By Joe Walker
The road to success in Saltwater fly fishing can seem a little bumpy at first. Finding a few easy wins is a great way to build confidence and a few cheeky short-cuts doesn’t hurt either. After all… we’ve all been there… right? So with that in mind, for the absolute beginner, here are a few tips to help launch your “swffing” adventure.
The road to SWFFing success!
Saltwater fly fishing is one of the fastest growing genres of angling… and for good reason! The UK is blessed with a phenomenal amount of coastline and an almost infinite variety of opportunities. Whilst we may not always have the tropical allure of wet-wading the flats of Cuba or Mexico, the UK’s shores can present sport every bit as heart-stopping and rewarding… even if it might require an extra layer or two at times!
Our extraordinary coastline – endless variety, endless possibilities.
People come into saltwater fly fishing through several routes.
Firstly there’s the seasoned freshwater fly angler who is hankering after a fresh challenge. If that’s you, you’ll no doubt already be pretty comfortable with much of the technical side of things; gear, casting, the jargon, watercraft etc. The good news for you is that most of what you already know will be transferrable to the world of ‘SWFF’ing’ (as we veterans call it!) albeit with some re-interpretation. That said, the shore is a very different environment indeed to a river, lake or reservoir, so there is still much to learn!
If your river skills can put a look like that on your face, they’ll do the same in the salt!
Secondly there’s the experienced sea angler who’s become ‘SWFF-curious’! Increasingly over the last few years I have been approached by beach anglers and lure anglers, eager to ask questions… especially when they see me catching fish and enjoying some scintillating light tackle sport. If that’s you (as indeed it was me, when I started some 16 years ago) then you’ll be pretty familiar with the robust saltwater environment… but the whole, weird, rod-waving world of fly fishing may seem like a complete mystery.
There’s a lot to learn, whether you’re at home on the beach or not.
Lastly, there’s the ‘all-in’ crew – never fished before, ever, and have decided to pitch in and start with a fly rod on the shore. In at the deep-end… we salute you!
Whichever route you take, once the decision to have a go is made, you’re faced with a variable degree of ‘daunting’. So what, if you have to boil it right down, would be the distilled pearls of wisdom that would help you score some early success in that vast arena, no matter which of the above categories you’re in?
Tricky. There are a lot of pretty hefty and excellent tomes out there dedicated to answering that as best anyone can… but for brevity’s sake, here are a top ten that I know I’d like to hear if I was starting out!
1. Gear up!
No matter which cohort you’re in, SWFF’ing requires gear. You can start on a budget, or you can throw a king’s ransom at it, but whichever you choose, remember this… the fish won’t know!
Water temperatures in the UK rarely get to wet-wading levels, so boots and waders are a must.
Saltwater is corrosive – don’t ruin your freshwater fly gear through a speculative trip to the beach unless you’re going to fastidiously rinse it afterwards. Sand and grit will destroy a reel if it's not up to the task, and the differences in water buoyancy, fly size and (critically) casting conditions all dictate that you’ll be best served with a rod, reel and line combo specifically designed with saltwater in mind. Fortunately, those nice folks at Orvis can make your life easy on that score, with comprehensive range of suitable, excellent and extremely durable kit. Talking to their staff, who have broad experience, is a great start; they can both advise and demystify. Sure, it’s an investment to start with, but get the best you can comfortably afford – it’s a harsh environment and going too cheap can be a false economy.
The right Orvis rod and reel – a powerful combination!
A stripping tray/basket is also going to be hugely helpful. Before the un-initiated raise their eyebrows in worried suspicion, this is a simple basket-on-a-belt which keeps any trailing line out of the water/off the floor whilst you’re fishing. With seaweed, rocks, waves and currents all conspiring to tangle your line at every opportunity, it’ll keep your blood pressure down!
A good net goes under a good fish…
A good telescopic handled net is worth its weight in gold too. Some saltwater fish will really give you the runaround, so if you’re struggling to tame a big Thick-lipped Mullet, you’ll be grateful for the extra reach it’ll give you.
A tide table should become your bible… we’ll come on to that.
