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Florida Keys Fly Fishing Interview
With International Guide Bob Guard

Florida Keys fly fishing is world famous, and for a multitude of reasons.

We decided we wanted to share helpful Florida Keys fishing tips and techniques for anyone planning a fly fishing trip, but we wanted to try it from a new 'angle'.

We thought a different perspective on this sport from a professional fly fishing guide who wasn't a local, would be a good take on the subject.

The interview also had to be with someone who could give real insight into what Florida Keys fly fishing is all about.

Someone who knows the area, fished here often, has some interesting techniques and is not a resident.

International fly fishing guide, Bob Guard is all of this and more, and he graciously agreed to grant us this interview.

FKV: When did you first saltwater fish? Was it when you moved to Hawaii as a child?

BG: Before I moved, I fished the bays of Oregon. After I moved I fished some in Hawaii but mostly after I moved back to Oregon. That's where I saltwater fished for salmon and steelhead, and of course fresh water trout. Then I started Caddis Fly shop in Eugene, Oregon and we began our international fly fishing guide program.

FKV: Other than Florida Keys fly fishing trips, where else have you guided?

BG: Well some of the places we've gone over the years are Russia, Christmas Island, the Bahamas, different parts of Mexico, Alaska, Texas, many times to Florida fishing, including the Apalachicola area, and of course fishing Florida Keys.

Pole fishing Florida Keys

Pole Fishing Florida Keys
State Archives Of Florida, Florida Memory, Jerry Francis Simmons Collection

FKV: What was your first bonefishing experience? What is it in the Florida Keys fly fishing? BG: No, the first time I bonefished was in Mexico in Cozumel and the Yucatan. We went bonefishing to Christmas Island which is bonefishing heaven. We fished the Bahamas a lot but then we got interested in tarpon fishing so we started fishing Florida Keys.

We hired flats fishing charters who took us out on these boats which were essentially shallow running ski boats that could go out in the shallow water and we would sight fish for tarpon. This was back in the 80's but now it's turned into a huge sport. Of course we also fished for snook and bonefish.

There's lots of Florida Keys fly fishing guides who'll take you out in flats boats and sight fish and pole you around. Sometimes they'll stop the boat, tie off to their pole and you cast your fly to passing saltwater fish.

FKV: When in the Florida Keys fly fishing, what would be your all time favorite saltwater fish to catch?

BG: If the fish are running there's nothing more exciting then a 100+ lb tarpon crashing into your fly. Although snook fishing is real interesting - it's a little like trout fishing. Snook fishing is a little more of a game where you cast your fly into these targets in the mangroves but again there's nothing more exciting then a 100 - 200 lb fish coming to the surface, and swallowing your fly. Grabbing it - they go absolutely berserk once they've got the fly.

FKV: And they do go berserk. They also do a lot of leaping and they can fight you for an hour or more, is that correct?

BG: That's true, if you know what to do. But a lot of the time an unskilled angler doesn't know how to put pressure on a big fish. It takes some skill, some knowledge and some doing. It's amazing how big a fish you can land with a 20 lb or 12 lb test leader. To be considered fly fishing you have to have a 20 lb leader or less. So if you're landing a 125 lb fish on 20 lb or 16 lb tippet - well you have to know how to put a lot of pressure on them to do that.

You can fly fish with any weight leader you want but to be recognized as a fly caught fish on a fly rod you have to have 20 lb or less tippet material. International Game Fish Association world records which are not such a big deal anymore as everyone's more into catch and release, but they have different classes and weights.

FKV: If someone with some Florida Keys fly fishing experience asked about taking on a big tarpon on lightweight line, what tips would you have?

BG: First you need a big enough rod - most people go out with too light of a weight rod. You certainly need a 11 - 13 weight rod - a tarpon rod. You want a saltwater reel that has a smooth working, heavy duty drag on it, and a reel that will hold a full fly line plus at least 300 yards of backing line. Then you just have to figure out how to catch the fish and play it.

Fly fishing lures being used off Islamorada

Fly Fishing Lures Being Used Off Islamorada
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Dale D. McDonald Collection

The main thing to remember is always keep pressure on the fish. As much pressure as you can. Putting pressure on the rod - moving it from the right side to the left side - always keeping the fish off balance. That's the trick. You can't just hold the fish level, you've gotta keep working the fish back and forth so it'll tire enough to get in your boat.

FKV: Bonefish are found in such shallow water and they're real skittish. I know you have to be extremely precise in shooting the line to them when Florida Keys fly fishing. What bonefishing tips can you share?

