Fishing shows and articles can sometimes make fly fishing the flats look easy. Ideal conditions, a highly-experienced angler, and crafty editing have a way of doing that. I don't watch tv fishing much at all anymore, but I was fortunate enough to grow up when some of the greatest shows of all time were on—Spanish Fly, Walker's Cay Chronicles, Fly Fishing the World, and Jim and Kelly Watt's Fly Fishing Video Magazine are legendary in my mind. They not only stoked my passion for fly fishing even further, but the episodes where they sight fished on the flats instantly struck a chord with me. I had to do this someday!
I've since done a load of sight-fishing in my life, but much of it has been solo and from the shore. I consider myself an above-average caster and extremely capable at sight-fishing, but when being poled along the flats by a guide my skills can erode. The issue here is not suddenly forgetting what I need to do, but rather a feeling of added pressure from being watched/directed along with the variables of fishing from the boat itself. I'm sure not everyone will be affected the same, but it's hard to say till you do it yourself!
I don't get to stand on the bow of a flats skiff too often, so nerves combined with things like a moving boat, quick casting direction changes, and a big one for me—maintaining balance on a little bow casting platform—can all make for some rookie moments. I know that if I did this specific type of fishing way more often I'd be much more comfortable and competent in these situations, but for now that's not the reality. It can be a humbling experience to say the least, especially for the first-timer.
For someone taking their first guided trip on the flats, I offer these three key pieces of advice:
Practice, Practice, Practice - I can't say enough about this one. It is critical to have a solid casting foundation well before the trip begins. You'll want to practice casting short, medium, and long, with a heavy focus on accuracy and efficiency. Practice backhand casting, quick direction changes, and double hauling, all with a minimum of false casts. Saltwater flats are often windy, so if you can handle casting regardless of wind angle you'll be way better prepared. If you can practice with similar tackle that you expect to be using, all the better. Casting a 12-weight in the wind is wayyyyyy different than casting a 5 on a calm day!
Have Realistic Expectations - I don't care how well-known the guide is or where you're fishing; fish like bonefish, permit, and tarpon on the flats typically don't throw themselves on the fly. Just because it's saltwater fishing and an exotic environment doesn't guarantee success! Be prepared to flub some casts, step on the line, and have plenty of refusals. Of course you can have a banner day where everything goes right, but I never expect it going in. As eluded to above, being a proficient caster gives you way better odds. The guide takes you to the fish and gives you the right tools and instruction to do the job, but proper execution is all on you.
Talk to the Guide First - If you've never done this type of fishing before, get a handle on what to expect beforehand. I like to find out things such as what the boat is and how it's set up on the bow (platform, stripping bucket, leaning post/bar, etc), the environment we'll be fishing, possible weather conditions, and recommended tackle/rigging (I prefer using my own gear). Not only should you tell the guide if it's your first time, but if you lack skills as a fly angler don't be embarrassed...tell the guide! Believe me, they'll appreciate knowing ahead of time and should be glad to work with you on any weaknesses. Just remember this might burn up potential fishing time ($$$), which is why I say to practice before the trip begins.
Fly fishing the flats can be frustrating, but when you experience success it's satisfying beyond belief. To me it's truly the "big leagues" of fly fishing. Like any fishing skill, practice and experience gives you higher chances of having an epic day here. However, no matter how good you are or think you are, always be prepared to get "humbled by the flats." The challenge and the newness of it all is what keeps me coming back!