How to Choose the Best Saltwater Fly Line for Bonefish, Permit, Tarpon, Redfish, GT/Giant Trevally, etc
I upset people every day with this but I'm not sorry: I have yet to use a saltwater line from any major manufacturer in the last several years that was not a great line in saltwater. There, I said it. Some might be a bit better than others, but they all work fine.
Ok so you want to choose a fly line, but there are a ton of options. I answer this question every single day, and I have worked with people about to go on their first or second saltwater fly fishing trip for a very long time now. My first piece of advice: Relax! Don't stress out about the gear too much, you will be fine. If you are reading every bit of info on the entire internet and asking everyone, stop doing that. I know what works and I also know what sells (For reference, I have purchased over $20,000 worth of fly line recently for our shop, mostly saltwater but a good amount of fresh too).
Which fly line wins? The one with the fish's name on the box. It really is that simple -
Fishing for Bonefish? Bonefish line.
Fishing for Permit? Permit line.
Fishing for Tarpon? Tarpon line.
Fishing for Redfish? It's the Redfish line.
Fishing for GT? You are never going to believe this, but it's the GT line. *Or if you just really want to be difficult, "Rio Elite Tropical Outbound Short," but nobody knows from the weird name what fish that's supposed to be for, so the GT line works great.
It is very easy in saltwater compared to freshwater line choices. Don't overthink it.
"BUT WHAT ABOUT RIO ELITE FLATS PRO or SCIENTIFIC ANGLERS GRAND SLAM!!??" Relax guys. I would like to point out that SA Grand Slam line is still technically three fish on the box (Catching a Bonefish/Permit/Tarpon the same day is a "Grand Slam" in case you are new to the sport). You can also use those. They are really just slightly heavier versions of all these fish-specific lines. Yes, really. Think of those heavier lines as being for larger flies or higher wind speeds that you will need to deal with sometimes out on the flats.
You know what I am using lately? Rio Warmwater Predator line. It's pretty cool. I sometimes throw big crab flies on an 8wt in high wind, so it's good for me. Has a peacock bass on the box so it might confuse people but that's why I say to stick to the easy ones. You can try other specialty lines once you master the fundamentals and get some experience with the "main" saltwater lines because that's very important first. All of the traditional saltwater fly lines, by which I mean the ones with the fish on the box, are very good (as long as your rod isn't total dogshit, and even then probably fine).
I upset people every day with this but I'm not sorry: I have yet to use a saltwater line from any major manufacturer in the last several years that was not a great line in saltwater. There, I said it. Now one important thing to say, it does depend somewhat on your fly rod brand & model. I own every single good saltwater fly rod. All of them, every major brand. And I have probably tried the rest. I even have custom rods and bamboo saltwater rods. Yes really. I use Rio Elite Bonefish on my bamboo 7wt and it works fine. A heavy rod compared to my fancy carbon fiber ones, but still tons of fun.
Not sure why so many people online will tell you different or that one line is much better than another. Stop listening to these people, they probably fish saltwater twice a year at most. I fish every day (I may have skipped a few summer days over a hundred degrees recently). Which brings me to my next important point:
I should explain here that the one thing that separates most freshwater lines (let's say in 8wt) from saltwater lines is the TEMPERATURE RATING. Nobody ever really talks about this much. Also "cold" or moderate temperature saltwater species, for example a Striper line might be rated from 50-80 degrees but typical bonefish lines should be 75-100 degree rating (by the way these are always the WATER temperature not the air). If you see the word "TROPICAL" on the box, you are good to go for warm climates. Some coldwater situations in saltwater will actually require lines that don't have the fish on the box, but those are rare exceptions because nobody likes to freeze to death while they fish.
ONCE AGAIN: My point remains, pick the fly line with the name of the fish you want to catch right there on the box, the manufacturers already did all the rest. The temperature will be correct and they know what kind of flies and which sizes you will most likely use as well.
I can explain grain weights and 30ft weights and tapers and lengths of the heads all day but it isn't really going to help you with the overthinking. Relax!
Ok if you are still reading you want even more info. I said no but some customers don't listen. I can get as technical as you want but in most cases it isn't going to change anything.
Here's a very quick rough guide for various fly rods and what I think of them (do not take this as gospel, it's my personal opinion based on years of saltwater experience). We are not dealers for all of these brands listed below, just the best of them. The brands we carry are "true" fly rod brands, that's what they make, and all are hand-built in house, not outsourced like all the other brands. Our brands are: Sage, Scott, Thomas & Thomas, Winston, and Maven. We don't compromise on build quality or performance. These are tried and tested, and the companies back them up and support us as dealers as well.
SAGE Fly Rods: My go-to rods and these work well with MANY different lines. Sage does own Rio, so do with that information what you will. To me it means that's a great match and they probably co-develop lines and rods. Makes sense to me. The new Salt R8 works incredibly well with everything I have tried (and I tried a lot of lines, go read my Salt R8 review). The Maverick is pretty tolerant of every line I have tried, it is a much more classic saltwater rod design, very predictable and normal with plenty of power but I love recommending this rod to beginners in saltwater because it's just so straightforward and always does what you need it to do. Older Sage rods like the Salt HD are great but will need slightly heavier lines to perform their best. Igniters, why are you buying that? If you still insist on buying an Igniter when the Salt R8 is out now for only $100 more, I don't know if I can help you. Get a Salt R8, it is superior in every way. Unless you need a stick to prop open your garage door or anything, then get the Igniter. Cry if you want to but the Salt R8 is so good it's not even funny. *There are certain applications where I understand why people want this rod, just like with the Sage Payload which is also a good rod but misunderstood. Yes, I know all of this. But that's not my target audience writing this whole article. Beginner to Intermediate is who I need to help with lines. Pros don't need my advice, we all already know this stuff.
