Peter asks if you would prefer boxing or chess?
I’ve just arrived back from a couple of months in northern Australia. I was talking with Editor Weigall on my return, when he suggested I might write an article about the differences between saltwater and freshwater flyfishing.
I’ve been lucky that my guided trout fishing season in Tasmania ended in April, before NSW and Vic went into rolling Covid lockdowns. I’m also lucky that, being from Tasmania, I was able to legally travel to northern Australia, albeit via a complicated route! I could then easily transit into Queensland, where I could camp and fish in the tropical climate while Tasmania was cold, windy and flooded.
But here’s how lucky I really am. Thirty years ago, I met the late, great, Jack Sampson (look him up if you don’t know who he was). Jack subsequently gave me a copy of his book with the inscription ‘To Peter, who I’ve enjoyed my time with greatly. I hope that one day you get to catch a permit on fly.’ Well, just 2 weeks ago I got to catch that permit. I wish Jack was still alive to tell him the story.
Would you prefer chess or boxing?
My first year as a flyfishing guide was back in 1994. I started guiding in the Central Highlands of Tasmania, chasing mostly wild brown trout. At that time, it was very rare for me to have a client who had any experience at all in the saltwater flyfishing world. Don’t get me wrong, there were some keen people out there, particularly in the northern parts of Australia and in Western Australia, experimenting with flyfishing in the salt. Yet there were perhaps only a few at that time who were seriously into it and had it more or less mastered.
At this time, there were literally just a handful of saltwater guiding operators with fledgling businesses. I guess the point I’m trying to get across is that the general flyfishing population had not been exposed to the concept of saltwater flyfishing very much, if at all.
After my first season of guiding for trout, I took the winter off work and travelled from Tasmania to Darwin, then Kakadu, the Coburg Peninsula, the Kimberley and on to Broome.
For me, this trip was a reconnaissance mission more than a holiday. I was looking at saltwater guiding options that were possible in northern and Western Australia, before I completely committed to settling in Tasmania and developing a business based on flyfishing for trout.
After finding some sensational fishing in some sensational parts of our great country, I decided that saltwater flyfishing is more like boxing and freshwater flyfishing is more like chess. Let me explain.
The saltwater environment is corrosive to boats and tackle, while the sand gets into everything and makes a mess. The sandflies drive you completely mad in some of the places where the fishing is best.
Sometimes, long travel distances banging your way over rough water are necessary. Hot, super-bright days can sap your energy levels by the end of the week.
The casting is technically different from what the average trout fishing enthusiast is used to. The flies are so much bigger and heavier, and the necessary casting requires much greater force and arguably less delicacy. Then there is the so frequent urgency of the situation. The fish are often coming and going at breakneck speeds. If you are not well-organised and capable, you so often miss the chances.
With all of this potential grief, I wondered how many clients would travel across the continent to fish with me given that the major population bases for flyfishers were Melbourne and Sydney.
Flyfishing for trout seems to my mind to be a more contemplative sport. Finesse, cunning and patience are often what is required and rewarded.
There is something magical about wading your way up a gently-flowing stream. Or being on the shallow edge of a lake at first light to be part of the early morning dawn patrol. This can provide world-class and heart-pounding fishing conditions. Tails and fins quietly break the surface as sometimes huge fish forage in mere inches of water.
How about lunch in the dappled light under a willow as you watch a wily brown trout sip mayflies? A nice way to break up the fishing day on a stream.
Evening rises can be to die for, while good wind-lane fishing and polaroiding offer superb fishing opportunities.
Flyfishing for trout seems to me to be more rejuvenating, it’s clearly good for your soul.
With all of this going through my mind during that trip up north in 1994, I decided that for me, a future business flyfishing for trout was the direction I should head. And so I threw myself into it, using Miena as a base initially, then developing a more central lodge with 22 beds at Cressy in the northern Midlands. Nowadays, I am close to the best of Tasmanian river fishing, the sensational lowland lakes for early and late season fishing, and it’s just an hour’s drive to the iconic highland lakes.
Chess and boxing, not chess or boxing
Of course the best thing that we can all do if we like to flyfish, is to participate as much as possible in both fresh and saltwater flyfishing.
