Saltwater FAQ’s

Although saltwater fly fishing may have started in this country with an exotic, big fish image, its appeal has now broadened to ordinary weekend anglers fishing the estuaries, beaches and rock ledges close to home. Some fly fish in salt water as a single minded pursuit and have no interest in trout, others use it to get a ‘fix’ between trout trips, and many realise that this is the most available fly fishing they have. When you look, quality saltwater fly fishing is available in close proximity to all our urban coastal centres, something that can’t be said of trout fishing. It’s a great natural advantage, allowing more frequent outings a lot closer to home.

The flourishing interest in saltwater fly fishing brings with it a constant barrage of questions, many of which relate to local species and cannot satisfactorily be answered by the established American literature. This prompted our collaboration to produce Saltwater Fly Fishing Fundamentals (1999), now reprinted after selling out in the first two years—testament to the growing interest in saltwater fly fishing.

Yes, you can start by simply taking your 6 or 7-weight trout rod down to the local estuary for a flick, or you can bite the bullet and buy a dedicated saltwater outfit. Corrosion is the biggest concern if you use your trout rod and reel, and drag and backing capacity may soon be tested on the reel, even by the most common species such as salmon, tailor and queenfish. 

What sort of FLY rod should I buy?
If you are looking for a multi-purpose saltwater outfit an 8-weight is probably the best compromise, but it really comes down to where you intend to fish and what goals you set in terms of available species and size. 

If you live in Darwin there’s a good chance queenfish and barramundi are going to be your main targets in salt water. If you live in Albany it’s going to be salmon and bream, and in eastern Victoria, much the same. Someone in Mallacoota is probably also going to chase trout and bass from time to time so a good 6 or 7 weight may be adequate. In the west you’re more likely to encounter bigger saltwater fish so a heavier rod as an initial purchase is a better idea, perhaps an 8 or 9-weight. In the tropics big GT’s, tuna and many other hard pulling things can turn up at any time so perhaps a 9 or even a 10 weight rod is more appropriate. 

These days good saltwater fly rods with a decent warranty can be purchased for $200 to $300—extraordinary value compared to what was available a decade or so ago. No, the most expensive fast action rods are not necessarily the best starting point. Newcomers should look for a more user-friendly, slower action rod that will be easier to cast and more forgiving when casting a wide range of line densities and fly weights in a variety of situations and conditions. 

Look for rods that have quality fittings—chromed stainless steel guides, quality stripping guide(s) and good cork grips (synthetic grips are best avoided). An uplocking reel seat is preferable and the rod should have some sort of extension butt. 

By all means shop around, compare prices and check out the fine print in relation to guarantees and availability of replacement parts (freight costs and time frame). In relation to specific brands, quality of service and value for money, don’t be afraid to ask for advice. The forum on the FlyLife website is a good place to canvass independent opinions about tackle performance and reliability. 
More info: online forums, trade web sites, tackle shows & fly fishing expos.

Are big, expensive reels REALLY NECESSARY?
Most important is the reel’s ability to handle corrosion and this is what makes purpose built saltwater models more expensive. Simple trout reels can handle a few trips but salt will soon destroy them. Anodising and finishing as well as smoothness and attention to detail add costs.

Although you can literally spend thousands of dollars on a top of the range imported reel, there are now some quite robust models at the cheaper end of the market to complete an inexpensive set-up for the less than frequent swoffer. Those coming from a trout fishing background are more likely to be in the market for a relatively cheap, lightweight, multi-purpose reel, whereas the dedicated offshore enthusiast may be after something more robust.

Expect to pay $150-$250 for an entry level reel and $300-$500 for something more bullet-proof. 

With bigger, faster fish in mind, a good saltwater reel will need to have a counter balanced spool, so the reel runs smoothly and does not vibrate itself to pieces. A relatively simple drag mechanism will do provided the reel has an exposed rim so judicious hand pressure can be applied if necessary. Large arbor reel configurations also offer considerable advantages in terms of line capacity, more constant drag pressure and faster line recovery.
More info: online forums, trade websites, fly shops.

How much backing will I need ON THE REEL?
The vast majority of inshore fly fishing is hand to hand and the backing is rarely required—even large barramundi rarely demand a reel with more than fifty metres of backing. When anglers talk about how much backing they lose to a fish, few realise that 100 metres of backing is the full length of a rugby field from try line to try line. Allowing for the occasional very big fish, the everyday swoffer should not need more than 250-300 metres of backing. 

Although far more expensive, gel-spun polyethylene line can increase the backing capacity of a reel by almost two thirds when compared to the older dacrons, encouraging the use of much smaller, lightweight reels.
More info: online forums, fly shops.

