Saltwater Fly Fishing Gear: Flying Away from Freshwater

Fly fishing in the ocean

Seasoned anglers know there’s nothing worse for freshwater gear than to fish with it in saltwater. Fly fishing gear isn’t any different than spinning or casting equipment when it comes to marine conditions. You need the protection that only special design and material can offer, or your gear won’t last long. Travel away from freshwater fly fishing for a moment and explore those salty shores. Saltwater fly fishing gear opens up a brand new world of fishing with a wide range of equipment.

Saltwater fly fishing reels

The most important aspect of saltwater fly fishing gear is that it’s able to resist corrosion. Manufacturers use a few tricks to accomplish this feat when building saltwater reels. They may choose graphite, though most saltwater fly reels are aluminum. Both resist corrosion, but aluminum builds a stronger reel frame.

Fly fisherman with fish

Another choice material for saltwater reels is stainless steel. Look for it in the nuts & bolts, main gear, and bearings of the reel. Additional protection comes in the form of sealed chambers. Stainless steel bearings have covers on both sides, protecting the inside chamber from debris. High-value saltwater fly fishing reels seal the entire drag chamber; a great feature but it does add to the price.

There are other factors that differentiate saltwater fly fishing reels from freshwater models as well. Examples are a larger spool to hold more line and a stronger drag system. Unlike freshwater fly fishermen, saltwater anglers do a lot more reeling. Powerful saltwater species will pick up your slack fly line in a second, thus engaging your drag system. After all, make sure your saltwater fly reel holds fly line that matches the rod you need.

Fly fishing rods for saltwater

Saltwater fly fishing rods, like the reels, have properties to fight off corrosion. You’ll see features such as laminated line guides and anodized reel seats. Line guides with laminate coating stop rust, and anodized aluminum prevents oxidation in the reel seat. Saltwater fly rods also have an extended butt section where freshwater rods end at the reel seat.

Like freshwater fly rods, manufacturers match saltwater models to balance with the weight of the fly line. It follows that an 8 weight rod uses an 8 weight fly line, but what weight saltwater fly fishing rod is best? You can match power to species, but every fly rod is different. Using the general rules that match the rod to saltwater species is a good starting point.

Take notice of factors like wind and casting space. A longer rod isn’t always the best choice for saltwater fly fishing. Long rods are fine when fish run out across the surface, but can lack the needed backbone for fish that dive straight down. Slow to medium action fly rods won’t pick line off the water the way a fast action tip will. You’re going to want that fast action for casting into an oncoming wind.

Backing for saltwater fly reels

Saltwater setups often use a three-tier combination of line, a change from the freshwater setup. Ocean fly reels begin their spools with mono or even a braided backing. It makes sense to add backing when you consider the length of the fly line and leader. If you’re fishing for species that can easily strip 30 – 45 feet of fly line and an 8 – 12 foot leader, it’s best to have backing.

Saltwater fly line

Choosing fly line for your saltwater fly setup can be as complicated as the setup itself. There’s a different kind of saltwater fly line for almost every situation imaginable. Some experts suggest choosing your fly line first, then matching the setup to the line. That makes sense if you know you’re going to be fishing for, say, tarpon on the flats.

Fly fishing line

If you’re looking for an all-around saltwater fly fishing setup, starting with fly line might not seem like the best advice. The trouble is, it’s impossible to name an all-around setup for saltwater fly fishing. Perhaps the best practice is to start with the species of fish that inhabit the waters you plan on fishing. Match your fly line to their sizes and habits, then let it lead you to the right setup.

Leaders and tippet

At the end of the saltwater fly line goes the leader, the final strip of line which presents your fly. Leaders come in standard lengths of 9 feet, but there’s no specific rule here. You can make your own leader out of tippet, fluorocarbon, or mono line. Saltwater fly fishermen also turn to companies like Rio Products. Check out their specialty leaders for striped bass, bonefish, and other strong species.

Examples of saltwater fly patterns

The beauty of fly fishing, saltwater or fresh, is getting the fish to take your lure. Saltwater fly patterns are very different from freshwater choices, but the idea is the same. Make an educated guess about what the fish are feeding on and match the pattern. Streamers that resemble minnows and sink down in the water are go-to patterns. Crabs, shrimp, and squid patterns can be effective as well.

Fly fishing hook

Saltwater fly anglers usually approach patterns like a freshwater fly angler would fishing in a lake. Sink tip fly line helps get streamers down in the water zone where many species lie in wait. That’s not to discount shrimp patterns and floating line for top water action. Offshore fly anglers often carry more than 1 setup for species that feed all over the water column.

Accessories

Once your saltwater fly fishing setup is complete, it’s time to round out your gear. From the deck of a boat, you might not need a fly vest but you do have to watch your slack line. Fly anglers that venture into the surf use a line basket that wraps around their waist. It hooks on like a belt and catches slack fly line as you strip it in. Swim trunks are usually better than waders, unless you’re fishing cold surf conditions.

Top manufacturers

All the major fly fishing outfitters are in the saltwater game with gear that ranges in both value and price. Companies like Sage, Orvis, and Ross stand out, but don’t discount brands like Redington or Fin-Nor. Anglers that shy from saltwater fly fishing due to cost might reconsider. Redington offers the new Behemoth reel, a steal for the asking price. Pair it with a Redington Vice fly rod to make a fine beginner’s saltwater setup.

You can begin with saltwater fly fishing gear like the Redington setup above. Once your skills start improving, it’ll make a great backup or loaner to a friend. Serious ocean fly fishermen end up with a few different setups. Move up to a Ross Evolution fly reel on a Sage Motive fly rod and experience the difference.

Man holding a fly rod

If you have the chance to test a rod and reel, it helps. Having a rod with the right power and action is one of the most important decisions you will make, and it’s one that experience refines. Starting out with expensive saltwater fly fishing gear isn’t a bad thing because it’s durable, but it’s a risk without doing your homework. Some brands 9 weight rods feel more like 8 weights, so research is imperative.

Bringing it home

Saltwater fly fishing gear makes it possible to fish any marine situation. From small surf perch on a 5-weight fly rod to sailfish on a 14-weight, the choice comes down to how you want to fish. Most saltwater anglers turn to the versatile 8- or 9-weight rods, with enough reel to suit their needs. If you already have fly-casting skills, even better. All you have to do is switch out your gear and get down to the ocean.