BG: The trick with bonefish, like all saltwater fish is that they're tied into the tides. When the tides are going out, the bone fish are coming into the flats to feed because the tides are rushing all the bait out towards them. They're always swimming into the tide so they can eat.

You have to figure out, and pay attention to the tide. But when the tides are at the lowest - the flats are too shallow so often there's no water in them at all. Basically your best bet is to fish from high tide on an outgoing tide.

Then bonefish have such huge eyes, so they see real well which means they get spooked easily. So you have to be careful not to wear bright shiny clothes.

You need a saltwater reel but you don't need heavy tackle for them - your typical rod would be a 9 foot, 8 weight rod. Some go lighter if you have the skill. Weather permitting, for example no wind, I will sometimes fish with 5 and 4 weight trout rods, but you need some skill to do this.

You need at minimum 200 yards of backing line, and with bonefish you're typically using 6 - 12 lb tippet, but that can vary.

Florida Keys Bonefish in the Flats About to be released

Florida Keys Bonefish In The Flats Being Released

Really your most productive way to get going is to visit a couple Florida Keys fly fishing shops and get some information on the fishing.

Also ask for information on qualified fly fishing guides. This will get you over that learning curve so you'll be more productive. If you're not in a hurry, and don't care about time, you can just ask a lot of questions and then figure it out on your own, but it'll just take a bit longer than going with a good Florida Keys fishing guide.

FKV: I heard that casting for saltwater fishing is different than freshwater fishing. What's the difference in the cast?

BG: When you're fishing saltwater, let's back it up - let's say you're fishing for trout in freshwater, you're generally imitating an insect, some kind of a bug.

If you're saltwater fishing you're generally imitating some kind of a crustacean or bait fish. Typically they're more used to seeing it below the surface, you seldom surface fish for saltwater fish. Generally below the surface, mid surface, the bottom, or top of the water occasionally.

Typically you cast so you can lead the fish towards your fly, so that your fly lands out in front of the targeted fish, so that fish will swim into your fly. Your fly lands out there, doesn't spook the fish, sinks in the water, and the fish comes toward it, then you do your retrieving to excite the fish.

When freshwater fishing, you're fishing where you think fish are, and you're imitating a bug, on the surface, or just below the surface, occasionally on the bottom.

Saltwater fishing is mostly sight fishing with a fly rod. But sometimes you're blind fishing in deeper water, especially when the tides are changing. You may just throw out the line as far as you can and let it sink, it's called blind retrieving - kind of hoping there's fish out there.

Saltwater Fly Fishing

Saltwater Fly Fishing, Photo Credit Ron Schley, NMFS

FKV: When you were Florida Keys fly fishing, did you fish all over the Keys?

BG: I mixed it up, but fly fishing Key West is something I did quite by a bit of. I would stay at Sugarloaf Key or Big Pine Key and go out from there. I didn't go fishing Dry Tortugas National Park but I did go Florida Keys fly fishing in the Marquesas Keys which was a wonderful fishing trip.

FKV: If you look back at all of your Florida Keys fly fishing trips - if you had to pick one particular event, one particular Florida fish you caught and battled - what would that be?

BG: For me it would have to be the first tarpon I ever caught. Which was my first trip to go Florida Keys fly fishing. I'll never forget it - it was a 60 lb fish. I'd never done it before but I'd read about it and so I wanted to practice at home before I went.

I was a fishing guide and taught fishing lessons so I wanted to figure it out. I had a guy who had a pick-up truck and he'd take off with a line attached to the bumper, and we tried different speeds. 15 mph, 20 mph, 25 mph, and 30 mph. We even went to 35 mph which was about maximum for a tarpon since there maximum speed would normally be 25 mph or 30 mph at most.

I'd go out into the parking lot at my fly shop to practice. I needed to know how to clear the line because when you've got a fish going 30 miles an hour and you've got a boat full of line around your feet you've got to be able to handle it all with your hands. I had to learn how to handle the line when it zips through the guide real fast.

So we went to go Florida Keys fly fishing, and on my very first boat trip there were 2 of us in the boat, and we came across a deep channel with shallow water on the edges. A big stream of tarpon were coming out of the deep channel and onto the surface and we were coming up on them. They were like a string of camels, probably 200 of them streaming up onto the flats.

