In past decades, when someone talked of fly fishing, they were most likely talking about fly fishing for trout. Big western rivers or densely wooded Appalachian streams dominated the scene.
In recent years, however, saltwater fly fishing has gained massive momentum.
It’s definitely not a new idea…it’s been around for some time. However, the growing population of fly fishing, coupled with the rapid growth of social media, has made it more mainstream and put saltwater destinations, far and near, on the radar for many.
From subtle trout sipping a dry fly in Wyoming to a chasing roosterfish down a secluded Baja beach, freshwater and saltwater fly fishing share a core of similarities…and many differences too.
In this article, we’ll compare and contrast both styles of fly fishing to give you a better idea of what to expect from each.
Table of Contents
- Principles of Freshwater and Saltwater Fly Fishing
- Freshwater vs Saltwater Fly Fishing Equipment
- Freshwater vs Saltwater Fly Fishing Tactics
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Principles of Freshwater and Saltwater Fly Fishing
Fly fishing, at its core, is fly fishing. No matter if you’re after salmon or snook, a lot of the basic principles are the same.
You’re taking a flexible rod and using a back-and-forth motion to move a weighted line. The weighted line carries the energy of the cast to move light feather-and-fur (or synthetic material) flies.
Freshwater and saltwater fly fishing are the same in this manner.
However, to target different species in different waters at varying depths, specific techniques have to be altered to the situation.
A size 14 parachute Adams may work well on a 5-weight rod with weight forward floating line for trout in Tennessee but that won’t get it done for barracuda in Belize.
The biggest differences you’ll see when comparing fresh and saltwater fly fishing are:
- Rod size – Ocean fish tend to be bigger than freshwater fish.
- Fly Lines – Most freshwater lines are very similar with slight variations depending on your target species or the size of the fly. Saltwater lines are built with more variation to cover more situations and a harsher environment.
- Flies – Saltwater species are pretty much never eating insects. They eat other fish, crabs, shrimp, squid, and the like.
- Specific Techniques – discussed below.
Freshwater vs Saltwater Fly Fishing Equipment
As mentioned above, seas and oceans grow some pretty big fish. It’s basic marine biology: larger body of water + plentiful food = bigger fish.
In the same way, a big lake can grow bigger trout than a tiny pond, saltwater fish have little constraint regarding waterbody size to stunt growth.
While you probably want to use a 3-weight or 4-weight rod for small trout and panfish, a 5-weight or 6-weight is better for bigger trout on bigger rivers.
When saltwater fishing, a 7-weight may be the smallest you’ll use for bonefish, an 8 weigh for larger bones, a 9 or 10-weight for tough permit, an 11 or 12 for crazy tarpon, and a 14-weight for sailfish!
And that’s not all…
Saltwater is a harsh environment. It’s known to rust and weather things very quickly. Your freshwater rod may need to be wiped off mud or sand from time to time but the water isn’t corrosive. Saltwater rods, however, are made with special, rust-resistant appointments like anodized reel seats and rod line guides.
This doesn’t mean you HAVE to buy a saltwater-specific fly rod for saltwater fishing. You will, however, have to be extremely diligent in cleaning the rod quickly after every single use.
Even seen saltwater-specific rods, guides, and reel seats begin to rust over time after being properly cared for. The cork will also age more quickly.
Often, in freshwater fly fishing, you will use different rod lengths for different situations. 8-foot to 10-foot rods are quite common.
In saltwater fishing, however, sticking to the 9-foot variety is the best option. You don’t want to go shorter as you’ll lose power. A longer rod will make casting in the wind very tough. The wind is almost always a consideration in saltwater fly fishing.
Today’s reels are leaps and bounds better than they used to be. A low-to-mid-price reel today is better than most high-end reels a decade or two ago.
That being said, you’ll still need to know the specific application you’re wanting the reel to be used for.
For saltwater applications, like freshwater reels, you’ll of course want to match your reel weight to the rod weight. Salt-specific reels are made with high-grade, anodized materials to resist warping and oxidation.
They have sealed drag systems to keep harsh sand, coral, and other debris from entering. They’re also going to use a tougher disc-drag system too. This does make them generally more costly.
You can usually get by with a less expensive, entry-level reel for freshwater, especially smaller fish like trout and panfish. You don’t need expensive anodized metals and a basic click-and-pawl drag system will work fine.
Saltwater fly reels can always be used for freshwater applications. This is a good way to save money too. You can simply buy spare spools to put specific lines on. To change from one style of fishing to the next, simply replace the spool with another appropriate spool/line combo.
You can use freshwater reels in the salt if you want to. You’ll definitely want a sealed disc drag in this situation, and you’ll want to open up the reel and wash it thoroughly with clean, fresh water after every use!
