Tackling the Salt on fly – Part 1: Rods and reels

By Fred Steynberg

Fly fishing in the salt can be a lot less complicated than, for example, fishing for trout in wild mountain streams, but certain elements in tackle choice and set-up can be tricky and costly in the long run if advice is not followed.

Fortunately fly fishing in the salt is a lot more common nowadays and salt starters can require helpful advice from friends, guides and even fly shops. The salt water expanse is however a large and varied one with many different fish species to target in different types of waters. This makes tackle choice difficult, especially if cash flow is a problem and purchasing a range of rods, reels and lines to cater for every situation, is not an option.

Of primary importance, before purchasing a fly rod and reel, is to establish where one will spend most of the time fishing and what species are available and targetable in this area. It is then important to establish whether the fish that will be targeted are pelagic or local and how they feed and what they feed on.

If estuaries and saline river systems are the option or preferred choice around the Southern African coast then a lighter salt water rig will often suffice. Some of the general fish species in these systems are fish such as Cob, River Snapper, Skip Jack, Small Garrick, Small Kingfish, Sand Gurnards, River Bream and Mullet, to name a few. These fish are often smaller and premature specimens and lighter rods make the tussle so much more sporty and enjoyable. Cob are of the few species, except for the occasional Giant Ignoblis, that are found in our estuaries and at times exceed weights of 50lbs. Cob of this size that venture into estuaries and river systems can, with patience, be caught on an 8 or 9 weight rod as they are not particularly strong fighting fish. G.T. if encountered are indeed a different story but the chances of ever hooking a specimen large enough, in South African estuarine systems, that will over power an 8-9 weight fly rodder, is very slim.

It is also important to understand that predatory fish in our estuaries and saline river systems feed mainly on small fish, prawns, shrimps, antipods and crabs and imitations often need to be smaller and with less or no weight than flies in the deeper ocean. The line weight that needs to carry these flies need not be so heavy, meaning the rod size can be lighter.

The choice fly rod length should not be a problem as most 7-9 weight outfits are manufactured around 9ft lengths and this is a desired casting length of a salt water rod that is designed for casting rather than fighting fish. If the rod is shorter than 8.6ft it may be difficult to keep the heavier line off the water when casting and distance will be sacrificed. If however the rod length exceeds 9ft, it can become a cumbersome, clumsy process to fight and land fish, especially when fly fishing off boats or skiffs. In my opinion fighting grips will be non essential add-ons and should rather be avoided as it may affect the weight or casting ability of these lighter salt water rods.

Consider factors such as the length of the cast that will have to be made and problematic winds around the chosen area. Medium fast to faster action rods can, because of the tip action, create a narrow line loop that spear-heads into the wind or can carry the line further (if the casting style is correct and the rod is allowed to load correctly). Slower action rods often have difficulty casting into the wind as a large line loop battles to cut into the wind if blown back.

Multi-piece, travel rods are always a better option as they make packing less complicated. With the rod building technology of today, anglers will not be able to distinguish between the casting ability of a 2 and 4 piece rod. If your venue of choice is a couple of minutes drive or walk away and your rod is always in a ready, set-up state, then there is really no reason to purchase a multi-piece rod and a 2 piece rod will do fine.

Line guides should be as large as possible to allow the line to shoot without much friction through them. These line guides should be made of a non-corrosive steel will not rust.

If the option to purchase a rod with a guarantee of some sort is available and affordable, then it will be a good idea to choose it. Salt water rigs can take a good hammering from time to time in harsh salt water conditions, casting large flies and fighting stronger quarries.  Larger flies can bruise the rod if they connect the rod in full flight and incorrect fish landing techniques will snap the thinnest and most vulnerable part of the rod without much effort.

Good choice of rod for targeting smaller estuary fish such as Mullet, Blacktail, River Bream, small Skip Jack, juvenile Garrick and Kingfish to name a few, is a 5-7 weight medium/fast – fast action 9ft rod. When targeting fish such as larger Skip Jack, Garrick, Grunter, Kingfish (between 2 and 7 kg’s), Cob, Grunter and River Snapper an 8 – 9 weight medium/fast – fast action 9ft rod will suffice. The 8 weight is possibly the most versatile rod for estuaries and a good choice.

