There are three basic paths to Saltwater Fly Fishing: on-shore fly fishing, where we’re fishing from the shore, casting into bays / lagoons, or surf; in-shore fly fishing, where we’re casting into the deeper water of a bay / harbor, or in the ocean close to shore from a small boat or kayak; and off-shore, which deals with the ocean waters more remote from shore, fishing from more substantial boats designed for the seasonal pursuit of pelagic species—Tuna, Yellowtail, etc. But, since almost none of us have the financial resources to make off-shore fly-fishing a habit, a discussion of on-shore and in-shore saltwater pursuits should fill a more universal need.
On-Shore Fly Fishing–Basics
On-shore fly fishing is generally best done with rods designated as 7-9 weight rods, with a 9’ 8 weight rod recommended as ideal for casting the full size / weight range of flies necessary to fish all the San Diego Harbor, Mission Bay, and surf locations, as well as some very exotic on-shore locations around the World. Yes, if there’s next to no wind (which is rare), and only small flies are being cast, a 6 weight saltwater rod can be fun for a wile, but a 7-9 weight won’t bottom out as easily when fighting big fish, that 1/0 size weighted Clouser won’t come whistling next to your ear with each fore and aft cast, and you’ll end up having a better chance of learning to cast with a full function 7-9 weight saltwater rod, instead of “lobbing” flies at the fish (hitting fish on the head is against the state regs). Whatever rod you choose, it should be designed for Saltwater, with oversize stripper and snake guides, a faster action that can generate the high line speed necessary for countering wind, and gaining casting distance, but not so overly stiff it looses its ability to communicate with you during the cast. So, save the Trout rod for freshwater, and avoid the additional stress on you and the corrosive effects of saltwater on your freshwater rod and reel.
A top choice for a high-end performance saltwater fly rod at a relatively non-punishing price is the Beulah Opal that equals or exceeds the technology and attention to design details of rods approaching double the Opal’s price. And, they aren’t fragile like most other high-end, thin-walled, ultra high modulus design saltwater rods. A solid choice for an affordable “mid priced” Saltwater fly rod is the Echo 3 saltwater rod, at less than half the cost of many other “high-end” fly rods that don’t necessarily cast any farther, or fish any better than the Echo 3–just cost more. Need something even more affordable? Also near the top of the fly rod price / value bell-curve is the new very fast action Echo BOOST, which will out-cast and out-fish most rods costing twice its price, and look good doing so. Finally, saltwater grade fly rods in the sub $200 price range have always seemed to be designed to disappoint—until now. The new Echo Ion XL saltwater fly rod is far better than it has a right to be at a chunk less than $200, and is easily the best performing rod at anything close to its ultra affordable price.
Unlike most freshwater reels, saltwater fly reels need to be designed to combat the corrosive effects of saltwater, and possess a drag system designed to control the potentially long, blistering runs of ultra athletic species of fish. Even fishing the on-shore waters local to San Diego, such a need can arise, and an exceptional fish lost because of an inadequate fly reel. Nautilus fly reels are made in the U.S.A., and are the best available, although not necessarily the abslute most expensive. The Nautilus NV-G is the standard by which all saltwater fly reels should be measured: an extremely strong and light, ultra large arbor reel with an oversize drag system that’s completely sealed from the elements, quickly dissipates heat, and is up to stopping the full array of saltwater tough guys. Yes, our San Diego on-shore doesn’t mandate this Porsche of fly reels, but it’s less than one percent the price of a Cayman, and when you own the best it’s a joy to behold, and will never need to be replaced. Still…they additionally offer the Nautilus CCF-X2 that’s also a very nice ride, going in the same direction as the Nautilus NV-G at noticeably less expense. Then…there’s the Nautilus FWX series of reels, with the 7/8 model (3 ¾”, 4.1 oz.) possessed with everything needed to deal with anything we can reasonably expect to encounter fishing on-shore. Finally, there’s a vast array of mostly cheap reels coming out of China, the absolute standout quality champion of which are the new 3-TAND fly reels, which are designed in the U.S. with the designer / C.E.O. traveling to China to closely monitor and supervise every aspect of each production run of his reels. The net result is the best quality fly reels out of China / Korea of any label, reels that are built with tolerances more akin to a Swiss watch than than other reels made in China, at a price that’s definitely reasonable. Of particular interest to on-shore Saltwater anglers is the lightweight 3 TAND TF-70 (3 ¾” spool, 4.6 oz.), and the 3 TAND T-70 (3.8” spool, 8.3 oz.).