As with reels, no matter if you’re freshwater or saltwater fishing, you’ll want to match the line weight to the reel and rod.
Freshwater lines are generally pretty straightforward. Chose a floating or sinking line and match the line weight to your setup.
For saltwater lines, you’ll not only have to know the required line weight, but the application or species you’re targeting too.
Here again, there will be special coatings on the line to deal with the harsh saltwater. But some saltwater fishing is done in cold water, some in temperate water, and some in warm/tropical water. Water temperature is a major factor in selecting the appropriate fly line for your saltwater reel.
To make this easier, many companies have named their lines after the target species. So make sure you’re getting the correct fly line if you’re chasing striped bass off the coast of Canada, fishing redfish in Louisiana, or hunting permit in southern Belize.
Some freshwater companies are adding more species-specific lines to their offerings as well. This does add some more noise/confusion for the consumer but it’s still not as wide-ranging as saltwater line selections.
For freshwater applications, the backing selection is less of a concern. The industry standard is a 20 or 30-lb test Dacron backing in assorted colors. While there are other options, like braided backing (I don’t recommend braided) and gel-spun, Dacron is inexpensive and works well for most folks.
For the salt, again, you’re fishing in a much more harsh environment. The fish are often big, extremely powerful, and can make runs of a hundred or more yards very easily.
Dacron backing works fine but gel-spun is stronger, more abrasion-resistant, and is smaller in diameter too. This means you can put more gel-spun on your spool for those big, fast salt-species runs.
Often, those big runs include wrapping your line around a mangrove, rock, coral, or other sharp/abrasive structure. The added strength of gel-spun is a clear winner here.
In trout fishing, an experienced angler rarely sees his/her backing. It’s simply there to take up space on the spool, to support the fly line, and to be there just in case.
In saltwater fishing, a fish running well into your backing is pretty much guaranteed. You don’t want your backing to be the failure point!
Freshwater flies are representative of many different things from insects to mice, from crayfish to minnows. Your typical fly box will have size 4 streamers down to size 24 zebra midge. They’re tied on small-diameter hooks in a variety of shapes.
In saltwater fishing, you’re almost never imitating bugs. Most often, you’re imitating other fish. Crabs, shrimp, and squid are also common “flies” used in saltwater fly fishing. The sizes are relatively large and generally range from size 6 up to 3/0 or bigger!
Saltwater flies are also tied on heavy-gauge, corrosion-resistant hooks. Salt will corrode normal hooks very quickly and the lips and jaws of saltwater species are pretty tough. These flies need to penetrate tough skin and resist bending during a fierce battle.
In general, you don’t want to put a damp fly back in the fly box. This is especially true for saltwater flies though. As with all saltwater equipment, I recommend rinsing your used flies at the end of the day to remove any saltwater residue.
In fresh or saltwater fishing, walking in and wading your favorite spot is a definite possibility. Having a boat, or access to one, is going to open up a lot more options for you though.
Freshwater boats themselves range widely. Most trout fishers are familiar with inflatable rafts for whitewater and low-water situations. Drift boats and skiffs are fantastic options for drifting the river with a firm platform to fish from. They’re easy to row too…no motors here!
Bass boats require a slightly v-shaped hull for stability but can’t run too deep so they can still access some shallow water ledges. Of course, big lakes require bigger, more stable boats to fish out in the depths away from shore. The bigger the boat, the bigger the motor.
Saltwater boats, regarding fly fishing, are generally one of two main types. Most often, you’re not going too far offshore which makes really big vessels unnecessary. The two main types are flats boats/pangas near-shore/open water boats.
The majority of fly fishing is done from a flats boat or panga. A flats boat is a low-profile boat with a single outboard motor (usually 60-80hp). They’re long, narrow, and built for 2-3 people.
The guide or captain will drive the boat to the fishing spot and kill the engine. They’ll then hop up on a tall platform at the back of the boat and use a “pusher” or push-pole to move the boat across shallow flats in search of fish to target. This allows for stealthy approaches in shallow water, often 1-5 feet in depth.
A single fly fisher person will stand on the low, flat deck at the bow of the boat and be ready to cast at spotted fish.
A panga is similar to a flats boat but with a deeper v hull and higher sides. This gives the panga the ability to cross more open water and take on slightly bigger waves.
Near-shore/Open Water Boats
For near-shore or open saltwater fly fishing, you’ll often be in a center-console catamaran or other center-console, deep-hull boat with two or more outboard motors.
25-30 foot length is most common for fly fishing. There is usually some covering, a bimini or a hard canopy for shade, but there has to be some sort of open deck on the front or back for fly casting.
