Saltwater Fly Fishing 101 – Preparation and tackle

Having a tug-of-war with big fish in shallow water is the main attraction to saltwater fly fishing.
Having a tug-of-war with big fish in shallow water is the main attraction to saltwater fly fishing.

According to a recent survey by the American Sportfishing Association, the most popular saltwater gamefish in the United States is red drum. A similar survey of fly anglers had redfish in the top three.

Guess where the redfish capitol of the world is?

If you guessed anywhere but Louisiana, no crawfish for you!

Each year, thousands of folks get started in saltwater fly fishing, many here on the Gulf Coast, with ambitions of hooking into the Spottail Elvis.

But as my friend Capt. J.P. Morel recently observed, too many are jumping into saltwater fly fishing “raw.” That is, without ever casting a fly rod, they rush out and buy the cheapest saltwater tackle they can find. A recipe for failure!

Being a successful saltwater fly angler requires good equipment and preparation.

Freshwater first

Morel suggests that getting started in saltwater begins with freshwater. I know that sounds counterintuitive. But take his advice — you can thank him later!

With saltwater fly fishing, the rods and lines are heavier, the casting requires more skill, the fighting techniques are methodical, and the fish themselves can humble even experienced anglers.

Developing your skills with a freshwater setup — such as a 5-weight rod — will be less strenuous and can be fun as well. And you’ll have many more opportunities for its use than you think.

There are many more economical freshwater outfits than saltwater. So it won’t break your budget.

The Efficient Cast

As a casting instructor, I tell my students that their primary goal is to make the “Efficient Cast” as routine as tying your shoes.

The Efficient Cast is one where the fly line lands in a straight line, with the leader fully extended and the fly on target.

This cast is possible ONLY when the rod tip travels in a straight line, on both forward and back casts, with a smooth acceleration during the cast, and a hard stop at each end. To maintain the straight line also requires a tight arc of the rod path, not more than 90 degrees.

Once you have perfected the Efficient Cast, then you can build upon it, adding the techniques that may be required in a salty scenario. Those include sidearm casts, single hauls, double hauls, Belgian casts, and more.

All of your casting practice should be dedicated to accuracy. And please, limit your false casts! You’re casting for fish, not for birds!

Fast rods for fast fish

Most saltwater rods are 9-feet in length and come in weights 7 through 12. The weights reference to the actual weight of the line required to load the rod.

As you might expect, the heavier the weight, the stiffer the rod. A stiffer rod makes for the ability to fight bigger fish.

The common choice for marsh anglers is an 8-weight. This will handle everything from speckled trout and slot reds up to small bull reds and small jacks (depending on the rod). I’ve even landed medium-sized tarpon on an 8-weight rod.

Another characteristic of fly rods is action. Most salt fly rods are fast action — they load and dampen quickly — and are good for distance or casting in windy conditions.

Nearly all salt rods come with an anodized reel seat and a fighting butt. It should also come with a lifetime warranty — break it for any reason and the manufacturer will repair or replace for a modest fee.

When choosing a rod, make sure to try before you buy.

One of the biggest issues with some rods is swing weight. That is, when you place the handle on two fingers, how does the rod tip go? If it stays horizontal (light swing weight), that’s good. If it dives to the ground (heavy swing weight), not so good. A rod with heavy swing weight will wear on you after a day of casting and widen your casting arc.

A reel dilemma

In general, the minimum criteria for a saltwater reel should be one that is anodized, with large arbor, a smooth, centerline drag, and which holds at least 100 yards of 30-pound backing (preferably more).

For the marine environment, reels should be large arbor and anodized, with a center drag. Rods should have an anodized reel seat and fighting butt.
For the marine environment, reels should be large arbor and anodized, with a center drag. Rods should have an anodized reel seat and fighting butt.

Such reels usually cost from $150 on upwards. There are exceptions. The Redington Behemoth is a die-cast saltwater reel with an excellent drag. In many reviews, it compared favorably with reels costing hundreds of dollars. Yet it sells for just $109.

I sometimes hear folks asking about those cheap no-name reels found on eBay or Amazon. Based on description, they meet all the qualifications needed for saltwater use. What they lack are the more expensive internal components that better reels have, especially bearings. I’ve had a couple of those reels… both had bearings rust solid within a year!

The dilemma is this: is it worth spending only $70 for a reel that will last a year or two, or spending twice as much for a reel that might last a lifetime. If price is a huge concern, I suggest looking for a good quality used reel.

What’s my line?

For salt, you want a fly line that has a monofilament core and a hard coating that resists heat. Such lines can run anywhere from $40 to $120. If that seems expensive, yes, it is. In saltwater, the line is as important as the rod or reel.

