The Top Saltwater Species to Catch with a Fly Rod (Where, When & How to Catch Them)

Catching saltwater species with a fly rod is another world from the likes of fishing for trout in the mountains. The power these fish have is incredible and when you hook up, you know about it as your backing starts screaming out of your reel.

So, what are the top saltwater pieces to catch with a fly rod? Tarpon, bonefish, permit, and GTs to name a few, but there are lots more.

Join me as I run through all the top saltwater species to fly fish for, where to find them, what gear you will need, as well as some tips on how to catch them too!

Table of Contents

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What Types of Saltwater Fish Can You Catch Fly Fishing?

In all honesty, almost every type of saltwater fish will eat a fly if it is well presented to them. This goes for anything from small snappers and groupers to marlin and tuna and everything in between.

But, the idea isn’t to spend hours trying to catch small reef fish on a fly rod, we want to catch the best species on fly which we will discuss next.

fly fisherman holding large striped marlin

What are the Top Saltwater Species to Target with a Fly Rod?

The top species to catch with a saltwater fly rod can be split into two groups, inshore flats species and offshore species.

Some of the top inshore flats species to fly fish for include bonefish, permit (Atlantic & Indo-Pacific), tarpon, snook, redfish, giant trevally, milkfish, and triggerfish.

Great offshore species include various species of marlin, sailfish, yellowfin tuna, wahoo, and dorado.

Let’s take a look at each of them in more detail along with the fly gear you’ll need to catch them, where to go and when, and tips on how to catch them.

Inshore Flats Species


Tarpon, known as the ‘silver king”, live in the Atlantic Ocean and can grow to sizes of over 200 pounds. They grow up in mangrove creeks and channels as juveniles and then move offshore when they are large enough.

Tarpon are an incredible fish to catch with a fly rod as they readily eat flies and once you hook them, they jump giving you a spectacular aerial display. If you happen to hook one of 80 lbs or above, you have a serious fight on your hands.

Atlantic Tarpon
By © Citron, CC BY-SA 3.0,

What Size Fly Rod & Reel Do You Need?

When targeting small tarpon up to about 40 lbs, a 10 weight fly rod and matching saltwater fly reel is large enough to handle them.

Once you start looking for the bigger migratory fish of 100 lbs and above, a 12 wt fly rod and matching saltwater fly reel is needed.

Make sure your saltwater fly reel is up to the task with all of the species mentioned here as they take a lot of line and quickly, so your reel needs to keep up.

What Flies Work Best?

Tarpon will eat anything from small baitfish to shrimp, crabs, and large bait fish like mullet. The two best saltwater flies for tarpon imitate small baitfish and include the Tarpon Toad and EP Baitfish.

Great colors include black and purple, blue and black, chartreuse, and tan.

How to Catch Them

When fly fishing for tarpon, you will be standing on the front of a flats boat being polled around by your guide. The key is listening to your guide, spotting the fish, and making a good cast.

Your guide will probably see the fish before you and tell you where to cast and how far. You want the fly to land about 6 feet in front of the fish. It is then about slow small strips, making the fly move, until the tarpon gulps it off the surface.

Setting the hook requires you to strip set. This involves keeping your rod down and pulling your fly line hard to push the hook into the boney mouth of the tarpon.

Once hooked, you must bow to the king. When tarpon jump, they open their mouths and shake their heads which results in 80% of hooked fish being lost if you don’t bow to the fish properly.

Bowing to the fish means dropping your rod towards the fish every time it jumps. This creates slack and ensures the fish doesn’t spit your hook in the air, as the slack ensures it stays in the mouth, most of the time.

Where & When to Fish for Them

You can fish for tarpon all over the Caribbean and the best places include Florida, Cuba, Mexico, Belize, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica.

You can fish for them all year round but the best time is during the migration of the big 100+ lb fish which happens between May and August every year.

The biggest tarpon can be found off the coast of Gabon, Africa. The tarpon here grows to over 200 lbs and numerous World Records have been set here. The season runs from mid-January to mid-April.

Giant Trevally

Giant Trevally (GT) are an incredibly aggressive fish that pretty much eat anything that moves including birds as you would have seen on the Blue Planet II Documentary.

Once they see your fly, they will charge at incredible speeds, inhale it and bust your tackle into pieces if you are not ready for them. This is what makes them so exciting to catch.

GTs range in sizes from around 60 cm to 140+ cm in length, and boy to the bigger ones pack a punch. They live in the Indian and Pacific oceans around reefs, drop offs, lagoons, and flats.

