By far, the most popular form of fly-fishing is freshwater. However, as a lifelong saltwater fly-fisherman and guide, I can tell you that saltwater fly-fishing is gaining significant popularity. The most common questions I receive pertain to the differences between Saltwater and Freshwater fly-fishing.
The key differences between Saltwater and Freshwater fly-fishing are the equipment used, the fishing environment, and the techniques used to catch the fish. Occasionally there will be some crossover between the two, but overall, they are a completely different sport.
If you are thinking of making the transition between the two, understanding these differences will save you time, money, and frustration. In this article I’ll dive deep into each of these differences, and discuss tips for avoiding common mistakes.
Freshwater vs Saltwater – Do I need new gear?
The two main differences between fresh and saltwater fly gear are the size of your outfit and its ability to sustain saltwater corrosion. Based on these factors, the use of separate gear is usually required, except in a few rare situations.
Rod and Reel differences
The majority of freshwater fly-fishing will be targeting species in the 1-15lb range. These species include things such as Brown Trout, Rainbows, Brook Trout, and Salmon. Fly rod sizes will range between a 4wt and 7wt to catch these types of species.
The reels used will pair to the weight size of the rod and often have unsealed drag systems. Freshwater reels tend to be cheaper due to lower quality build components and lower drag requirements. This is attributed to the lack of use when fighting freshwater species.
In comparison, saltwater game fish tend to be considerably larger. This will require a beefier fly outfit.
Common saltwater species include Tarpon, permit, striped bass, bonefish, and redfish. These fish will range anywhere from 3lbs to 200lbs in size. Due to the size and fighting characteristics of these fish, fly rod sizes will range between an 8wt and a 12wt.
Additionally reels will be used most of the time, and require heavy and sealed drag systems. Saltwater fishing puts a lot more emphasis on the quality of the reel. If you are planning to make a transition from freshwater to saltwater, it is imperative that you use a reel that is capable of withstanding salt.
Where overlap in gear exists
Occasionally the gear used will overlap. If you are a freshwater fisherman who fishes for larger species, such as steelhead or salmon, then your gear will be comparable to that used to fish for small and mid-size saltwater species such as redfish and bonefish.
Additionally, if you are a saltwater fisherman who targets smaller species using a 6wt or 7wt, then this will crossover to fishing for medium to large freshwater species.
What about line and leader?
As you can probably guess, saltwater will typically require larger fly lines and greater leader strength. This is due to the size of the species targeted, the weight of your rod, and the need to cast larger flies.
Saltwater line and leader
Saltwater fly lines should be matched to the weight of the rod you are casting and suitable for the temperature of that environment.
The majority of saltwater destinations are tropical or have warmer climates. Using a tropical fly-line, and ideally one designed for the targeted species, will help you avoid tangles and line memory.
The most common line used is a floating line, but if fishing in deep channels or water greater than 6 feet, an intermediate sinking line may be required.
Leader material on hand for saltwater applications should include 10lb- 80lb test. The average saltwater leader length is 9’, but it is not uncommon to go up to 12’ for spooky fish.
Saltwater leaders will have stronger butt sections, typically in the 40-50lb range, and taper down to various tippet sizes. For smaller species, tippet can be as small as 10lb test, and will typically fall in the 15-20lb range.
Larger species, such as tarpon, bite sections will be added to class leaders. These bite sections will range from 30lb test all the way up to 80lb test. Tippet and bite sizes will be adjusted based on water clarity and the leader shyness of the target species.
For a more in depth discussion on different saltwater leader applications, check out my article on What Size Leader For Saltwater Fly-fishing?
Freshwater line and leader
Similar to saltwater, freshwater fly lines should match the weight of the rod you are throwing. These lines will be inherently smaller as the rod size, flies, and leaders will be smaller.
Most freshwater fly-fishing takes place in colder environments. This includes mountain streams, Alaskan rivers, and the Great lakes. In these situations, it makes sense to use cold-water fly lines.
Cold-water fly lines are typically softer, allowing them to not stiffen or maintain memory in lower temperatures.
Similar to lines designed for saltwater, freshwater lines can be purchased that are made to target specific types of fish. The vast majority of freshwater fishing will require a floating line. Situations where you will want an intermediate or sink-tip line will be when casting large streamer flies to deeper fish.
