It is freezing in New England, and striped bass are still months from returning. While this may be an awful time for saltwater fly fishing north of the Mason-Dixon line, it is not time to hibernate! After all, we are fly anglers, and the fishing is going off somewhere. Tropical flats fisheries in Belize, the Bahamas, and the Yucatan are perfect for escaping winters' doldrums. If you are searching for bonefish, permit, tarpon, and more this winter, we have compiled a definitive two-part gear guide to help make preparation easier.
Ideally, we would bring rods from six through eleven to cover every conceivable fishing situation encountered during saltwater trips. Unfortunately, like many reading this, we are bound to the gates of a reality constrained by monetary and spatial limits. We know it is not feasible for most to bring a quiver of rods down to Soul Fly or Ascension Bay, and most of us are lucky if we can pack a couple of rods. Let’s focus on nailing the right rod for our destination and intended species.
The eleven-weight is the most generalized rod on our list, but what a niche it fills! The modern 11wt is designed almost exclusively for sight fishing to migratory tarpon on the flats. We recently set up a loyal customer with a Hardy Marksman Z for wrestling rolling tarpon in Marathon, Florida, and the Andy Mill-approved rod is the perfect blend of power and airy lightness.
The ten-weight has traditionally been the rod of choice for dedicated permit anglers the flats over. The T&T Sextant 10wt is our pick for throwing bulky crab patterns on windy days, and it has the butt-strength to muscle bruiser jacks, predatory snook, and aerobatic juvenile tarpon away from mangroves. The ten is also a popular choice for anglers targeting fugly black drum and gargantuan redfish in Louisiana.
We are seeing more anglers opt for the nine these days for permit, and if you can only have one rod on the bow, there is a strong case for it. The modern high-end 9wt offers the power of a 10wt from a decade ago but is much lighter and easier to cast. A nine-weight presents a fly more delicately than a ten and is a good choice for bigger bonefish on windier days. One of our favorite nines for permit fishing is the T&T Exocett 350. The rod was initially designed for throwing compact sinking lines and gaudy flies in the New England surf but has since found a home in the tropics thanks to its ability to launch crab patterns through the unrelenting wind.
That leaves us to the Swiss Army Knife of flats fly fishing: The venerable eight-weight. While the 905 might be the go-to in the trout world, the 908 is the most popular rod on the salty side. If we could only bring one rod for our travels, the eight takes the cake for its versatility. An 8wt might not have the guts of a 9wt, but the rod is perfect for throwing standard-sized Gotchas and Crazy Charlies commonly used for bonefish in the Bahamas. Experienced anglers may find it slightly over-gunned for the smaller bones in the Yucatan and Belize, but you will be glad you reached for it over the six once the wind starts howling. The Marksman Z and Sextant are by far our two most popular options.
Picking a fly reel for the salt is pretty straightforward, but there are a few important things to note. First, the reel needs to correspond with the rod’s weight. It sounds simple enough, but it can be a little confusing. For instance, a Hatch 7+ balances a 9wt perfectly, and many anglers opt for the 9+ for their 11wt Tarpon rods instead of the 11+.
Unlike trout fishing, where the reel is essentially a line holder, if you’re traveling to saltwater destination fisheries, you need a fly reel with a powerful, sealed drag to stop hard-charging game fish in their tracks. Salt is notoriously rough on gear, and cheaper diecast reels won’t cut it! Do you want to risk ruining a dream trip to Soul Fly Lodge because you skimped on the reel? Remember, buy once, cry once.
The Hardy Fortuna Regent was released last year, and the feedback from anglers has been nothing short of glowing. We love the reel's impressively large arbor with its best-in-class line retrieval rate. The one-turn drag knob is easy to dial, and the carbon fiber, sealed drag will tame the fastest and strongest fish on the flats.
The Hatch Iconic is the reel we have relied on more than any other during our travels. It is as solid as a rock and more dependable than your old Tacoma. The Iconic's are built in California, and the machining is impeccable. If we were stranded on an island (ideally in the Caribbean) and could only pick one reel, The Hatch Iconic would be it!
The old fly shop rat adage, “I’d rather have a cheap rod with a good fly line than a high-end rod with a bad line,” might be a tad hyperbolic, but it shows how crucial a fly line is for optimal performance. If you are a New England fly angler, the coldwater line you are probably using has a core that prevents the fly line from stiffening in chilly water. However, once that water temp hits the 70s, the core that prevents stiffening will cause the line to turn into mushy, overcooked noodles.
Now that we have identified the need for a designated warm water line for our tropical travels, the next issue to consider is the fly line’s taper. Traditional bonefish lines like Scientific Anglers Amplitude Bonefish or RIO’s Elite Bonefish have lighter, longer heads that allow for the delicate turnover of smaller bonefish flies. However, lines with more forward mass like Scientific Anglers Amplitude Grand Slam or the RIO Flats Pro, help punch out heftier flies in adverse conditions.