Fly Fishing: How to Beat the Wind

Capt. Joe Hughes fishes Montauk, South Jersey, and the Florida Keys using common sense solutions to beat the wind.

Fly Fishing Stripers

Some of the best saltwater fly-fishing opportunities occur when it’s windy, and whether you deal with the wind as a friend or a foe will make or break the day. Capt. Joe Hughes of Jersey Cape Guide Service looks at wind as a challenge and says, “The biggest obstacle for beginning and intermediate fly anglers in saltwater is the ever-present wind. Saltwater fly fishermen who wait for windless, bluebird days are going to be relegated to fishing a handful of times a year. I find the challenge of the wind in fly fishing one of the more appealing parts of the sport.”

Joe knows how to make the best of every possible wind direction and condition. “I fish out of Sea Isle City Marina from April through December, searching for striped bass, bluefish, and weakfish in Jersey’s thoroughfares and backwaters, and I also run special weekend trips to Montauk in September and October. I start the year (January through March) fly fishing the Florida Keys and Everglades National Park out of Islamorada Marina.” Each place has great fishing potential for fly fishing if you turn your enemy, the wind, into a friend.

Capt. Hughes puts it this way, “I think of wind like I do the tides. Neither tells me whether or not I’m going to fish, but, rather, where I’m going to fish. Positioning oneself to take advantage of the wind in a place that holds fish is the key. Ideally, finding a spot where the fish can be in front of you with the wind at your back or on your non-casting shoulder is ideal. If you are on a boat, always position it upwind of the fish whether you are drifting, anchored, or staked off. As a fly-fishing guide, positioning the boat in a way that is most advantageous for my anglers to cast to where the fish are is always paramount in my mind.”

Practice-casting may sound like ho-hum advice, but it’s really critical to being an accomplished fly caster. Hughes puts it this way, “The wind magnifies any imperfections in your fly casting. Good form and technique, combined with minimal false-casting, produce the best casts in windy conditions. Practice your casting and go fishing in windy conditions; your cast will thank you. The wind is one of the best instructors since you get immediate feedback if something is not right.

Sandy Moret, renowned Florida Keys fly angler, agrees, “Wind just doesn’t go away, and here in the Keys, we deal with it every day, from every direction. So that I don’t get rusty, I practice-cast for 15 to 30 minutes every day that I can, no matter the wind direction.” Sandy’s advice is equally important for good casting results in Narragansett Bay, Great South Bay, and Barnegat Bay.

A stiff breeze blowing in your face is the classic casting problem, but the tendency to add more muscle power to the forward cast won’t help and instead causes additional casting problems. Hughes realizes a straight-on wind is the toughest situation and says, “Regardless of ability, your casting distance is going to be less. Make a high-angled backcast and angle your forward cast down toward your target.” The lower presentation lets the line unroll just above the water’s surface. Pay extra attention to making a hard stop of the rod tip while making the slightly down-angle forward presentation. It’s a key element when you have to punch through a headwind.

Another popular solution to beating a headwind is to lower the rod tip and make sidearm casts that keep the back and forward casts lower and close to the water’s surface. Good timing is essential because if the backcast is delayed a second too long, the fly, leader, or a short length of line may fall to the water, making the forward cast very awkward.

Using a water haul can also be a good headwind solution, if you’re comfortable using it. On the backcast, let the line momentarily settle to the water, then use the resistance of the water to fully load the rod right down into the butt while making the forward cast. It sounds simple, but you have to consciously think about letting the backcast settle to the water, which is contrary to the ingrained timing of a standard cast. Water hauls take some getting used to.

Casting directly into the wind helps straighten the backcast, which is good, but it causes the forward cast to lose momentum and your presentation may collapse into an ugly mess of coiled line. Adding more muscle to the cast has little benefit because the rod must do the work. Changing to a slightly downward casting angle will be helpful. It’s also a good idea not to shoot line on the forward cast into wind; instead, shoot only on the backcast.

Depending on water depth, some fly guys rely on sink-tip line to punch through the beeeze, but be aware that some sink tips have ultra-short heads, so look for a line at least 28 to 30 feet. The really short heads unroll too quickly to make a nice presentation. Sink-tips are especially good choices for boat guys along the beach in deep bays or for fly casters working the surf.

