Sunday Classic / 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

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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5 thoughts on “Sunday Classic / Fight The Good Fight, in Saltwater or Fresh

  1. We do this in our Saltwater Fly Fishing Schools. Your right everyone is amazed. We ask each student to give us 5 pounds of pressure with an 8 weight. One to two pounds is average fighting with the tip top. Surprised we haven’t broken a rod yet.

  2. I’ve fished saltwater twice…so have little reference for the question.

    On freshwater…I’m much more of a pike/musky/bass guy than I am a trout guy…trout are OK…but I prefer the others.

    So…my position is: When we’re dealing with freshwater fish other than trout…I tend to look at what salt guys are doing for similarly sized fish and work from there.

    I’ve also adopted plenty of ideas from the dark side (gear fishing) as I also do that a good percentage of the time.

  3. During my casting sessions at SCA Fly Fishing School here in GA, I regularly demonstrate how to fight trout as well as larger species whether in salt or not. A scale is not required to demonstrate this to a student. I can run and pull like a fish! Going to the level of determining actual pound pressure (by rod weight and length) is just too anal when a simple demonstration that is more realistic does the trick. A guide out West years ago demonstrated this fish fighting method to me. All students get the idea, and feel, of how to fight large fish; however, I would recommend Scott Swartz’s salt water school in Florida if you want to learn how to fight a really large tarpon.

  4. Thanks for the recommendation to our saltwater school in Florida We do the “run like a fish” drill by pairing up students but that is to learn how to keep a bend in the rod, how to strip line and still be ready to let line slip when the fish runs. However, I respectfully disagree that a scale is “too anal”. It is really important to know how much pressure you are putting on a fish and on your leader. EVERY student is blown away at what it takes to put 5 pounds of pressure on a fish. Most give 1-1.5 pounds when asked to give 5. Fighting a large fish for longer than necessary hurts the fish.

  5. Since 5 pounds of force is almost impossible to exert using
    a #4 wt or #5 wt fly rod, one might wonder why are so many fish lost to break offs?

    Impact forces are much stronger than relatively slow, steady pull.
    Next time you get out with those scales, have your students simulate the very quick surge of a fish in close. Bet that scale tops 5 pounds easy – but watch those rod tips.

    Combine impact forces with a frayed leader or imperfectly tied knot and . . .

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