Saltwater fly fishing is a completely different game from casting for trout in mountain rivers. It’s pretty much a whole new form of fly fishing that we anglers who started on trout (that goes for most fly anglers out there) have to learn.
I remember my first day of saltwater fly fishing in the Bahamas, and it was a steep learning curve. Everything from casting in the wind to how to hook the fish was a new skill to me and it took some time to get my head around it, which is something I want you to avoid.
Join me as I run through how to fish saltwater flats and some helpful saltwater fly casting, fishing tips too so you don’t waste any time on the water.
What is a saltwater flat?
A saltwater flat is an area of shallow water close to the shore which is tidal, meaning it can dry out at dead low tide and be 3 feet or more under at high tide.
Around these tidal flats is where saltwater fish species like bonefish, redfish, snook, speckled sea trout, tarpon, striped bass, giant trevally (GT), permit, and smaller species tend to hang out depending on the tide.
Near the flats, you’re likely to find little isolated ecosystems such as grass beds, oyster bars, deeper channels, mangroves, and saltwater inlets which are all good places to find fish and do some backwater fishing.
Finding Flats Near You
The best way to find some good flats fishing near you is with google earth. When you look at a google satellite image you can see where the shallow and deeper water is and along the edge of the deepwater near to the shore will be flat to fish.
Make sure to look at areas that are out of the way of people, as saltwater fish that live in shallow water do not like company and spook easily, and therefore will not frequent a flat that is consistently busy.
You should also bear in mind whether you need a flats boat to get to the places you’re looking at or whether you can park your car and wade into them. If you’re not an experienced angler, going with a guide to starting off with is probably your best bet.
The Gear For Fly Fishing Saltwater
Saltwater species take things up a notch when it comes to how strong they are. Therefore, you need stronger fishing tackle. The fly rods, reels, and backing will be heavier than you usually would fish with, and what weight gear you need depends on the species you’re going after too.
Fly Rod Selection
For bones, reds, stripers, and snook an 8-9wt rod is ideal. When it comes to permit, a 10 wt rod is ideal, and for the likes of GTs and tarpon, you’ll need a 12 wt rod to lift them. Some anglers think a shorter rod is better but a 9ft rod is perfect.
A good saltwater reel is the most important bit of gear you need for saltwater fly fishing trips. It will need good drag that can handle blistering runs as bonefish, GTs and tarpon take off and swim as far from the boat as possible. If your reel fails, that’s the end of your day so get a good one like a Shilton, Nautilus, or Mako.
Fly Line & Backing
You’ll be fly fishing with a floating line 99% of the time and perhaps with an intermediate when going after tarpon. Make sure to have a selection of them with you and spares too as coral can shred a fly line quickly.
When it comes to backing, you’ll need more line than in any freshwater fishing, around 250 yards of it and it needs to be spooled properly without any kinks as you’re going to see it on almost every fish you hook.
Leader & Flies
The final pieces of gear you’ll need are saltwater leaders and flies, and again this differs based on the species you’re fishing for. You’ll want a leader selection from 8lbs all the way to 100lbs if you want to catch all the species we have mentioned in this article
When fishing for bones, permit, and reds, 12 – 16 lbs are about right for you leader. When it comes to tarpon and GTs, straight 60 – 100lb are required.
You’ll need a large range of flies for saltwater fly fishing including crab flies, shrimp flies, baitfish flies, and more. You’ll want them in different sizes and colors too in order to match whatever the fish you’re casting at from the boat wants to eat.
Flats Fishing Techniques
You’re Always Sight Fishing
When you are saltwater fly fishing on the flats you are sight fishing and sight fishing means you do not cast until you can see a fish. To sight fish requires a lot of patience as a lot of the time you are standing there on the front of a boat and just looking rather than actually casting.
Don’t be tempted to play around with your fly and/or fly line, that is always when the big fish of the flats arrive – when you aren’t ready.
The best thing about fly fishing saltwater is when you see a fish, make a cast, watch it eat your fly, and then hook up. It’s the reward for your patience and one of the best experiences in fly fishing, especially when you’re in your backing in about 10 seconds – try to do that with a trout!
Light Is Key
When you’re backwater fishing on flats, if you don’t have good light you’re going to struggle. You need sunlight to see through the water and therefore to see the fish you want to catch. Even from a 4ft poling platform on a boat, seeing through the surface on a cloudy day isn’t easy.
