Getting Started In Saltwater Fly Fishing

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Owen Plair

Saltwater Fly fishing is sort of like the X-Games of Fly Fishing.

Not only are you catching bigger fish in saltwater but the fish that you are targeting fight a hell of a lot harder than most freshwater fish! Whether it’s a 150 lb Tarpon doing the leap of faith oceanside off Islamorada or a GT ripping 100 yards of backing off in mere seconds off the coast of South Africa. There are tons of these kinds of species that make saltwater fly fishing seem intense but also desirable. Who doesn’t want to catch a bad ass fish on fly, sight fishing?

Now don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love freshwater fly fishing, and always will, because fly fishing is fly fishing, no matter what species of fish you’re targeting. Now I’m sure a lot of you have never done any saltwater fly fishing and that’s what this article is for– to get you started. Because after watching videos, reading articles, and seeing pictures, it’s time to make the move.

Here are a few key things to get you started.

The number one thing is your cast. You absolutely positively need to learn how to Double Haul! There are tons of instructional videos out there but I always feel a good Casting School at your local fly shop or casting lesson will be the best. Before you make that move you’ll need to get your first saltwater setup. Saltwater rods have a very different action and you’re gonna need something to practice with.

I always recommend buying a 4pc 8wt rod with some kind of large arbor reel, basically a setup that will work for Redfish, Snook, Bonefish, Baby Tarpon, and many more saltwater species. These days you can get a pretty decent rod and reel combo for around $200-$300, which is a good way to start. I always feel that spending a little more money on better gear pays off in the long run, because better products have pretty hefty warranties, and hold up forever.

If I were you, then I’d spend around $400-$600 on a good salt water reel, and $600-$800 on a good saltwater rod, because they will perform better, and last longer. Hate to see you lose your first Redfish or Bonefish because of a crappy reel or rod.

Once you feel good about your double haul, start working on distance and accuracy. Remember, a good day on the water starts in the back yard. I always feel a good cast on the bow of my boat is around 60-80 feet but most times you can get close enough to make it happen with a 40-60 foot cast. Just be aware, the farther you can throw, the better your day will be.

In saltwater you can only get so close to the fish, either with a boat or wading. You’re sight fishing in shallow water situations most of the time and fish will spook if you get too close, which is why a long cast is key.

It’s a lot different than floating a nymph and mending a 15ft cast from a drift boat. I like to put a 5 gallon bucket out so anglers can practice leading fish and working on their accuracy. Put a piece of bright colored yarn on the end of the leader so you can see how you would be presenting an actual fly. The number one thing to remember is that double hauling is a muscle memory sort of thing, so it only takes 5-10 minutes a day, 4-5 times a week for your body to get used to the cast, but practice is key to learning. After a few weeks of casting and getting used to the feel of your 8wt, it’s time to book a trip.

Talk with your spouse.

Get the green light to book a few days somewhere for saltwater fly fishing. Keep in mind, bringing a buddy will keep costs way down if things are split two ways. I always say that Redfish is a good way to get started and there are plenty of places to do that, all the way from Florida to Texas.

The good thing about Redfish is that they are not the hardest saltwater species to catch and will give you a lot of different visual situations to learn from. Putting that cast to use off the bow of a flats boat will change your life forever, especially after watching a Redfish smash the fly you put in front of him. I can’t tell you how many anglers I see each year catch their first saltwater fish on fly. The smile on their face when they take everything they learned, and put it all to use, says it all.

I promise, after your first experience saltwater fly fishing, you’ll want to do it all the time. Now it’s time to book some trips to some bad ass places and catch some bad ass fish. The destinations are endless and most of them tropical which is a plus for bringing your family and friends.

Places like the Everglades, Florida Keys, Bahamas, Belize, Mexico, South Africa, and so many more awesome destinations to catch Tarpon, Bonefish, Snook, and Permit which are species high on any angler’s list. I find that saltwater fly fishing is not just about catching a fish, but what it took to see that fish eat your fly. If you haven’t got the chance to experience a day on the bow of a boat in the salt, its time to turn it up a notch, my friends.

Owen Plair
Gink & Gasoline
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9 thoughts on “Getting Started In Saltwater Fly Fishing

    • I live here and have fished with Pat Dinneen and he was very good. I’ve also heard Tom Campbell is very good and specializes with flyfishing. Google either and get a better feel.

      • Bazz from Pensacola guide service does solid work! He can put you on anything within the seasons.

        But if your in the spring and summer, just walk the beach line on calm days, you’ll find fish. Wading is cheap and you can do it days on in!

  1. Like you Louis love both Fresh and Saltwater Flyfishing, but once you’ve done Saltwater there’s no turning back 🙂

    As you say No 1 is the cast in saltwater. A lot of people maintain as long as you can cast 40 – 60 feet your in the ballgame and that you don’t need to cast prodigious distances in most freshwater situations (I choose my words carefully and don’t necessarily subscribe to this line of thinking), however the salt is a different ballgame. The further you can cast, the more casting knowledge you have of coping with the inevitable wind, and many other factors to contend with in the salt, the more you are in the game.

    One of the most valuable casts to master in the salt is the sidecast; it gets the fly under the mangrove branches (piers, docks and quays) and into the hot zone (especially for snook and grouper), it helps to “get under the wind” and keep the fly away from the head and ears and it keeps the rod on a plane that is going to scare less fish. Like a lot species of fish, but especially in the salt, danger often comes from the skies and the vertical cast can be perceived by fish as one of these dangers. Master the sidecast in the salt and you have a friend for life.

    p.s. First time in the salt, have a casting lesson. Money well spent, even if you’re a good caster. There is always something new to learn in flycasting and in our wonderful sport!

  2. There are very few of us you can under pressure cast to a fish 80 ft away, in a 20 knot wind, on a consistent basis. Bruce I am not.

  3. Nice article and advice. Unfortunately, I think you missed the mark on advice in choosing a fly rod, ” $600-$800 on a good saltwater rod, because they will perform better, and last longer. ”

    Rather than assigning a dollar value to imply suitability, folks should understand that the salt environment is corrosive and demands a rod that meets that challenge by having components that will be able to sustain it over time. Anglers would be better prepared across the spectrum by learning how to identify what makes a fly rod a great value. One of the longest living myths in our pastime is that $$$ equals quality and in the last decade, that’s been debunked. Beyond how a rod is constructed, taking the time to find an action that works for the angler is paramount. False casting is not your friend in salty situations, making sure you’re comfortable and proficient starts with finding the best fit for your casting style, not trying to make the “next best” thing fit you.

  4. Casting long is certainly important in the salt. HOWEVER, the vast majority of shots I have encountered (whether fishing for permit in Mexico or redfish in LA) will (1) happen very fast and (2) will be well within the 60 foot range. Being able to casting very quickly and an with extreme accuracy at close range is by far the most important attribute of the successful saltwater fly fisherman in my experience. Here in South Texas, tailing fish are the only targets that will often present themselves to the angler from 20+ yards away for any consistent length of time. However, tailing fish are feeding fish. While they will likely be moving, you can nearly always close the distance to within reasonable casting range. However, accuracy at these lengthened ranges is still necessary. At times leading a fish is required to prevent spooking it. Where there are tailing fish and a lot of sea grass to contend with, you will more need to “hit the fish on the head” to provoke a grab. The fish will simply not see your fly if it lands even six inches away.

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