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The Difference Between Fresh and Saltwater Fly Fishing

The Difference Between Fresh and Saltwater Fly Fishing

Anglers fly casting to Saltwater fish from a Flats boat

Many fly anglers fish in both fresh and salt water. After all, three-fourths of the planet is covered with water, providing nearly unlimited opportunities to fish. Most fly anglers will be fishing in freshwater lakes or streams, but saltwater fly fishing has become very popular, especially on the flats, in the backcountry, along shorelines, and in the surf. In 2017, more than 49 million Americans participated in freshwater, saltwater and fly fishing.

What are the differences between freshwater and saltwater fly fishing? Let’s start by identifying which sport fish are found in each type of water. There are literally thousands of different species that live in saltwater. The world’s waters contain between 30,000 and 40,000 different species of fish, two-thirds of which live in salt water.

Target species for saltwater fly fishing usually depend on whether you’re fishing in-shore or off-shore, but some species inhabit both locations. Popular in-shore areas along both coasts of the United States include river estuaries where anadromous fish like salmon, steelhead, and striped bass will stage while waiting to head upriver to spawn or for seasonal feeding opportunities as smaller species return to spawn or feed. Many parts of estuaries can be fished from either the shore or a boat. In the Florida flats, fly fishers wade or fish from a boat pursuing bonefish, baby tarpon, sea trout, and snook, among others, while in coastal waters off of Texas, you’ll find people pursuing redfish and striped bass from both the shore as well as from boats and kayaks. Chesapeake Bay in the Northeast hosts a huge fishery for striped bass, blue fish, sea trout, Atlantic croaker, and perch, while San Francisco Bay offers fly fishing for striped bass and largemouth bass from fall to spring. Sinking or sink-tip lines may also used to catch fish lying deeper like halibut, cod, and flounder in many of these locations. Bonefish are one of the most popular in-shore fishing species in many countries as are barracuda and permit. Off-shore or blue-water fishing is famous for fly fishing done from boats with an extra-sturdy fly fishing outfit in pursuit of marlin, tuna, Dorado (mahi-mahi), sailfish, halibut, tarpon, trevally, albacore, and more.

Freshwater species, on the other hand, are divided into cold-water and warm-water species. Rainbow trout are probably the most-fished species in the cold-water category. Because it fights long and hard, anglers everywhere revere the rainbow trout. Other trout species such as brown and brook trout are very popular too, but not as prolific. Both brook trout and lake trout are actually a char and not a trout at all. Other char species that are popular in cold water are Dolly Varden char, Arctic char, and bull trout. The five species of Pacific salmon are also important cold-water species in fresh water, as are steelhead, northern pike, and their close relation, walleye, among others.

Both Large and Smallmouth Bass are the two most popular freshwater species in warm water. These fisheries exist in many places. Besides all the different bass species, bluegill, catfish, crappie, perch, and, increasingly, carp. Warm-water fisheries exist in rivers, lakes, and even many reservoirs. In recent years fly fishing become more popular in the warm water fisheries, and is spreading quickly.

As for fresh and saltwater gear, your 6 or 7-weight fly rod that you use for trout and bass in fresh water can be used for fishing some in-shore locations, depending on the size and type of fish that you are after. The 8-weight rod that you use in fresh water for salmon, red-fish, or steel-head is perfect for much of the surf fishing that you’ll be doing in estuaries or even from the boats—again depending on what size fish you’re fishing for. A 9 or 10-weight fly rod for sale is an excellent choice as an all purpose saltwater fly rod to cover a wide range of species and conditions. Targeting large species such as adult tarpon, peacock bass, giant trevally, roosterfish, or mahi-mahi will require an 11 or 12-weight fly rod outfit.

Freshwater anglers moving into saltwater fly fishing may potentially become frustrated with the increased difficulty of casting heavier fly rods, heavy fly lines, and larger flies in what are often windy conditions. These freshwater anglers may also be surprised by the speed required to deliver a fly accurately, in often challenging conditions, to a cruising fish. Quick shots are often required to reach cruising fish, without the benefit of multiple false casts. Practice casting at home or at the park when there is some windy, and place a target at 60-80ft. You will want to learn how to “single haul” or “double haul” to shoot this much line in the wind with just one backcast. Working on these skills before your saltwater trip will go a long ways toward eliminating frustration and increasing your success. The best advice is to hire a good saltwater guide your first time or two and discuss the gear required beforehand. In most cases, the guide will provide the appropriate quality saltwater fly rod outfit that is properly rigged and ready to go.

Gear differences really come in when you head off-shore to the “blue water” fisheries. That’s where the denizens of the deep reside, and you have to be prepared for them. When anglers fish off-shore for golden dorado, tuna, marlin, and sailfish, they are typically equipped with at least 11-weight and often up to 16-weight rods. Species with teeth also require a wire tippet or wire leader so they don't cut through your leader.

Fly lines, of course, must match the rod weight for the rod to cast well, so heavier rods require heavier fly lines, which may be floating, sinking-tip, or full- sinking lines. Specialized saltwater fly lines have unique tapers and a core designed for cold saltwater or warm tropical conditions. Just as with any other fly fishing, your reel must match your rod so that it balances the rod when you cast, and so that it can hold the weight of fly line that the rod requires. Therefore, the reels for off-shore fishing are much larger and stronger than the ones we use in fresh water. A word of caution: all of your gear will need to be rinsed in fresh water after you fish the brackish water in estuaries or the salt water farther out. Also make sure that your reels are anodized to help prevent the salt water from corroding them.

Many more fly fishers have been found enjoying both freshwater and saltwater fly fishing outfits in recent years. It is not at all uncommon to hear of fly anglers traveling to places like Alaska, Canada, and Mongolia during the summer months and then to warm settings like the Bahamas and Costa Rica to fish for saltwater species during the winter. Those who live near saltwater probably also fish the local rivers or a favorite lake nearby.

Most fly fishers are eager to catch a new species, experience a new location, or experiment with new flies. Fishing lodges exist everywhere these days and make it easier than ever to explore all that fly fishing has to offer. Both fresh and salt water hold many exciting adventures for fly anglers. For an extensive selection of fly rods for sale from all the top fly rod brands, for both freshwater and saltwater, visit the fly shop at ReelFlyRod. They even have a Custom Fly Fishing Outfit Builder where you can match your chosen fly rod with any fly reel, and have the fly line of your choice loaded on the outfit.

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