Saltwater fly-fishing fundamentals
Part one – Mind and body.
One early morning last summer I decided not to go fishing because I felt the weather had deteriorated sufficiently overnight to prevent me from catching fish. I was on a few days off and had a gap between customers so I wasn’t compelled to go fishing. I lay listening to the wind pushing things around in circles in the yard and then I rolled over in my warm bed and promptly went back to sleep. When I woke I knew instinctively I had made a mistake, the ‘bad’ weather had blown through quickly and as I stood in the warm sunshine the inevitable mind games began. ‘I wonder what I missed this morning?’ ‘I bet there was big fish passing through today!’ My mind having taken the easy option by staying in bed was now paying me back. Success in saltwater fly-fishing doesn’t come easily; it takes work, determination, observation and skill.
So what do I mean by ‘Work’? Lets assume you’ve made the correct tackle choices at this stage. A large arbor reel, a #8 or a #9 rod and a floating or an intermediate line, and a box full of flies and some tippet material all with a saltwater specification. This is where the work begins. Having the right equipment wont necessarily catch you fish. Neither will reading about casting get you casting effectively. Go to an instructor or guide and take some lessons. Then do some practice-practice and more practice. Work at your casting form over grass and then over water. Start with small ambitions and then work up slowly. Never try to fish and practice at the same time it doesn’t help.
It can take a bit of time to achieve the casting form necessary for effective saltwater fly-fishing, especially as it’s a little bit more demanding than some of the freshwater norms. Don’t be misled by some of the things that you will hear. It’s often said that double hauling is essential for saltwater fly-fishing. Not always true. It’s often said that big flies are impossible to cast. Not true. It’s often said that shooting heads are required for long casts. Not true. Its often said if you can’t cast far you won’t catch fish. And so it goes on and on. This is where you need to be determined in body. Listen to your casting instructor. Learn from him where you are good in your casting and where you need to improve. If you have a good quality balanced fly-fishing outfit, some good instruction and determination then you can achieve the fundamentals required. Overlining the rod, punching your cast, shooting heads, forcing a double haul all and more are often not very neccessary.
Late into October last year I got a phone call from a friend in Paris. He had a spur of the moment wish to go fishing in Ireland and was coming across, rain hail or snow. I was spurred by his enthusiasm and made the necessary arrangements for his short two-day stay. Tackle, a soft bed, some fish and wine were all he wanted he said. Tides were good but a cold front from the North West was passing over the country, I got out the thermals even though the water was still quite warm. So Nicolas arrived in a flurry. We were fishing the next morning. In the cold wet and dark, the last days of October.
We had dim light from overcast skies, temperatures were down to 6 or 7 degrees and when the wind howled it often went above force five. We fished for two hours non-stop in difficult conditions with sinking lines and we had no fish. We took a short break and with the accustomed determination of experience we continued to fish. We both knew that a sudden decrease in the turbulence of the surf or a change in the currents agitated by the wind, or a rapid change in the barometric pressure can all make things happen very quickly on tough weather days. Many fishermen would have checked that morning’s weather forecast and stayed at home. I remembered the last time I made a similar decision. And then suddenly the clouds thinned, the sun shone weakly for about twenty minutes, the front was passing through and we had a fish each. We had been fishing determinedly for three and a half hours.
You need to be determined in many ways I think. Determined to do things differently, determined to find new destinations, determined to improve your casting, determined to experience new and tough weather conditions, determined to learn from other sources and people, determined to analyse your fishing a bit more. Most of all you must be determined to enjoy the challenges that this fantastic sport can throw at you.
Through your hard work, solid determination new found dimensions of observation and skill you will become a consummate fly fisher. By honing your observation habits you will by default increase your angling skill. The world of the saltwater fly-fisher is hugely affected by environmental influences that are in fact very close to the angler. Its often a very ‘environmentally intimate’ experience and your mind must be open to these experiences. Observation should be practised almost to the point of obsession, and a never-ending catalogue of events noted mentally. Not wishing to sound too pedantic but observation often begins days before you go fishing, recent weather patterns, tidal states, venues where you have had recent success, times and phases of the moon. The time of day. The colour of your socks. Observation coupled to a little analysis forces us to move in a different angling direction. This often produces a better or worse result; we must remember the good results and why they happen.
