Beginner's Guide to Saltwater Fly Fishing - Fly Rods, Reels, Fly Lines - Advice, Tips & Tricks
This is a quick reference guide for complete beginners to understand saltwater fly fishing and how to get started. Even if you have been on a trip or two, this might help, but it is aimed at total beginners. I have been fishing saltwater for several decades - sometimes I even catch something.
Equipment - The Basics
You'll just need a few things in terms of equipment and I will go into more detail below but here's the list: Fly rod and reel, fly line (the floating part you cast with). Backing - A different kind of line connected to the fly line which gives you some room to let a fish run a bit since the fly line itself is only around 100 feet long. Leaders - Typically 9-10ft for saltwater, I suggest getting a few pre-made ones from RIO or Scientific Anglers to get you started. And, of course, some saltwater flies. That's really it though in terms of getting started. Nice to have some pliers as well, but they don't have to be anything fancy.
Fly Rods -
If you already have a fly rod, that's great. Many different ones will work fine as long as you have a decent fly line on there. If you don't have a fly rod yet, don't worry. I will write an entire separate guide for that and link it here. To simplify: Get an 8wt rod to start, which works great for most saltwater fish like Bonefish and most Redfish, 9wt for Permit or big Redfish (think Louisiana), 10wt for large Permit and small to medium Tarpon, 11wt for adult Tarpon, and if you are a beginner you probably don't need a 12wt right off the bat, but this is a great size for deeper Tarpon and the big boys at 180+ pounds for example. A 12wt is also necessary for Giant Trevally (GT's).
*Important: DO NOT buy a 6wt or 7wt rod thinking that's best for saltwater, I don't care who told you they like it. Wind is the enemy on the flats. It's not about how big the fish is. Do not expect to get far with a lightweight rod in saltwater, beginner or not. If you already own an 8wt and a 9wt, then maybe I'd even consider a 7wt but not before that. Do I own a few? Sure I love casting my 7wt rods but I still wouldn't take them if I could only pick one or two rods for a trip.
That's all I will cover about rods here to keep this short but you can always call or email us for more in-depth assistance.
Fly Reels & Backing -
This can seem complicated but it is not a big deal for smaller saltwater species. Sealed vs unsealed, how many pounds of drag, how much backing capacity? Don't worry about it, it doesn't actually matter as much as everyone freaks out about it. On my own personal reels I just have some scraps of backing leftover from setting up customers' reels. For smaller fish like a bonefish you will rarely see much of your backing anyway. If you buy any reel from us here at Salt Fly Pro, we have already evaluated everything we sell and we do not carry any junk at all. Backing will be included with any reel purchase, just ask us and we can set it all up for you, no worries.
When you get to bigger species like Tarpon, the reel will matter a bit more and it makes sense to spend on some sturdy gear. I would suggest our combo kits with a rod and reel in 11wt, especially the Sage Maverick, if you are looking for a nice Tarpon setup that can handle the strain without any worry.
Fly Lines -
I go into tremendous detail about fly lines in other posts. Here, I will simply say to pick the line with the name of the fish you want to catch on the box. I would highly recommend sticking with RIO or Scientific Anglers if it's your first saltwater fly line.
Line names are sometimes odd, but again stick with "RIO Bonefish" or "SA Bonefish" for example and you will be just fine. RIO makes a Permit line (SA has Grand Slam) and they both make a Redfish line, as well as Tarpon of course. Fishing for something else? Ask us for help any time (call or email).
I will cover this quickly and oversimplify a little but this is so much easier than it seems, I promise. Buy pre-made, pre-packaged leaders from RIO or Scientific Anglers (we have both on the site). Like I said with fly lines, just pick the leaders with the name of the fish you want to catch written on them. Bonefish, Redfish, Permit, Tarpon. Not one of those fish? Get close enough. If you are going with a guide, they will set you up right anyway.
Bonefish: 10-12lb, for beginners usually 12lb is the way to go.
Redfish: Usually 16-20lb is good for beginners but you can fish lighter than that or heavier than that depending on the size of the fish. For example: Where I grew up in Florida we didn't usually get the really big redfish like they have in Louisiana so I fish fairly light gear.
Snook: Here's an important one, this is a species you can't use the same leaders on like you do for the others because they have a rough mouth like sandpaper. You need what's called "fluorocarbon" tippet for the front of your leader since it resists abrasion better. This is a harder, denser material than typical monofilament that leaders are made from, even though they will look very similar since they both look like regular old clear fishing line (which, in a way, they are). If this sounds too complicated to add on, just pick up a few packs of RIO's Inshore leaders, those already have a bit of fluorocarbon on the end and they are perfectly desgined for Snook.