Giant Trevally
By Dr. Dwayne Meadows,

What Size Fly Rod & Reel Do You Need?

When fly fishing for GTs you will need a 12 wt fly rod with a solid saltwater reel.

The reel needs to have a strong and reliable drag to stop the fish from cutting you off on coral and should be loaded with 80 lb braid as the backing, an 80 lb core floating fly line, and 100 lb fluorocarbon leader.

What Flies Work Best?

GTs will eat shrimps, crabs, mullet, bonefish, small baitfish, reef fish, and pretty much anything else that comes their way.

The best flies to use for GTs imitate small baitfish. Brush flies, double barreled poppers, and NYAPs are the flies to have in your box.

Make sure the flies are tied on Gamakatsu SL12 4/0 or 6/09 hooks, as these will not bend and break.

How to Catch Them

When fly fishing for GTs you will be either wading or on the bow of a skiff. The key is seeing the GT as far away as possible. Look for rays and sharks, as GTs will follow them eating up anything they scare away as they swim.

When you see a GT, cast your fly 10 to 20 feet in front of them. Let the fly sink and wait for the fish to be around 6 feet away.

Follow this with a long smooth strip. If the fish comes slowly to your fly, keep stripping slowly. If the fish comes fast, strip as fast as you can.

Once the fish eats, be sure to strip set the hook by pulling the fly line. Do not lift your rod, or you will lose the fish. Once hooked, clear the line onto your reel and tighten the drag to the max.

fly fisherman holding large Giant Trevally

Where & When to Fish for Them

The best place in the world to fly fish for GTs is on the Outer Islands of Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. The season runs from September to May with the peak months being February and March.

Bluefin Trevally

Bluefin Trevally are the GTs little brother. They are a similar shape but covered in stunning blue and purple colors and are one of the most beautiful fish in the sea.

They behave similarly to GTs and you will often encounter them while fishing for GTs. Bluefin grow to about 80 cm in length maximum, and are therefore much smaller than GTs.

bluefin trevally
By Albert Kok,

What Size Fly Rod & Reel Do You Need?

Chances are you will be using the 12 weight setup described above when you catch a bluefin as you will want to be ready in case a GT swims along.

You can drop down to a 9 weight setup with a 30 lb leader if you want to fish lighter though.

What Flies Work Best?

Bluefin love to eat small baitfish, crabs, and shrimp. This means the best flies to catch them with are small brush flies, flexo crabs, and big shrimp flies.

How to Catch Them

To catch a bluefin, you do the exact same as you would with a GT (described above) but strip fast.

Cast your fly 10 ft in front of the fish and strip as quickly as possible, strip set, clear the line, and tighten up your drag.

Where & When to Fish for Them

Again, the Outer Islands of Seychelles is one of the best places to catch bluefin trevally on fly. The season runs from September to May.


Permit are a saltwater fly fisherman’s holy grail as they are incredibly hard to catch. Permit have excellent eyesight and they are overly suspicious which means if they see your fly line, hear the fly land, or anything like that, they will turn and run.

Permit are also incredibly fussy and will refuse a fly presented perfectly a lot of the time. They will drive you crazy but eventually, you will get one.

There are two main species of permit, Atlantic and Indo-Pacific. Atlantic permit can grow to over 40 lbs whereas Indo-Pacific permit do not get as big.

School of Permit Fish
By Scott Hanko,

What Size Fly Rod & Reel Do You Need?

Generally speaking a 9-weight fly rod with a matching reel, floating line, and 8 – 15 lb tippet is what you need for permit. You can go up to a 10 weight setup if you want to be able to cut through the wind or are after particularly big permit.

What Flies Work Best?

Permit love crabs more than anything but will also eat shrimp. Flexo crabs are a deadly fly for Indo-Pacific permit. Merking, Spawning Shrimp, Reghead Crab, and EP shrimps are excellent flies for Atlantic Permit.

fishermen holding large saltwater fish

How to Catch Them

When casting to a permit, you want your fly to land about 6 – 10 feet in front of the fish.

Too close and/or loud, and your cast will spook it. Let the fly sink and when the fish is close to the fly, make long very slow strips.

If the fish eats, set the hook with a strip set, clear your line, and fight the fish.

Where & When to Fish for Them

Atlantic permit can be fished for all year round in The Bahamas, Cuba, Mexico, and Belize.

