Fight The Good Fight, in Saltwater or Fresh

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Kent Gives Them His All Photo by Louis Cahill

Kent Gives Them His All Photo by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

My friend Kirk Deeter says freshwater and saltwater fly fishing are, “two entirely different sports played with the same equipment.”

In essence that is true and Kirk’s point is doubly true. Anyone who’s tried both can attest to that, but some of that equipment looks more similar than it is.

Reels, lines, leaders, hooks, tying materials are all different but there is likely no piece of equipment more different than the rod. There are a lot of differences between freshwater and saltwater rods and in several ways their use is quite different. This became readily apparent while giving a good friend, who guides for trout, a quick lesson before is first bonefish trip. He’s a great fisherman and caster but I could see from the look on his face that the eight weight I was lending him was strikingly unfamiliar.

We’ve talked a good bit about saltwater casting, the double haul and line speed but for those who are making the switch from trout to saltwater fly fishing, I’d like to offer some pointers on the techniques that I feel are the least intuitive. The fighting of fish.

When it comes to the fight, the trout rod and the saltwater rod are truly two different tools and they require different techniques. The divergence of those techniques starts with a fundamental element, the fish. It is the difference in the fish that dictates both the design of the rod and the tactics employed in its use.

The trout and the trout rod

The trout is a cautious, finicky fish. Much of this has to do with his proximity to man. He doesn’t have an ocean to hide in, and so he sees a good bit of fishing pressure in most places. To catch him, you will most likely need small flies with light hooks and fine tippet that will pass his scrutiny. Fortunately he has a soft mouth to bury a hook in and although a big one will make you work to touch him, he’s not likely to head for the coast of Africa once he’s hooked.

The trout rod is designed with a light tip to protect that fine tippet and light hook, as well as the fish’s delicate mouth. When fighting a trout you move the rod well off its axis. That’s to say that you lift the tip high or hard to the side rather than pointing it at the fish. This puts light pressure on the fish and gives the tip plenty of spring to keep,you tight to him and cushion your tippet against head shakes, jumps or sudden runs. The steady pressure wears the fish down quickly.

The obvious exception to this scenario is streamer fishing. When fishing streamers you are generally fishing heavier tippet and larger hooks. I generally use nothing finer than 0X tippet for streamers and most of my streamers have #4 hooks. A #4 hook is plenty large to fight the biggest trout without inflicting unnecessary harm to the fish. For this reason I often fish a six weight saltwater rod with streamers.

Saltwater fish and saltwater rods

Saltwater sport fish are tough. They live in a harsh environment and have evolved to meet the challenge. They have hard mouths for eating crabs and toothy bait fish and it takes a lot of pressure to bury a hook in them. Once hooked they are freight trains with the whole ocean to run in. It takes a lot of pressure to turn them. It’s simply about force.

A saltwater rod is designed for just that. Delivering force to a fish’s mouth. It has a stiff butt section that is used for fighting fish. The point at which the force is applied is generally marked by a second stripper guide. When fighting fish on a saltwater rod imagine that the second stripper guide is your tip top and fight the fish with that guide. To do this you will need to apply a lot of force with the reel through a heavy drag and some hard cranking on that reel handle. The rod stays at about fifteen degrees off axis where the butt can apply maximum pressure and the tip is out of play.

Fortunately most saltwater species are not tippet shy so you can fish heavy leaders and bite guards. Saltwater reels, hooks and lines are all designed to work with these tactics. It’s a specialized system designed to break tough fish. When used properly the results are great but you’d have a tough day fishing trout with this setup. Different fish, different tool.

A test worth trying

Here’s a great way to refine your fish fighting skills for both saltwater and trout fishing.
Get yourself an old fashioned spring scale. The kind made to weigh fish works fine. Get out both the saltwater and trout rigs, if you have them. Tie your tippet to the scale and have a friend read the measure as you employ both the techniques described in this article. If you have never tried this, I promise you will be surprised.

Odds are your not putting nearly as much pressure on your fish as you think. It’s a good idea to do this several times with different sized tippet and let your muscles learn what the different rods and methods are capable of. You will fight fish more efficiently, land more of them and release them fresher.