Never stop watching and observing nature. Terns, currents, slacks, surface features, and regularly look at and in the water. Spend all the time you can and observe the waters surface. You’ll be amazed at what you will see; even fish relatively deep can be observed. If fishing slows or stops then you must move or stop. Take a short rest and change tactics or move slightly. Remember its all good for mind and body! Inevitably once you have the common factors working you will catch fish.
What happens after you have caught your fish? Well in the U.S. Catch & Release has been practiced since the late 30’s. Lee Wulff said in 1938, "a game fish is much too valuable to be caught once." He was an engaging, aggressive, abrasive and tireless advocate of catch and release. And, he was right. He was the first to encourage sport fishermen to start thinking about the protection of the species they were catching by forcing them to realise the taking of too many adult fish causes a serious imbalance.
This is the reason for catch and release. It is more commonly accepted as the ethic of fly-fishing but all anglers should practice catch and release. Good catch and release policies ensure the survival of properly released fish. Proper handling of fish is really important. In the photograph an angler cradles the fish for a quick picture and then is placed into the water, not thrown back. Released fish are available for other anglers to enjoy. I’m not saying that you can’t keep some of your catch. But you don’t have to keep the legal limit. If you don’t intend on keeping your fish use a barbless hook or pinch down the barbs with pliers. This allows a quicker release and less stress on the fish. Proper catching and realising of fish extends your angling skill and knowledge.
Part two – the equipment
Function, application, cost and rewards
Saltwater fly-fishing is one of the fastest growing areas of current angling techniques. Inevitably accompanied by the growth in interest in the sport is a diversity of equipment that beggar’s belief, and of course the equipment can range in price from a hundred euros to thousands for many items. Many people look at the idea, like it and are then put off by these and other ‘barriers’ often associated with fly-fishing. Unfortunately saltwater fly-fishing is not as simple as taking a rod and reel to the nearest stretch of coastline, casting and then waiting for a fish to bite. It’s about using proper casting techniques, tactical fishing, choosing and using the right equipment and understanding the function and application of each element.
I hear and see the following statement quite often- ‘I bought a saltwater fly fishing rod, reel and two lines for 100.00 euros, I got a really great deal and I’m going to go fishing with it tomorrow’. What generally happens is after the first attempt the gear ends up in the back of the garden shed. Mine was there for a while, somewhere between the golf clubs and the garden rake, except I had spent a little bit more than 100.00 euros. Before you buy any equipment I urge you to read and understand as much as you can about the functions of the various pieces of equipment. There is a lot of information to digest but when you have done so you can pay an informed visit to any tackle shop and make valuable personal decisions regarding your purchases.
If you don’t have the time to invest in all of this information at least pay a visit to a shop that knows the equipment they are selling is good and it functions correctly. If you know the owners are also fly fishermen ask them what equipment they use and why. Basic rod and reel set-ups are the best for novice fishers and beginners. Usually, high-end rods and reels made of top quality material are only suitable for advanced fly fishers, so beginners should learn the sport with less expensive equipment. Novice fishers should mainly look to improve technique through casting lessons and should start with basic gear. Remember with correct casting form it is possible to lay out thirty yards of fly line with very inexpensive rods. With improved casting form and tuition the fly fisherman will realise the limits of his equipment. Only after you have gone through this process should you search for better equipment.
Determining where you will be using your equipment the majority of the time will help you decide on the appropriate set up and its application to your fishing. Will it be that small estuary over the hill and not too far from home, will you be standing on a local beach with big breaking waves as you throw large flies into a head wind, or maybe you want to travel to Florida or some other destination for hungry toothy fish.