For freshwater, a simple rinse here and there will do the trick. You’re only worried about a little sand or mud getting into reel components and, of course, you don’t want to transport foreign microorganisms from one waterway to another.
I cannot stress this enough…
In the saltwater game, it’s vital to clean your equipment every time you use it. Unless you don’t mind buying new gear all the time, taking the time to thoroughly rinse and even wash your rod, reel, line, and flies after every outing will keep your stuff in top shape.
You’ll notice a sticky residue on your gear, especially the fly line, after a day of saltwater fishing. Many beach areas and fishing charters have a shower or wash/spray area to help clean your gear.
Personally, when I’m on vacation at a saltwater destination, I take my gear in the shower with me. There, I’ll rinse my fly rod (insert jokes here, ha), pull the line off my reel, and open up the spool to let the clean water rinse away salt and grime. I’ll rinse my flies and sunglasses in the sink and set them on a towel to dry.
Freshwater vs Saltwater Fly Fishing Tactics
Most often, in the freshwater game, blind casting is the go-to. You’re covering water with your fly to entice fish to eat. More casts + more drifts = more opportunities to get fish.
In saltwater fly fishing, a hunting or sight-casting technique is most often used. You’re searching for the fish first…standing on the bow of the panga or flats boat, or wading the flats themselves, to see the fish first. Then, you’ll have to make a strategic, well-placed cast in a timely manner to present the fly.
There are times when blind casting in the saltwater game is favorable, but not always. There’s just too much water to cover and blind casting can be wasted energy.
Also, saltwater species can often be wary of repeated casting. Too many line and fly slaps on the water can send fish speeding away. There’s also a good chance an unwanted fish species will grab your fly on a blind retrieve as well.
Sight casting has become more popular in the freshwater game as of late. Many saltwater enthusiasts have taken saltwater methods to freshwater situations to expand their game. Trout, carp, and pike are all fun to pursue via sight casting.
While the basics of the cast remain the same, moving from smaller panfish, bass, and trout fly rods to stiff, powerful saltwater rods often requires a little adjustment.
3-weight to 6-weight rods, and some 7 and 8-weight rods, are able to be “pushed” easily with the casting/rod hand. This means that you’re able to load the rod easily by flexing the rod with your casting arm and casting stroke.
Many of the bigger, more powerful saltwater-specific rods, however, are difficult to load this way. The rod is simply too stiff to be “pushed” and flexed with a simple, traditional cast stroke. I find it’s best, in these situations, to perfect the double-haul casting method.
With the double haul, you pull down on the line below the reel with your line-control hand a fraction of a second before making the cast stroke. This is called “hauling” and it adds line speed to your cast.
Do this for the forward AND backward strokes…hence the name” double-haul.” If you do this correctly, the fly line from the rod tip to the fly will seemingly move without the help of the rod.
You then simply “follow” the cast line back and forth with your fly rod and won’t need to “push” and flex the rod with your casting hand.
Check out this video on the double-haul casting method!
With the rise of saltwater fly fishing’s popularity, the term “trout-setting” has become well-known in the fly fishing world.
That’s because for trout (and most of the other freshwater species), to set the fly, you need to quickly lift the rod tip and keep tension on the line. This quick, usually/mostly upward set ensures the fly gets pressed into the mouth of the fish and stays hooked.
When fly fishing in the salt, however, you’ll miss most of the takes if you “trout set” or lift your rod to set the hook. The way saltwater species feed, move, and fight, requires a strip-set instead.
This simply means that, when the fish eats your fly, you’ll quickly and sharply pull back on the line with your line-control hand while keeping the rod tip pointed down at the water/fish. Only when the fish is pulling back on the line do you begin to raise your fly rod up to battle the fish.
The length and force of the strip-set depend on the species of fish. If you’re going on a guided trip, your guide will let you know. If not, do some Google and YouTube research before heading out. It will save your day or your whole trip.
To be honest, there probably isn’t one fly fisher person out there that hasn’t messed up a set on a saltwater trip. Personally, I’ve had a guide or two (jokingly) yell at me for trout-setting a permit or triggerfish.
Check out this video on strip-setting for saltwater species!
Saltwater fly fishing and freshwater fly fishing have a mostly shared DNA. Just like any other form of fishing, different species, different water, and different areas require your equipment to be a bit more specialized.
Any freshwater fisherperson can easily learn to fly fish for saltwater species…and vice versa.
Some minor adjustments to the approach and technique, adding a little bit of extra knowledge, and doing some practice-casting before you go will help lessen the learning curve, minimize frustration, and elevate your overall experience.
Don’t forget to comment below! Share your experiences with fresh and/or saltwater fly fishing!