Saltwater fly fishing

By Jeremy CoombesNZ Fishing World
Saltwater fly fishing

Fly fishing was once a form of the sport that was reserved for freshwater only but some anglers are now opening up to the opportunities that the discipline offers in the briny.

Like lure fishing, saltwater fly fishing has it origins in freshwater as well. The stealthy approach, subtle presentation and lighter tackle being particularly effective when targeting shy fish in shallow or very clear water. 

Again, while relatively new on the New Zealand saltwater scene our fellow Australian and especially American anglers have been enjoying this form of fishing for years.

Saltwater fly fishing is in its infancy here in New Zealand but anglers are finding our traditional target species - snapper, kahawai, kingfish and trevally - will all readily take a well presented fly and when hooked are a real handful.

Why saltwater fly?

Fishing, like many things in life, gives its greatest rewards when we overcome the greatest challenge. Landing a big snapper or kingie on light fly gear definitely falls into that category.

Saltwater fly fishing is perfectly suited to skilful, active fishermen seeking a new challenge and for whom a couple of quality fish landed is ample reward. Obviously it’s a great fit for anglers who already fly fish in freshwater and many of the skills used in softbaiting cross over well to saltwater fly.

It’s ironic that many Auckland fly fishermen drive four hours to Taupo to cast a fly when local saltwater fly locations on the harbour are literally minutes away!

Isn’t fly fishing really difficult?

This form of fishing is challenging. In the same way a golf swing takes time to perfect before you’re hitting a ball sweetly, fly fishing takes timing, good form and plenty of practice. Once mastered, laying out a long, smooth 60-footer is a seriously cool feeling that never seems to get old.

The next challenge is line management. Unlike a conventional lure a fly’s action is imparted by the angler stripping (pulling) the line in erratic jerks mimicking wounded prey. The line is coiled at the angler’s feet if land or boat based and generally drifts down current if wading.

When a fish takes the fly the most crucial and adrenaline-pumping moment of the fight is getting this loose line under control as it races through the angler’s hands. Many a big fish is lost at this stage as the line can have a knack of catching on anything and everything. 

In the loop

A buddy of mine lost a stonking kingie last summer in these circumstances. He had been targeting pods of marauding kings as they moved into shallow flats at dawn to feed on flounder and baitfish. This particular morning he spotted several tell-tale bow waves as the kingies cruised just outside casting range.

He hurriedly waded towards them through the knee-deep water, loose line trailing in his wake. His fly was eagerly engulfed as he cast to the leading fish. He set the hook and the large kingie fired up the afterburners as it powered away towards deeper water.

As his line rocketed tight he realised he had stepped into the loop which promptly lassoed him between the legs and threatened to slice him in half. His leader broke just in time although a rather sensitive part of his anatomy was left bruised and painful. He was also left to rue a rare opportunity to capture a large flats kingfish and reminded how crucial line management is.

How do I get started?

Saltwater fly equipment needn’t be over complicated.  Rod, reel, line, a small box of baitfish flies, a roll of spare tippet and a pair of polarised sunglasses and you’re in business. A heavy trout outfit is ample to get you started although if serious you’ll want to get dedicated saltwater gear.

Equipment-wise flyfishing is no different to any other form of fishing in that rod, reel and line must be balanced to get the best performance. 

Flylines are numerically rated with a our being a light trout line and a 14 a large saltwater gamefish line. 

These must be matched with a rod the same weight as it’s the weight of the line that loads the rod during the casting stroke. When starting out, a flyline weight heavier than the rod can be useful to help casters feel the loading of the rod.

A floating or intermediate (very slow sinking) line is a good start for most applications in shallower water while a fast sinking line is typically used for dredging deeper water or in high current areas.

Reels must be fairly robust to deal with the knocks, salty environment and powerful fish often encountered. A strong drag system and capacity to hold at least 100 metres of backing in addition to the flyline are key. 

Where can I buy gear?

There are a number of flyfishing stores that have a great selection of gear. In Auckland Rod and Reel in Newmarket is the go to with Fish City stores also carrying a good range. These stores also have keen saltwater fly anglers on the staff with the expertise to get you all set up.

Got the kit, now what?

New Zealand is blessed with a multitude of harbours with extensive areas of shallows and flats. These areas are typically rich in sealife - shrimps, shellfish and all manner of bait or juvenile fish. Large fish will hunt these flats depending on the time of year, time of day and tide.

A fly fisherman has the unique ability to present a lightly weighted fly (which won’t spook the fish or snag the bottom) quickly and quietly to these wary fish that no other method can match. By waking early and wading quietly into these shallows, some great fish can be encountered in areas overlooked by 99 per cent of fishermen.

Don’t be shocked to see large kingfish, snapper, trevally and kahawai feeding with their tails breaking the water’s surface. 

These harbours are dotted all over the country and are easily accessible for the most part. Being based in Auckland I am lucky to have the Waitemata Harbour on my doorstep. This area is flooded with school snapper from around late December until at least the end of March depending on when seasonal currents push warmer water in and out. The kingies aren’t far behind.

I’ve fished both east and west coast harbours from Raglan in the southwest to Parengarenga in the Far North and many in between. Environments vary from mudflats rich in shellfish and crustaceans to crystal clear water and white sandy flats rippling with baitfish. 

Each has its own unique geography, food sources and tidal profile that are only learned by getting out there and giving it a go. There’s good fish to be caught in all of them at times and often a beer with locals at a nearby pub is research time well spent.

Catch the latest news

Packed full of the latest fishing news and tips on the best spots. Fresh to your inbox every week.

Sign up with email