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How to Get Started in Saltwater Fly-Fishing

It may be a great deal easier than you think.

Saltwater fly-fishing gets a lot of press. An exciting branch of our sport it is too.

Marlin on a fly rod - tuna, sharks and yellowtail kingfish too. But maybe all these stories of going toe to toe with big-game fish on the specialist gear required, rather than encouraging people into this sport, has actually discouraged them?

This may be especially true when many articles talk about complicated leader set-ups and the like. Most of this stuff is about complying with the rules to register record fish. If you are not chasing records, or fishing in a contest, none of these rules apply.

A pair of average kahawai that provided great sport on a fly rod

Here is some good news - just as in all other aspects of fishing - there are horses for courses.

Fact is the majority of fishermen have never, and may never, go fishing for big-game fish, whether with big-game fishing gear or on a fly rod.

In fact it is highly likely that the majority of big-game fishermen have never and will never chase big-game fish with a fly rod. Fishing for big-game fish with a fly rod is a specialised branch of a sport that is already specialised.

Saltwater fly-fishing is not necessarily about catching big-game fish on fly rods: for most, it is about catching exciting fish like kahawai, trevally, snapper and  smaller  yellowtail kingfish on fly rods.

Here is some even better news - the gear for catching these exciting fish can be the same gear that you could use to catch trout as well.

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Here is what you need to chase snapper, kahawai, small kingfish, trevally, and the like in saltwater.

The rod should be a 6 to 9 weight.

Nothing particularly special required - but check out the reel seat, it must be reasonably strong and not of cheap metal.

A six weight for saltwater fly? Yes sir. Many trout up to and over 4 kilo are caught on six weight rods. There are not too many 4 kilo plus kahawai! Here is the rub, as the rods line weight goes down, the skill of the angler needs to go up.

If you are purchasing a system to be used in both fresh and saltwater consider what type of fishing you will mostly be doing in fresh water. If it is chucking lead-bomb nymphs in the Tongariro River, (Taupo, New Zealand) tend toward the nine weight, if it is nymphing or dry fly-fishing in back country streams tend to a six weight.

When considering the line weight of the rod consider your casting ability. Many saltwater flies are bigger than their fresh water cousins and often they have to be cast in windy conditions. Some fishermen find casting with a heavier rod easier.

Just a quick point here about casting - you don’t have to.

Playing a saltwater fish on a fly rod is a whole barrel of fun in itself. If casting a fly rod in a small, rocking boat, with other anglers on board is not sensible or safe then by all means 'troll' (tow a lure or fly behind a boat) the fly.

It is only when chasing record fish or under contest rules that trolling a fly is not allowed.

If you are fishing from an anchored boat, down a berley trail, using a floating line with a long leader drifted back can be very effective.

Fly lines do not have to be specialised saltwater fly lines.

They can be the same lines you could - or do - use in fresh water. It is true that specialised saltwater lines do make casting, heavy flies, or into the wind, easier, but they are not a requirement. If you become a confirmed saltwater fisherman you will likely move up to these specialised lines, but when you are starting out a Weight Forward line will do.

Even better are some of the newer shooting heads with the backing incorporated into the line. Great stuff for salt and fresh water fishing.

Leaders (traces) need to be good quality.

The mouths of most of our saltwater targets are harder than the soft mouths of trout and many saltwater fish have sharp bits, especially around the gills. It is for this reason that some of the ‘complications’ about leaders comes in.

Many fishermen like to have a short section of thicker trace from the fly, then tied to the leader proper. But this may be an unnecessary complication if you use 10 kilo leader.

However it is vital that you do heed this ‘complication’ .

Most fly lines have a core that is around 15 kilo breaking strain, but there are some that use a lighter breaking-strain core, especially as you go down the line weights.

It is vital that the leader breaking-strain you use is less than the fly line core and the backing (line between the fly line and the reel) breaking strain. If the fly becomes snagged, or the fish is just too tough on the day, you want the leader to break before the fly line or backing breaks. Losing a fly line is not designed to make you very happy.

As indicated above, this does not preclude using a short, say 1 foot, tippet of heavy trace between the leader and the hook to provide some resistance to teeth and gill rakers.

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The Reel must be of reasonable quality.

This is one area where saltwater fly-fishing does require a little more expense than may be the case in fresh water.

A reel for use in saltwater must be capable of holding an absolute minimum of 100 metres of backing, ideally 200 metres.
Remember that in saltwater a fish has pretty much got the whole ocean to tow your line around. And at the risk of starting a fight, most saltwater fish like kahawai fight at a level several times above the average trout.

The reel should have a good drag system.
Most saltwater fish will run faster and further than a trout, so a smooth drag is important. Don’t even think about trying to stop a kingfish or kahawai in full flight using a ‘hand drag’.

If you avoid losing your knuckles from the flying handles, the heat will make you lift your hand, and then you will build a truly majestic overrun, with the very real danger of the backing breaking off at the reel, losing your backing and fly line. Using a reel with no drag system is really only for those who have pain as their close and dear friend.

The reel must be saltwater resistant.
Many cheap fresh water reels are simply not up to the ravages of saltwater. Combine cheap steel with aluminium and you have corrosion and electrolysis waiting to happen.

But you do not need to buy a specialist saltwater game fishing reel costing many hundreds of dollars. Because of the growing numbers of fly fishermen world wide who are taking up saltwater fly many fresh water reels are now designed to face up to saltwater as well.

Saltwater Flies

Slinky Deceiver Saltwater fly

Here is some more good news for trout fly fishers - many of the wet flies or streamers used in fresh water work well in saltwater. Many of the smelt, or small baitfish imitations work well - especially silicone smelt flies. Small Glo-Bugs will tempt schooling trevally. But using fresh-water flies in salt-water means sacrificing that fly - corrosion will soon wreck it.

Many good fishing tackle stores now stock saltwater flies. If you tie your own, the net has thousands of patterns for you to troll through.

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Other Bits and Pieces

Apart from special saltwater flies, there are a few items that you could consider buying.

A stripping basket is very useful.
This is a ‘basket’ that is slung round the waist and as line is stripped in it is deposited in the basket. This avoids the problem of loose line catching on the many bits and pieces that seem to protrude from the inside of a boat or on the rocks.

Pruning baskets from the local garden shop do a good job. Besides, a stripping basket is often very useful when fresh water fishing.

Invest in a good quality reel grease
Blue Grease if you can get it. Lightly coat the inside of your reels, especially where two different metals meet.

Lightly coat the reels foot. Very often the screws through the foot are of a different metal to the foot itself. Also lightly coat the part that touches the rod reel seat. This is especially important if the rod reel seat is of a different metal to the foot of the reel.

If the rod has metal reel seat parts, give these a light coat of grease too. Wind the reel seat screws down the handle and apply some grease to the thread and wind the screws back up.

If you are into releasing fish get a good pair of large forceps. These are indispensable for removing hooks without wrecking the fly, fish or you.

Have Fun

Saltwater fly-fishing can be as basic and simple as you like, and it is a whole load of fun. We are lucky to have some superb fish to wave a fly at without going to huge expense. Have fun!


Viva wet fly


Article written by Tony Bishop


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