Experiencing the full spectrum of on-shore fly fishing requires two fly lines: a floating line for fishing the relatively shallow edges of harbors / bays / lagoons, and very thin surf water, and a an high density fast sinking line with integrated intermediate shooting line for general surf fishing (and occasional in-shore boat / kayak trips to deeper water). Airflo provides us with the best saltwater lines on the market: their lines are made of Polyurethane instead of the PVC used by other manufacturers, which means Airflo lines are infinitely more durable (resisting DEET, and the long term effect of UV), and aren’t prone to the frustrating excessive coiling that plagues conventional lines. We recommend the Airflo Sniper and the Airflo Striper floating lines, and the Airflo Sniper D7 and Airflo Streamer Max Short high density sinking lines as the best choices for all on shore fly fishing, depending on the requirements of the rod being used.
When fishing the relatively shallow edges of a bay / harbor from the shore (usually in seven feet or less of water) a fast sinking line will most often do little more than pull weeds, so we resort to our Airflo Sniper / Striper floating lines, and vary the length an type of leader, and the weight and type of fly to get or fly in front of the fish. It works. We generally start with a simple leader constructed of a 3-4’ “butt” of 30-40 lb. Umpqua Big Game Fluro with Perfection loops tied at both ends, looping one end to the loop on the end of the floating fly line (or the installed Cortland Leader Loop), and the other end installed loop-to-loop with a 2-3’ tippet of 8-12 lb. Umpqua Big Game Fluro with the necessary Perfection loop tied on one end. To this relatively short 5-7’ leader the appropriate type and weight fly can be attached with an improved clinch Knot to reach the depth of the fish (Note: An incredibly good tool to easily learn any of the knots mentioned, can be accessed at norpineflyfisher.com via the first link on the header of this page, then click on the “links” and scroll down the page to the “Animated Fishing Knots” link. It’s well worth the trip). We also sometimes us an Umpqua 9’ Big Game Fluro Leader when more depth or additional stealth is needed when casting to Corbina in thin water. We prefer the Umpqua Big Game Fluro leaders and tippet material because of their extremely high abrasion resistance, knot strength, and extra bit of stiffness to help turn over flies, and reduce tangles. The beauty of this leader / floating line setup is that we can adjust our line retrieval to keep the fly in front of the fish—slower retrieve-deeper, faster retrieve-more shallow. The leader setup for our fast sinking deep water ad surf lines is short and sweet: 2’ of 30 lb. Big Game Fluro with Perfection Loops on both ends, looped to the fly line on one end, and to a Perfection looped tippet on the other end. Tippet strength for a sinking line setup rarely needs to be anything less than 12 lbs., given the beating it takes tumbling, pulling Kelp, and getting chewed on by Halibut.
Now…we’re only two items short of being able to actually start fly-fishing on-shore: flies and a really good shooting basket. Distance matters in saltwater fly-fishing, and being able to hit 90’ or more is definitely an advantage fly fishing on-shore. Such requires aerolizing maybe 30’ of fly line, and shooting another 60’ or so of running line, which can’t be done if your running line is in the water or lying in the sand or sliding around rocks on a jetty. Enter our favorite shooting basket, the KR Line Tender, which allows us to keep our shooting line away from all things that would reduce casting distance, and fits, functions, and travels better than any other basket on the market—made in Maine U.S.A. (so you know it will last forever). Now that we can get the line / leader to the fish, lets put a fly on the tippet, and angle for some tugs. You don’t need a bushel of flies, maybe 4-6 good patterns two or three deep, as follows: chartreuse / white and olive / white Clouser’s Deep Minnow, each in size 2; Ragin Craven lead eyes, tan, size 4; Razzler size 4; Bonefish Gotcha, pink / pearl size 6; Corbina Candy size 6. The two Clouser’s are mandatory, the Ragin Craven is the most productive Ghost Shrimp imitation, and absolutely killer for Mission Bay Sand Bass, as are the Razzler and the Bonefish Gotcha, which can also produce well in the surf, and the Corbina Candy is the most effective fly for stalking the elusive “ghost of the surf, “ Corbina. Now…go fish.
[We’ll add a section on in-shore and kayak fly fishing as soon as we can]