Louis Cahill

Gink & Gasoline
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27 thoughts on “Fight The Good Fight, in Saltwater or Fresh

  1. Don’t forget that ever important mental game! Most trout fishers I have met don’t know how to play big fish. Alot of guys struggle with the first dozen steelhead they meet. Even worse yet, their first Tarpon. Even with the right tools, the mental game can be the decider of winner and loser on a 140+ Tarpon. Those first moments when the fish does the freak freak are the wrong times to play the dry fly fisherman!

    • In my opinion the majority of anglers don’t fight fish aggressively enough. That’s not unique to trout fisherman. You’re right, it is a mental game and there are no rules. A friend of mine laughed at me once for kicking a fish. I didn’t kick him but this 24″ rainbow had pulled into a hydronic and was resting. I couldn’t horse him out with my 4wt bamboo rod and I’ll be damned if I was going to let him rest. I waded out and gave him a nudge with my foot that got him back in the current. As long as you’re not tearing mandibles off, the more pressure, the faster you land them and the faster you land them, the better off they are. They don’t call it a fight for nothing.

  2. Very useful article. I’m in the transitionary process from freshwater to saltwater and it takes quite a bit of mental adjustment from playing a trout to playing even a good sized baby tarpon. At first in saltwater you tend to strike and play like you are trout fishing, but with time the “mental mapping process” starts to work and you revert to “strip strike” and playing the fish with the rod much lower to the water and pointing towards the fish.

    I liked your points at the end. Any chance of an article on “drag setting” and how you should probably set the drag setting poundage, particularly in saltwater? Thanks.

      • Louis while I’m on a good run on article suggestions:-), if I may dare suggest for us newbies to saltwater, a pictorial/article on how to handle different saltwater species could come in handy for not ending up with a nasty injury or two.

        It can be a bit daunting catching a given species for the first time and thinking “now what did the book say about how to handle this one”. Although glaring teeth are a bit of an obvious one, but not knowing about a snooks’ gill plate could be painful! Trust this makes sense.

        Keep up the good work “G&G”. Great solid advice in your articles. Rob Mellors.

  3. Good article. Agree with every bit of it. In the past, it has been a challenge for me to shift from trout to tarpon. Shifting to tarpon hookset mode is critical, since the number of shots you get at tarpon are limited and failing to properly set the hook is basically always going to cause you to lose the fish because setting the hook in the tarpon’s hard, resistent mouth is a real challenge. Regardless of mental prep, if you do a lot of trout fishing, your muscle memory, or habit for soft-mouth hookset, or whatever you want to call it is pretty hard to overcome. At least for me anyway.

    • The tarpon set is a thing all it’s own. When I first started tarpon fishing I had the exact opposite problem. I hit them too hard. I should say, I hit them too quick. My set was too jerky. With time I learned to to wait until the hook found its home to really give it to them. Hey, if it was easy everybody’d do it.

  4. That’s an interesting point about how much pressure you’re actually placing on the fish. It isn’t much at all. The first time I really thought about it I was watching the film “Chasing Silver”. Andy Mill was discussing applying “max pressure” when fighting tarpon in order to land them (hopefully) as quickly as possible. According to him, max pressure was approximately 12lbs. He would practice the feel of 12lbs at home with a single pulley and a 12lb bucket of water. But that was surprising to me. Only 12lbs of force applied to a 150lb tarpon with a 12weight setup??? It’s crazy to think but it’s true. You can imgaine in the trout world we only apply a fraction of that pressure.

  5. I think that Kirk is overlooking the fact that there are many of us fly fisherman who fish for freshwater species other than trout. I live in Minnesota and seldom get the chance to fish salt water, or trout for that matter. But I have rods from ranging from a 3wt to a 10wt. Fishing for bluegills in the spring with a 3wt is a real kick and if you are going to fish for northern pike or muskies you better bring your 9 or 10 wt to handle fish pushing 50 inches.

    • It’s true, fly anglers are after everything these days. But the principal hold true as far as the rod design is concerned. I fish streamers for trout with a six weight saltwater rod. It still fights fish like a saltwater rod. The rod doesn’t know the difference.

  6. I saw and interesting video the other day w/Tim Rajeff showing how mush pressure he could put on a 10 wt w/in vertical grip position, he went all the way to 23 lbs of pressure before that rod exploded,

  7. Cut that short, I did a group lesson w/him last year at Unicoi, I’ll say he can cast!! He was a big help to me as well, and a real character as well, he made it fun.

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