Entering the Strike Zone

Flight or fright, eat or wait?

It was during my years working as a zoo keeper that I learnt a lot about that invisible zone that surrounds animals, the zone that determines the potentially critical flight or fight response for many living creatures.

Walking behind the enclosures with a 140kg Sumatran Tiger separated by a few steel bars teaches you plenty. You could approach within 4 feet and the tiger would stare at you, but slide your foot 2 inches closer and the fright response kicked in and the animal would leap at you with a blood-curdling roar. That invisible mark was the point at which you crossed beyond the Tigers comfort zone, it happens with people and it certainly happens with fish.

Those of us that have stalked wary flats feeders or freshwater trout will know when they’ve crossed the fish’s comfort zone and exacted a flight response, much to our chagrin. In the same way fish have that safety zone they also have a zone where they feel prepared to strike at prey. If you watch many predators they will attempt to either work their way towards prey so as to put the prey in this zone or they will lie in wait for the prey to cross that zone.

The strike zone is different for different species and becoming familiar with each fishes preferred strike zone is a big key to success. In the natural world an animal that uses up valuable energy for a zero energy return in is going to die pretty quickly.

It is hopeless for a fish to begin a big burst of energy to chase down a baitfish that has a monumental head start, the chances of missing the baitfish and wasting the energy are high. Instead the predator waits until the food has close to zero chance of escape.

A fast pelagic fish will have a far greater strike zone than an ambush feeder like a flathead or barramundi. The larger the item of prey the greater the cost to energy ratio. A fish may be more inclined to go to the outer bounds of the strike zone if the cost is outweighed by the reward,and this trait is not unique to fish but the vast majority of species on Earth. I’d swim the full length of an Olympic pool for a Big Mac but I doubt I’d do it for a French fry.

It is not just the feeding response that can score you a bite. There are many species that will actually get aggressive towards a fly and use a fright response, much like that Sumatran Tiger,Australian Bass, Barramundi, Mangrove Jack and even the more pedestrian Bully Mullet can all strike a fly out of aggression rather than feeding requirements.

If you keep smashing a fly into a bass or Barra hideout soon enough it’s like a persistent knock on the door – there’s a chance they’ll receive an aggressive answer.

Spawning bully mullet will protect their activities vigorously at times and will chase down small baitfish, presumably to protect the eggs and milt. Find a milling school of spawners when the Autumn West winds blow on Australia’s east coast and you’re in for a treat with small surf candies and a 4weight! I’ve even seen them chase down metal lures at full speed but first it must enter the fight zone.

Choosing the approach

Smoothly stripping a fly through a school of Bully Mullet in Sydney Harbour.

Keeping the fly in the zone longer by using a slow strip usually elicits a fight response as the mullet protect their spawning patch.

Armed with this knowledge it is a basic fundamental angling requirement to place your fly into this fright/strike zone. But bear in mind you need to do it in a way that takes into account the flight response as well. If the water is clear and the fish is a wary feeder like a bream or bonefish you will need long leaders and smaller, less weighted flies for gentle deliveries.

You’ll also need the fly to be within a short distance to get a feeding response. This technique might also allow you to better predict the fish’s movements, helping present the cast well ahead and strip it into position, rather than risk spooking your quarry. A gentle tap of the fly rather than aggressive strips may serve to jolt curiosity rather than jolt nerves.

By contrast a churning mass of high-speed tuna are likely to have a less jittery disposition if there is a chaotic frenzy of bait, exploding water and co-competitors. You can also bet their eyes are keen and due to their speed the strike zone is far greater.

A fast, aggressive cast is less likely to spook in this situation and unless you cast out the wrong side of the boat you’ll probably easily make it to the strike zone. I’ve seen rolling schools of trevally and kingfish in the thousands that have completely spooked due to a flyline landing across the lead fish. Even with all those thousands of fish it only took a couple to spook and the whole school sounded to the bottom in a blink. The noise of 2000 fish all turning nose down and thrashing their tails is spectacular, if not pretty annoying.

Tarpon fishing in Florida is a real eye opener. The guides spent a long time impressing on me to avoid casting to the lead fish when a string of tarpon is encountered. This lead fish is like the scout, if he spooks then the whole school is gone. The trailing fish seem to have a little more trust, as long as the lead fish is comfortable then they are too.

To evoke a feeding response you need your fly to pass almost past their nose, yet the flight response will be evoked more often than not if you land it there.

The key is a predictive cast that lands beyond the fish and is stripped into position. Fish holding in deeper waters may be less prone to flight than those holding near the surface, as too those in clearer water versus those in murky, mud holes. Murky water dwellers are also going to require a fly to presented far closer to them and are, in the vast majority of cases, ambush feeders.

The right equipment

This balancing act between spooking your target and getting it to eat a fly has as much to do with your equipment choice as it does your casting accuracy.

Obviously you need to present the fly in the right zone and often that can require speed, accuracy and unconventional casts under branches, around corners and awkward to reach places. Lighter, softer fly rods create less line speed than heavy fast tapered rods. This in turn is better for delicate approaches.

Coupling the right rod weight and taper with the right line taper is also critical. A softer medium tapered rod is still not going to be good on spooky, clearwater dwelling fish if you put an aggressive 30ft shooting head style line on it. Longer head lengths of 37-48 feet are going to be gentler in delivery, especially if the rear taper of the line is longer as well. The rear taper of the line determines how quickly or slowly the lines energy is dissipated. Short aggressive lines with short rear tapers are much more energetic than longer heads with their long rear tapers.

Slapping a fly into the strike zone will evoke that ‘knocking on the door’ response you will be best to employ a heavier line with some higher line speed so a faster taper rod will be better for the job.

Leaders are a huge consideration as well. Fly lines are generally too visible unless you opt for clear lines or clear tips. Balance your leader length with your fly size to lessen the chance of ‘lining’ and spooking the fish.

I think of leaders like electrical wires transferring energy from fly line to the fly. Big cables can carry more energy than little ones and you are better to smoothly transition diameters than go straight from thick to thin to ensure smooth energy flow. Also consider how much energy needs to pass to the end to turn the fly over. Small light flies can be delivered with longer leaders. The energy required to turn over a smaller fly is less than that of a big fly so you can have longer, thinner, tapered leaders and still turn the fly over. This is great for wary fish.

Bigger or heavier flies require more energy so you need to keep the leaders shorter and not step the leader down too many times as small diameter leaders carry less energy.

Finally, consider your fly materials in relation to presentation. Heavy dumbbell eyes may be just the order of the day for deep foraging kingfish but transported to a wary cruising trevally on an Exmouth flat you’ll be watching a puff of sand and a bow wave screaming toward the horizon.

Ultimately this is a game that requires some prior knowledge of your target species and that’s half the fun.

When you balance the flight/fight response with the correct feeding zone you then have to work out the correct fly and retrieve, but hey, no-one said this was easy.  

Justin Duggan

About Justin Duggan

Justin is one of Australia’s leading Saltwater Flyfishing guides and Fly-casting instructors. Justin is the operator of Sydney Fly fishing Tours and has spent many years guiding anglers in a variety of other localities, including regular stints in Weipa where he works for Fish’s Fly and Sportfishing.

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