What is the Difference Between a Saltwater Fly Rod and Freshwater Fly Rod?

February 4, 2015

This is a question that we get a lot at Red's. Our shop is in the Pacific Northwest where our customers fish a lot of Steelhead and Salmon with their 8-9 weight rods and there are always questions on "what rod should I get for my upcoming tropical saltwater trip"?

Well the differences are fairly basic and hopefully this can help you determine whether a saltwater specific rod or an "all water" rod is right for you.  This is a short entry but hopefully it helps your selection process.

What Does a Saltwater Rod Do for You?

First of all, there is no freshwater fish that fights like a Saltwater fish.  Yea yea, I can hear you arguing from here.  As though I don't know what a dime bright King or Olympic Penninsula Steelhead is capable of.  Its true. Saltwater fish are faster, stronger, and have incredible stamina.  Plus they have limitless room to run!  A fish hooked on the flats runs long and fast.  A fish hooked in bluewater runs down, down, and down!  A 30 pound Tuna fights like an 80 pound King.  Salt rods absolutely HAVE to have torsional rigidity in order to handle these fish.  Also consider that short heavy saltwater leaders along with 50 lb. core fly lines have little to no stretch!  This puts all the margin for error back into the graphite.

What's my point?  My point is that Saltwater rods need to be capable of dead weight lifting and need to be tough.  The fight of a Tarpon can get brutal near the boat when they jump, run, and after just a few breaths can revive and destroy a rod.  Here is a video of a fish surprising me as it comes back to life and runs under the boat.  I had been fighting that fish for a long time!  I was convinced it was done.

Here is another video of a Tarpon snapping a 12 weight!

Saltwater rods are also designed to be able to muscle casts through heavy wind using some force.  "all water" rods often won't take the extra push required and fold up under pressure.  They are also designed to be cast with more line out than all water rods.  Once the caster gets 40+ feet of line out the saltwater specific rods really come to life.  They throw very tight loops to help buck the wind and deliver flies quickly to fast moving fish.  Saltwater rods are typically very fast action.

Salt specific rods also are designed so that you can pick up a lot of line off the water, like when you miss that shot at a tailing Permit!, and allow you to pick-up - and lay back down a fairly long length of line.  

Summary of the reasons to get a Salt Rod:

  • Strength - these are big, strong, nasty fish that don't care about anything except kicking your arse!  Plus, warranties don't do you a damn bit of good when you are mid-way through a week long trip.  
  • Line Speed - these rods are meant to be muscled for tight loops and high line speed.
  • Non Corrosive Components - this never use to mean much to me until I saw what saltwater near the equator is capable of.  Holy crap its like battery acid.
  • Distance and pick-up - these rods are capable of carrying more line in flight and picking up more line/weighted flies off the water.
  • Hook sets.  Although you will "strip set" initially.  A tough rod that will reinforce your hook position is key.  Breaking a rod on the initial lift is not a great way to start the fight!

Why are Salt Fly Rods Usually Only 9'?

Most salt rods are 9' for a lot of reasons.  Mostly because once you get beyond 9' the rods don't throw as tight of a loop and its more challenging for engineers to build longer rods tough yet castable.  

Steelhead and Salmon anglers LOVE 9'6" and 10' rods.  The longer rods are mend and roll cast friendly offering the angler the ability to finesse drift their fly in currents.  In salt situations none of this is necessary.  You will cast a long straight line, strip it straight back.  No bologna.

Can you fish a 9'6" or 10' rod in the flats?  Sure you can.  The sacrifice is accuracy, durability, and usually line speed.  Nobody says you can't though. I have fished many 9'6" rods and done fine but I prefer a 9' rod.

If you are going to be fishing Snook and Tarpon in the mangroves consider a rod that is even shorter.  Sage makes a "Bass" rod that is great.  We have used these for Bass and Tarpon.  The Sage Largemouth Bass Rod is best for Snook and the Sage Peacock Fly Rod is best for Tarpon in the Mangroves.  

Suggestions and Price Ranges for Saltwater Specific Rods:

Sage SALT - $850 - This acronym stands for "salt action light tackle" because this rod does all the things that a saltwater rod is supposed to but doesn't require the additional heft associated with most salt rods.  It casts amazingly well and STRAIGHT which is huge when targeting specific fish.  We have fished this both 8 and 9 weight and love them.  As we should, they are expensive.  

Loomis NRX Saltwater Fly Rod
G Loomis NRX Saltwater Rod - $845 - This is right on par with the Sage SALT and depending on what type of hat the person is wearing one might be better than the other.  The NRX has tons of line speed, power, and is built with the famous touch of the G Loomis crew.  This rod is a high performance weapon and is best for anglers with a strong arm.  It will give you a leg up on anglers with lesser equipment and a fin up on fish with a nervous demeanor and fast cruising speed.  

