Former Protea’s Fly Fishing Captain MC Coetzer on putting together the perfect box of flies for fishing flats.

“Pretty much all my fly fishing is guided by a quote from Richard Kline I picked up long ago.

‘Confidence is preparation. Everything else is beyond your control.'”

Every single flats fishing trip I’ve ever been on had one thing in common. I always felt like I was missing out on a couple of fish because I didn’t have the fly selection I would have wanted. IA couple of years ago at St Brandon’s Atoll I’ ha’d just stepped off the boat for our first session. Denton Ingham-Brown and James Christmas had wandered off to look for GTs. I was wading the deep outside edge of a sand flat.

I came across a solid permit feeding hard on the deep edge of the bank . He was in water about a metre deep and the current was pretty strong. I must have changed flies about five times and never felt like I was actually getting the fly into a position where I had even a remote chance of getting that fish interested. That kind of scenario really pisses me off … It’s a wasted opportunity that’s so easy to avoid if I adhere to Kline’s quote and prepare well.

Cover all weight categories

The primary problem on flats trips has always been that the weight variation and range of my flies weren’t good enough. The result was that some patterns sank too fast and others sank too slow for the prevailing conditions. This problem was compounded by the fact that my last couple of trips has been at really short notice, leaving me only two weeks or so to prepare. This is not nearly enough time to stock up on a good selection of flies. And rushed tying has never been one of my strong points. My flats box had also done quite a few trips with friends. Earlier this year I realised that the box was starting to look really haggard, so I dumped all the flies and started from scratch.

Photo Jan Verboom of Roodebloem Studios

You have to know exactly which flies you have in your box. More importantly, what each fly will do when it hits the water.

I’m definitely OCD when it comes to flies. If I see somebody staring into their fly box I know that they have lost confidence in their fly or in what they are doing. They also don’t have a solution to the problem. You have to know exactly which flies you have in your bo. More importantly, what each fly will do when it hits the water.

Guys who tie flies in ones and twos invariably end up with a whole box of mismatched flies. The result is that they have no idea what happens to the fly when it hits the water. If I lose a fly that’s been working for me under particular conditions I don’t want to have to guess which pattern will be similar when I open my box. I want to take an exact replica out of my box and fish it with confidence.

flies for fishing flats
Photo Jan Verboom of Roodebloem Studios

Get it right, then get it done.

I almost never tie a fly straight off the bat. I often spend days tying the same pattern without putting a single fly in the boxes. I work on the tailing material, the body construction or weighting. Only once I am completely satisfied with the pattern as a whole will it go into a box. I then tie a minimum of five exact flies and more often it will be 10 flies but with two different weightings.

Photo Jan Verboom of Roodebloem Studios

Stage 3 Loadshedding

Production tying helps create consistency and it also speeds up tying. For this reason I will tie the flies in stages, with a stage ending at any point where I apply glue or where the thread is cut. In most instances this means that the fly is broken into three steps with the first being the body, then the wing, and finally the head is finished with High Build Epoxy Primer for durability.

flies for fishing flats
Photo Jan Verboom of Roodebloem Studios

One box fits most.

The general idea behind my flats box is that it should not be a destination-specific box but rather that it should cover 90% of all destinations where the target species are bonefish, permit and triggers. When a trip comes up I can simply add the venue-specific patterns like milky dreams for milkfish, crab patterns with yellow legs for Australia, or very lightweight flies if I expect skinny water bones over a neap tide. These patterns are easy to add and you don’t need to spend a lot of time figuring them out.

Photo Jan Verboom of Roodebloem Studios

Your flies need to earn their keep.

If you prepare thoroughly you will maximise your opportunities and those uncontrollables like weather will have less of a negative impact on your fishing. Fly tying is an integral part of my preparation for any fishing trip but it will always be a means to an end and the “end” is to catch as many fish as I can under prevailing conditions. Every fly has to have a specific application or address a specific set of conditions to make it into a fly box.

flies for fishing flats
Photo Jan Verboom of Roodebloem Studios

Confidence is cultivated. When you are inexperienced, at least be prepared.

