deck and into the remaining spool. Bonefish leave in a hurry after realizing they’re hooked, clearing reels well into the backing!

7 - 9 wt fly rods, floating line, tapered mono/fluorocarbon leaders, shrimp/crab flies.

ALLOT goes into saltwater fly fishing, what eventually comes out is satisfaction.

Below are points to consider when booking a flats fly fishing charter. 

Florida Keys Bonefishing - on fly

Bonefish are sight-fished and demand accuracy from anglers. Normally seen in a shallow depth of water, an angler must do everything possible to remain quiet prior to presenting their fly.

This includes few false casts, while not hitting the water with fly-line or fly before final presentation. Bonefish have great vision and can be very sensitive to noise, the sound and sight of fly-line slicing through the air can easily spook bonefish.

Florida Keys Permit Fishing - on fly

Permit are similar to bonefish in how they are sight-fished in shallow water, but differ greatly in terms of fly-fishing difficulty and technique. Permit are highly intuitive and can sense the slightest vibration. It’s the challenge of this hunt that makes it all worth while!

With little room for error anglers must be precise and stealthy during their first attempt, as second chances rarely exist when targeting permit on fly. Considered by many as the ultimate catch during a fly-fishing career, permit demand the best from anglers and guides.

Proper technique found successful in hooking permit on fly varies greatly with any given situation. Permit eat a variety of different things, all of which act differently in the wild. Anglers must be willing to think outside the box at times when trying to fool this ultimate gamefish into eating something artificial.

8 - 10 wt fly rods, floating line, long tapered mono/fluorocarbon leaders, shrimp/crab flies.

Florida Keys Tarpon Fishing - on fly

It doesn’t get much better than watching large tarpon eat hand tied flies from a shallow depth of clear water. Tarpon offer mind blowing runs and spectacular aerial displays when hooked. Sight-fishing the flats for this prehistoric beast is very hard to beat! 

*Never underestimate the importance of a proper strip-set. 90% of successfully playing tarpon on fly occurs during the first 3 seconds. A thick bony jaw is the reason, jamming a sharp hook through your fingernail would be a good comparison.

It is very important to consider the overall health of tarpon when fighting one on a fly rod. It is possible to land large tarpon on fly, though proper measures must be taken to do so. A tarpon battle should never exceed 45 minutes, as this is to ensure the survival of tarpon after release. Most experienced tarpon anglers use fast-rust hooks and break them off once they begin depleting their reserve energy. This allows for more fly-fishing experiences in the long run.    


10-12 wt fly rods, floating/intermediate lines, heavy mono/fluorocarbon leaders. 

Notice the loop generated by a double haul casting technique

Capt Luke Kelly