Indo-Pacific permit can be targeted on the Outer Islands of Seychelles, Oman, Wessel Islands in Australia, and Ningaloo Reef Flats in Australia. The season runs from October to May.


Bonefish live on shallow sand and grass flats in water about knee deep but their silver scales make them incredibly camouflaged which is how they got their name “The Grey Ghost.”

Spotting bonefish isn’t easy but is made easier by the shallow waters they frequent. They will follow the tide, trying to find shallow water to protect them from attacks by predators like GTs and Barracuda.

When fishing for them, you have to follow the tide, targeting as the drop off the flats as the tide drops, and as they come on the flats when the tide comes in.

Bonefish are the best saltwater species to target if you have never saltwater fly fished before. They are abundant, you will get lots of shots, but they are not stupid so you still need to get your casting right.

Bonefish are the eighth fastest fish in the world and once hooked they can swim at 40 mph / 64 kph, tearing the line of your reel.

By Brian Gratwicke,

What Size Fly Rod & Reel Do You Need?

The ideal fly rod for bonefish is an 8 wt, but you can also use a 7 wt or 9 wt depending on conditions and your skill level. Your reel should have around 250 yards of 30 lb backing along with a floating line and 15 lb fluorocarbon leader.

What Flies Work Best?

Bonefish actively look for crabs and shrimps on the bottom. Some of the best flies include a mantis, spawning mantis, flexo crab, pillow talk, clouser, gummy minnow, and EP shrimp.

How to Catch Them

Bonefish generally cruise in one direction as a single fish or in a group. You want to drop your fly 6 feet in front of the fish and let it sink.

Once the fish is 2 feet away, strip once, long and slowly, and the fish should jump on it. One more strip and set the hook using a strip set, do not lift your rod.

Once hooked, do not try to stop them. Clear the line and get the fish onto the reel and play it from there.

Where & When to Fish for Them

Bonefish can be targeted all year round on the flats of The Bahamas, Mexico, Belize, Florida, Seychelles, Christmas Island, Los Roques and more.


Triggerfish are another great species to go after if you are just learning how to saltwater fly fish.

You’ll find them in knee deep water tailing on coral flats either side of the dead low tide. This makes them easy to spot, as their tails are out the water, and you get a lot of chances, which is great practice.

There are three main species of triggerfish to target when saltwater fly fishing; mustache, yellow margin, and black-patch triggerfish. They don’t grow to huge sizes but they are technical to fish for and very spooky, so you have to make every cast count.

saltwater queen triggerfish

What Size Fly Rod & Reel Do You Need?

You can go after trigger fish with a 9 wt saltwater setup. Use a 20 lb leader as they are not leader shy and you’ll need the extra strength to handle any coral abrasions.

What Flies Work Best?

Triggerfish love to eat crabs and shrimps and the best flies to catch them imitate these. Flexo crabs in various colors work well as do spawning shrimps, mantis shrimps, and avalons.

Make sure the hooks are strong though as a triggerfish will bite through them easily. Gamakatsu SL12 hooks are the best for the job.

How to Catch Them

Triggerfish do not have the best eyesight but they are spooky. This means you have to get the fly close enough to them without scaring them off. Use the tide and cast “upstream” of the triggerfish and let the tide swing your fly in front of them.

You want your fly to be around 3 feet from the trigger. Follow this with slow short strips. If the trigger sees your fly, it will start following. Keep the fly moving until you feel the bite and then strip set.

Once hooked, a triggerfish will try to find a hole to hide in. You have to stop it. Try to hold the fish back, following it to stop your leader breaking. After a few mins, it will give up and you can land it.

Where & When to Fish for Them

The best places to fish for mustache and yellow margin triggerfish is on the Nubian Flats of Sudan and the Outer Island of Seychelles. The Seychelles season runs from September to May while the Nubian Flats runs from Feb to June.

Black-patch triggerfish are found on the flats of the Caribbean from the Bahamas to Belize and can be fished for all year round.


Roosterfish are an incredible species to catch on a fly rod and they are high on most saltwater fly anglers’ bucket list. Why?

Well, they look amazing, they fight hard, and you can sight fish for them off the beach, which makes it an amazing challenge and experience.

The world record for a roosterfish is 114 lbs, which is a monster. Anything in the 30 to 40 lb range is a trophy, and on average they are about 10 to 20 lbs.

You can only find roosterfish in the Pacific Ocean between Baja, Mexico and south to Peru.

