Simple Saltwater Flyfishing

by Louis Bignami

"The great charm of fly-fishing is that we are always learning; no matter how long we have been at it, we are constantly making some fresh discovery, picking up some new wrinkle. . . "
--Theodore Gordon

Never have so many written so much to make something that’s so simple as saltwater fly-fishing sounds so complex. If you catch fish in bays, bayous or the Gulf you’re 80 percent of the way to becoming a saltwater flyfisher. For finding fish is, as always, at least half the game – I’d say about 80%. Approaching fish to within casting range – even the 50 to 70 foot range of the flinger of flies – is a great deal of the rest of the game. All you need add is something modestly appropriate in the way of a line, rod, reel, and flies that’s waved about with minimal casting technique and you can catch fish on flies from the first day if you start with reasonably plentiful species in relatively shallow water

There’s no magic here. Fly fishing isn’t an esoteric calling – unless you want to make it so. It’s simply one of the best ways to take fish that cruise within six feet or so of the surface with fifty feet or so of the angler. It may be the best way to present a hook to a fish in extremely shallow water ever invented.

Limited depth and limited casting range handicaps overcome with extra fast sinking lines and dedicated double-haul casting respectively. For now, let’s accept these limits and stick with floating lines and close approaches. Offsetting this is instant presentation –no spinning or casting "cranker" can haul in a bait or lure and get it back to the action as fast as a fly caster. Even better, if you wade or boat a fixed distance from structure, fish or the bank, you cover the critical edge areas with a smooth cast, short retrieve, back-cast, cast rhythm. The extreme case of this efficiency is in reasonably narrow canals where a centered boat lets you present a fly to alternate banks.

Getting a Line on Rods & Reels & "Stuff."

There’s a lot of nonsense written about fly gear and most of us collect far more "stuff’ than we can every use. Separating the necessary from the nice cuts your costs by 75%. To start, postpone extremely expensive and/or extra heavy tackle, multiplying reels and the most expensive fly lines. Only if you move to tarpon or billfish with fly gear do you need very specialized equipment and deep pockets! For now, lets look at gear appropriate for flats and bay species such as reds, trout, snook or a variety of snappers and such. Such tackle can also serve you well for black bass and other freshwater species. Sure you take a chance of getting spooled if you should hang a big tarpon, but the mileage you get out of such a story of your personal Moby Dick can repay the lost leader and fly.

I have to confess I’ve a rather jaundiced attitude towards much of what I see written about fly-fishing and gear. I caught my first saltwater fish, a striped bass, at age nine back in the late 1940’s when lines had letters, backing and reels required immediate rinsing and fly rods were just about unknown in saltwater. Ten years or so later I did briefly hold a striped bass world fly rod record – it never got registered as a buddy caught one five pounds heavier that week. So I spend more time than I like to remember fishing old spots such as Cancun well before development days. It’s my impression that most fly fishers today spend far too much money on gear, and far too little time on casting practice and hardly any time learning proper wading and boating techniques and the like. But them I’m a crusty old type.

So what’s basic? Fly lines offer the casting weight needed to push sometimes bulky flies into the wind. A floating eight or nine weight forward line at a modest price – seconds are nice if you can find them – takes the dings and other beginner’s damages. You can spring for a saltwater taper if you like, but a weight forward or what we used to call a "bug taper" can work. You can save sinking lines for later; learn to cast and pick floaters off the water first.

What lines do I use? Whatever’s handy, but mostly I run to affordable Cortland lines that last a couple of dozen trips before the coral kills them. When I can find them I buy seconds. I add traditional Dacron(r) backing that’s now out-of-date, but still works for me. I’m quite convinced you’ll do better if you wear out your first line casting at targets on the pond or lawn, so save your money on gear and book casting lessons or an instructional trip with a good guide who specializes in fly fishers. Coral and such do eat lines. So I change mine when they start to feel rough. That’s not a bad rule for leaders either.

The next step’s a rod. Eight or nine footers seem standard. Go towards the longer sizes if you wade deeper than your knees. Fly rods are rated by line weights – an #8 line goes on a #8 rod and so on. However, many beginners and some advanced casters find a line a size or even two heavier than the rod’s rating eases casting as it properly flexes the rod when you cast only part of the line as is usually when you start..

Some shops will let you try rods with various reel and line combinations. This is useful IF you have decent casting skills. Otherwise, go with an expert’s gear suggestion for your favorite species if it’s within your budget.

Which rods? I currently favor St. Croix that offer premium quality at a very affordable price. These are good rods, made in the USA and sold directly to dealers who don’t have to compete with the chain outlets that sell gear cheap, but haven’t the specialized information you get at a good shop. St. Croix rods hold up to saltwater and big fish. I’ve travel versions that avoid the dubious joys of luggage handlers in foreign climes. In any rod for a decent finish, a solidly locking reel seat, good guides and a tip to butt ferrule match that’s sturdy. I do customize my fly rods with some ugly matte finish spray to kill the "casting flash" that can spook fish in shallow, clear water. Aside from that I try to remember to hose rods and reels in fresh water every trip.

