Freshwater Versus Saltwater Fly Fishing: The Fight

A longer fly rod can offer tremendous advantages when it comes to fighting fish.  But you have to know how best to leverage the design of a fly rod for full effect.

For starters, understand that fly fishing in fresh water and fly fishing in salt water are essentially two different sports played with the same basic equipment.  One example of this is that casting distance, while always important, is not always necessary on a trout river.  It’s better to be accurate.  Knowing which flies to choose and how to locate fish in the river are far more important than the ability to boom lengthy casts.  On the saltwater flat, however, having the ability to make a long cast with a fly rod is usually the price of admission.

There are also some key differences when it comes to fighting fish.  If you are with a trout guide and you hook a fish, one of the first things you are likely to hear is “keep your tip up. “  By raising the rod tip, the rod acts like a shock absorber, and keeps you from breaking off what is most usually a very fine and fragile tippet connected to the fly.  The most important thing to remember when fighting trout is to maintain a steady arc in the rod.  Not enough bend means you don’t have enough tension, and the fish is likely to spit the fly.  Too much tension (which causes the rod tip to drop flat to the waterline) and you are likely to break off.

In the salt, those rules are almost opposite.  If you are fighting a tarpon, for example, you want to keep the rod low, so you can apply pressure to the fish directly through the line and leader (which are far stronger than freshwater leaders).  If you keep the rod tip high, you basically invite the fish to “run around the maypole” for a long time, and more often than not, the fish wins that game.

In both cases, a little side pressure that steers and moves the fish is a good thing.  The angler wants to set the agenda during the fight.  And believe it or not, tiring the fish out so you can land it quicker is usually the best thing, especially if you plan to release it.  Long fights on light tackle can be fun.  But it is important to know the reasonable limits… for both yourself and the fish.

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Kirk Deeter

Kirk Deeter

Kirk Deeter is an editor-at-large with Field & Stream, and he co-wrote The Little Red Book of Fly Fishing with the late Charlie Meyers.