Saltwater Fishing on the Fly

There's an art to tying flies, but the thrill's in the hunt

Every sport has its experts, but you don’t need much expertise to experience and appreciate the breathtaking pull of an angry redfish on a pulsating 8-weight.

Fly-fishing is an ancient art, imported from Europe and practiced on high-country streams for centuries before the first enterprising long-rodder attempted the presentation of an oversized fly to a saltwater gamefish. 

These days, coastal fly casters regularly catch everything from 15-inch school trout to 150-pound tarpon. They achieve this feat by drawing on the expertise of numerous authorities as well as countless texts and videos.

Over time, the quality of tackle in relation to its price has consistently improved. Many entry-level outfits are now actually superior to “state-of-the-art” rigs marketed in years past. 

Technology, materials and manufacturing techniques have brought high-end fly-fishing gear within easy reach of the angler who’s willing to make a modest investment.

Accomplished saltwater fly casters often use 6- or 7-weight rods. It’s great fun to fight even modestly sized redfish and trout on lighter-weight blanks. However, for easier learning, without sacrificing the authority to counter constantly present coastal winds, most beginners fare best with 8-weight rods.

Most saltwater fly casters express a general preference for weight-forward floating line. After all, it’s the line being cast, not the lure. Sinking line is appropriate for surf-casting, jetty fishing or plumbing deep bay troughs and reefs, but for the classic drill of stalking tailing redfish in calf-deep water, floating line rules.

Unlike lures and baits on conventional tackle, flies are retrieved via “stripping” the line by hand, not cranking a reel handle. Once there’s a strike, the hook is set with a firm tug of the line, not a swoosh of the rod.

Fly line embodies two materials, the core and the coating. Most fly lines are approximately 30 yards long. Attaching the line to the backing is arguably a job best left, at least the first time or two, to a pro shop. In fact, pro shops are a beginning fly caster’s go-to source for everything from proper tackle setup to knot-tying to effective fly presentation.

Many Texas casters, both saltwater and freshwater, benefit from membership in the Federation of Fly Fishers, a group of avid longrodders with chapters nationwide. They’re generous with their time and knowledge, sharing fly patterns and techniques.

It’s been my experience that fly casters are more willing to share their expertise than any other faction of the angling community. After all, fly fishermen possess a common passion, one that transcends the catching of fish.

A good fly caster does not always a good fisherman make. You can, after all, be an excellent mechanic and still not know how to drive a car.

Just as effective archery requires highly refined hunting skills, fly-fishing increases the challenge of saltwater angling and calls on new skills. Occasionally, it can actually give the angler an edge.

When conventional lures spook skittish gamefish, it’s possible that a gently presented streamer can be just the enticement that draws a savage response from an unsuspecting predator. Even more impressive is the sense of control an angler feels when a blind cast is rewarded with the unanticipated sighting of a tailing redfish in the opposite direction.

Faced with that exciting but frustrating quandary, the hapless baitcaster can only crank the reel handle as quickly as possible and hope for a last-second shot at a fish that’s very likely to flee in response to the hurried impact of the cast.

A cool-headed fly caster needs only lift the line from the water, firmly pull it behind, load up the rod, aim and — given reasonable competence and a small bit of luck — quickly “shoot” an irresistible offering directly in the path of the unsuspecting fish.

When a tailing redfish lifts its head and turns, slicing through an accelerated wake with a defiantly raised dorsal fin, and only seconds later lunges atop a saltwater fly like a bulldog on a rat, the feeling you get is like hitting a bull’s-eye or a hole-in-one.

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