Saltwater Fly Fishing – Speeding up the Learning Curve

I’ve never met a person who defended a lack of practice by backing it up with good casting – go figure! To quote fly fishing identity Peter Morse “No one has offered me a reason why becoming a better caster is a bad thing.”

An endless learning curve, we should never stop endeavoring to improve our casting. Even Tiger Woods has a swing coach and he won’t venture onto a course without hours of practice beforehand. That’s not to say you need to practice your life away, but if you want consistent results on the water they’ll be directly proportional to your off-water effort.


Fly fishing requires fly casting and it’s a journey that should never end. Just like a game of golf with its long drives, putts, bunker shots and challenges in the rough, so too fly fishing is a challenging but richly rewarding sport.

Casting a fly in and under mangroves, long shots into the wind, dealing with complex currents and boat drift, accurate casts, accurate casting around structure – it’s a far more complex game than most anglers are ready for.

Getting results because you can throw 60 feet of line on a calm day in the park is like expecting to shoot even par at the Royal Australian, armed with nought but a 9 iron. It’s simply not going to happen.

I am a big advocate for starting fly fishing with the correct tuition from an experienced and accomplished teacher. In saying this I don’t just mean an experienced caster – the two are not necessarily the same. For this reason beginners should find a suitable teacher before even reaching for a rod. Intermediate casters should be prepared to go back to square one if they lack a solid foundation. Let go of what you think you know in order to learn what you need to know.

Sound existential? It might do but it’s so hard to teach someone who thinks they’ve got it perfect, especially when they don’t.

A beneficial training tip is to search for Bill Gammels ‘Five Essentials of Fly Casting’ and apply them to practice and play.

Bill’s tips are –

  • Ensure a straight line path of the rod tip for efficient loops.
  • Pause precisely for the line to straighten at completion of the forward and back cast.
  • Remove slack from the line during pick-up or during the cast to create efficient rod load.
  • Smooth acceleration of the rod. Think of a tree falling, it starts at zero and smoothly accelerates to a stop. The casting stroke is the same.
  • Lengthen the stroke and widen the rod arc as you lengthen the line. A short cast requires a short casting stroke and narrow rod arc a longer cast requires a longer casting stroke and a wider arc.

No single casting style is king, all have pros and cons. Take a look at Lefty Kreh’s sidearm style for effortless longer casts, especially in the wind.

Mel Krieger’s elbow out style is great for more vertically aligned casts, especially when wading deeper water. Joan Wulff’s elbow forward style is wonderful for accuracy or higher backcasts and finally the 170-degree cast born on European tournament casting circuits is amazing for throwing big flies a very long way.

All these styles and teachers have something every saltwater angler can benefit from, if you only know one style then you’re likely to end up with the fly fishing equivalent of a one wood in the bunker.

Think of hauling like the turbo on the engine. You need to get the engine running smoothly before the turbo kicks in.

It is better to practice in small bites, say 20 minutes a day, 3 times a week. Use bright lines, such as orange, and don’t be obsessed with distance.

Practice loop control, that is, tight, medium, and wide open loops. Learn about accuracy, high back-casts, low back-casts, tilt the rod off the casting side 90 degrees and off the opposite side too, then 45 degrees.

Learn the oval cast (constant tension cast), casting on the back hand, water haul, quick casts, delicate casts, roll casts, snake rolls, snap T, curve casts, reach mends, pendulum casts, sinking lines, floating lines, shooting heads. Yep, there’s a long journey ahead but it’s a damn fun one!

The Snappy Striper

Once your fly arrives at the chosen destination there are many options. What are we imitating and how do we elicit a response from our target? Many fish react to wounded bait or sudden movements more aggressively than slow, deliberate pulses.

Think beyond the ‘dripping tap pulse’ and a more like an erratic Morse code message. Learn to retrieve the fly within the strip. While we might know how to perform a long or short strip, do we consider the speed within that strip? If I ask an angler to strip faster they often strip longer but continue moving the hand at the same speed.

It’s the sudden move within the strip that makes the fly dart aggressively on the pause. It is also the sudden stop of the hand at the end of the strip that can really bring a fly to life.

A great approach to some retrieves is to make the fly move the fastest while getting it back to the rod tip the slowest. More wobble, more gobble.