What type of fly line is best FOR SALT WATER?
Saltwater fly lines do require a little more thought, and investment, beyond the standard floating lines used for trout. For a start, the heat of the tropics renders cold-water fly lines un-usable very quickly, and lines made for the tropics are like fencing wire in colder southern waters. 

Floating fly lines can be used in salt water, particularly in shallow estuary and flats fishing situations, and they are the best lines if you are learning to cast. However, a clear intermediate line is far more versatile in terms of fishing the fly near the bottom and/or keeping it down during the retrieve. The latest clear sink-tip lines offer a further advantage when wading because the floating running line is less inclined to tangle around your feet. 

In salt water, the ability to explore a range of depths is often more important than being able to cast a long way. With this in mind, most fly-line brands now offer models with interchangeable tip sections—usually 15 ft in length the tips range from floating to clear intermediate, sinking and fast sinking, making it easy to change lines and explore different depths without carrying spare spools or reels. 
More info: online forums, fly shops, trade websites.

Are the knots & leaders REALLY COMPLICATED?
No, knots and leaders don’t have to be fancy. You can get started with a two or three piece leader and some basic trout fishing knots.

For any rod less than a 10-weight, a nail knot is adequate for joining the leader butt section onto the fly line. A double uni-knot or double blood knot (whichever you tie best) can be used to join leader sections, bearing in mind that the uni-knot is better for joining lines of widely different diameters. Always lubricate knots with saliva before pulling them tight, and take extra care when using fluorocarbon. Knots must be pulled up fully tight to be effective, and for heavy lines you will need to use pliers. Experiment by tying and testing knots at home, not on the fish. 

The leader used will ultimately be dictated by how shy the fish are, the depth of water being fished and the accuracy and delicacy required. Keep it simple and stick to these basic rules. Shy fish—longer leader. Fish with teeth and sharp fins—tougher thicker leader. Deep water—shorter leader if using a sinking line; longer leader if using a floating line and weighted fly. Accuracy required—tapered leader.

All this can be made simpler by a visit to the local fly shop where purpose built saltwater leaders are available to cover all eventualities—even coated wire for mackerel and the like.

A large fly moves better when tied to the leader with a loop knot. Lefty’s improved loop knot is superior in this regard, retaining high strength which is vital when using finer tippets. 

If setting up loops to backing and fly line is causing concern, ask the staff at the local fly shop to spool your reel, ready to go. If you prefer to do it yourself, study the knots and rigs in Saltwater Fly Fishing Fundamentals. 
More info: SWFFF, fly shops and catalogues.

What do I need to know about SALTWATER FLIES?
As with trout fishing, fly selection in salt water can be as simple or complicated as you like to make it. You can buy off the shelf, order on line, or tie your own. A few Clousers, Surf Candies, Crazy Charlies and Deceivers will get you started. In the tropics carry some Pink Things and variations. Not too big or heavy at first until you have the casting fully under control.

Identifying particular saltwater flies and learning how to tie and fish them need not be a problem. Chris Beech has detailed a different fly pattern in every issue of FlyLife and advertisements will lead you to suitable mail order and online fly catalogues. Chris and others conduct saltwater fly-tying classes for those keen to learn. 

As far as possible it pays to buy flies tied and/or endorsed by local experts to guarantee quality and suitability—Chris Beech, Chris Dunham, Mike Felton, Geoff Skinner and Murray Wilson are names that come to mind.
More info: FlyLife back issues, fly shops, catalogues, fly tying courses, fly fishing clubs, books & videos.

No, contrary to popular myth, provided you keep to the lighter end of the spectrum, saltwater fly casting is no more demanding than trout work. If you can throw a heavily weighted nymph and an indicator then you will not be troubled by weighted Clousers and the like. 

‘Overlining’ refers to using a line weight heavier than recommended for a particular rod. This can be useful when learning to cast because the rod loads more readily and you really get to feel the action of the rod. 

Casting lessons, offered by experts including Rod Harrison himself, are readily available and advertised in the pages of this magazine—they will save years of whip cracking on your own. Lefty Kreh’s fly-casting videos are also highly recommended.
More info: FlyLife back issues, fly-casting clinics, fly clubs, casting videos.

Will I need to learn some NEW RETRIEVES?
Retrieves impart life to the fly, and developing a good repertoire is an important aspect of saltwater fishing. Some pelagic species demand a very fast retrieve but other fussy eaters insist on no retrieve at all. The clues are in the speed at which the fish are feeding and the nature of the food which the fly is meant to represent.