When choosing a saltwater line for our marsh, the recommendation is to go with a weight-forward floating line, designated as WF-F. For example, an 8-weight floating line would be marked WF-8-F.

Saltwater weight-forward fly lines come in a variety of tapers, often designated for the species best suited for. General tapers are an affordable option.
Saltwater weight-forward fly lines come in a variety of tapers, often designated for the species best suited for. General tapers are an affordable option.

For offshore use, I often use a sinking line. There are many lines with different sink rates, so check the box to see how fast a sinker you need for the depth of fishing you’ll be doing.

Then there’s the line taper. Walk into a fly shop looking for a WF-8-F line and you might see a half-dozen different types. The types will be marked as “bonefish,” “redfish,” “general” and so on.

Each taper has different characteristics. The bonefish will have a long head (thicker part) for carrying lots of line in the air when false casting. The redfish line will have a short head for making quick, pickup casts to fish within short to moderate distances, or for throwing bulky flies.

Fishing forecast

 If May brings an end to the weather from hell, expect to find plenty redfish in ponds and along lake shorelines, speckled trout in bays feasting on shrimp, bluegills on beds, and bass cruising grasslines looking for frogs.

Small crabs should be plentiful in the marsh, and the redfish know it! Plan on having imitations of those in your fly box. In areas of thick grass, bendbacks such as Prince of Tides might be an option.

This month, a good choice for heavy grass in marsh ponds are bendback flies, like the Prince of Tides (top) and Kirk's Rattle Rouser (bottom).
This month, a good choice for heavy grass in marsh ponds are bendback flies, like the Prince of Tides (top) and Kirk’s Rattle Rouser (bottom).

For speckled trout, calmer days start with topwaters such as Perch Float Poppers, Bubblehead Poppers, Bobs Banger, and Skipping Bugs. Later in the morning, switch to EP Spawning Shrimp or Clouser Minnow suspended 2-3 feet under a VOSI.

Bluegills will be blowing up popping bugs in green or yellow. Cast under trees, near docks, and along grass lines. If there’s no topwater activity, try a Jitterbee, Tussel Bug, Cap Spider, Slow Sinking Spider or Rosborough Hares Ear a couple feet under a tiny strike indicator.

For bass, poppers and divers are the name of the game. Boogle Bugs, Dahlberg Divers, Cohen Frogs, and any frog-looking pattern will work. Best action will be early morning and late afternoon.

What’s happening

  • May 4 (Sat) – Fly Fishing 101, hosted by Orvis, 7601 Bluebonnet, Baton Rouge. 8 a.m. – 10:30 a.m. No cost. One-day, 2 1/2-hour clinic covering basics of fly fishing and fly casting. Seats limited, so pre-registration required. Other dates available: May 9, 18, June 1.  For more info, call 225-757-7286.
  • May 11 (Sat) – Fly Tying Level 1, hosted by Pack & Paddle, 601 E. Pinhook, Lafayette. 9:30 a.m. – Noon. Cost $20. One-day, 2 1/2-hour hands-on clinic covering basics of fly tying. Students will tie two flies effective in Louisiana waters. Seats limited, so pre-registration required. For details, go to www.packpaddle.com.
  • May 11 (Sat) – Fly Fishing FUNdamentals, hosted by Pack & Paddle, 601 E. Pinhook, Lafayette. 1 p.m. – 4 p.m. Cost $40. One-day, 3-hour clinic covering basics of fly fishing and fly casting. Seats limited, so pre-registration required. For details, go to www.packpaddle.com.
  • May 24-25 (Fri-Sat) – 10th annual Bass On The Fly tournament & Fishtival, Lake Fork Marina, TX.  Friday activities include casting clinics, kayak demos, guide reports, Sunfish tournament ($10 entry). Saturday bass tournament ($70 entry) time 6 a.m. – 2 p.m. CPR format, 5 fish total length. Categories: Boat, Kayak/Bank.  For details, go to www.bassonthefly.org.
  • May 25 (Sat) – Fly Fish PAC, kayak fly fishing tournament, PAC Kayak Rentals, Pointe-aux-Chenes. 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., shotgun start. Entry fee: $30. Heaviest two slot reds, sheepshead side pot ($10). Website: www.packayakrentals.com.
  • May 25 (Sat) – 25th annual CCA STAR Tournament kickoff. Runs through Labor Day. Divisions include Fly Fishing East and West for heaviest speckled trout. Sponsored by Costa del Mar. Website: www.ccastar.com.

Catch Cormier
About Catch Cormier 273 Articles
Glen ‘Catch’ Cormier has pursued fish on the fly for 30 years. A certified casting instructor and renowned fly tier, he and his family live in Baton Rouge.