Trout, especially wild species, have incredible eyesight. This requires leader sizes to be dialed down significantly. It is not uncommon to use 3x (8lb), 4x (6lb), and even down to 8x (1.75lb) tippet size.
Additionally, freshwater leaders tend to be longer in length. The average freshwater leader length is 10’ and can be as much as 15’. When targeting more aggressive freshwater species, such as bass, a shorter leader of 7.5’ can be used.
The diameter of the leader size is also relative to the size of the flies thrown.
Freshwater flies tend to be smaller as they mimic bugs and therefore are more easily cast using thinner leader material. Techniques for freshwater fishing vary drastically and therefore require different types of leader for different applications.
For example, in some cases you want parts of your leader to be visible, so you can see when the fish has struck. This is typical when tight line nymph fishing
Other times, you may be throwing very large flies or streamers. This will require leaders to be similar to that of saltwater. For the freshwater angler, it is advised to have a leader on hand from 1lb test all the way up to 50lb test.
Due to the vast amount of species and styles of flies, we will address this topic at more of a high level. An entire novel could be written about flies themselves, but at the end of the day, the major differences between freshwater and saltwater flies are the types of bait that exist in the different environments.
In freshwater habitats, the primary food source is insects and small baitfisth. A number of predator species are accustomed to looking at the surface for landing insects to devour. These insects include things such as midges, mayflies, caddis, drakes and even things such as grasshoppers and ants.
The flies used to catch fish such as trout, will mimic these insects and be thrown during times of their relative hatches. These insects are small and therefore, the flies used are small.
As freshwater fish grow larger, the tendency is to add larger prey to their diet. Small fish such as Sculpins or leeches are now on the menu. These are the situations where you throw larger freshwater flies, such as streamers, to catch fish.
As we move into saltwater habitats, food sources will change. Common saltwater prey are crustaceans, such as crabs and shrimp, and bait fish. These prey are considerably larger than insects, therefore, saltwater flies tend to be larger in nature. Depending on the size of the targeted species, you may throw a crab the size of quarter, or an 8” baitfish pattern.
Like any type of fishing, it is always best to match the hatch. The flies you throw should imitate bait in the local area.
What are the differences between Fresh vs Salt environments?
When people think of fly-fishing, they often equate it to hiking up mountains and casting along small streams. While this is still a common practice, the sport of fly-fishing has evolved and people are now targeting fish on fly in various bodies of water. Knowing the differences between freshwater and saltwater environments will help you prepare for what may lie ahead.
Most anglers will have access to a body of freshwater. These bodies of water include streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes. When fly-fishing in these areas, two common themes present themselves:
- Fish are naturally confined within these smaller bodies of water.
- The ability to make a fly cast may not always be ideal.
In comparison to an ocean or sea, these areas are limited in size. The result is that these fish tend to stay in the same areas and follow the same feeding patterns throughout their lives.
While this makes targeting freshwater species a lot easier, it does increase the susceptibility of game fish to overfishing. As the fish are pressured and harvested, the limited amount of habitat does not allow them to spawn and reproduce at a quick enough rate. This has created the need for freshwater lakes and streams to be stocked by wildlife management agencies.
To locate native and wild species of trout will require more and more effort and stealth on your part. Wild fish are the “holy grail” of freshwater fishing. Part of this effort has led anglers to hiking longer distances, steeper mountains, or tromping deeper in the woods in search of untouched fish.
As you can imagine, getting to these streams, sections of rivers, or hidden lakes, can be quite treacherous. A good pair of hiking shoes and an efficiently packed gear bag will go a long way as you search this terrain.
As you explore these areas, you will find that fish will present themselves in some difficult situations. It is not uncommon to have to dangle your fly down a rock ledge to present the fly.
You will also notice that the majority of these areas do not allow for adequate back casts due to trees and other obstacles behind you. This scenario is one of the major challenges of fresh water fishing. Knowing how to make different types of casts and using the water to load the rod, will help you be successful in these situations.
Not all freshwater fishing is hiking through the woods. On larger lakes and rivers, boats are used. Many rivers offer guided float trips, where a guide rows you down the river as you cast toward the banks.