Tarpon Leaping into the air

Tarpon Leaping And Preparing to Roll
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

Our guide took position, and told me to pick which fish I wanted and to throw my cast and lead the fish. You try to throw it so it's about 15 - 20 feet out, and on the side so it's eye will see the fly. Then you start your retrieval, and the tarpon will start to peel off the line as you see it run over and grab your fly. That all happened on my first time out.

He grabs the fly, you point the rod at him and you set the line with a direct pull. You don't use your rod, you pull the line with your arm until you get a direct pull from the line to the fly - not using the rod.

As soon as you hook it, you jerk it a few times so you can set the hook in the mouth because their mouths are real hard, and then you play the fish by flexing your rod. I hooked that fish and he jumped like crazy and I landed him in pretty fast time. And then I looked at my guide and said - "Well, this is easy!"

I'll never forget that first fish, it's kinda like your first girlfriend.

FKV: What would you say is the most difficult fish to catch when you've been Florida Keys fly fishing?

BG: No question, the permit.They're harder to catch because they're not prolific. Permit travel in ones and twos. They're hard to spot, they're really fast and they don't like eating artificals. They're a real challenge for a fly fisherman. They're incredibly powerful and they don't jump but they're built for speed. They'll run your line out many times, and they're one of the toughest. Pound for pound.

Permit Are the Bulldogs of the Flats

Permit Are the Bulldogs Of The Flats
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Dale M. McDonald Collection

If you want to learn to catch permit, the Yucatan has the small 2 - 4 pounders, then when you're back in the Florida Keys fly fishing you'll get into the 10 - 30 pound range.

FKV: What about kayak fishing? Did you do any in the Keys?

BG: Not a lot of kayak fishing in the Florida Keys but a lot in cold water. It's a real possibility especially for snook and the smaller resident tarpon.

FKV: What about shark? Did you ever go shark fishing?

BG: Oh sure, yeah. Pound for pound, action for action, shark are good fighters. There's nothing as powerful as a shark.

FKV: So they'll give you even more of a run for your money then if you hook a tarpon?

BG: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, they're incredibly powerful. This shark fishing thing is something else, but one of the most exciting fish to me is a barracuda. They go crazy when you hook them.

They're mean fish on a fly rod. They're not easily spooked, and you can tease them into biting. That's a good fish that's real susceptible to kayak fishing. The 2 - 3 pound guys to 30 pound 'cudas, they're great, you just gotta figure out a way to tease them to take the fly. When they hit the fly that's as good as anything I've had.

Barracuda Cruising the Flats

Barracudas Fight Hard After Being Hooked
Photo Courtesy of psmithy, Flickr

FKV? Do they jump or do they just race?

BG: Barracuda jump like crazy. They'll run too, but they tire out sooner because they go so berserk.

FKV: What about their teeth?

BG: They're not super dangerous. You just gotta keep your hand out of their mouth, that's all. Just use a long nose plyer so you can reach in and grasp the hook and get it out of the barracuda's mouth.

FKV: Are they like a shark where you have to use a heavy duty wire leader?

BG: Yes.

FKV: Anything else you'd like to add?

BG: For someone starting out Florida Keys fly fishing, go ask the locals. Go to the fish shops, they're so full of information and are always happy to help out. Go out with Florida Keys fishing guides, at least a few times so you learn the ropes. Then you can go it alone.

FKV: Thank you Bob. We appreciate your time and the great information you've provided us with.

BG: You're welcome.

For your convenience I'm affiliated with They have the greatest selection of fishing charters and can provide you with detailed information about the different fishing companies so you can get what you're looking for at the best possible price.

So you're aware, as an affiliate of FishingBooker's, should you book and then take a fishing charter I stand to earn a small commission BUT this does not cost you anymore. If you book here, or book through another source, the price stays the same. This is what being an affiliate means.

The following link takes you to the main Florida Keys fly fishing charters page, and it's here that you can drill down to:

. what you want to spend
. what part of the Florida Keys you want to fish
. where you want to fish (flats, backcountry, reef, deep sea)
. what you want to fish for (snook, snapper, shark, wahoo, barracuda)
. boat and crew details
. options and amenities
. fishing tackle and more!

Fly fishing Florida Keys you'll find the area is rich with a vast assortment of fighting fish worth targeting.

For the avid sport fishing enthusiast, the good news is that fly fishing is so versatile that you can enjoy this challenging sport anywhere you go. From Florida Keys deep sea fishing, to poling around the backcountry fishing and Key West flats fishing.

I hope you've found this interview to be as helpful and as interesting as we did.

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Local Weather Zip Codes

Key Largo - 33037
Marathon - 33050
Key West - 33040