When fishing off rocks and sand bars for smaller fish, into the salt, it is not advisable to use a rod no lighter than an 8 -9 weight as hooked fish often run for cover and anglers need to muscle fish away from structures. Slightly heavier rods will also allow for casting distance, essential for casting over those irritating little shallow water breakers. 8 – 9 Weight are also less taxing on the muscles as long hours of casting can become hard and painful work.

Shallow salt water species such as Shad , Garrick, Rock Cod, Wave Garrick, Blacktail, Bream, Smaller Kingfish ( such as Brassies, Greenspot, Big Eye, Yellowspot, Black-fin and small G.T.’s) are some of the fish that can be tamed with 8 -9 weight rods.

When targeting larger fish from the shore, such as mature G.T.s (Giant Egnoblis), King and Queen Mackerel, Queenfish, larger Garrick, Brassie Kingfish, Big Eye Kingfish, Bluefin Kingfish and some shark species, for example, then it is advisable to use a rod no lighter than a 9 -10 weight outfit. If you feel that a 9 – 10 weight might be too little ‘gun’ for the fish that you are hoping to hook then an 11 or even a 12 weight (still considered casting tools) will be a better option provided that you are strong and fit enough to handle it.

Fly fishing from shore, as mentioned, often requires long casts and many anglers force the rod to extract maximum result and in the process hurt themselves instead of achieving casting distance. A medium to fast action rod is advisable for distant casting and for potentially windy situations, but remember that a faster action rod usually has a stronger ‘back bone’ (lower section) and although it  loads quicker it becomes taxing on the wrist and joints after a couple of casts. If you feel that you will not be able to handle heavy faster action rods then rather sacrifice distance and look for a rod that has a softer ‘back bone’ or medium action. Always try and avoid slow and floppy rods.

Off shore fly fishing around our coastline is often confined so shoals of pelagic fish such as King and Queen Mackerel, Kawa-Kawa, Bonito,’Geelbek’, Snoek, Queenfish, Dorado, Shad, Yellowfin Tuna, Yellowtail and smaller shoaling Kingfish species of sort. Local fish on our reefs, with the exception of maybe the odd Kingfish, Job fish, Rock cod and Snapper (found in the warmer waters of Natal), that will regularly accept a fly are scarce as many prefer the warmer waters further up the East and West coast of Africa away from the cold Augulas current. A 10 or 11 weight will handle most average sized fish in all the species except for fish such as Yellowfin Tuna when the reach weights exceed 10 kg’s. These speedsters are seriously fast and feisty, fueled by warm blood and an aerodynamic design that will test both angler and tackle alike.

12, 13 and 14 Weight fly rods are about as low as you should go if fish such as large Yellowfin Tuna, Yellowtail, Shark and other serious fighters that may frequent our coastline. It is advisable to purchase a rod that is not necessarily designed to cast but rather to fight fish; distance casting is of lesser importance. Fighting butt and grips are essential components of fighting rods and will increase rod handling after hook-up. Distance casting, under normal circumstances, especially when chumming (most often a necessary practice) for these species is not of primary importance and a shorter rod of around 8ft will increase the fighting and pulling ability on the confined area of a boat. The lifting capability of a strong but shorter fly rod will come in very handy especially if hooked fish sound deep and keep below the boat.

Other fish species that can be targeted on fly off our coastline, but with necessary teasing techniques are Sailfish and Marlin (smaller ones below 250lbs.)  Sailfish can be landed on lighter 9 and 10- weights but 11 and 12 weights are recommended as not to over fight the fish. For Marlin of just about any size a heavy rod of 14 weight plus is recommended and in both instances the rods should be the shorter fighting sticks as casting to teased fish happens at short distances.

It is almost impossible to mention all the fish species and situations that a fly rodder could encounter off shore but this summary should provide an inspiring salt water candidate a guide line to purchasing a tool that will cover the needs.