Saltwater Fly Fishing Basics

Saltwater Fly Fishing Basics - fighting a fishCasting a long fly line on a glass calm morning and watching the whole line simultaneously drop and place itself on the water is one of the great joys of fly fishing.  Before any fish are caught the angler gets to experience this awesome moment of anticipation as you launch another cast out into the blue water and think “maybe this cast”.

Hooking a big fish on the fly is an exhilarating experience.  When the angler feels the bite and sets the hook with their stripping hand holding the line they are immediately connected directly to the fish and can feel the pure animal strength and wild that these fish possess.  The angler is able to really see the fish’s speed demonstrated as they tear off to the horizon or to the bottom of the water column.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASaltwater fly fishing is a challenging sport to get into for many people.  Even experienced freshwater fly fishermen are intimidated or dissuaded by the heavier fly rods, bigger flies, longer casts and overall cost to get into the sport.  While many of these obstacles exist they are not nearly as daunting as one would imagine.  Fly rods and reels have come a long way in the last ten or so years.  Today’s $130 rod is probably better than a $400 rod from ten or twelve years ago.  Similarly reels have become much more affordable and there are many options to keep the price reasonable.  There are also many fly fishing clubs and groups with qualified instructors willing to help new casters not to mention professional instructors who can greatly accelerate the learning process.

We are very fortunate in New England to have so many great public shore fishing spots.  Wherever you are on the New England coast there is probably a good fly fishing spot very near to you.  You just need some basic gear to get out there and start enjoying it.

Saltwater Fly Fishing Basics: The Gear

The first step is to go pick out a rod.  There are so many fly rod builders and types of fly rods that this can be pretty difficult for someone new to the sport.  Generally speaking, for striper and bluefishing in New England, you are looking for an 8 or 9 weight, 9 foot fly rod.  Some people use tens for high current areas or surf casting but as a starting point, an 8 or 9 would be ideal.  These give the anglers a broad range of fish that they can target.  There are also many, many rods in this range as well as reels and lines.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFly rods come in weights, lengths and actions.  Length is obviously just the length of the rod.  For someone starting a nine foot would be the way to go.  It is the standard length for 8 and 9 weight rods and there are many available.  The “weight” of the rod refers to what size line it can cast.  An 8 weight can cast 8 weight line and so forth.  There are times when one might want to “overline” a rod, meaning put an 9 weight line on an 8 weight rod for example.  This would be done generally in sight casting situations so we won’t cover it here.  The significance of the weight is that it gives the angler an standardized way of comparing the relative stiffness and power of the rod.

The action of the rod is a little more complicated.  Different rod builders call them different thing but fast, medium and full flex are the basics actions of fly rods.  What these refer to is where on the rod blank the fly rod loads with the appropriate line.  Loading the fly rod means properly flexing the rod during the cast with the proper weight line.  During the cast the rod will flex on both the fore and back casts.  The line is weighted such that it flexes the rod the correct amount.  How far down the rod that it flexes is a function of the action.  A full flex rod will flex all the way down to the grip.  This makes the rod very slow since the entire blank has to flex one way and then the other.  Full flex rods are usually not used much in saltwater fishing anymore as it is difficult to drive a cast very far or into the wind.  This is more for short casts on a trout stream or something like that.  A mid flex rod will flex about half way down the blank and a tip flex or fast action rod will load only in the first few feet from the tip of the rod.  Most 8 and 9 weight rods will be mid or fast action rods.  Even with these designations there are fast and then really fast action fly rods.  Even though it sounds more difficult if one intends to blind cast from shore they are probably going to want a fast action rod.  This will enable the angler to cast further and deal with wind better.  One can always put a heavier line on the rod if they want to slow it down a little for learning purposes but it makes sense to learn on the rod you will be using most.

Saltwater fly fishing basics - a nice fly caught striped bassNew fly rods in the $100 to $200 range have come a long way.  These used to always be mid flex rods and you could really tell the difference between them and their more expensive cousins.  While there is obviously still a difference the new rods are truly very nice now.  Many rod makers make a rod in this range that one would be happy to learn on and then fish competently for many years.  It makes sense to buy a nice rod as your first fly rod as you just might like the sport and then you will want to have good gear and not have to go out and buy a new one immediately.  It is a small difference in price to get a nice $150 rod that will serve you well rather than a $100 rod that you’ll want to replace with that $150 one as soon as you become a competent caster.  Many rod builders are building nice rods in this range now.  One to look at is from Rise Fishing Co.  They make very nice rods especially at the price.  They are also made by striper fishermen who know what we are looking for in a rod.  Orvis and Temple Fork Outfitters also make very nice rods in this price range.

Saltwater Fly Fishing Basics - a good starter reelFly reels have really made improvements in terms of giving you a good drag for the money.  It used to be that the $120 to $200 reels were glorified line holders.  Now many manufacturers have started putting their more expensive drags into their less expensive reels.  They achieve this by casting the frame of the reel (as opposed to milling it which is more expensive) or otherwise using less expensive materials.  This gives the angler great performance at an affordable price.  The reel is very important to any type of saltwater fly fishing.  This is not freshwater trout fishing fishing, in the northeast,  where the angler is generally strip-fighting the fish and occasionally needs to put the fish on the reel.  Most decent sized stripers, blues and definitely albies will not only be fought on the reel but they will run out some line.  A large or mid arbor reel is important in retrieving this line once it comes time to turn the fish so that is a consideration.  The larger arbor increases the amount of line the angler retrieves with each turn of the reel therefore if the fish runs at the angler they stand a better chance of keeping up with the fish.  The Orvis Access Mi-Arbor is a well priced reel that has a solid drag.  The Lamson Konic is a reel with a very good drag at a good price.  Sage also makes several reels with enormous arbors at good prices.

Saltwater Fly Fishing Basics - no need to break the bank on gear.The first and most obvious obstacle to fly fishing is learning to cast.  The biggest issue generally seen in people learning to fly fish is that the student can just be taught in a day or two and then be set to fly fish.  While it is true that one can learn a lot in just a few days practice is extremely important to becoming a good fly caster.  Just as in other sports the angler must go out and cast repeatedly and on a regular basis in order to excel at casting a fly rod.  This means casting with an instructor or a friend (not a spouse) at the beginning in order to learn the basics and have something to build on.  If you are on the Cape, the folks at Fishing the Cape offer great casting instruction.  Almost any fly shop will have someone who is more than willing to teach you.  Many shops offer free casting lessons on certain days.  If you are in the Rhode Island area The Saltwater Edge has several free casting days that are an easy way to learn and meet some other fly fishermen.

There are also many YouTube videos with basic instruction in them that are helpful.  It would  be a good idea to look at some of these before going to a lesson or instruction class so you know a little bit beforehand.  Then just find a field and practice!

Many people are intimidated or turned off of fly fishing because of the cost and the difficulty in learning the casting stroke.  Despite these misconceptions it really does not need to be that difficult to get into it.  There are many affordable outfits out there and there is no reason why many other people shouldn’t give it a try!



Mike Behot has been fishing Cape Cod, both fresh and saltwater, all of his life and he also regularly fishes the Chesapeake and the Florida Keys whenever he can. His expertise lies in light tackle and fly fishing for inshore species especially striped bass and bluefish as well as the boats and equipment that surround that type of fishing. Michael is a graduate of Trinity College in Hartford, CT and his writing has been featured in "On the Water" magazine. When not working in real estate Mike can be found fishing with his wife, Madi.

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