Stories From Afield • Updated Thu, Nov 9, 2023
It’s no surprise that Captain Ian Slater understands the value of good coaching. Born and raised in Satellite Beach, Florida, Ian grew up fishing for trout, snook, redfish, and baby tarpon in the tidal estuaries of his backyard. However, his focus fell squarely on hockey early in life, and he began pursuing it seriously by the age of 9.
Images c/o Capt. Ian Slater
“I was totally eaten up by it and excited — always looking for a way to improve,” says Ian. “I really wanted to be a student of the game.” Throughout his hockey career, Ian developed his skills under the guidance of many coaches, a process that exposed him to a wealth of insights on teaching tactics and coaching styles. Now, as a top flats fishing guide in the Florida Keys with a competitive tournament record from the poling platform of his skiff, Ian has shown an incredible knack for coaching his anglers to perform on the bow of his boat under high pressure.
The Florida Keys’ flats fishery is by no means easy, and, to succeed, guides must consistently and seamlessly coach their anglers through highly-visual, heart-palpitating shots at permit, tarpon, bonefish and other gamefish that frequent the area for its rich, aquatic ecosystem. Add into the mix tournament rules, time constraints, prizes, and pride — and the task of targeting these wary fish in shallow water becomes all the more daunting. The tournament season is long and runs for most of the year, forcing guides who participate to incorporate tournament prep into already stacked schedules. Ian has competed since 2018, and the tournament calendar is now baked into his fishing plan for each season.
“It starts with the Cuda Bowl on Super Bowl Weekend, so the better part of January I’m prepping for that,” he explains. “And then, if I haven’t been permit fishing yet, I’m gonna dive deep into permit because The March Merkin tournament comes up quick. And then, regardless of how good the permit fishing is, I’m turning my energy to tarpon because we’ve got The Golden Fly in May, and the Gold Cup in June. After that, it’s a very quick turnaround back to permit because we’ve got the Del Brown tournament mid July — and the new IGFA Permit Invitational in October now.” Throughout the year, this breadth forces Ian to be nimble and perform under additional constraints as a guide. But Ian has always strived for maximal command and agility on the water, just as he once did on the ice.
Before Ian was consumed by a true love of chasing fish, angling took a back seat to sports for much of his early life. Hockey dictated a lot even back in his high school days — as the game took him from Florida to Indiana, and then Wisconsin. He was drafted into a junior league in the Midwest during his sophomore year of high school, and after three years, accepted a scholarship to Western Michigan University.
It was during his college summers that Ian rediscovered his passion for water above 32 degrees:
“During the offseason, we didn't have to be in training all day, but we still had to train, so the team stayed on campus throughout college summers. After our summer sessions, most of the boys just sat around, but that’s when I got back into fishing. I fished all the local rivers around our campus — the Manistee, and sometimes I’d drive up to Traverse City to fish carp and smallmouth on Lake Huron. That's when I started focusing primarily on fly fishing, which I loved doing as a kid.”
During trips home to Florida, Ian began to explore and rediscover the Indian River Lagoon in his childhood backyard, fly rod in hand.
After college, Ian played professionally with the Toronto Maple Leafs' farm team out of Orlando, Florida. There, he fished on the side during the offseason. One summer, after suffering a bad injury, Ian began thinking about life after hockey. “I wanted to work in a field where I could get better with time and effort, one that would give me that same feeling I had playing hockey as a kid,” he remembers. “Going through injuries can really beat a person down and I was pretty burnt out.” That summer, Ian spent several weeks of his recovery time challenging himself on the flats of the he Keys. This ultimately inspired him to call his GM two days before training camp, informing him that he wasn’t coming back, and instead was going to work for The Angling Company — a premier fly shop in Key West, where he took on a part-time job folding T-shirts. “I wanted to be a student of a new game and carve my own path,” he remembers.
Ian wasted no time learning from the folks around him in this new, tight-knit Keys community. He quickly found that, both on the flats and in the rink, “fast improvement stems from surrounding yourself with people who are at the top of their game.” Outside of work, he began fishing the flats every single chance he had — clocking hours on the platform developing his approach to sight-fishing South Florida’s saltwater gamefish species. Since moving to the Keys in 2014, Ian has become a top guide and tournament angler, focusing primarily on permit fishing. His passion for competition and desire to constantly improve have led him to take a methodical and comprehensive approach to his guiding.
When guiding clients of any skill level, for competition or leisure, Ian constantly finds himself employing the coaching tactics of his own mentors, from both hockey and fishing. Ian always admired the knack of one coach on the Red Wings coaching staff for instilling confidence in players as they worked to develop known weaknesses in their game. For first-time and veteran anglers alike, bad habits have a way of rearing their ugly heads in those adrenaline-fueled moments on the water.
“This is what you sign up for as a guide. Understand your client’s skillset, your limitations, the conditions of the day. This is the ultimate challenge, so lean into it. Usually problems start with fundamental technique. Now, how do you communicate that and get someone up to speed as fast as possible, without leaning against them? What can you do to put them in a better position? You need to keep the mindset healthy.”
Ian and his clients must operate as a team on the skiff, especially in the competitive flats fishing arena — where the rules are dictated by Mother Nature and the playing field is vastly different each day. When the skiff goes in, Ian draws inspiration from John Cooper, head coach of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, for his effective team communication. “His communication with his guys is so clear. He’s so respected for communication that it makes guys want to play for him. He's very firm about the team effort and you don't want to let him down at the end of the day because you know he's really pulling for you and wants the absolute best for you.” The sense of accomplishment one feels after a banner day on the water is often defined by the goals one sets at the dock. Even outside of tournaments, Ian encourages goal-oriented fishing on his boat. “As a guide, I want to hear my clients’ goals so we can execute on what they want to do. And at the end of the day, I’m trying to win for both of us.”
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