Freshwater Vs. Saltwater Fly Fishing

April 16, 2019 By: Pudge Kleinkauf

Fly Fishing in Saltwater

image courtesy of RIO Products

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Question: “What are the differences between freshwater fly fishing and saltwater fly fishing? Do you fly fish with different rods and reels and other equipment when you fish for saltwater fish and freshwater fish?”

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Many fly anglers fish in both fresh and salt water. After all, there are 326 million trillion gallons of water on our planet. Ninety-eight percent of that huge amount of water is in the world’s oceans. Only about 0.036 percent of our fresh water supply is actually in our rivers and lakes, the rest being in a frozen state or in aquifers. Still, that’s a whole lot of water providing lots of places to fish.

Most likely you will be fishing in freshwater lakes or streams, although some of you will have access to a saltwater environment in which to do your fly fishing. What are the differences? Let’s start by identifying which sport fish are found in each type of water.

Not just hundreds, but thousands of different kinds of fish live in salt water. The world’s waters contain between 30,000 and 40,000 different species of fish, two-thirds of which live in salt water. That’s mostly because oceans cover so much more of our planet than do the non-salty waters of rivers and lakes. There’s just more room for lots of fish species 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 (a fish that is born in fresh water, goes out to sea to mature, and returns to its place of birth to spawn) 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 red-fish 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 extra-sturdy fly rods and reels in pursuit of marlin, tuna, Dorado (mahi-mahi), sailfish, halibut, tarpon, trevally, albacore, and more. Some people can hardly conceive of fishing for many such species with fly rods, yet these are the fish that reward competitive anglers with huge money purses and gleaming trophies in the myriad of fly fishing tournaments that exist everywhere every year.

Freshwater fish, 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.

Large-and small-mouth 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, shad, which are now enjoying a fishing resurgence on both the east and west coasts, are popular prey. Warm-water fisheries exist in rivers, lakes, and even many reservoirs. Huge tournaments held for competitive bass fishing are popular all over the mid-west and south. Who hasn’t heard of Bass Masters? These tournaments are mostly for people who fish with conventional tackle such as spinning rods and bait (or level-wind) rods, however. Only recently has fly fishing become more popular in the warm water fisheries, but it is spreading quickly.

As for fresh and saltwater gear, the 5, or 6-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.

One piece of equipment that you will definitely need when you begin fishing the surf is a stripping basket. Usually made of stiff mesh, it looks like a dishpan, hangs around your waist, and provides a place into which you can strip your fly line in order to prevent the surf from wrapping the line around your legs every time a wave comes in.

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 my clients and I fish off-shore in Mexico for Dorado, tuna, marlin, and more, we go equipped with at least 10-weight rods. Preferably, the rods are 12-weighs or sometimes even 14-weights. We fish there in the spring, so we are not as likely to encounter the 500 pound marlin that swim in Mexican waters later in the summer, where even heavier rods would be necessary.

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. 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. When in Mexico, we rinse our equipment in the beach shower as soon as we come off the boats, and then disassemble the reels and soak them in hot water in the bathroom sink to remove salt left in the fly line.

Many more fly fishers have been found enjoying both freshwater and salt water fly fishing 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 all the time for us to explore all that fly fishing has to offer. Both fresh and salt water hold many exciting adventures for fly rodders.


Excerpted with permission from Rookie No More: The Flyfishing Novice Gets Advice from a Pro (Epicenter Press Inc., 2016).  All rights reserved.