5 Essential Saltwater Fly-Fishing Tips, According to an Expert

The author plays a bonefish off Ambergris Caye, in Belize, using tips picked up during a recent Orvis saltwater course there.Photograph by Adam Agnew

Maybe you’ve caught plenty of trout and are ready to land a 120-pound tarpon. Maybe you’re new to fly-fishing, but tropical sun and white-sand flats speak to you more than woodsy streams. Heck, maybe you just need something to do on that Christmas trip to the Bahamas. Whatever the case, best to know a thing or two about saltwater fly-fishing before you find yourself staring down a bonefish or tarpon.

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Luckily, Pete Kutzer is here to help. He’s been a fly-fishing instructor at Orvis for 17 years, nearly half his life, and leads several saltwater courses a year at Orvis-endorsed lodges in the Caribbean. There, he’ll run anglers of varying skill levels through the basics of this particular subgenre and then send them out for guided days on the water. (For a list of upcoming schools, go here.)

During a recent four-day course at El Pescador, in Belize, Kutzer identified five things to work on before you hit the flats—and while you’re chasing fins. Read his advice below.

saltwater fly-fishing tips
Photograph by Adam Agnew

Do some “target practice” before you go

Practice casting into something the size of a hula hoop. Spread them out in the yard, not just right out in front of you, and walk around trying to hit them as quickly as you can at different distances. Practice different casting angles, including backhand and over-the-shoulder short. Remember, saltwater is more about speed and accuracy than distance. You’ll hear people say you need to be able to cast 80 feet for saltwater, which is not true. A 30-foot range is not the end of the world, and with 40 feet you’re going to be fine in most places. But accuracy and a quick draw are paramount.

saltwater fly-fishing tips
Photograph by Adam Agnew

Master your “fishing position”

Once your fly is out there, put that rod tip down—into the water, even. If it’s up, your line hangs down; that’s slack, and it means you can’t feel a thing. I like to face the fish, even if, say, my body’s twisted because I had to make a backhand shot. I’ll move my feet a little closer together, so I don’t start dancing on the deck and potentially stepping on the line.

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Resist that temptation to lift the rod when you set the hook

That’s a trout set, and it’s a mistake I always make on the first day of a saltwater trip. For saltwater, you want to strip set. To do that, keep your rod pointed at the fly so that the hook penetrates the fish’s mouth. You can’t get away with being to the side of it, like you can in trout-fishing. The tippet here is heavier, the hooks are larger, and it’s a harder-mouthed fish.

saltwater fly-fishing tips
Photograph by Adam Agnew

Go barefoot on the boat

Or, if you don’t want to keep reapplying sunblock, wear thin socks. This allows you to feel that line and to know if you’re stepping on it. You want to keep the deck as clear as possible of shoelaces and other line-tangling hazards.

Polarized glasses are an absolute must

For brighter days I wear copper lenses that wrap around a little bit, to keep light from coming in from the side. In darker conditions, I wear yellow. Smith makes great lenses for both conditions. Remember that even with great polarized glasses, it takes time to get better at seeing fish. Start near your feet and look outward from there. Look for movement, including on the surface, where the cadence or direction of waves will be a little different from everything else around it. I usually scan 30 feet out and closer. It’s amazing how far away some guides can spot fish—but even the best ones can’t see through you.

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