A snap of the wrist in a downward flick is a great method for shorter, shrimp style retrieves. Long, fast retrieves require on-water practice to master speed.

It is also wise to keep the reel turned away from the path of your stripping hand – you don’t want to be hitting it mid retrieve.

During single-handed retrieves use your front two fingers of the rod hand to strip line rather than one. This offers more control. During the pause phase of the strip pinch the line tight against the rod to help hook those fish that often eat during the pause. It pays to keep your thumb on top of the rod, especially during fast retrieves.

Trout style strips involving pinching the line between thumb and forefinger are fine with slow strips because the thumb is not engaged in holding the rod. You’ll find a bouncing rod during fast retrieves always produces slack line.

Don’t Let Go

Saltwater fish can be highly reactive to their prey resulting in explosive turns of speed and power. Some fish can actually track a fly in the air before it lands, leading to a rapid strike. For this reason always maintain contact to the fly line when casting to be ready for instant strikes.

I like to stop the fly line just before the leader fully unrolls. This helps roll out the leader and ensure there is no slack should a fish bite. I actually run the line over my stripping hand just before the fly hits.

This technique not only excels when casting into schools of surface feeding pelagics but is great for casting at cruising fish too. I often see anglers cast to cruising fish whilst letting the line out of their hand. This loss of control will, more often than not, result in slack line.

By the time the angler reaches for the line and then strips out the slack, the fish has usually investigated the fly, ignored it or moved on.

Another great reason to keep control of the line is to avoid casting over structure. When casting into mangroves or rocky areas you can simply pinch the line if you feel it is heading for disaster and stop it short.

In summary use your line hand to control where the fly lands, remove slack, turn the leader over and be ready for fish as soon as the fly hits.

Strip Striking

There’s confusion over what a saltwater strip strike is and how we go about it. I like to simplify the two into the strip strike and the strip ‘n slip.

The strip strike is exactly as it’s name suggests, a strip to strike. I’ve seen anglers interpret this strike as pointing the rod at the fish and yanking the line violently with a long strip back through the rod. I view this as snapping the tippet rather than striking the fish.

I prefer to keep stripping till the line tightens up, making no hard yanks and imparting absolutely no movement of the rod, just smooth and continuous stripping. Many saltwater fish will hit the fly multiple times before the hook digs in, especially fish with boney or tooth-filled mouths.

If you react to the feel of a bite by pulling the fly line violently or lifting the rod then you are pulling the fly away from the fish. A lifted rod will not set the hook in a hard mouth as the tip is too soft, it also means you’ve pulled the fly from the fish and even if it chases and eats you’ve now got the rod in the air where hook set is near impossible. Keep stripping till the line is solid. If the fish swims at you, again keep stripping.

It is only once the line is solid and you are sure the fish is solidly hooked that you put the bend in the rod. The only variations to this would be if the species is a line burner or you are using light tippets. For these occasions I use the strip ‘n slip method.

Strip ‘n Slip

This is a great method for big speedsters such as tuna or species such as giant tarpon. You’ll find big beasts like yellowtail Kingfish can break tippets very easily – particularly if you’re slow to cushion start-up inertia.

In the case of the big guys you’ll find it necessary to react very quickly to the bite by allowing line to slide through your hands the minute you get the hook in. Simply keep the rod tip in the water, strip and when you tighten on the bite immediately loosen your grip on the line. Separate your hands so the line runs through your line hand loosely and the reel and rod are well away from the now sizzling line.

Darting fly lines can jump from the ground if gripped too firmly, I like to turn the reel upward and lock the rod butt against my forearm.

The rod is still pointed straight and its not until the line hits the reel that you put the bend in the rod. Reel drags are usually set just tight enough to avoid overrun and as soon as the line hits the reel you can adjust the setting. You don’t want that sizzling line hitting a locked up drag, the inertia will pop the tippet like cotton.

There are many finer points to saltwater fly fishing, it’s an Aladdin’s cave of discovery and a wonderful journey. I look forward to bringing you more tips from the never ending discoveries of the sport in future editions.

Justin Duggan

About Justin Duggan

Justin is one of Australia’s leading Saltwater Flyfishing guides and Fly-casting instructors. Justin is the operator of Sydney Fly fishing Tours and has spent many years guiding anglers in a variety of other localities, including regular stints in Weipa where he works for Fish’s Fly and Sportfishing.

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