Making the Jump to Fly Fishing Saltwater

Mention fly fishing in many dockside coffee shops across the land and a good number of anglers will immediately conjure up visions of 18-inch rainbow trout sipping dry flies.

Not Conway Bowman, however, the well-liked World Fishing Network television show host of Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before You Die, an angler who likes to play the long-rod game any time he can out on the salt.

Bowman, who literally wrote the book on saltwater fly fishing – he is the author of The Orvis Guide to Saltwater Fly Fishing – loves being any place on the brine where the outer limits of fly tackle can be tested in a knuckle busting run by a variety of species that often measure on up towards triple digits.

A blue water fly guide for big mako sharks near his San Diego home, Bowman spends much of his time each year in saltwater venues from the marshes of Louisiana to Belize to Christmas Island, casting big flies to fish ranging from tarpon to permit to world-record-size redfish (he is a current IGFA line class world record holder for a fly caught redfish).

Mind you, it's not that Bowman doesn't like freshwater fly fishing because he does, getting his start in the sport on regular trout trips to Montana with his father and still fishing for trout to this very day.

It's just that given his druthers, Bowman more often than not will opt for an angling session out on the ocean blue.

Take for instance a trip he made a few years ago to the beautiful Belize River Lodge, just a few miles down the road from Belize City, the first place that Bowman ever hooked a tarpon.

“On the first day I got one that went about 90 pounds,” said Bowman. “That was the first time I'd ever caught a tarpon.”

On that first morning out, it didn’t take long before Bowman and his guide spotted the sizable megalops atlanticus cruising along the edge of an eel grass bed on the sandy flat.

“We tracked him and I got a 60-foot cast out there,” said Bowman. “I started stripping the fly, he turned, and I saw the whole thing happen.”

With a mouth as big as a “five gallon bucket,” the angler described the take of the fly as akin to watching “somebody flushing the toilet.”

“He jumped four or five times – it was awesome,” said Bowman. “The fight took about 30 minutes. He was much stronger than the (world record) redfish I caught.”

Catching a fish with such brute strength requires, in addition to stout fly tackle, a couple of key elements in fighting the fish to the boat. First, there is the applying of plenty of constant side pressure on the fish. And second, there is the art of “bowing to the king” when they leap from the water.

“The thing about a tarpon is that once you hook them, they make an incredible first run and will jump several times and tail walk,” said Bowman. “Then it gets down and dirty.

“They can gulp air and regain energy and the fight can be on again, so (once I hooked him) I didn't let up and put as much heat on that fish as I could get away with all the time.

“They're the toughest fish I think I've ever caught.”

Sounds fun, right?

If you're interested in getting into saltwater fly fishing for species like tarpon, permit and redfish – or even blue water species like sharks, tuna, marlin and sailfish – then consider these tips from Bowman.

First of all, be sure that you can cast well. That’s well, not necessarily long.

“It really isn't a long cast that you need, it's an accurate cast,” said Bowman. “If you can make a 40-foot cast without a false cast, then you'll be in the game.

“Fish (like a tarpon) can move incredibly fast and they're cruising at probably three knots, so a quick, accurate cast is probably the most important thing you can do.”

In fact, Bowman has found in his fly fishing travels around the world – he's also been the host of that show too, Fly Fishing the World – that casting accuracy is almost always preferable to casting length.

“The 80-foot cast, it pretty much doesn't exist,” said Bowman. “I have yet to be in a situation that required that. In fact, if you make an 80-foot cast to a tarpon, you’re probably not going to be able to hook it.”

In addition to learning to cast accurately in the 30- to 50-foot range, Bowman suggests learning how to double-haul a fly line and how to cast into the wind, since the wind is almost always present on a saltwater flat or a blue water venue.

He also encourages an angler making his or her first trip after a sizable saltwater species, like tarpon, to relax and take a deep breath once such a fish is spotted from a flats skiff or a bay boat.

“For a trout fisherman going into a saltwater situation like that and seeing a 100-pound fish, buck fever is definitely a problem,” said Bowman.

Because of that, the WFN host recommends starting off with smaller species like redfish, stripers, snook or other moderate-size fish ... comparatively speaking, that is.

In other words, practice little first, then go out and play big.

“An 80-pound tarpon is really an intimidating fish," said Bowman. "In fact, if you go down there (to Belize), you might start off with baby tarpon up to 25 pounds, and once you’ve caught a few of them, then go after the big guys.”

Just bear in mind that if you do, it might create a thirst that will be hard to quench in the future.

Because saltwater fly fishing – especially for species that take an angler deep into a reel's backing and leap acrobatically into the air on the fight back to the boat – can be highly addicting.

Which is why you'll often find Bowman with a faraway gleam in his eye, dreaming of his next saltwater trip on the fly.

Especially to places like Belize, saltwater venues that tempt an angler to return once again, almost as soon as they return home.

“I’d like to go (back) there in April when they have giant 200-pound tarpon at the mouth of the Belize River,” said Bowman.

“They’re sitting in three or four feet of water and you’re sight casting to them,” he added.

“Man, wouldn’t that be insane to cast to a 200-pound tarpon in three feet of water?”

Insane enough that if a fly angler gets to do it once, then standing in a river watching trout sip mayflies might not ever be enough to scratch the fly fishing itch again.

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