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Getting started in saltwater fly fishing

By Tom LuskNZ Fishing World
Getting started in saltwater fly fishing

The best gear, techniques and tips for starting out.

Four summers ago I had the most unforgettable day of fishing I have ever experienced. I was fishing from the rocks on an island near Auckland and I caught a 17-pound snapper on an old Tongariro trout set up from the 1980s. It was one of those magical moments when everything comes together perfectly and the big one does not get away.

The fish that changed it all

The important lesson I took away is that you don’t need top of the range gear to catch big fish. If you have an old set of fly gear lying around that has not been used in decades, do not be put off. Instead, clean it up, take apart the reel, give it the grease and oil treatment (usually very straightforward on basic reels), re-tie old knots and get stuck in. If you find yourself hooked, then you will soon want to upgrade, and quickly discover the vast range of absolutely beautiful dedicated saltwater fly fishing (SWF) gear on offer.

Saltwater fly rods

Most fishing in New Zealand only needs rods from six to nine weight. This weighting system seems strange to newcomers used to conventional rods, which are rated in terms of the line weight you use.

In fly fishing, the lower the number, the lighter the rod. A 6WT rod is beautifully light and easy to cast but does not have the casting power to punch out a lot of line in the wind or much grunt when it comes to fighting a fish. A 9WT is a much tougher proposition in the fight and significantly less susceptible to the wind, however, it tends to be heavier and more tiring to use all day. A lighter rod has the advantage of being able to deliver a fly with beautiful precision and delicacy,  however, and while this is crucial for many trout fishing applications, it is far less important in the sea.

The reel

The fly reel, when compared to conventional reels, is a simple piece of equipment. The most basic models are line storage devices with negligible drag mechanisms. Drag is applied by 'palming' the spool (a very responsive and satisfying way to fight a fish). There is an analogy here with 'fixie' (or fixed gear) bikes that have only one gear and are considered a purist form of of mechanics.

 The old and the new- the Kilwell on the left needs a good clean, but would do the job. Top is a System 2 Scientific Anglers, Right is a Colton Torrent 9/11, bottom is a Nautilus.

These reels are fine for the smaller inshore target species such as kahawai, snapper, and trevally. If you hook a king or a mako, you will feel the pain. The usual outcome is smacked knuckles and a lost fish although, with proper preparation, training and a good glove, all should be well. For beginners, a basic reel that stores the line and allows the line to pay out smoothly as the reel spins, is all you need.

Cleanliness first and foremost

If you do start with trout gear, be thorough when washing it after use in the salt. Rods are not too bad, but a freshwater reel will transform into a furry horror of corrosion in a matter of days if the salt water isn’t washed off.

Removing the spool from the reel and soaking it all overnight in a container of tap water is good insurance against the dreaded corrosion. Grease or Vaseline smeared on all moving parts and exposed metal is wise, as is light reel oil between contact surfaces.

If you wish to take the plunge and buy a brand new set, you can get a very serviceable combination with a line included for around $500. Reddington has impressed me and my friends with their entry level gear.

Unlike fly fishing for trout, saltwater fly fishing does not require long, delicate leaders. I use a leader of around two-thirds the length of the rod. A 20lb fluoro is my general go-to leader; I don’t use tapered leaders. The fluoro is joined to the loop in the fly line with a loop-to-loop join. I tie a bimini in the fluoro to create the loop.

Flies, like lures, are as fantastically successful on saltwater species as they are on their more discerning freshwater relatives. Flies have some major benefits over other lures. They are relatively cheap, more resilient than many softbaits and most importantly, can be tied by yourself at home in an unlimited quantity and range of styles. Fopr me, being able to tie my own flies and catch fish on them, is a massive benefit.

Best flys for beginners

If you are a beginner, you will want to buy a few tried and tested patterns that will get you connected to some scaly bruisers. Here are five killer patterns that work every time.

1.The Clouser minnow

This is a nondescript pattern, yet globally it catches most fish. Its 'head down, tail up' posture is said to imitate the defence stance of a crustacean. Its slim profile is that of a baitfish. The classic colour of green over white is a real killer here in New Zealand. If you are familiar with the way a standard fish-shaped soft plastic leaps about in the water, the clouser’s appeal is very understandable.