Scott Fly Rods: "True to weight" - Sector and Wave are fantastic saltwater rods. Use the line with the fish on the box. Do not overload these for no reason, especially if you are new to the sport. They are absolutely phenomenal rods when used correctly, don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
Thomas & Thomas Fly Rods: I love the Sextant, such a nice, beautiful saltwater rod. Great all-around rod and an easy recommendation for people new to the sport who have an eye for nice things. Gorgeous rods. Again, it's a theme but all the "fish" fly lines work great with these too, in their respective weights. RIO Elite Flats Pro, SA Infinity Salt and Grand Slam are also totally fine on these rods. Smooth, easy-casting rods with plenty of power and a little less demanding to cast than Scott rods in terms of the timing needed, which is why they are great for beginners or less fast individuals.
Winston Fly Rods: Go light for the Salt Air (SA Bonefish), go very heavy for the Alpha series like the new Warmwater Predator which works fine in salt or fresh (these are awesome rods but must be loaded sufficiently in order to perform right).
Maven Fly Rods: Awesome company, awesome rods. Work with a range of "fish lines" like Bonefish or Permit but they also love the half-size to 3/4 size heavy ones (RIO Flats Pro, SA Infinity Salt, Grand Slam) Very few people own these, but we are actually a dealer. They are all hand-built to order and the craftsmanship is impeccable. Very much worth it but probably not the first saltwater rod most people are going to buy.
Orvis: Helios 3D series - Fairly stiff rods, better when used with heavier lines (Rio Flats Pro etc) - Recon, another popular Orvis rod, seems pretty compatible with a range of lines, as are most of the mid-priced saltwater rods (Sage Maverick, Scott Wave, etc). These are all strong options for beginners. *Side note: I am biased toward the Wave and Maverick myself, having owned both in 8wt since they first came out, and I honestly think those are the two best fly rods out there for most people. If you are in the market for a Salt R8 or Sector, please get one but never feel bad getting the Maverick or Wave either, they are great.
G. Loomis: These guys still make fly rods? Only sometimes, if they feel like it. Mainly conventional spin and bass rods these days, that's their bread and butter. Their fly rods are built like their bass rods, super stiff. You may want to go a size up for normal fly lines (Bonefish etc) or get Rio Flats Pro or SA Grand Slam.
Hardy: Fairly tolerant of a range of saltwater lines, but go with the one that has the fish you want to catch. Bonefish for bonefish, etc. **There's a brand new Hardy saltwater rod about to be released soon (as of August 2023 when I am writing this update) so I will have to try that one with a bunch of lines once it comes out. Yes, I buy every single "good" saltwater rod that is released. Have to know your stuff when people ask you what line to get. Nice little business expense too. I have a tough life, I know.
TFO: Haven't used these in awhile but I have an Axiom-II X somewhere. Very stiff, over-line this one for sure. There's a brand new one called the Blitz but I have yet to cast one, so can't make that call yet.
Other brands... Did I miss anything that you have questions about? Feel free to ask me.
Now, if you really want a big argument with people, ask what backing to use... I will have to cover that one next time. But for now, my short answer is standard 20lb backing works totally fine for 6/7/8/9wt and 30lb for 9/10/11wt IN GENERAL, or you can always go up to gel spun 50lb/65lb for 11wt - definitely a good idea for 12wt. Why is 9wt split? Because some people are using a 9wt for Bonefish and some are using it for small Tarpon or Golden Dorado. Different fish, different application, worth going to 30lb to trade a little capacity for added durability in those scenarios. Or maybe you want to go for Milkfish (yes, a real fish I set people up to catch; no, you won't encounter it in this hemisphere). Believe it or not I suggest 30lb for sailfish on a 12wt too. Big fish? Yes but you mainly need tons and tons of backing, not super duper strength really. Have to let them run. I have caught them on 20lb/30lb no issue at all. Again, not a "beginner" fish although funny enough I do set up beginners for Marlin and GT pretty often. First saltwater trip ever, and they go for a Marlin or Giant Trevally. To me that's like never playing basketball before and then getting put in at the finals, but whatever they want to do is fine.
Gel spun backing: Plenty of people want to use gel spun backing for every single reel for absolutely no reason or benefit to themselves, just ignore them. Gel spun is not really necessary in most cases (big game fish like adult tarpon or GT being the exception). For beginners it can be dangerous because they won't know not to grab it when there's a fish on or it gets snagged on something. Cuts right through your hand, pay attention. Regular old Dacron for most people. Simple. That's actually what's on my stuff too. Exact same thing I would put on a reel for any of my customers. I will use gel spun for technical situations where I do need it, I am not saying I don't, but I won't usually suggest it for the majority of beginner fishing scenarios.
Ask me and I will tell you what line or backing to use based on which fish you are after and what rod/reel combo you are using. All our custom combos come set up correctly with everything you will need in terms of line, backing and leaders too. Which leader you need is another whole discussion, but once again, just get the one with the fish on it. Bonefish for Bonefish, Permit for Permit. Not as big of a deal with the leaders though, and the standard "Saltwater" leaders in the right pound test rating will be fine. Normally I say 12lb for Bonefish, 16lb for Permit on 9wt and 20lb for 10wt, same for Redfish usually (again this is for beginner/intermediate, I am aware you can catch these fish on 2 pound test or something if you want to try for the IGFA world records but I wouldn't do that to my customers). I will make a whole article about leaders and tippet eventually but don't sweat it too much. Your guide, if you are using one, will already know all this stuff and will probably put it on the line for you anyway.
Keep it simple, guys. Just have fun out there.