Transitioning From Freshwater to Saltwater
When I was just a yute (hat tip to “My Cousin Vinny”) I routinely gear and bait fished both fresh and saltwater with my father and my Uncle Don. I'll never forget a great white shark swimming next to the boat out in Glouchester while we were cod and haddock fishing. Probably explains my obsession with shark week.
My fishing skills and tastes have changed over the years, but what has remained is a passionate love for all things fishing. While Pike and Musky are arguably the biggest and baddest freshwater predators, there are so many more species to target in saltwater. I don't recommend going for Mr. Great White with a fly rod. However there are a ton of species to target from Mahi to Stripers to Tuna to Redfish....the list goes on and on. For those interested in transitioning to saltwater, here are a few pointers.
No different than freshwater, picking the right rod is the first step of the process. In fly fishing, it’s all about the rod. You’re going to get a lot of advice here. If you are a freshwater fly fisherman, you do have an advantage. You know full well that the best rod out there is the one you are comfortable with. It is an individual taste thing. Chances are, if there is a brand you like for freshwater, you’re going to like it for saltwater.
Why do I say that? It’s psychological. It is simply trust. Just because one company many make a great 9’4wt trout rod, doesn’t mean they make a great saltwater rod. However, you’re already predisposition to like the brand. There’s also the reality that a good rod maker is a good rod maker. I’m not out there to win casting competitions, I’m out there to fish. While one rod may win this award or that, I’m far more concerned about putting a good sized Mahi fillet on the grill.
You do want to pick a versatile rod. There’s a ton of species to catch in any given body of water. No different than freshwater fishing, your 8’3wt stream rod wasn’t the first one you bought. You can specialize later. Conserve your cash, you don’t need to specialize when you’re first starting out. The best multi-purpose rod like a stiff 9-weight is the ticket. I know many fishermen who think you need a 10- or 11-weight rod, but I really think that’s overkill. Unless you are specifically hunting for trophy-sized fish, a 9-weight rod will give you plenty of strength.
For length, 9 feet seems to be ideal for many applications. Boat-fishermen might prefer a shorter rod and shore fishermen a longer one, but a 9-footer will give you a big selection to choose from and get you started, and frankly you can be comfortable either from shore or the boat. If you know definitively you’re going to fish from shore, up the length. Conversely, if you know you’ll only be fishing from a boat, you might want to shorten up. For me, I’m comfortable with the 9’ length.
Next, we need to talk about the action of the rod. Different manufactures refer to their rods differently, but what we are talking about here the stiffness of the rod. For saltwater, I prefer a stiffer, faster action rod. There’s a couple of reasons. You’re not likely going to be fishing up close and you’ll be casting sinking lines so you want to get the fly out. You’re not pocket fishing here. Get a rod with a good backbone.
Put some thought into your Reel
Here’s the thing, many times in freshwater trout fishing you never have the fish on the reel. Salmon fisherman, steelheaders and musky fisherman would be more accustomed to playing a fish on a reel. So depending your point of view, you’ll need to calibrate your thinking on the reel. My point here is that if you’re a trout or smaller species fisherman, more than likely, you just use the reel to hold line, and haven't really considered the drag system. If you’re a steel header, you’re more accustomed to playing fish on the reel and know drag importance.
For those not familiar with playing fish on the reel, the first choice to make when choosing a fly reel is the drag type. There are two main drag types: center and offset. Center drag reels seem to have the most stopping power but come with a higher price tag. Offset drags work well too, but you may have to “palm” the reel on a big fish. Palming is simply applying your palm to the reel to slow the spool. At the end of the day, it boils down to cost and preference. I don’t like palming the reel, I’ll spend the extra money on a center drag system. I know others that love to palm the reel and they feel they have more control.
Fly reels come in large, mid and regular arbor sizes. The arbor size refers to the diameter of the spool. Larger diameter reels will wind on more line per turn of the reel handle. This is my preference. I find I have better control over a big fish with a large arbor reel. The tradeoff here is weight. Personally, I’m not too big into the “lighter the better” craze going on. I understand it, but sometimes I don’t think the tradeoffs are worth in in some cases, and this is one of them.
Sinking line is the ticket here. In almost any situation, you want the line to get down, and get down fast. The most notable exception would be if you’re flats fishing. In that case, you have a longer rod, probably a mid-arbor reel and you’d be fishing floating line or sink tip. However, for almost any other application, you’d be using sinking line. I use a 325-350 grain line on my nine-weight rod. This gets the line down fast and isn’t too heavy for a long day of casting. Rio makes some good lines as does Scientific Angler. There is some decent top water action is saltwater fly fishing. If you have an extra spool or reel, you may want to spin it up with floating line. This is a little more advanced, but in my book, no matter what body of water you are on, nothing beats a top water bite.
Don’t go crazy on the backing. 20 pound Dacron braid is perfect. It’s a great value and works perfectly fine. Unless you’re going after swordfish, you don’t need to mess with anything else. Don’t bother with the 30-pound test Dacron or gel-spun. The leader is far more likely to break than the 20-pound test Dacron, so what would be the point here? Speaking of which…..for leader material the easiest thing to use is 15-20-pound test fluorocarbon. Tapered leaders are fine too, I’ve just a big fan of the fluorocarbon.
Cast, cast, and cast again.
I don’t know how many times I’ve said it, to become a competent caster, you’ve got to practice. Sometimes the best place to practice is the back yard. I actually cast on front lawn, simply for the comic effect on my neighbors…..though I’m thinking I need to rethink that strategy. It’s a surefire clue to my wife that I picked up something new! Not that I’d go out and buy something with my “squirrel” money and act like I’ve had it for years upon discovery…….but, yeah, I’m that guy.
Just like any other rig, cast it and get the feel for it. It’s far easier to learn on land than it is on a boat or in the water. Reading up on casting is a good idea too. There are a lot of opinions out there. Personally for me, I like Lefty Kreh. He has several good books and his humorous writing makes learning enjoyable. If you’re a visual learner, find a DVD that offers instruction. I’d again look to Lefty here or possibly Flip Pallot.
The classics are classics for a reason
Go with proven flies. The old standbys are old standbys for a reason: they work. The fly is so often overlooked in the entire equation. You don’t need to start out with 100 patterns…..and that’s an owner of a fly fishing business telling you that! You need to start out with 10,000…..OK, I couldn’t resist. In reality, there’s probably on a dozen you need. That’s it. The last thing you want to do is spend money on flies that are going to be ineffective on what you doing. Many flies are specialty….they are designed for specific waters, specific applications and specific techniques. Ultimately you’ll get into them, but it’s really just a waste at the beginning when there is so much to learn over time. Here as some good go-to’s
Fly fishing is a fantastic way to enjoy the great outdoors, and there’s many ways to go about it. Freshwater, Saltwater, Flats, Musky fishing…..all have their special place in my heart. There’s nothing like that tug on the other end of the line. It just simply hooks you! I hope this was helpful to all my fishy friends out there.
Tight Lines and Screaming Drags