Fishing from a boat will make casting a whole lot easier and allow you to cover ground quicker. If you are new to fly-fishing or are unfamiliar with the area, I would strongly recommend hiring a guide.
The main difference between salt and freshwater environments is the amount of open space. These areas tend to be vast and require more effort and knowledge in locating fish. Although these open areas make casting less constrained, they do present other challenges not often considered in freshwater areas.
Estuaries, flats, and bays are usually difficult to fish by foot. Having access to a boat will increase your ability to search more areas. The height of the boat is also beneficial in being able to spot fish at further distances.
When fishing these large open areas, you are more susceptible to weather conditions such as wind. If you are planning to start fishing in salt, you will need to learn how to cast directly into stiff winds. When I think of places like the Bahamas, or the flats of the Florida Keys, it is rare to have a day where it is not windy. In fact, to best target certain species, you actually need wind in order to approach spooky fish. If it is too calm, you will not be able to get within a presentable distance.
Lastly, saltwater environments will have tides. Although rivers and lakes will have fluctuations in water levels, this is typically over a period of months or caused by rain, whereas salt water will fluctuate by the hour. Tides not only present navigation challenges, they also dictate where fish will be located. A group of fish that were sitting in a certain area of a flat, will tend to move as the tide changes. This presents another variable in being successful when fishing salt.
Altering your techniques – Fresh vs Salt
Based on the environmental differences between the two, you will need to alter your approach when making the switch from one to the other. The biggest differences between fresh and salt water is how you make the cast and present the fly.
The majority of freshwater fishing will be done on moving bodies of water. Freshwater species will tend to find eddys in the water behind rocks and other structures.
Sitting in an eddy within the water allows the fish to exert less energy as it waits for prey to flush down the river or creek. As the fish sit and wait, they are often looking up for floating insects.
When presenting the fly, it needs to appear as natural as possible. This means that anything altering the drift of the fly downstream will tip off the fish that something is not right.
The drag of the fly line in the water will naturally create drag on the fly causing it to drift at an unnatural pace or at an angle. In these situations, a mend will be required.
What is a mend in fly fishing?
A mend is when a bow is thrown into the line, usually upstream, that reduces the fly line drag. This allows the fly to drift naturally down current. When a fly is drifting naturally, this is called a dead drift.
Dead drifting is very common and used when fishing dry flies or nymphing. For this type of fishing, you are not moving the fly. For beginners, this is a great way to learn to fly-fish as the drift does most of the work for you.
When fishing baitfish patterns, such as streamers, the fly will be more actively fished. This means you are manually stripping the fly to create movement.
Streamers are casted a lot like saltwater flies, using a double haul cast. Streamer flies are designed to fish down deeper, so when your fly lands, let it sink for a few seconds by throwing a mend in the line to reduce drag.
After the fly has gotten down, begin slow stripping the fly in. When fishing streamers, you want the fly to swing in the current. This is the opposite of a dead drift.
Hungry fish will often eat the baitfish imitation on the swing. Streamer strikes are some of the most aggressive eats in freshwater and a personal favorite of mine when fresh water fishing. When fish are not actively feeding on dries, you can usually coerce a bite by switching to streamers.
Freshwater casting is more of an art form than the brute strength of saltwater casting. As mentioned above, casting mobility is often limited which requires some creative maneuvers. Knowing how to do a basic roll cast will help you present the fly in areas where there is no room to back cast.
What is roll casting?
A roll cast consists of allowing the line to lay out by your feet, then creating a letter “D” above the water out of your rod and the line. The straight line of the “D” is your rod and the curved portion is the formation of the line.
Once in the position, make a forward cast. The drag of the line in the water will create load on the rod, allowing the line to roll out in front of you. This is how it gets the name, “Roll Cast”.
Knowing how to roll cast will get you out of a lot of jams when making casts. Luckily, fresh water does not require long casts, so any ability to get the fly into the water, will typically be effective.
Another common cast is the steeple cast. Although this cast is also used in salt water on windy days, it is more common in freshwater.
The steeple cast involves starting the back cast at a horizontal position and then raising your arm straight up in the air. From this position, you then complete the forward cast as normal.
