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Top 10 Saltwater Flies for Beginners

Guest post by Joe Walker for Fulling Mill Flies

The Orvis Beginners Saltwater Weekend is becoming a real Red-Letter annual event in the company’s busy (and fantastic) ‘experiences’ calendar. Set over two days in the summer, the event gives aspiring UK saltwater fly anglers the opportunity to acquire a sound grounding in this growing arm of the sport. This includes an understanding of the essential routes to saltwater success, the vast range of potential environments and species encountered, tactics, tricks and pitfalls, the all-important safety aspects, and of course the gear. And whilst everyone loves a good chinwag about rods, reels and lines, it often all comes down to “What do I put on the business end?”.

Fortunately, in their considerable wisdom, Orvis have partnered-up with Fulling Mill for this year’s saltwater events, and that’s a good thing because Fulling Mill offer a substantial selection of excellent quality saltwater flies  - in fact, way more than enough to get any budding ‘swffer’ heading off to the shore with his pick-and-mix flybox veritably bulging with tasty treats for boorish bass, obstinate wrasse, or pretty much anything else lurking beneath the waves in the UK.

But for the uninitiated, that choice can be pretty bewildering. So, in an attempt to help anyone who’s looking to venture out into ‘the salt’ narrow down that field of choice, following is my top 10 Fulling Mill patterns (in no particular order) which will cover pretty much all the UK saltwater species, barring the wily and enigmatic Mullet (which deserves a separate article all to itself!).

Covering the bases

Saltwater flies fall into three basic categories: Surface, unweighted and weighted.

By and large, it helps to think of these categories and corresponding to where the fish are likely to be in the water column, and what the conditions are that you’ll be fishing in.

Let’s start, quite literally, at the top with Surface flies.

Surface flies are designed to mimic prey sitting right on surface of the sea. This is usually small bait fish, sometimes feeding in the surface film, and sometimes corralled upwards in a panic by marauding predators below. There are a few different types, but what they all have in common is that they’re tied using buoyant materials, so the flies themselves float. What’s also common to all of them is that they’re designed to make ‘noise’ or surface disturbance when they’re retrieved. This mimics the wake and distress signals given off by prey, sending out vibrations through the water which can by picked up the sensitive lateral lines of hunters, as well as creating a visual cue to watchful eyes beneath that dinner is served.

The two most popular types are ‘Poppers’ and ‘Crease Flies’.

Poppers generally have a broadly conical shaped body, with head of the fly (at the eye-end of the hook) being flat or slightly cupped. This means that when the fly is retrieved along the surface in short, sharp strips, rod tip low and pointing straight at the fly, it makes a sort of ‘pop, pop’ action, sending out a loud splashy distress signal which is great for calling-in any bass or mackerel close by.

The Crease Fly works in the same basic way but is characterised by its construction, which is essentially a flat, flexible foam sheet, folded over the shank of the hook and often given a hard resin coat. The resulting profile is higher and narrower than a popper, but the all-important convex ‘mouth’ still provides that crucial splashy, noisy, gurgling disturbance in the surface.

These sorts of flies are fished with floating lines to avoid dragging them being dragged under and therefore losing their effect, and are best fished in relatively calm conditions, when the cacophony they make can be clearly ‘heard’ all around (and not masked by waves or rough water, which can stop the fly from working properly too).

10. Mylar Popper, Blue & White, sz.1 – the perfect popper for Langstone harbour and the surrounding open beaches, flashy and a good generic match for the baitfish in the area. Fish it when conditions are calm and you can see birds like terns working close to the shore. Fishing poppers is incredibly exciting, and if you see bass hitting the fly but don’t hook-up first time, don’t stop your retrieve… bass will often deliberately strike their prey to stun and disorientate it – they’ll turn and come back!

9. Crease Fly, Olive Back, sizes 1/0 and 4. Olive and white is a deadly combination along the Solent and Sussex beaches, imitating the colouration of the local sand eels perfectly, so it’s a colour-set that predators will be hard-coded to react to. Having this fly in both sizes gives you the option to scale down if the baitfish are small.

8. Bass Slider, Blue, sz.2. The clue is in the title – a simple, glittery variant of a popper, the Slider is a classic bass pattern that will work well for mackerel and attract garfish too! Fish in the same way as you would do a popper.

The next class of fly to consider are the versatile unweighted patterns.

Easy to cast, many & varied, they are a reliable staple in the fly box of every experienced swffer. They can be fished at a wide range of depths by pairing them up with either floating, intermediate or sinking lines, and they are all tied to imitate a range of size, shape and colour of baitfish. If fishing an intermediate or sinking line, experiment with counting the line down to explore different levels of the water column; that hungry pollack could be sitting a little way down, and it may take you several goes to find the right depth to tempt him out from the kelp.

Colour combinations can be important. This is often dependant on water clarity and light levels; making your fly visible from as far away as possible will help shift the odds in your favour. Retrieve is also something you can mix-up here. A fast retrieve (or a rapid ‘roly-poly) may imitate a panicking baitfish fleeing for its life, but an erratic retrieve with pauses may fool a predator into thinking here’s some injured prey… an easy meal! Mix it up a bit – it can sometimes make the difference between a bass to hand or a disconsolate trudge to the next mark!