Inextricably linked to the function of each fly-fishing element is its application. In other words don’t expect to fish in strong head winds at sea with light trout fishing equipment. Understanding the function of each element will lead you to make correct decisions regarding its application
In general, a rod with a small weight number will cast a shorter distance and require lighter flies. If this is going to be your only rod, I would recommend picking a rod weight that represents the largest, heaviest fly you plan to fish with, a bigger rod can also cast a small fly. In general a 7 to 8 weight rod is capable of casting up to 100 feet with pretty heavy and large flies. They are typically 9’-0” to 9’-8” in length and are best suited to fishing large estuaries and on open beaches during calmer spells of weather.
The 9-12 weight rods are designed to cast wet towels when wrapped around the family dog, and they can also throw some huge flies up to and over 120 feet if you are inclined to do so. Double handers can reach lengths of up to 14 feet and are typically used for large flies and distance casting. I will cover the benefits of double-handed rods in the next issue. For general saltwater fishing in Ireland I would recommend a number nine-rod. Regarding the action of rods; medium action rods often flex in the upper third of the rod and are most common for the beginning angler or those looking for medium length cast. These rods are an excellent all around choice to fit most saltwater fishing situations. They are comfortable to fish with over long periods of time. The faster action rods allow anglers to cast tighter loops (back cast and forward cast) that increase line speed and distance. The higher line speed also makes these rods very capable of casting in heavy winds but they also need a very good casting form and technique
If at all possible before you invest in a rod, determine if you can test cast it. I've picked up some amazing looking rods, cast them and known right from the start I preferred its less expensive counterpart. Again it goes back to your ability to understand the function of the equipment and its application. You’re carefully garnered knowledge will help you make an informed decision and by the way don’t be afraid to ask some question about what comes with the rod and reel. Is there an unconditional guarantee? How about a rod tube or sleeve? Little details like these often have a way of emerging later during your valuable fishing time. My experience is that many of the cheaper rods don't come with these items some of which are very valuable in the long-term. Walking home one dark night I arrived at the car to find the cap at the bottom of the tube had fallen off – two pieces of my rod had disappeared also!
Price might not be such an issue with fly-fishing if all you had to buy was the rod, but that's often not the case. You need a reel, fly line and backing. If this is your first foray into the world of fly fishing then you are also likely to be buy a whole lot of other fly fishing equipment such as, tippet, fly boxes, vests, flies, etc. So where should you spend the bulk of your hard earned cash? The rod wins, hands down. The rod is the most critical piece to the puzzle. Besides skill (which you learn through practice and instruction) the rod has more to do with your ability to make quality presentations to eager fish than any other element in the system. Remember what I said earlier, a less expensive rod is capable of making quality casts, but often the quality in build is not consistent and they can be much harder to learn or improve your casting ability on. But making the best cast to the biggest fish in the strongest wind may not be enough.
Many saltwater fly fishers make large investments in reels, rods, and flies. There is a tendency to overlook a very important factor, fly lines. Anglers tend to resort to two basic lines-the workhorse intermediate and a floater. When you are searching for better equipment it will pay to invest more resources in fly lines and their applications. Rather than ploughing your money into a new shiny go faster or slower reel, rather than collecting boxes of flies that might fill a research, lab, buy a range of fly lines. Floater-yes, intermediate-yes, get a slow sinker or a sink tip line and a fast sinker too.
When we look at an expanse of water that we know fish are present in, putting the fly where the fish are is going to depend on in part the fly line that you have selected. Many fly fishers, and rightly so, will choose a WF intermediate line as their workhorse line and they fish this line throughout the season. For Irish waters this is the recommended choice but it shouldn't stop here. You should begin to compile as many different types of lines as part of your arsenal as you progress through this sport. Too many fly fishers concentrate too much on the different flies and not enough on the lines. By wisely applying the function and presentation of these lines to your fishing I will guarantee you will catch more fish.
In descending order the following rate of investment applies. First tuition, then you’re rod, then lines, and then you’re reel.
The rewards are priceless.