Reels organize line and can nicely burn your thumb or fingers. I use a traditional Hardy St. John, but I bought mine when they were $35 each. I was just in London and heard my reels are now worth around $350 and "collector’s items." I’m used to them, I’ve caught big tarpon and small billfish with them, but they would not be my current choice. There are schools of specialty reels available for saltwater fishing. Pates and a batch of others can do the job for several hundred dollars. To start, I’d consider something that would hold 100 yards of backing and your fly line without busting the budget. Figure $50 tops and wear the reel out in a couple of seasons. Then invest in the upscale model.

The rest of the gear you need runs to leaders and a couple of dozen flies. Record-minded folks can check the IGFA requirements for leader length, shock tippets etc. Otherwise a seven to nine foot leader that’s tapered and, perhaps, includes a short section of heavy shock tippet leader for toothy critters does the job. In a pinch four or five feet of twelve pound test sans taper has worked for me.

Saltwater flies can be pretty basic too. What’s best? Look for flies that replicate the size and colors of the baits and lures that work for you now. Small streamers that imitate bait work nicely if you stay with white and a mix of blue, green or silver Fortunately, saltwater fish have such a variety of food available that they’ll hit most anything at one time or another. The exception may be schooling baits where a half-inch difference in your fly to bait length can reduce your chances. So some carry an assortment of different streamer lengths. My own streamers all run at least six inches long and I trim streamers to suit as needed at the water. I’m sure your local shop or fly club will have all sorts of specifics here. I’m rather out of date as I find a mix of Lefty’s Deceivers, Clouser Deep Minnows, surface poppers and a couple of crab and shrimp imitations do the job all over the world. TIP: to start cheap surface poppers just sit there when you mess up a cast and, if they aren’t too bulky they seem a good lure to use at the start.

That’s about it. You probably own Polaroid® glasses to help you spot fish, a long billed cap to keep sun out of your eyes – I prefer one with a brim all round to keep the sun, and errant flies, from meeting by ears. Add long, cool comfortable clothing and sneakers suitable for wading or boat fishing.

Casting Considered

If you can afford it start with a two or three day casting clinic from pros, and learn decent casting skills before you have a chance to learn my bad habits. Clinics might run $300 an up: Orvis and folks like Lefty Kreh run good ones all up and down the Gulf Coat. The second choice would be a visit to your local flycasting club you can locate through tackle shops. Most clubs run casting programs taught by reasonably talented casters who may have teaching skills. The third choice would be a casting video rented from a local shop. If you own a camera and can bribe someone to take a video of you, you can see how your arm drifts too far back, your loops get too wide and all the other ways you miss perfect form. Fortunately, less than perfect casts still take fish.

Practice keys proficiency! If you do work on your own casting get in the habit of always casting to a target. A riffle, tide line, floating weed or the shadow of a pier or breakwater makes good targets. So, if you don’t mind line wear, do hula hoops and other targets you can space out on the lawn. Cast a half an hour a day for a week each night and you’ll be amazed at the improvement in both ease and accuracy. Once you’ve got the basics down add hazards such as wind. Punching a cast into the wind requires special techniques. So does driving a cast back under the mangroves for a snook.

First Trips

Only at this point should you consider a trip. If you live inland and can’t easily get to saltwater, flip poppers to bluegills or bass in a pond. On the coast, opt for snappers and other schooling fish that can provide relatively instant gratification and which come in decent numbers. My personal choice for a first trip is the front of a boat poled to the action by an expert guide who specializes in fly fishing such as Captain John Kumiski our of Florida – I mention John as he’s written a nice new book FLYFISHING FOR REDFISH to go with his exceptional SALTWATER FLYFISHING. You can learn a lot if you let the guide know you’re as much interested in improving skills as in catching a lot of fish.

Boat casting does require a rather specialized technique. As a rule you hold the fly in one hand and the rod in the other with loose line on the deck or held from your fingers. When you see a fish or get the "clockworks" order "tarpon at eleven o’clock" you flick the slack forward, haul it back to load the rod and pound the fly to the target with no more than a backcast or two. This system is also used when bringing bill fish and other big fish up to the boat with the aid of daisy chains of bait or teasers. Frankly, I’ve spend better days lifting weights than in trying to haul in a big billfish. Sailfish, which tend to jump to exhaustion, seem an exception to this rule.

If you don’t do the boat bit, consider a wading day with a buddy or check spots where the bottom topography changes. Breakwaters at the end of beaches or flats are good. Low piers work if you’ve clear backcasts, and you can even fish modest Gulf surf with minimal effort. If you know where fish lurk go there, try the fly flinging bit and you’ll probably be hooked on the gentle rhythm of casting even before you hook a fish. Once you do hook a saltwater fish big enough to get you down into your backing, and you’ve recovered from burned fingers or thumbs as your single-action reel buzzes out 100 or so yards of line you certainly will be. Caution: even if you take Mark Twain’s advice and "get skunked near home" so you don’t head for Christmas Island each year, fly fishing can be nearly as expensive as some other, less savory addictions.

Louis Bignami is the author or co-author of 35 books on fishing, travel and food that include LIVE BAIT TACTICS, STORIES BEHIND RECORD FISH and THE WIT AND WISDOM OF FISHING.