By Carol Neuhoff,

What Size Fly Rod & Reel Do You Need?

A 10 wt setup is perfect for roosterfish with a clear sink tip fly line so the fish don’t spook and the fly stays in the feeding zone.

What Flies Work Best?

Roosterfish are fussy eaters when it comes to flies which means your choices have to look natural. Brush flies in sizes 3/0 and 4/0 are most effective and the colors should be tan, and blue & white.

How to Catch Them

Catching roosterfish from the beach is a challenge of patience and skill. You will walk the beaches for hours until you see one in some cases.

When you see it, running to get ahead of the fish is step one. Next is laying up a cast, dropping your fly about 10 feet in front of the fish. Long strips are needed, increasing in speed to match the fish’s aggression or not.

Once you get a bite, strip-set hard, clear your line, and enjoy the ride.

Where & When To Fish For Them

The best saltwater fishing destination to fish for roosters is Baja’s East Cape in Mexico between March & May, and September & October.


Milkfish are not your usual “game fish” so to speak. They eat plankton and weed, meaning they are not predatory. But they are big fish that jump, and fight hard making them a lot of fun on a fly rod.

At certain times of the month, milkfish will daisy chain on the surface eating plankton. They sit in tight knit groups hoovering up microorganisms off the surface and this is when you can slide a fly into their mouths.

Milkfish can grow to over 50 lbs and it is not uncommon for fly anglers to fight them for upwards of 2 hours before landing them.

What Size Fly Rod & Reel Do You Need?

The ideal setup for milkfish is a 10 wt fly rod and reel fished on a floating line with a 30 lb fluorocarbon leader.

What Flies Work Best?

Arno’s milky dream is THE milkfish fly. It looks like a clump of weed and can be fished with or without a weight, depending on the depth they are feeding at.

How to Catch Them

Hooking a milkfish on fly requires finding a group of fish daisy chaining on the surface. Once found, the boat will set up ahead of them.

Cast your fly in front of the lead fish and make slow strips to keep it on the surface and move it through the group. The idea is for the milkfish to hover up your fly by mistake. If you feel anything, set the hook a few times and be prepared for the ride of your life.

Where & When to Fish for Them

You can fly fish for milkfish in Oman and Seychelles Outer Islands between September and October. Or on Christmas Island in the Pacific Ocean all year round.

Offshore Species

Black & Blue Marlin

Black marlin are the fastest fish on the planet hitting speeds of 80 mph / 128 kpm. They can grow to be over 1000 lbs and live in the Pacific and Indian Oceans close to reefs and around offshore structures like sea mounts.

Blue Marlin are not quite as quick and hit speeds of 72 mph / 115 mph. They live in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, and also grow to be over 1000 lbs. They prefer deeper water offshore but can also be found on seamounts with black marlin about 2 miles from shore.

Now, with a fly rod, you are going to struggle to land a marlin over 200 lbs, so it is all about finding the small ones.

Atlantic blue marlin
By NOAA – Gardieff S. (2003),

What Size Fly Rod & Reel Do You Need?

A 14 wt fly rod with an excellent reel loaded with a sinking line is the set up required here. The idea is to keep the marlin on the surface. The sinking line does this by pulling the fish from below, making it want to run in the opposite direction, upwards to the surface.

What Flies Work Best?

Big billfish flies are the name of the game. The flies are tied on a tube with a tandem rig of hooks behind them and are fished with or without a popping head.

How to Catch Them

To catch black and blue marlin on fly, you first have to tease them using conventional gear with no hooks. This means trolling for them and waiting for them to come up on the teaser. Once up, the fish is teased in until they are right behind the boat.

The teasers are then removed from the water, the boat goes into neutral, and you cast the fly. Long strips are needed to pop the fly, the fish should then turn and eat. Set the hook with a strip set, clear your line, and listen to the captain for instructions.

Where & When to Fish for Them

The best place to catch small black marlin on fly is on Fraser Island in Australia between October & November.

For blue marlin on fly, head to Costa Rica to fish the offshore seamounts between June and August.

Striped Marlin

Striped marlin are much smaller than black and blue marlin and a bit slower too. They grow to a maximum of 517 lbs (only off New Zealand) but on average are around 150 lbs and swim at 50 mph / 81 kph. This makes them much more achievable on a fly rod.

You can find them in the Pacific and Indian Oceans and they often move in shoals, so you often have groups of them behind the boat.

Striped Marlin
By Jackiemora01,

What Size Fly Rod & Reel Do You Need?