Oh, and aside from all the obvious stuff your tackle provider can talk you through, add good polarizing sunglasses, a peaked hat, and a small tube of sun-cream to the list. Your eyes, ears and nose will thank you!
So… now you’ve got the stuff but where on earth do you actually start?!
2. Casting Lessons
Whilst many of us are self-taught or tutored by Youtube, there’s no substitute for investing in a morning’s casting tuition. Or even a full day if you’re a total novice. Casting in a saltwater environment, with a heavier saltwater rod and weighty, aerodynamically ugly flies is a big shift from flicking a dryfly on a chalk stream, so even for many experienced freshwater fly anglers, it’s worth considering. I won’t get into the technicalities here (indeed, I’m not the best qualified to do so), but what I would say is this: don’t get too hung up on being able to cast an entire flyline out (although if you can, I applaud you!). If you can learn to put out 20 yards consistently, in average conditions, you’ll have the skills you need to catch fish. In fact, most of mine are caught a great deal closer than that.
3. Google it!
If you’re reading this, you may well have already done that! But actually, I was referring more to Google Maps/Earth; the satellite view is astonishingly useful for identifying stretches of coastline and detailed features which could harbour (no pun intended) a fishy motherlode, as well as showing you the best access to it. Zooming in can reveal all manner of details in the layout and topography of your target bit of coastline. Which brings me on to…
4. Go with the flow
If you’ve transitioned from the world of freshwater flyfishing, you’ll know something (or maybe a lot!) about how inherently lazy fish are! The basic programming for fish is simple – they want to take more calories in than they have to expend getting them. In a river, that means letting the flow do much of the work in bringing their food to them. In a still-water environment, whilst there is a lack of currents (meaning fish do have to put a bit more effort), they can nonetheless improve their odds by exploiting ‘food lanes’, driven by wind, or structures that their prey shelters in or around.
In the sea, it’s a bit of both. Fish will concentrate where their food concentrates. Every environment presents opportunities to exploit, both for the hungry fish and the intrepid SWFF’er. Look for:
Currents – this can be around, over or through sand or shingle banks, or it could be where estuaries enter the beach directly. It may be tidal choke-points, channels, or ‘rips’ caused when the flowing tide is forced round or over an obstacle like rocks, or perhaps a jetty or groin. Anywhere where you see a strong current form is worth exploring with a fly.. there could well be a decent bass or mullet sitting under the surface waiting for a meal delivery!
Structures – they could be natural, like a reef or rocks, or man-made like a pontoon. Structures work in your favour in two ways – they can cause currents, but they also provide shelter for the little critters that the bigger ones like to feed on.
Life on the edge – if you’re chucking a fly for the first time having put down your beachcaster, you may be a bit preoccupied with trying in vain to launch your fly to the horizon. Stop…and lower your eyes. You’d be amazed at how much feeding activity happens only metres from the water’s edge!
Mullet and bass schooled up in a powerful current
5. Watch & Wait (Time & Tide)
One of the most important sets of equipment you will ever deploy in SWFF’ing is fortunately something you’re born with – your eyes! Learning to spot fish takes a little while, but it’s time well spent (and for which those polarizing sunglasses are essential). Once you’ve found your likely mark, take a trip there and invest some time in just sitting and watching.
The one dimension of the SWFF’ing environment you absolutely don’t encounter in freshwater fly fishing is the tide. That daily inhale and exhale of water can completely dictate where and when you can find fish.
If you spent only an hour observing a mark, or you assumed that fish will only feed on the flood, you may completely miss the golden window of opportunity that may occur for just a single hour on the ebb, as a sandbank temporarily deflects water and the resulting current sweeps helpless shrimp to the hundred hungry mullet that arrive with perfect timing every day!
Prospecting for bass over low water
And don’t forget that tides change every day too – not just the time, but the height; a mark that fishes poorly today on a small tide could be teeming with fish on a bigger tide a week later.
6. The changing of the seasons
SWFF’ing is often thought of as a summer pursuit. It’s fair to say that being out there on an exposed, blowy coastline does tend to put you at the mercy of ‘the wind fairy’ (the entity that manages to regularly wrong-foot you by adding at least 10mph to any forecast windspeed the minute you step out with a rod in hand). By default then, that means the summer tends to offer the most opportunity. What’s more, many of the target species are thought of as ‘summer species’. The reality though is that SWFF’ing can start to bear fruit in March, and continue into November. And there’s nothing to say that, when conditions allow, you can’t prospect for fish all year round… to a degree it depends on where you live.