Sage MOTIVE -  $425 - This rod is an all star at $425.  I have personally used the 8 weight a lot.  I chose this rod when I went to Christmas Island because there is so much overlap between Bonefish and Trevally and I wanted my rod to be able to handle a heavy fish.  If I were going to the Bahamas where it is pretty much all Bonefish an all water rod would have been great.  For an example of what can happen when you have Trevally swimming through Bonefish water see this video. I am casting an 8 weight Sage MOTIVE here.

Redington Predator - $249.95 - This is a sturdy rod that will do everything you need but lacks the finesse of the aforementioned models.  Anglers really like this rod as a heavy stick for Barracuda and as a back up rod.  I don't recommend this rod for a lot of blind casting.  It is pretty stout.  

Why Buy an "all water" Rod for a Saltwater Trip?

All water rods are the most versatile and do a fine job most of the time.  Most anglers will be carrying "all water" rods on the flats.  There are some advantages to having these.  Most anglers don't have a very good grasp on the differences.

Salt rods are tough to fish anywhere but open water flats.  They simply don't "handle' on rivers.  There is a lot of finesse that goes into fishing moving water.  Think about all the mending, line feeding, and roll casts that you make on a river.  You don't do ANY of this on the flats!  Salt rods aren't meant for getting a drift or swing.  They are intended to blast a 2/0 Tarpon Bunny into the wind.  

You will go absolutely CRAZY trying to nymph fish with a saltwater rod. Ain't happening.  In fact, you will discover the only way a saltwater rod often breaks which is over the knee of a nymph fisherman trying to catch a steelhead!

All water rods are much more delicate (if you can say that about a 10 weight), because they are designed to hook and fight fish with longer more flexible leaders and much of the fight often takes place at longer distances which gives extra stretch due to the longer length of fly line.  When a Tarpon is hooked close to the boat that initial hook up is absolutely violent!  Same with the fight when it gets close to the boat and a Tuna that is right under the boat?!  That will put a deeper bend in the rod and the angles are tough on them.

Suggested "all water" rods for Saltwater Fishing Trips

Sage METHOD - $825 - This rod has pretty much all the attributes of a saltwater rod as far as line speed, casting strength, etc. but it can still make the short cast and the mend.  It is an amazing piece of graphite.  It is designed for anglers that want an "edge" over their prey.  I fished the 890-4 quite a bit for Snook and Jack Crevalle and loved how far and fast I could hit targets with it!  This rod is best suited for experienced casters that want performance.  Very accurate.  

Sage ONE - $795 - This is the most popular premier all water rod.  I have used it a lot on both fresh and saltwater and it is tough to beat.  Intermediate level anglers will appreciate that the ONE is a bit easier to cast than the SALT and METHOD.  I actually deviated from some of my own advice and took the 1290-4 with me to Christmas Island this last year for Giant Trevally.  The reason being is that the Sage ONE series is the straightest casting series of rods (keep in mind the Sage SALT hadn't been born yet).  I tested the Sage ONE against a few other 12 weights including the Sage MOTIVE and found that I was the quickest and most accurate with the ONE.  When GT's show up on the flats you better make that first shot count because they move so fast that you won't get another shot.  

My fishing partner Steve Joyce also chose the 1290-4 Sage ONE while pursuing Giant Trevally because of its quick shooting accuracy.  This year we'll give the Sage SALT 1290-4 a shot, but keep in mind the SALT rods are better for experienced casters.  

Other Ideas for rods that will perform well on both salt and fresh situations:

Redington VAPEN - $299 - This is a total sleeper.  Absolutely kick ass rod for $300.  
Winston Biiix - $810 - This is a SMOOTH casting rod in the heavier weights.  I'll be taking a couple of Winston rods on my next flats trip and will try to make a post when I get back!
Sage Response - $395 - This is the BEST rod for beginners that want a great all around rod for heavier fish that casts easy.  I have the 10 weight and really like it.  It casts like an 8 but still has lots of power.  

Summary and Advice

  • If you are purchasing your first 8 weight and plan to fish for Bones you should get an all water rod.  Bonefish aren't that tough on gear.  If that same 8 weight is going to end up going into the Mangroves with you and doubling up for baby Tarpon then consider a salt rod.
  • If you are fishing the Florida keys or another trophy Tarpon destination then go with a salt rod.
  • If you might be fishing where there might be a lot of blind casting, think Salmon, then all water rods are typically nicer to blind cast.  I like a 10 weight Sage Response (all water) for saltwater situations where there is going to be a lot of blind casting.  It is flexible and what I lose in strength and line speed I make up for in ease of casting so that I can fish all day and make better casts.  
  • If you are going to fish in bluewater for Billfish, Tuna, Sailfish, etc.  Salt rod for sure. 
  • If you are a novice - all water rod in a medium fast action for sure. 