There are several staple patterns that every swffer should have:

7. Daz’s Deceiver, blue & white, 2/0. A classic saltwater patterns, adapted in Fulling Mill’s collection by master UK tier and bass angler, Darren Jackson. This is a larger pattern, and better suited to more open coast in good light and clear conditions. Work it alongside structure like groynes and breakwaters, and look for currents and rips where bass will lurk looking to snatch up unwary baitfish swept along in the turbulent water. 

6. The Sparkle Minnow, chartreuse, sz.2 & 2/0. When you watch the Sparkle Minnow coming back through the water its hardly surprising that saltwater predators find it irresistible. The profile, glittering flanks and, well, fishy action of the fly make it a standout performer. Chartreuse may not seem a very natural colour, but it’s proven its worth countless times, especially in low light (dawn, dusk and cloudy days) or in poor water clarity. Having said that, it’ll catch on a cloudless, blue-sky day too! Having both sizes will again help you to ring the changes. For the area around Hayling, I prefer the smaller size which will be nailed by both bass and mackerel. 

5. Surf Candy, Olive, 1/0 – another classic generic sand eel pattern. Surf Candies have been fished for decades for bass, being a great imitation, and in olive they will closely resemble the real thing over the clean, vast sandbars at the south-west corner of Hayling Island, where shoals of sand eel emerge from the sand on the flooding tide and amass just off the bottom in shallow water. 

4. Softy Sandeel, white, sz.4 – last year’s Orvis Saltwater Flyfishing Festival was notable for the huge numbers of baitfish all throughout Langstone and Chichester harbours. The bass, mackerel and garfish were completely switched on to them and were smashing shoals close to shore left, right and centre. Those baitfish were small, white and slim, and the white Softy Sandeel in a sz.4 is a great option to mimic them. Stripped quickly where birds are working or where fish are visibly busting on or near the surface, this pattern will score again and again.

Finally, we reach the last category, the weighted flies.

And in this instance, there’s only one truly classic, sure-fire pattern you need to have – the Clouser. The Clouser Minnow, as it’s properly known, was first tied in 1987 by American fly tying legend Bob Clouser. It’s simple design makes it often the first saltwater pattern an aspiring fly-tier tries, but the pattern is absolutely deadly, and it’s all in the action. The addition of the weighted dumbbells at the nose-end of the fly give it a unique, jinking, rise-and-fall action in the water as it’s retrieved. The weight is therefore not just about getting the fly down, though it does so very effectively and is a good choice in a strong current for that reason, but is equally about inducing a take through the erratic movement.

Clousers can be tied long to imitate baitfish and sand eels, or short and spikey, where they resemble crustaceans. They can even be allowed to sink right down hard onto the seabed and be twitched across the bottom to tempt flounder looking for shrimp and prawn scuttling across the seabed.

A selection of Clousers are absolutely essential, so here, making up the rest of the top 10, are the colours I would recommend.

3. Salty Clouser, Black, Sz.2 & 2/0. It may seem counter-intuitive, but black flies work best in very low light conditions – even at night! Why? It’s all about contrast. Predatory fish are often looking up in those conditions, framing silhouettes against the background. A black fly provides the best contrast and so it the most visible to a night-time ambusher.

2. Oz’s Eurobass Clouser, sz.1. The orange colour is another proven bass taker. This works well over rocky ground, the supposition being it mimics juvenile pollack harbouring shelter around the kelp fronds. In a slightly macabre twist, it’s also a deadly colour for their bigger siblings too, as pollack just love a darting orange clouser fished deep on a sinking line. You may even pick up a brutish ballan wrasse fishing this too!

1. Salty Clouser, Chartreuse & White, sz.2. One of the most consistent and versatile patterns in any swffers fly-box. Make sure you’ve got a few and keep them topped up! This pattern ,in this colour ,will catch pretty much all the main UK saltwater predators that you can get a fly to, and will certainly be one of your all-time top scorers for bass and mackerel. For Hayling and the surrounding coast it’s a must. And it has universal appeal too – It’s given me snapper and needlefish in the Caribbean, and over Christmas it was, to my endless delight, being absolutely hammered by shoals of voracious Kahawai (a species much a like a cross between a bass and a mackerel with anger management issues) in New Zealand! I take a few wherever I go!

So that’s my top 10. But if I was pressed into having to select just three for fishing the Beginners Weekend, what would I choose? Well, if I absolutely had to, it’d be:

Size 2
Size 4
Size 4

Three patterns that cover all the bases - floating, unweighted and weighted – and all of them durable and effective. For those of you looking to make the switch from freshwater to the salt, or even if you’re plunging straight into saltwater as your first foray into the world of flyfishing, all the above are a sound bet to start building your collection around. And if you get the opportunity, check out Orvis’s Beginners Saltwater Weekend and Saltwater Fly Fishing Festival – there’s no better way to learn than from experienced guides and fellow anglers… not to mention both events are an absolute hoot!

See you on the water!

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