You should always make sure the light is behind you too. If you wade a flat and walk into the sun you will be blind but if you wade it with the sun behind you, it will be lit up and you will see everything.
Cast In Front Of The Fish
When fly fishing saltwater, you’re in very shallow water and you can see the saltwater fish you’re going after which makes it very exciting. This causes many an angler to cast their fly directly on the head of the bonefish or tarpon they are intending on catching causing it to swim away in fear to another continent.
As a seasoned flats guide, I have to say that I have fished with many an angler who can’t seem to not hit the fish on the head, it’s like they get stuck in the moment.
You always have to lead the fish by around 3-5 feet or more depending on the saltwater fish species which means casting the fly 3-5 feet in front of the fish and in the direction it’s going in.
Wait For The Fish Before You Strip
Once you have nailed your cast, wait for your fly to sink. It’s far more natural for a fish to see your flies coming off the bottom rather than running along the surface. It might feel like the longest few seconds of your life, but just wait until the fish is 2 feet or so away and then strip. Chances are, the fish will jump on the fly.
Never Lift Your Rod
Something that trout fishing will have instilled in you is to lift your fly rod to hook a fish. If you do this when fly fishing saltwater, you will lose every fish that eats your fly.
This is because when you lift your rod, you create slack and thus literally pull the fly out of the mouth of the striped bass, bonefish, or GT you were about to catch.
You must always strip set which means that you just keep on stripping to set the hook and once the hook is in, let the fish run while keeping your rod down again.
Adjust For The Wind
One of the best things about fly fishing saltwater is that when you’re casting there is nothing to catch behind you. No trees or banks, it’s just ocean, but, there can be a lot of wind and you need to think about this when it comes to your cast and position on the flat.
Always have the wind behind you or coming over your stripping arm’s shoulder. This will push the line and fly away from your head when casting and make taking your shots a tailing fish a lot easier. If you cast with your right hand and the wind is coming over your right shoulder, you are guaranteed to get some line or a fly in the head.
Understanding Tides Is Very Important
The key to getting to know the flats is through the tides and veteran flats anglers such as Flip Pallot and Lefty Kreh will tell you the same. The tides dictate the movement of the smaller species such as sardines, shrimps, and all the other food that the saltwater fish species you’re looking to catch feed on.
Saltwater fish are simple creatures, they pretty much just eat and swim but, they keep on moving following the food and they need to stay underwater and thus follow the tide.
Bonefish, for example, will always hug a shoreline as a way of being safe from predators like sharks and barracuda but they also have to follow the tides as well. At high tide, they will be right up against the beach on in the mangroves and they will slowly move further out as the tide drops.
Make sure you are aware of the tides when you first get to a flat and then plan where to be based on fish movement.
If it’s just after high tide but the water is dropping, park yourself next to a flat with some mangroves and wait for the bonefish to come flooding out with the tide. You will literally see a river of bonefish and you can catch 10 in an hour if you get it right.
Look For Surface Signs & Bait
Once you’re on a flat you should be quiet and looking for any surface movements such as tailing bonefish and redfish or a tarpon rolling. These are dead giveaways as to where the fish are and I have caught many a fish thanks to this little tactic.
When going after predatory species like GTs, when you find small baitfish like mullet, stay close by as the predators are never too far away.
Take Notes About Everything
Salwater flat species follow a routine and therefore you should note down everything you see after a day, even if you see nothing. If flat X was working well 3 hrs into a dropping tide on a 2..3 m high and a 0.4m low, then it will work well on the same tide when it comes around again.
Where is the best saltwater fly fishing in the world?
There are great flats all over the world from the islands of Seychelles in the Indian Ocean (where I guided for 3 years) to the islands of the Bahamas, Florida, and around the Gulf Of Mexico down to Central America.
If you’re looking to go on a flats fishing trip for trophy-sized fish then the outer islands of Seychelles have the best flats. It will be the fishing trip of a lifetime where you’ll find thousands of bonefish, huge GTs, triggerfish, permit, and milkfish.
Trips to the flats of Florida and around into the Gulf produce some huge tarpon, bonefish, snook, permit, and reds. And then you have the redfish capital of the world in Venice, Louisiana so taking a trip there is also a good idea.
If you live on the south or east coast of the US you are never far from some flats though, and you can easily go flats fishing without going on any big trips around the world. See also our post here on the best saltwater fishing times!