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 while, but a 7-9 weight won’t bottom out as easily when fighting big fish, that 1/0 size weighted Clouser with chemically sharpened hook 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 “catapulting” 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 loses 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.
First of all, we’re going to recommend fly rods actually designed for fishing, avoiding overly stiff “fire-place pokers“ designed to win casting contests in fly-shop parking lots, or casting anvils over clubhouses. And, we’re going to avoid the junk, paying attention only to the fly rods most worth owning in three general classes—Really Good, Even Better, and Best–all price/value leaders infinitely worth owning.
At the top of our saltwater rod “Best” designation is the Thomas & Thomas Exocett which is a superlative blend of ultralight weight, a powerful fast dampening action that lifts line off the water with ease, and unsurpassed accuracy and smoothness at normal fishing distances (40-60 feet), and beyond. Another great choice for a high-end performance saltwater fly rod at is the Beulah Opal that equals or exceeds the technology, attention to design details, and downright smooth casting performance of rods approaching double the Opal’s price. And, this Opel isn’t fragile like so many other high-end, thin-walled, ultrahigh modulus saltwater rods—it’s extremely tough. Need a solid choice for something in the :Better” category that’s more immediately affordable? Enter the fast action( beginners need not apply) Echo BOOST, which will out-cast and out-fish most rods approaching 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. And, the king of the Really Good” fly-rod category is the Echo Ion XL, a saltwater fly rod with a forgiving med./fast action that casts far better than it has a right to, with its sub $200 price tag, which easily makes it the best performing, most durable rod at anything remotely close to its “Really Good” price. Now…we’re going to need a reel for these guys
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 design and build quality on the planet , without being necessarily the most expensive choice available. Comprised of the highest quality aerospace grade bar-stock aluminum, Titanium (no steel), and aerospace grade ceramics, 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 and quickly dissipates heat, able to stop runs from 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 1% the price of a Cayman S, and when you own the best it’s a joy to forever, and will never need to be replaced. Still…they additionally offer the Nautilus CCF-X2 that’s also a very nice ride—lightweight ultra large arbor, killer drag system, aesthetically something to behold—going in the same direction as the iconic Nautilus NV-G, at noticeably less expense, while still blowing the proverbial doors off conventional “Import” reel companies. Then…there’s the Nautilus X Series of ultra -light reels with the XL (wf. 6 + 170 yds.), and the XL Max (wf.8 +175 Yds.), both with interchangeable 4” diameter spools, and a weight of 4.7 oz. These X Series reel have all the de design and build quality of their bigger NVG and CCFX2 brethren, and with a lightness that transfers to even smaller / lighter Trout sizes, as well. Then…there’s the Echo Bravo—the King of the economical “Really Good” category of saltwater fly reels—with the usability and toughness to eclipse other import reels selling for double Bravo’s particularly modest price.
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 high-density fast sinking line with integrated intermediate shooting line for general surf fishing and in-shore boat / kayak trips to deeper water. Airflo provides us with the best saltwater lines on the market; given 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 sub-surface fly fishing—size/weight depending on the requirements of the rod being used.
When fishing the relatively shallow edges of a bay / harbor / lagoon from the shore (usually in less than seven feet 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(7-10’) and type (Fluro. or Nylon) of leader, and the weight and type of fly to get or fly in front of fish. It works. For the sinking lines, we generally start with a simple leader constructed of a 2-3’ “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 sinking fly line (or, most often the installed Cortland Leader Loop), and the other end installed loop-to-loop with a 2-3’ tippet of 12 lb. Umpqua Big Game Fluro with the necessary Perfection loop tied on one end. To this relatively short 4-5’ 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 Animated Fishing Knots (It’s well worth the trip). We, also, often us an Umpqua Big Game Fluro Leader when more depth is required, or additional stealth is needed, when casting a floating line, especially 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 larger 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—deeper, faster—shallow. 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 all manner of critters.
Now…we’re only two subjects 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 when 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 hinder casting efficiency / 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, let’s 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: Clouser’s Deep Minnow: chartreuse / white (size 2, 6), olive / white (size 2,6); one or two Ghost Shrimp imitations in size 4, Razzler size 4; Clouser’s Darter size 4; Surfin Merkin size 6, Corbina Candy size 6. The two Clouser’s Deep Minnows are mandatory for Mission Bay, as are the Razzler and the Ghost Shrimp patterns, while the Clouser’s Darter, Surfin Merkin and the Corbina Candy will produce well in the surf, the latter being the most effective pattern for stalking the elusive “ghost of the surf, “ Corbina. Now…go fish!