Permit: Buy the Permit leaders from SA, in 16lb or 20lb. Almost any standard saltwater leaders will actually work fine but this may upset some people to hear it.
Tarpon: Like with Snook leaders, keep in mind Tarpon have a rough mouth. Over time during a fight it will wear out your leader. Fluorocarbon, or just "fluoro" is mandatory. Luckily for beginners, it's already included with any decent Tarpon leaders, the most popular being RIO's Tapered Tarpon leader series, which are by far the bestsellers in this category. RIO also makes a "Tarpon Pro" leader series but beginners don't need to worry about that. Both will work fine.
Roosterfish - Not an easy fish to start with. Tarpon leaders can be used or simply Saltwater leaders in 20-40lb depending on the rod weight and size of the fish you want to target.
Giant Trevally / GT: Seriously if you are a beginner this is not the fish you want to start with. Make your guide tie the leaders for you. There are no pre-made GT leaders currently available but if you "had to" you can bring some of the heaviest Tarpon leaders "40/80" or similar. It won't be enough but you'll have something at least. Again, not a fish you start with for saltwater fly fishing. Practice on some other species first.
Saltwater Flies -
This may seem complicated but it is very easy. We have them on our site organized by fish species so you can browse that from the "Flies" menu at the top of this page. We keep the most popular flies toward the top of the page which makes it much easier to choose. Grab some of those and you are all set.
Bonefish - Think about flies that look like little shrimp - Crazy Charlies, Gotchas, lots of tan, some in white and some pink. Hook size is typically #6 but some opt for slightly larger #4 hooks as well. Don't worry if you don't understand hook sizes yet, it's not a big deal.
Redfish, Snook, & Sea Trout (aka Speckled Trout) - There are plenty of Redfish patterns but not very many flies specific to snook and sea trout. Fortunately, they all eat similar things and live in similar areas for the most part (not always, but in Florida and the Caribbean they sure do). Shrimp, baitfish, sometimes crabs will work great.
Permit - Got crabs? Not the kind you get in Vegas. Crustaceans, because Permit absolutely love them. Tan or white are usually the best move, with olive green close behind those two colors. Larger shrimp patterns also work, so there's some crossover between a shrimp fly you can use for big bonefish or permit, or even maybe a redfish. But your guide is probably going to make you stick with just crabs, especially what's called "Flexo Crabs" which are like they sound, made of a flexible mesh material. Hook size is almost always #2 for traditional Permit flies, but you can use other similar sizes if you want.
Tarpon - This is a weird fish in terms of the wide range of flies that will work. You will hear people swear by black/purple, tan, white, chartreuse, orange/rusty colors, nobody can agree on this. I will tell you the truth: they all work if the tarpon are cooperating. Hook size is more consistently either #1/0 or #2/0 but can range a bit.
GT (Giant Trevally) - If you are a beginner I am not sure why you want to try to go after a GT, not just because of the fish itself but the flies are enormous (air resistant, hard to cast) the rods and lines are also very heavy. Not a fun species to learn with. If you must, buy flies in the #6/0 to #8/0 range. Usually "Brushy" style large baitfish patterns are the most popular.
*I will add more fish species later but this about covers the basics which was my goal here.
Let us know if we can help with figuring out all of the things you'll need for your next saltwater trip! Call or Email, we don't really read the comments here.
Bonus Advice, Tips, & Tricks -
Almost everything in saltwater eats shrimp. Everything else will eat a baitfish.
Relax. There are no wrong answers here, it's just fishing. Don't be afraid to make a mistake. Not a big deal. This is just for fun.
The best thing you can do is practice. The technique known as the Double Haul is a must. Get familiar with it by watching videos or asking your friends to help.
Fly lines have color changes to indicate different sections of the taper. If you look at the chart on the box, or online, you can understand what length each color is and that will be a great way to know how far you are casting and what is working best for you. It also helps you know how much line to take off the reel (strip) to start with before your cast.
A 9wt rod with a large shrimp pattern will catch almost anything in Florida and most of the Caribbean. Avoid Tarpon but nearly everything else can be caught with this setup.
Olive green is often overlooked when people buy flies, but I promise you there are so many grass flats out there and olive or brown are actually great. Tan flies are pretty much the gold standard and you should most definitely have some in your fly box but it's not the only color that works.
Bonefish and Permit are famous for eating shrimp and crabs, but they will actually also eat small baitfish so try that if your regular flies aren't working on them.
Tarpon eat crabs. Permit love crabs. If you have a scenario such as in Belize where you have small tarpon around mixed with permit, you can definitely use your 9wt or 10wt to catch both with a crab on there. Keep in mind the rougher mouth of tarpon for your leader selection though.
(I will add more to this guide as soon as I have more time)
*Photo credit goes to Shilton reels, one of my favorites.