So what are those species? Well, Bass tend to grab the headlines and are often the first species an aspiring SWFF’er investigates. But Mullet are catching up fast in popularity; found in larger numbers and often presenting more opportunities to connect with big, powerful fish, they are an enigmatic target… though be prepared, for they are wily enough to make the smartest trout look frankly rather dim! Beyond the ‘big two’ there are many other species – Mackerel, Garfish, various flatfish, Pollack, Wrasse – the list is extensive. Pretty much any fish will take a fly if you can imitate their food with it and put it in front of them.
A hungry bass is an obliging fellow – this one took a mullet fly
7. Manage your expectations.
One of the conversations I’ve had with many anglers who’ve tried SWFF’ing revolves around a bit of early disillusionment. This seems especially so from some river anglers who are used to racking up dozens of fish in a few hours and who are then suddenly faced with the words no angler likes to use…’a blank’. You have to put it in context. The coastline is huge, and there’s an awful lot of trial and error involved to start with. Unassisted, it can take many seasons to really nail a mark and know exactly where the fish will be and when. Don’t be put off by the odd blank – That experience is crucial, and it really helps if you…
Stick with it - the pay-off will come… and you’ll never forget it!
8. Diarise it!
With all those variables that could affect the mood and presence of the fish you’re after (exact location, water temperature, water depth, tidal state and size, wind direction, time of day, season, etc) it’s an awful lot to remember. So if you have a bad day and catch nowt, or an incredible day and metaphorically fill your boots, make a record of all those things. Good day or bad, compiling that data will eventually start to provide you with a picture you can use to predict the best times to go each location. It’s all about moving the odds in your favour!
9. Be friendly, not nosy.
Because building all that info and experience takes so much time and effort, many sea anglers (no matter the discipline they follow) are naturally a little guarded about sharing precise information on their hard-won ‘hotspots’. Bluntly asking someone where they caught something on facebook may result in deafening silence – it’s not the done thing. That said, the saltwater community are, by and large, a pretty empathetic bunch too. We all recall the slog of getting up and running and we also all recall the kindness of other anglers who helped us short-cut that process, even just a little. That means that most SWFF’ers are also a friendly lot who do like to share advice and stories about their common passion. Instead of asking ‘where’, try asking ‘how’. Don’t take advantage and repay others in kind. You will find the SWFF’ing community to be a generous and welcoming one. Platforms like Facebook may allow you to join some fantastic and well run group pages, where fellow anglers will be all too happy to advise you and help you on your own SWFF’ing journey.
Colin Mcleod sharing his thoughts on mullet
10. Safety first.
Ok, so it’s last on this list, but in reality it should be at the forefront of your mind - constantly. Our coastline is wild, beautiful and rugged but for the ignorant or careless, inherently dangerous. Always let someone know what your plans are for the day, take your phone in a waterproof bag, and never take chances in locations you’re not familiar with. Soft sand or mud can trap the unwary, tides can sneak in behind an engrossed angler and cut you off, and waves and currents can easily sweep you off your feet. There are many hazards, so always assess the risk beforehand and don’t be foolhardy – no fish… no matter how big… is worth putting yourself in peril for.
So there you are – a brief top 10 that in reality could deserve a books-worth of content at every count.
Of course perhaps the very best way indeed to kick-start your SWFF’ing adventure is to attend the Orvis Beginners Saltwater Weekend – with some of the most experienced SWFF’ers in the country there to encourage and instruct you, in the company of others embarking on the same journey, there can be no better way tighten your line.
Joe Walker has been an avid saltwater fly angler on the Hampshire, Dorset and South Wales coast for over 16 years and a successful beach and boat angler for 20 years before that. He regularly writes on the subject, both in the UK and abroad, and as a passionate advocate for the sport, Joe’s open, often humorous and self-deprecating approach is all about encouraging newcomers to give it a go with confidence.