A 12 or 14 wt fly rod with a great saltwater fly reel is ideal, again loaded with a sinking line to keep the fish on the surface.

What Flies Work Best?

You can use the same flies mentioned above for black & blue marlin.

How to Catch Them

There are two options with striped marlin. The first is tease and switch, the same tactics for black/blue marlin. But, in some parts of the world you can sightfish and cast to shoals of striped marlin on the surface.

This involves long casts to groups of fish with heavy gear followed by fast strips and intense strip sets to hook up.

Where & When to Fish for Them

The best places to fish for striped marlin on fly are the Galapagos Islands and Magdalena Bay in Mexico. The Mag Bay season runs from September to December and the Galapagos from January to June.


Sailfish are the perfect billfish for a fly rod. They are the second fastest fish on the planet with speeds of 68 mph / 110 kph, are aggressive, swim in groups, are easy to find, but they are not too big and grow to about 80 lbs on average.

You can find them in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans generally in water about 200 feet deep.

Two men holding a freshly caught sailfish
By WIDTTF – ryans sail 014,

What Size Fly Rod & Reel Do You Need?

A 12 wt fly setup with a sinking line is perfect for sailfish.

What Flies Work Best?

Billfish flies with 2 hooks are best for sailfish, with a popping head, in my experience. The same as you would use to blue/bacl/striped marlin but maybe a little smaller.

How to Catch Them

Catching a sailfish on fly involves teasing and switching. There are no places I know of where you can sightfish and cast to them, but you might get lucky and find a free swimmer on the surface.

Where & When to Fish for Them

Guatemala and Costa Rica are the best places for sailfish on fly between December and May.


Wahoo are also one of the fastest fish in the ocean, swimming at 48 mph / 77 kph and grow to around 30 lbs on average, making them perfect for a fly rod.

You can find wahoo in the Pacific, Indian, Atlantic Oceans along deep drop offs and offshore seamounts.

free swimming wahoo

What Size Fly Rod & Reel Do You Need?

You can probably get away with using a 10 wt fly setup for wahoo. But, the chances of raising a sailfish while fishing for them is high, so stick with the 12 wt setup with a sinking line.

What Flies Work Best?

The same flies you would use for sailfish are ideal for wahoo. Billfish flies with a tandem hook rig but make sure it is rigged with wire, as wahoo have incredibly sharp teeth.

How to Catch Them

Tease and switch is the name of the game here but wahoo do not stick to teasers like billfish, so you need to switch very quickly. Often, they will eat the fly from below and jump out the water, so you may have to set the hook while they are in mid-air!

Where & When to Fish for Them

The best place to fish for wahoo on fly is the Seychelles Outer Islands between October and December.


Dorado, aka Mahi Mahi, are another awesome fish to catch with a fly rod. They are aggressive, eat flies readily, are abundant, easy to find, they jump, and they pull line. Catching them on a fly is a load of fun.

Dorado can be found all over the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, there are even good numbers of them in the Mediterranean. They grow to about 20 lbs on average but can push over 60 lbs in some cases.

A freshly caught Mahi Mahi

What Size Fly Rod & Reel Do You Need?

A 10 wt fly setup is perfect for dorado. Load your reel with a sinking tip fly line to get your fly down quickly.

What Flies Work Best?

Dorado will eat anything that moves so fly selection isn’t so important. Big clauses tied on 6/0 hooks are perfect as are brush flies and poppers.

How to Catch Them

In some parts of the world you can sight fish at schools of dorado and in others, it is a tease and switch game. When sight fishing, cast as far as you can just to the side of the school of fish and strip fast.

Once hooked, strip set hard and be prepared for some jumping. Bow to the fish when they jump by dropping your rod so the hook doesn’t pull out.

Where & When to Fish for Them

The best place to fly fishing for dorado is in Baja, Mexico between April and November.

Winding Up

There you have it, all the top saltwater species to catch with a fly rod. As you can see, the list is long, impressive, and going after them all will take you to some of the coolest parts of the world.

If you have any questions or stories to share, we would love to hear from you. Please leave us a note in the comments section below.

Jamie Melvin

Growing up fishing on streams and lakes in Kenya and the UK, Jamie has traveled the world in search of fishing nirvana. From his time managing bonefish lodges in the Bahamas and running fishing safaris in East Africa, all the way to guiding on the flats of Seychelles and offshore, there are not many species or environments he hasn't experienced firsthand.

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