This cast is designed to lift the line straight up in the air on the back cast to avoid trees or other snags that may be behind. While this cast is effective, I must admit it takes quite a bit of practice to be proficient.
When a fish strikes in either scenario, the hook is set by lifting the rod straight up in the air. This is referred to as the “Trout set”. When fishing in freshwater, there is often slack in the line and by lifting the rod tip, you remove the slack quickly when setting the hook.
The best way to gain an immediate advantage when freshwater fishing is to learn to roll cast and mend.
When venturing into saltwater, think distance. Most freshwater anglers struggle in salt due to the lack of distance in their cast.
Unlike freshwater where a fish is sitting still, saltwater fish are constantly on the move. Not only are they always on the move, they have natural predators like sharks, that look a lot like a boat. Therefore, they are more on edge and quick to run away. This means your ability to get close to them is uncommon.
What is double hauling in fly fishing?
The basic requirement for saltwater fly casting will be knowing how to double haul.
The technique of double hauling involves pulling on the line with your non-casting hand to create more load on the back and forward cast. This additional load allows you to make further casts and punch the cast into wind.
When presenting a fly in saltwater, it is your responsibility to make that fly come alive. Predators in the salt are accustomed to fleeing bait as opposed to something dead drifting across them. Different types of flies will require different stripping techniques.
If fishing a crustacean pattern such as shrimp or a crab, the strip is normally short ticks. This is designed to make a shrimp look like it is popping or a crab shuffling across the bottom.
When presenting these flies to a fish, angles will be very important. It is unlikely that a prey will swim toward a predator in the wild, so making a shot that allows you to cross the fish or pull the fly away from the fish will often solicit an eat.
Stripping a fly towards a fish is referred to as a negative angle and should be avoided when you can.
Fishing bait patterns are done using a constant strip to imitate a fish swimming. This strip involves long steady strips that should be sped up when the fish locks onto it.
To make the fly swim more naturally, a lot of anglers will put the rod under their arm and use both hands, one after the other, to strip the fly more constantly. This is referred to as the double hand strip and is most common when tarpon fishing.
When you receive a strike in salt, your natural tendency is going to be to lift the rod and set the hook. This should be avoided and instead keep stripping.
Always continue to strip until the fish is completely tight. This is referred to as “ Strip setting”. Lifting your rod tip will result in a lost fish most of the time.
Common mistakes when transitioning between Fresh and Saltwater
There are 3 common mistakes that anglers will make when trying to make the transition between freshwater and saltwater.
- Making the adjustments to your “set” when hooking a fish.
Nothing will anger your guide or your fishing partner more than watching you whiff fish when you should have strip set instead of trout set or vice versa. Making a conscious effort in the moment to overcome habit is going to help you avoid continuing to make the same mistake. Do not beat yourself up as it happens to all of us, but constantly reminding yourself and thinking through the process will inevitably make these snafu’s occur less often.
- Moving the fly too little or too much
This one falls more on the saltwater angler more-so than the freshwater anglers. I am particularly guilty of this one myself. When coming from a saltwater environment to a freshwater one, the tendency is to want to strip the fly instead of letting the drift do the work. Before you begin to fish, take a moment to review your environment and especially pay attention to how bait moves in the water. Matching this behavior will improve your chances of a bite.
- Not knowing what to expect when fishing new areas
The internet is a wonderful thing. It is full of an abundance of information on any topic you could ever want. Use it to learn about an area or type of fishing before you show up. Even if you are fishing with a guide, have a good idea of the fishery and the techniques you will be using. Do not just expect the guide to coach you through success if you know nothing. If you are unsure of what to research, then reach out to a local fly shop or guide and ask questions. Any little bit of local knowledge is going to better your cause.
The sport of fly-fishing is evolving. More and more people are challenging themselves to target new species, fish new areas, and experience unfamiliar things.
If you are thinking of making the transition between fresh and saltwater fly-fishing, knowing what gear to use, the difference in the environments, and how to alter your technique is a winning combination to help you become successful.
If you are currently fishing fresh or salt exclusively, I would challenge you to explore the other side. What makes fly-fishing great is found in both worlds, just in its own unique way.
If you find yourself visiting St Augustine, Florida be sure to visit me at allwaterexpeditions.com for a fishing experience like no other!