You arrive at your spot, and are immediately greeted with large bait schools and predators cruising and slashing through them. It seems like the perfect setup for success, right? Only problem is, you start casting....and continue casting.....and casting.....then cast some more.....with little to nothing to show for it. How can this be with the bait so prevalent and the fish so fired up? The problem is the prevalent bait part. When fly fishing around thick wads of it—bait balls as often referred to—there's simply so much of the real thing that it can make it pretty tough getting a fish to notice and eat your offering.
The most drastic example of this that comes to mind was about 9 years ago when beach snook fishing. When I arrived at the beach that fall morning, I saw a pretty amazing spectacle. The water was absolutely chock-full of bait schools, numerous snook were cruising and shooting through them, and about a hundred yards out, false albacore and big bull sharks were feeding and busting voraciously. It was crazy!
Long story short, I was there for about 4 hours and only caught about 6 or 7 snook. It might sound pretty crappy based on how much insanity was going on, but honestly, I'm pretty proud of how I did. Keep in mind that I use an extremely realistic fly for my beach fishing, but the competition with the real thing was just really fierce. I had to use some tactics to get my fly noticed in the crowd and get those snook to snap it up.
When fishing among thick bait schools, just casting out and stripping through the bait doesn't always work when the fish aren't frantically busting on the bait. During these times, I stay on my toes and keep trying different things to keep the fly looking natural while also helping the fish to more easily see and intercept my fly. Consider trying the following:
Match the hatch: First and foremost, I match the hatch as best I can. I want the fly to resemble what the fish are chasing both in terms of color and size. While a different pattern might work, often times fish get totally keyed on a certain type of baitfish and even a certain size. One little trick here is to tie your flies with a bit of red around the head/gills. Matching the hatch but using a fly with a touch of red in it can help separate your fly from the masses because it now shows a sign of injury.
Make it act injured: Keeping with the theme of looking injured, try stripping the fly at a different speed than the rest of the bait. Use an erratic cadence with strips of different lengths, speeds, and pauses, and manipulate the fly so that it doesn't act exactly the same as the bait schools. Even if you think a fast retrieve might be best, try a slower one too! It's worked for me.
Try deeper: If you're over deeper water, bigger fish may be holding deeper. Sometimes, the smaller fish will be up top chasing bait around while the larger ones will be sulking below picking up the injured or dead leftovers. Other times, the fish might cruise around in schools say, 10 or 15 feet down, then all suddenly rush a bait school on the surface and attack. Just blind casting and fishing deep around dimpling bait or the occasional sporadic bust can work well.
I've also had success fishing "deeper" in shallow water. Say what?! This means that rather than stripping my fly near the surface or at mid-depth, I'll let the fly settle to the bottom and crawl it along or just barely twitch it inches at a time, all on the bottom. I've used this tactic a good number of times before in water that's just 3 or 4 feet deep. It gives the impression that your fly is injured or disoriented and makes for easy pickins'.
Fish the edges: This is something I like to do especially when blind casting around schools of bait. Fishing the edges of the bait school(s) makes the fly easier to spot since it's outside the main crowd. In addition, it can make the fly look disoriented since it's swimming outside of the main area of activity. Predator fish also will swim around the perimeter of the bait schools before slashing through the main wad, so fishing the edge might actually put your fly closer to the predators more consistently.
Get in their face: If I can easily see fish cruising around bait and zipping through it, I'll try stripping the fly so that it naturally swims past their face very closely. Fish can get less spooky in these scenarios making it easier to closely cross their path, and doing so can make a fish react instantly. Keep in mind that fish can have unpredictable swimming habits when they are fired up around bait schools, but often times just standing and studying their movements while waiting for that precise right time to make a quick cast can get the fly about where it needs to be.