I hope some of you found this article helpful and please feel free to comment with encouragements for other anglers as well.  There are so many choices out there that making sense of it all can be tough!

  1. I am looking for an all water rod that is versatile enough for Bonefish but also Tigerfish and Nile Perch. (I live in Kenya) I was considering something like the Redington Vapen in about a 9wt. Am I far off the mark in terms of what I would need? Any advice you could provide would be greatly appreciated. Regards, Glenn Hughson
  2. Just starting at 70yrs old in SW Fla. shared a 8wt 9' rod with 9wt line. Coasted pretty good according to my host and the guide, but found my arm tired quickly. We caught sea trout a small snook some lg pin fish but no red fish. Would like your recommendation for beginning salt, age and experience appropriate Jim hatch
  3. In both of your examples you are holding the blank of the rod. I have read elsewhere from many sources that this is a big mistake.
  4. Brilliant advise on rod selection. For a salt fly novice like myself, this was specific and 'reel' easy to understand. Great place to start. Thank you!
  5. I think it's really neat that when you switch from freshwater to saltwater fishing, there's a whole different kind of challenge. I don't have much experience fishing, but have wanted to learn more. I think this summer I'll incorporate some fishing into my yearly road trip. http://latitudesoutfitting.com/fly-fishing
  6. Would it be wise to purchase a ten weight fly rod to fish big carp, catfish , and huge bass .
  7. I have lived in both salt and freshwater and learned both environments. The question is quite a bit more complex than simply fresh vs. salt. A freshwater angler could target trout, steelhead, Pacific salmonids, Atlantic salmon, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, bream/sunfish, or carp, all of which use fundamentally different strategies, flies and for the most part tackle. The saltwater angler could similarly target a variety of species, each requiring different strategies and flies, although the tackle is more similar for many saltwater species. So your primary question should be, where will I fish and what species exist in that space that I can target? From Maine to Miami, you can fish inshore or offshore with a fly rod. I can't speak for Pacific saltwater anglers. Some of the fundamental differences you will find between saltwater and freshwater are: 1) You need larger, stronger tackle for most saltwater species, and reels made for saltwater use. The rods are heavier and more difficult to cast than most light freshwater rods. You use only WF lines and large flies. You need to practice your casting BEFORE you show up in saltwater. If you are sight fishing, your casting needs to be instant, and accurate to a three foot circle at fifty feet. Practice with hula hoops in your yard. 2) Saltwater flies are always meat imitations usually fished underwater: baitfish, shrimp, crabs etc. Some species will hit topwater on occasion and that is a ton of fun, but don't count on it. Saltwater flies are way bigger than most freshwater - hook sizes 6 and up, rather than 12 and down. 3) Just as in trout fishing, two basic methods are sight casting to visible fish or feeding signs, and blind casting structure. Unless you're fishing an active tidal rip (lots of striper anglers do this) the water is for practical purposes still, and all the action on the fly is your propulsion - stripping. The fish are not holding on structure or a lie as in a river but are constantly on the move, hunting for food. 4) You can fish without a boat, especially in the Northeast for striped bass, but your opportunities expand vastly with even a kayak. A boat capable of crossing protected waters, which can be a jon boat with a 9.9 outboard, opens up whole new worlds. You don't need a Hewes or a Whaler, but they do help. If you are a trout or bass angler taking a week's vacation at the beach and seriously want to catch fish, you really need to hire a guide, even for a half day. The learning curve is just too steep. Consider this: if you are a fat, lazy golfer (but I'm redundant) you should expect to spend at least $100 for 18 holes at a resort course. A half day might cost you $250 for two anglers, so it's a bargain. If you want to fish on your own, my recommendation is to treat your fishing as a nice time next to the water rather than actually expecting to catch fish. Go to the local fly shop, buy at least $20 worth of flies and anything else you need, and see if they will tell you a place that you have a decent possibility of finding fish. What you think about my suggest? For more information you can check http://www.myfishingrod.com
  8. Hi sticking a rod on a boat and a fish in close proximity is never a good idea as if the fish darts towards you, itÂ’s going to snap your rod for sure no matter what weight.
  9. Agree with Juan - Each one of those videos shows the angler high sticking which is a guaranteed way to bust a rod.