It probably started during the January cold snap when temperatures plunged below freezing for several days. First, your spouse began to complain more than usual about the cold. Then you discovered the heat turned up a degree or two on the thermostat. A week or so later, your spouse forced you to watch "Beachfront Bargain Hunt" on HGTV because "there is nothing else on." Brochures associated with renting beachfront property began to pile up in your mailbox. And, finally, your spouse made the direct appeal, reinforced by tearful, doe-eyed children waving beach pails, to go to the beach this year instead of the mountains. Poof! Your dreams of a vacation stalking wary brookies on rocky, joyfully gurgling streams disappeared in a heartbeat.
Don't despair! You can fly fish in saltwater! Your spouse just did you the most tremendous favor of your life. You have not lived until you experience the adrenaline rush of a huge red drum ripping line out of a screaming reel. From Virginia through Texas, the southern coastline offers plenty of opportunities to tangle with red drum (also called redfish, reds, spottail bass, or channel bass) and sea trout (speckled trout, specs). This article will provide saltwater fly fishing tips to get you going.
Upgrade Saltwater Fly Fishing Setup
You must upgrade your fly fishing setup to start saltwater fly fishing. Most new anglers already have a six-weight rod for trout or smallmouth bass. Since saltwater predators eat larger food, inshore fly fishing requires an upgrade to a heavier-weight rod designed to efficiently throw the large flies needed to "match the hatch." While some anglers stick with the six-weight rod and work lighter flies, it is much easier to go big and use at least an eight-weight, fast-action rod (the Piscifun Sword 9 wt is an example) loaded with a weight forward taper like the Piscifun Sword fly line to punch through the constant sea breeze.
A floating line is fine, but bring an intermediate sinking tip for situations where you need to push your fly toward the bottom faster in a strong tidal current. Do not use a full sinking line because oyster beds and other edgy bottom structures can quickly shred it. Be sure your reel has a good drag with plenty of backing since even a small saltwater predator has plenty of strength and energy to pull hard – the Piscifun Platte Pro large arbor fly reel is perfect. Use a strong mono or fluorocarbon tippet with at least a 15-pound tensile strength. If you build your leaders, minimize the number of knots since they will snag subsurface marsh grass as you strip line.
Put away your freshwater flies, except for the big Clousers and poppers. Matching the saltwater hatch means selecting flies resembling baitfish (mullet, pinfish, menhaden, and mud minnows), shrimp, or crabs. Look for weighted flies tied on hook sizes 1/0 down to 4 with a weed guard. Grab a popper with a red nose, a white body, or a Dupre Spoonfly. As always, purchase flies at your destination to exploit local knowledge.
Since inshore species key on noise, flies can incorporate a rattle. I know this is heresy, but as a new inshore angler, you need the additional advantage scent provides until your skill increases. The ProCure brand scent seems to be a universal favorite, offering plenty of variety ranging from mullet to blue crab. Put a drop or two on the fly to increase hookup odds. Finally, since hardcore fly anglers already ostracized me for suggesting scent, I may as well go one step further and recommend that you bring your spin gear. Why? As a new inshore angler, you have to climb the learning curve. With spin gear, you can make more casts in a shorter period, using speed to find fish. Once you locate the fish, switch to your fly rod. Besides, you may not have the skill to deal with a strong prevailing wind, so having a spin rod to fall back on protects your vacation. The Piscifun Flame spinning rod (7' Medium Heavy Fast) paired with the 3000 series Piscifun Captain saltwater reel is a good choice for an inexpensive spin setup.
Understand and Use the Tide
Unlike lakes and rivers with stable water levels, decoding the inshore puzzle requires an understanding of the impact of the tide on bait and predator behavior. Not surprisingly, the rise and fall of the tide create four different structure situations: high tide, rising, falling, and low. Here are pictures of the same spot at different tide levels to make the point.
Dramatic change! Each situation requires a different approach. Although the picture looks the same in the middle of a falling or rising tide, the current flow changes where the predator will sit.
Fish is key to structure, and this is true regardless of whether the fish swims in fresh or saltwater. The coastal system consists of points, potholes, fallen trees, root balls, creeks, drop-offs, docks, and banks - no real difference from freshwater - with oyster beds, jetties, and tidal flats being the new features. Predators position downstream, nose facing the current, hoping to ambush an easy meal swept in the flow. For example, a predator will sit on different sides of a point (in the eddy) depending on whether the tide rises or falls.
Here are some general rules to get you started. Redfish will be in the marsh grass at high tide, away from the main channel. Flounder stick to the bottom, and sea trout like about five feet of water. For redfish, focus on the perimeter of open areas within the marsh grass rather than blind casting to random stalks unless you see redfish tailing.
"Creeks" splitting the vegetation provide additional organization to baitfish movement. They are easy to fish with fly gear since a few false casts allow precise placement of the fly. Navigating the narrow channels is challenging (watch the tide level to avoid being stranded). The openings are great spots to target on a falling tide as the bait moves back to deeper water. At high tide, creeks usually end in a broader "lake" where baitfish disperse, and predators follow.
At low tide, fish retreat to the channels and deep pools that hold water throughout the tide cycle. Generally, predators are not very active at dead low tide since the bait is not moving. A wise angler uses the low tide to get the lay of the land and locate the best places to fish during the rising or falling tide. In the case below, the main flow will be on either side of the tidal flat. The channel on the right and the point on the left will be good places to target since they still have deep water.
Locate Shoreline Spots in Saltwater Fly Fishing
When assessing a shoreline, look for clues - all revolve around baitfish movement. In the redfish hot spot below, a creek feeds into a bay. When the tide moves out, baitfish migrate from hiding/feeding positions in the grass into the creek and follow the flow to the bay, continuing to move left with the tide. Predators position for this with the prime spot being marked by the "X" at a point just downstream of the creek (note - use Google imagery before you hit new water and look for likely spots).
Another way to locate good shoreline spots is to sit quietly and observe. As schools of baitfish scurry along the shoreline, periodic "explosions" of surface activity occur as the smaller fish flee predators. Once you observe a topwater boil, fish that spot since a predator is present. Another indicator is to pay attention to what the birds are doing. They hunt baitfish, and where the baitfish are, predators will not be far away.
When to Fish a Shoreline
Generally, the best time to fish a shoreline is when the tide hits the mud line, the break between grass and mud. When the tide flows into the grass, baitfish follow, seeking cover. Predators also move inland to eat fiddler crabs. On the falling tide, predators wait in the channel or just within the grass line to snack on returning baitfish. Everyone has a different opinion on which state of the tide is best while agreeing that the tide must be moving for maximum action. Determine the timing by reviewing an NOAA tide chart (tidesandcurrents.noaa.gov). I prefer to fish from when the tide is half full to half low and poke around the rest of the time.
How to Fly Fish in Saltwater after Finding Fish
Once you find fish, how to fly fish in saltwater boils down to a few rules:
- Do not cast into the middle of a school; cast ahead or to the side.
- Cast up current and let the fly sink. Allow the current to move your fly, stripping slower at first and then picking up speed.
- When fishing a popper, do not stop stripping on a missed strike; continue to "flee" from the predator.
Bottom line: Put the mountain trout out of your mind and enjoy the coast!