Tailwinds, a breeze coming from behind, is a windy-day casting problem that can be dangerous because the line is being driven at great speed powered by rod’s energy plus the speed of the wind. Getting whacked in the head or arm with the fly is not fun. Hughes recommends, “A low-angle backcast and a climbing angle to the forward cast takes advantage of the wind’s push.”

At a casting clinic somewhere back in the 70s, Lee Wulff demonstrated the advantages of a casting technique he called constant tension. “It’s like throwing a baseball,” he said. Most fly anglers recognize this as the Belgian cast, and Capt. Joe describes it this way, “The Belgian cast is one of my favorite methods for casting in the wind, especially with weighted flies. It involves making a low backcast to the side and a high forward cast with the rod tip in a more vertical plane; however, instead of tracing a “straight” line with your rod tip, a Belgian cast transcribes an ‘oval’ in the air. This cast keeps the fly away from your body, negates the wind on the backcast, and takes advantage of the wind’s forward push.” There’s no pause on the backcast and constant tension on the line minimizes the effects of the tailwind. On the forward stroke, it feels like you can cast a country mile.

“Casting is pretty easy when the wind is coming toward your non-casting-side shoulder,” Capt. Joe says, and for this situation, he makes a level backcast and level forward cast, with no high or low angles.” This is the ideal wind situation for most fly casters because the breeze is always pushing the line away from your body.

“When the wind is coming toward your casting shoulder, you must make adjustments for safety. The wind in this position is constantly pushing the fly toward your head and body, and this could cause serious injury if the fly contacts your head, eyes, or body. I deal with this situation in three different ways. First, I make a crossbody cast so the fly travels downwind of my body. Second, for longer casts, I turn my body around and present the fly on my backcast. And third, learning to cast with both your right and left hand is also an option. Don’t laugh, as you might need this someday.”

Besides the challenge of overcoming the effects of wind on your casting, the wind can also dramatically affect the environment where you’re fishing. Capt. Craig Cantelmo of Fin-Addict Fishing Charters explains it this way, “Nothing is more enjoyable than slick, calm conditions; however, many of my most productive days (especially in the spring) are on the windward side of bays and creeks that have warm, oxygenated water pushed up on the shoreline and concentrating bait and gamefish. Under these conditions the fish tend to feed more aggressively and are less spooky.

“In the dog days of summer, I use the opposite approach and concentrate on the leeward side that has the coolest water. The warm surface water is pushed by the wind to the opposite side, causing the leeward side to ‘turn over’ and that cooling effect, especially in the afternoon, when breezes typically start to blow, will bring better fishing.

“I have a number of spots that require onshore winds for meaningful quantities of fish to be present. Learning to keep your cast low and parallel to the water lets you cut through the wind and get your fly where it needs to be. Remember that these conditions are usually fairly close to the beach and 30- to 40-foot casts are all that is required for success.”

Breezes also move warm or cool waters within a bay or river, and this also moves the location of gamefish. A fishfinder with a built-in temperature gauge clearly shows changing temperature trends as tide and wind move water around in a bay, river, or creek. Gamefish and bait stay in the most comfortable water and may travel a mile or more to remain there. As an example, while fishing Barnegat Bay, an east wind pushes bait, gamefish, and optimum water temperatures to the western shore near Forked River and Cedar Creek, while a west wind moves everything to the east onto the flats at the back side of Island Beach State Park.

When the wind is howling a gale, having a few small places to fish in a quiet spot can be essential to save a lost day. I can kayak- or skiff-fish in the Manasquan River with 15- to 20-knot south winds by fishing up tight in the wind-sheltered water along the river’s south shore. With a north wind, the north shore is relatively calm and windless enough for wading, kayaking, or working a small boat. With a west wind, I can fly fish the flats on the eastern side of an island or get tucked into quiet pockets by the bridges. Every coastal bay and river has similar hidey holes that can be safe from the wind.

Because windy forecasts often keep other fly anglers at home, you’ll have less competition on the water. Tune up your casting techniques and adjust your fishing location to make the wind your friend, not your enemy.

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