The hand twist nymph retrieve used so often in trout fishing is a valuable retrieve in the salt water to just tick flies across the bottom. The single strip retrieve is the normal retrieve, with the line passing under the fingers of the rod hand. You can strip fast or slow with the line hand, but allowing a pause between strips is often important, causing the fly to sink and rest momentarily before darting off again. At times a double strip retrieve, with rod tucked under the arm, is needed to get the fly moving fast enough to interest fast swimming predators. Continuing with the same retrieve makes little sense when you are not catching fish. Mix your retrieves up until you find something that works.

Yes, you can use berley if you want, and yes, on a slow day you can just hang a fly out the back of the boat and wait for a fish to hit. It is not fly fishing in its purest sense but you will work that out for yourself along the way. 
More info: SWFFF & FL back issues.

Are saltwater fish hard to HOOK AND LAND?
Trout fishers must remember to keep the rod tip down during the retrieve and to strike by stripping with the line hand rather than lifting the rod high in the air. This is important when driving large hooks into tough mouths.

A stubborn or large fish should not be fought with one continuous pulling direction. Alter the pulling point constantly—pull it from below, then pull it from the left, then the right. Try to roll the fish over and upset its swimming pattern or you will be there all day.

Extra care must be taken to avoid breaking a rod tip when a heavy, strong fish is almost ready to land—remember to keep the rod tip low and avoid ‘high sticking’.

You will need pliers and gloves to handle toothy and abrasive fish, and pinching down the barb on hooks is recommended to minimise damage to flies, fish and anglers alike. 
More info: SWFFF & FL back issues.

Trout anglers should be aware that tackle maintenance is a much bigger issue in salt water, irrespective of the quality of the gear being used. Flies need special care and storage to prevent rusting and used flies should not be placed back in with new ones until thoroughly cleaned and dried. Lines used in the salt require regular cleaning in accordance with manufacturer’s instructions—casting is always much easier with a clean fly line.

Fly reels need extra attention. Avoid dunking reels in salt water as much as possible and keep them out of the sand. Reels and rod fittings should be washed down in fresh water and dried after each outing if possible. Reels should be thoroughly cleaned and lubricated between trips. If in doubt, take reels back to the tackle shop for annual maintenance—most good fly shops offer this service by return post if you are not close by.
More info: SWFFF & fly shops.

Where should I GO TO CATCH A FISH?
Places to go are only limited by your imagination. As Steve Cooper points out in his writings on Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay, you don’t have to live north of the border to enjoy saltwater fly fishing. Garfish, whiting, bream, mullet, salmon, tailor, flathead, wrasse—they all present worthwhile challenges, perhaps even more so than voracious tropical fly eaters.

Get the right gear, study the tide charts and you will soon be catching fish close to home. Local tackle shops are good places to acquire some much needed local knowledge, and the growing membership of dedicated saltwater fly fishing clubs reflects ever increasing interest at the grass roots level. Club meetings, outings and competitions can help to fast-track the learning process.

More and more fishing guides and charter operators are catering for the growing numbers of fly fishing travellers. If you can afford their services and take care to seek out fly fishing specialists (as advertised in FlyLife) it is hard to go wrong. 

Rest assured, the saltwater fly fishing information trail is ever expanding and is no longer hard to find or to follow. Our message is to use the resources available to gain as much knowledge as possible and to fill in the gaps between trips.
More info: SWFFF, FL back issues, guided fishing, fly shops, dedicated fly fishing clubs.

Peter Morse’s book Saltwater Fly Fishing Fundamentals can be ordered direct from FlyLife for $29.95 inc. GST and postage. Website orders during September will include a free mouse mat featuring saltwater flies. Click here for the FlyLife Online Shop.
Entry Level
The most popular entry level combinations are built around the Innovator Distance rod ($199) and Scientific Anglers Concept reel ($159). Several outlets sell these with backing, fly line and leader ready to go for under $400. Other budget combinations include Mitchell, Fenwick and Gillies rods coupled with Danica, Shimano and Scierra reels respectively.

Good Value
Recommendations for more robust, saltwater reels in the $300-$500 bracket include the SA System II, Lamson, Waterworks, Fenwick and Felty models. Mid-priced rods praised by retailers as representing good value for money include the Strudwick SPS ($349), Innovator Matrix Flats ($379), Innovator HLS ($549) and 
Strudwick DBT ($749).

Top Price
At the top end of the market the best rods from Loomis, Redington, Sage, Scott, Thomas & Thomas and Winston will set you back $1000-$1500, as will reels from Abel, Charlton, Islander and Orvis.

*Based on a survey of TEN leading fly tackle RETAILERS ACROSS FOUR states (July 02).