2.The Crazy Charlie  

This one is similar to the clouser in its basic shape; it is a real snapper killer as well as a great pattern. I have caught the most of my trevally on Crazy Charlies.

3.Lefty’s deceiver

This is a real classic, dreamt up by American angler and the father of SWF, Lefty Kreh. It leaps out from the racks in the fly shop as being appealing both to people and fish. It has lovely pulse and waggle in the water.

4.Crease fly

This is our version of the popper. We have true SWF poppers but they tend to sit slightly high in the water’s surface for the 'death from below' strikes of kingfish and kahawai. The crease sits much lower, so kings and kahawai engulf them, rather than knock them into the sky in their excitement. Creases give a very distinctive 'doop' with each twitch and they flash around enticingly beneath the surface.

5.The bomb

I have not chosen a specific fly for this last one but suggest you look for the heaviest fly you can find. The purpose of this is to get as deep as possible as quick as possible. Any of the first three flies above, tied with a lot of weight, will do the trick.

Fly size is not as critical in salt water as it is in fresh water. Trout turn their noses up at a fly that has an overall length of one millimetre longer than what they are feeding on, but saltwater species are not as picky. Many of my flies have a total length of 40-60mm, although, for kings, I go much bigger; sometimes up to 200mm. Fly hooks vary wildly in size with each manufacturer, but as a general rule, hooks of about 2/0 size are what you will want. For some reason, pure white flies are, deadly on everything with gills. I am not convinced that fly colour is important. If it stands out, fish are keen to grab it. Other colours with universal appeal are pink, green and orange.

Location, location, location

I cut my teeth saltwater fly fishing for kahawai at the Tukituki River mouth in the 80s in Hawkes Bay. The perfect place to learn to flyfish is a river mouth on an outgoing tide. You have nothing behind you to hook up on and you can use the flow of the river to take your fly way out into the surf. The obvious target here is kahawai and they are an excellent fish for the fly. The best flies to use in this situation are deceivers or any slim baitfish imitation. If the whitebait are running, a very sparsely tied fly with a black head will have the kahawai climbing over each other to get a sniff.

When using a boat, the options are endless. If you are chasing workups, getting the fly to the fish is the hard part, especially if the fish are moving quickly. A drifting fly sinking down within the action is usually grabbed in short order. Likewise, letting a fly sink back into the berley trail is devastating.

Drifting and casting ahead of the drift or into areas of foul as soft plastic practitioners do, is a successful method but one I haven’t had much experience doing. For a beginner, this approach is relatively difficult, as you have a lot to manage with casting, maintaining drift speed and so on. With this style of fishing, you nearly always need to get deep quickly ( unless you are in the shallows), adding another layer of difficulty.

Rocks provide an excellent platform for saltwater fly fishing. One of the big advantages is that you usually see the fish. The excitement of having a coffee table sized snapper stooging around at your feet, then dropping a fly on his nose and seeing him snaffle it, is absolutely heart-stopping. I unashamedly use berley to bring the fish to me from the rocks, which is not seen as fair play by the more conservative fishermen. The success of the method can not be denied. Pilchards shredded in your fingers and flicked quietly into the water from a hidden position bring in all sorts of ravenous beasts. It is amazing how fearless a big snapper is when he does not know you are there; quite a different experience from anything else in the fishing world.

Top Tips for salt water fly fishers

  • Use the shops. NZ is fortunate to have our own dedicated SWF shops like Rod and Reel in Newmarket, with excellent staff and websites
  • Perfect your cast. It is not as hard as it looks. Join a club like Stripstrike if you are in Auckland or use instructional videos
  • Use barbless hooks. You will not lose fish (except kahawai) and barbless hooks are much easier to remove from your soft bits, clothes and friends
  • Make fly fishing part of your trip. When getting into SWF for the first time, I recommend taking fly gear with you on a regular fishing trip. If the fishing is great, get your fill on your tried and tested methods, then drop down a fly.
  • Good value and cheap aren’t the same. Beware of the super cheap saltwater flies on Trademe. They tend to be tied on poor hooks. I recommend going through a local shop.

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