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Saltwater Fly Fishing Basics

By Bill Luscombe , 🕔Mon, Mar 21st, 2011


Over the past decade, saltwater fly-fishing has become increasingly popular. Along with this popularity has come some additional problems to plague the uninitiated. Larger fish, stronger winds, sand, surf, swells, and salt all add to the arsenal that Murphy utilises to enforce his law. There are things, however, that can be done to stave off frustration and problems.

Larger, fast running fish such as coho and chinook require large capacity reels with at least 200 meters of backing. Larger fish also require heavier weight systems to subdue them, especially the coho, which are now catch and release only throughout British Columbia. A heavier weight system also aids in dealing with the sea breezes that have a nasty habit of showing up at the wrong times.

Worst of all, though, is having to deal with the saltwater. It permeates everything that gets near it and anything that can corrode or rust usually succumbs to it, especially if left unmaintained for any length of time. Reel seats on rods and reels themselves are the main victims of the salt. Fly fishers must ensure that their gear is either constructed rust proof materials such as graphite or stainless steel, or has corrosion resistant coatings such as anodised aluminum.

The system you choose to do battle with is always a personal choice and is usually made with a specific species of fish in mind. Particularly so in the case of saltwater fly-fishing because of the wide range of sizes between the different species of saltwater fishes.

For pink salmon I prefer a six-weight system. Although the smallest of the pacific salmon, some pinks can exceed eight pounds in weight and none of them come to the net easily. While I have seen anglers use lighter rods, they inevitably have to play the fish longer. This causes problems if they want to release it, since the angler must tire the fish to near exhaustion in order to land it. A six-weight system allows you to manhandle the salmon to the net a bit more and thus greatly increases the fish´s chances of survival if released. If you plan on keeping the fish (pinks are great eating fresh or smoked), a six-weight system lets you land it faster so you can bag it and be casting for another while the person using the five-weight beside you is still being led slowly out to China.

For larger fish like coho and chinook I prefer an eight-weight system. Lighter systems just don´t have the backbone to slow down and turn a fast-running coho. With the new catch and release laws in effect now it is essential that you land and release any coho as quickly as possible, and with the mandatory barbless hook regulation, the longer you play the fish the greater your chances of losing it.

While systems weights are important, reels are the real key to success when saltwater fly-fishing. As I mentioned earlier, spool capacity and rust/corrosion proofing are the main things to look for. Also extremely important is a durable, smooth drag system. Coho are known for their long, fast initial runs and I have seen many reels seize or simply fall apart in the middle of one. There is nothing more disconcerting (or funnier to onlookers) than having your spool literally separate from its housing and fall into the drink in the middle of a screaming run. Unlike trout fishing, where you usually set the drag to nearly nothing and palm the spool, you will have to rely on the drag to slow a salmon or bonefish. If you don´t, there is a very good chance that the fish will spool you regardless of how much backing you have. Trust me, I know this from first hand experience.

There are several good brands of reels to choose from for saltwater angling, and while the quality varies a bit the prices vary a lot. Do yourself a favour and talk a lot to people who already saltwater fly-fish (you can e-mail me if you like at ), and discuss saltwater reels with different tackle shop owners as well before making your purchase. Better yet, go to the sportsman´s shows in the spring and do your looking and talking there. There are always lots of us "professionals" hanging around looking for someone to talk to. You´ll be very glad you did.

Lines for saltwater fishing depend more on the method of fishing than the species. If you are beach fishing, you will want a neutral density sinking line to get the fly to the level of the fish and keep it there throughout your retrieve without hitting bottom. If, instead, you are cruising around in a boat looking for salmon off the kelp beds, you will need an extra fast or high-density sinking line to get down fast before the currents pull the line away.

While line colour in deep open water doesn´t seem to affect the fish, it does when shallow water beach fishing. Salmon in the shallows become increasingly spooky and fear just about anything that moves. The new clear "slime" lines such as Scientific Anglers "Stillwater" line or Mastery´s "Illusion" line have proven to be much more productive than standard coloured lines in these situations and I have noticed more and more fly-fishers using them.

Rods are a personal choice as well, especially the action. Length, however, should be seriously considered before making your purchase. Saltwater fly-fishing requires long casts, often while standing in chest deep water. A minimum of a nine-foot rod is needed to be effective out there. Some individuals have gone to 10-foot or longer rods, but they can be hard on the wrist to cast, especially in the heavier weights of eight or nine, and will tire you out much quicker than a nine-footer.

Regardless of the type of system you go with, or the species you pursue, you must take the time after fishing to maintain your gear. This is essential and I cannot stress this enough. Ten minutes of maintenance can save you hundreds of dollars in damaged gear. If you are returning to a residence or somewhere that has fresh running water, flush everything in lukewarm water. Anything that can be disassembled (such as your reel) should be before flushing. I usually fill the sink with warm water, separate my spool from the reel housing, slide off the drag wheel, and swish all the parts around for a minute or two and then allow them to soak for half an hour. While the reel parts are soaking I flush out the reel seat of my rod and anything else, such as fly boxes, that got submerged or wet. After soaking, the reel gets flushed under the tap again and then everything gets dried. Once dry, all moving parts get a fresh application of lubricant.

If you are camping or don´t have access to fresh running water, warm up some of your drinking water and partially fill a basin with it. Swish the reel parts and everything else around in the water and allow them to dry. Then apply some silicone or other lubricant to the moving parts. The worst thing you can do is leave the saltwater on your gear overnight. Even if your equipment is treated to resist corrosion and rust, the saltwater will eat it sooner or later. There´s a very good reason why manufacturers label their equipment "Corrosion Resistant" and not "Corrosion Proof", and saltwater is the best reason I can think of.

Saltwater fly-fishing is great sport. There´s nothing like watching the wake of a 12-pound coho as the fish closes in on your fly, and then having it strike and head for the open Pacific at top speed after you set the hook. It´ll get you heart racing every time, I guarantee it. If you apply a little educated forethought before buying your gear, and perform some rudimentary maintenance during the season, you can enjoy years of trouble-free saltwater fishing for all kinds of different species.

Bill Luscombe has been hunting and fishing for most of his 42 years. He has been flyfishing for 20 years. He instructs flyfishing, and has done so for the past 12 years. He also instructs the federal FSET firearms course and the BC CORE hunter training course. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and has been writing freelance since 1987. He has been published in BC Sport Fishing Magazine, Outdoor Edge, BC Outdoors, Western Sportsman, Island Fish Finder, and the BC Hunting Guide.

Bill Luscombe was born an army brat and raised in Ladner (Delta, BC) where he was raised hunting waterfowl and pheasants. He presently resides in North Cowichan on southern Vancouver Island where he has lived and worked full time as a professional forester since 1982.

He presently works in Nanaimo for the BC Forest Service and continue to write the fly-fishing column for BC Sport Fishing Magazine as well as contributing articles freelance to various outdoor magazines in western Canada. Bill Luscombe is also a BC Director of the Northwest Outdoor Writers Association.

"Catching fish is not hard. You simply need to understand what makes them tick. If you think like a fish, you will catch fish. It´s as simple as that."- Bill Luscombe

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