When fishing Infanta for grunter I literally carry about three JAM flies in different weights and maybe four turds. That’s what I have confidence in and I don’t need any other flies to catch fish. Flats fishing for bonefish, permit, triggers and parrots is a totally different kettle of fish and I definitely don’t have enough experience to select confidence flies for a box like this without doing a huge amount of research. A Seychelles guide probably carries only a handful of patterns and the simple reason for this would be similar to my Infanta scenario. They know they don’t need a box with 300 flies to catch fish.

Photo Jan Verboom of Roodebloem Studios

Minimize the patterns, maximize the range.

Flats flies are not complicated and you don’t need a wide range of patterns. You basically need some crabs, some shrimps and maybe a few baitfish patterns. Within those pattern groups you’ll have some variety but the critical factor to consider is weighting, or rather sink rate, and maybe colour to a lesser extent. I ended up with only about 15 distinctly different patterns but within those patterns I have a huge range of flies in terms of suitability for different conditions, structure, depth and speed of current. It’s a pretty basic box of flies but with great variation.

Photo Jan Verboom of Roodebloem Studios

Gift of the guides.

The best source of information will always be people who fish flats destinations regularly. Nobody spends more time on the flats than the professional guides and for this reason I’ve been collecting fly patterns from guides for a number of years and the request to them has always been the same: ‘Give me your two or three most effective flats flies for bonefish, permit and triggers.’ Over the years my sample box has grown to include flies from Andrew Parsons, Christiaan Pretorius, James Christmas, Wayne Haselau and many others. These guys’ flies are my most valuable source of information because they’ve already figured it out and they won’t suggest patterns that they don’t have a stack of confidence in.

Photo Jan Verboom of Roodebloem Studios

Develop a habit.

At some point in the past while preparing for a fishing trip where I was really pushed for time to prepare adequately, I decided to change my sleeping schedule so that I could get a few hours’ tying time in before I go to work. I ended up waking at about four in the morning and really enjoyed the quiet of the early mornings, when I could sit at my tying desk with a cup of coffee and a cigarette while either tying flies or thinking about fly design. This habit has kinda stuck and I now get up early every morning to think about flies, life, the universe and pretty much everything else. Sometimes I’ll even tie a few flies …


The basic thing about this box was that I wanted a box that would cover 80% of all flats fishing for Bonefish, Triggers and Permit. When a trip comes up I can then add venue specific patterns to this selection. The most critical factor in fly selection for almost all flats fishing is weight variation, so this box has at least two weights for each pattern. If I had more space I would probably have added some smaller crabs and possibly bulk up on the very light weight stuff……  Merkins…. Probably but I don’t like tying them, so they can wait.

flies for fishing flats

On the left panel

First five rows are standard Alphlexos.

Row six is an experimental fleeing crab version of an Alphlexo. I liked it at the time but will probably take them out of the box at some stage……

Then there’s three rows of heavy crabs tied with extractor fan filter and sand mixed with epoxy for the bodies. The sand comes from St Francois and St Brandon’s – collected on location 😊 I have no idea whose pattern it is but it’s got elements of a number of patterns and the rubber legs make it come alive.

Then, the last two rows….. This is my favourite pattern in the box!!!

Rolling beads with dumbbells for weight, rubber legs and sculpting fiber…… I have no idea where I stole the concept but it’s definitely not my idea.

Second panel

The first two rows are my favourite basic Bonefish fly. Basically a simplified Gotcha. It’s quick to tie and very durable.

3rd Row has ten small tan clousers tied with Calf Tail because of the shine and translucency. Then ten Pillow Talks – just because it’s so popular..

4th Row – ten Christmas Shrimps. I don’t like this pattern and it looks like shit (sorry James!!!!) buuuuutttt it catches a lot of Bonefish. It really is amazing how well this pattern works on sand.

This row also has another arbitrary shrimp with Craft Fur and rubber.

5th and 6th rows – Spawning Shrimps and more spawning shrimps. Peterson’s, Veverka’s, Enrico Puglisi’s ad some others thrown in for good measure. This is a kick ass pattern…..

7th row – Gotchas simply because no flats box can go without them.

8th row – a fox fur pattern and some no name shrimps. The fox fur pattern is based an Jannie’s patterns. It does extremely well on triggers in Sudan – bulkier and sinks slowly but the fish move a long way for them.

The last two rows is just a very simple fleeing crab pattern but with extra weight for deeper water or strong current. It also uses the filter material and sand with epoxy.

All photos by Jan Verboom of Roodebloem Studios

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