And there is some overlap, despite the differences. Landing a barramundi will teach you something about landing a trout. Learning to catch a trout tailing in Little Pine Lagoon can stand you in good stead when you are bone-fishing on Christmas Island. If you can learn to polaroid trout in the Western Lakes, you will find it easy to polaroid golden trevally in gin-clear water on sparkling white sand flats… and on it goes. Fish are fish!
Some specific differences
The flies and tackle
Generally, saltwater flies are very much bigger than trout flies. This mostly means that they are very much heavier. There is real danger when casting them. The heavy fly necessitates the use of a much heavier fly-line, and this necessitates the use of a much stronger fly rod too. The stronger rod is also often required because you are fishing for much bigger, heavier and more powerful fish.
If you are used to a 3 weight trout rod, then you had better start to get plenty of practice with an 8, 9 or 10 weight if you are heading north.
Trout fishing doesn’t always demand the use of a high quality reel. Don’t get me wrong, I like to use beautifully handmade, high quality, expensive reels that I almost literally love. But it’s not always actually necessary to have a great reel to land the fish. If you saltwater flyfish for tropical species however, then you should absolutely do plenty of research and spend some serious coin on a lifetime quality saltwater reel. Billy Pate reels come to mind.
The casting is totally different for salt and fresh. There are very few similarities. Saltwater casting generally requires much greater force to be applied to the rod. Higher line speeds are needed to tow the heavy line and fly through the air. A line hand technique called double hauling needs to be learnt and practiced until it becomes automatic. Prodigious distances are sometimes required.
Casting into and across the wind also becomes problematic for the less experienced caster, and this is where the danger can lie. The hook is heavy and sharp when it drives into the back of your head. It ceases to be fun when you do this a couple of times. Very often, speed of presentation is required. The fish are travelling fast, and you have to get the fly delivered quickly. Too many false casts and it’s over. Lots of line on the deck of the boat often blows overboard or tangles just when you get the shot away. Inexperienced casters are often standing on it.
Boats are frequently rocking on the waves and drifting with the tide, so if you are not used to this, simply standing upright can be an issue. Add in the need to focus on a fast-moving target and belt out a quick, powerful, long and accurate cast!
Sinking lines of various densities are regularly used in saltwater flyfishing; less so in freshwater fishing. Again, if you’re heading off to fish in the salt, practice often with a sinking line – it’s a totally different fishing experience.
Whilst ‘it depends’, all of the above means that, compared to a lot of trout fishing, a more side on, wider foot position casting style needs to be used in saltwater. A tilted out casting plane with a much larger casting arc and a double haul is required. It’s more aggressive in a way.
Good trout fishing often requires dinnerplate accuracy, combined with thistledown deliveries. Furthermore, tight areas on rivers can demand that you master a whole host of different casting techniques, e.g. wiggle mends, reach casts, roll casts, tuck casts, pile casts etc.
In freshwater fishing situations, it’s important to be a good stalker. Learn to blend in with the environment and take plenty of time to assess the situation before you cast. This is much less the case in saltwater.
Hook set – the strike!
On my recent trip north, I stuffed up the first permit which ate my fly. I hadn’t saltwater flyfished seriously for a couple of years, and I automatically used the dreaded ‘trout strike’. This is the term saltwater guides give to the raising of the rod tip to set the hook. In freshwater, it’s super important to strike in this manner because it protects the light tippets we often use.
A proper saltwater strike is a long, hard and fast strip with your line hand… often taking a step backwards at the same time! Saltwater hooks are heavy gauge and the fish’s mouth is usually hard. The heavier tippets allow you to really drive the steel home without breaking off.
Whilst we should all be good at tying knots if we flyfish, I think it’s really important in saltwater fishing that you always tie strong, secure knots. I assure you they will be tested like you’ve never thought possible. Some saltwater fish can pull your arms out of their sockets.
One of the great things for me about doing both saltwater and freshwater flyfishing, is that it’s a cool idea to head north and into a warmer, sunnier climate for a break during the height of the southern winter. So, while I turned out to be a trout guide, I’m very glad I got that introduction to saltwater fly all those years ago.
(PS: On Hinchinbrook Island, I fished for permit with an exceptional guide, Clinton Isaacs. Look him up at Australian Flyfishing Lodge and tell him I sent you.)