In freshwater, every cast is a chance to wipe the slate clean and start over. The beauty of a stream or lake filled with trout or bass is that mistakes are easily forgiven. You can take your time to get it right. And most often, no one is watching.
Some days in the salt can also be that easy, where acres of stripers consume anything you throw out there, or the bonefish want to pounce on anything they see, but mostly it's not like that. A great day of tarpon fishing is often measured in "shots," not numbers of fish landed.
Every minute you stand on the bow waiting and watching, the pressure rises as you realize you may not get many chances, and when your shot comes, you've got a moving tide, crosswinds, and traveling fish to complicate matters. To make matters worse, your fishing buddy is likely watching, waiting his turn. The guide is calling the distance and direction, his voice strained with anticipation. It's a pressure cooker, and we're all likely to blow it—and blow it badly—at least some of the time.
Those times when you are up to the task, the last thing you need is for your gear to let you down. A line that wilts in tropical heat? Fail. A reel that chokes and backlashes? Fail.
A rod that's too slow and clunky to deal with the fast pace and high demands for single-shot accuracy? Fail. The good news is that today's best saltwater tackle won't let you down. The top rods, reels, and lines are designed by world-class saltwater fly fishers. They know the performance requirements, and they build to far exceed them. That excessive and obsessive fly-fishing passion leaves us with the rods and reels we can take with confidence to the most challenging fishing environments on earth. From there, it's up to us.
Best Rods For Bonefish
I like a rod that can deal with the wind, but is still light and fun to cast. Bonefish run across a flat at light speed, but they don't have the staying power of some saltwater fish, and you never really need any heavy lifting power out of the rod. Of course there's a bunch of great rods out there that fit this description, but my current favorite is the no-frills 8-weight Scott Tidal ($475) that, coincidentally, is easy on the budget. The rod is not sanded and painted, the reel seat is matte black, and the guides are chrome, not titanium, but if you want to add a little color and "bling!" throw a Tibor Signature Series 7-8 reel on there. The reel takes about 175 yard of 20-pound Dacron backing (that's all you need for most bonefish), and the Satin Gold finish with an aqua hub is about as pretty as it gets. Add a 290-grain RIO Bonefish Quickshooter High-Vis and you've got the perfect bonefish set up. Yes, the bright orange line can spook some fish here and there if you're not careful but the advantages of a quick shot, and being able to track your fly line tip and the fly in relation to the fish is a high priority for me. In the perfect scenario, the bonefish never sees the line anyway, so it doesn't matter to them what color it is.
My Favorite For Striped Bass
The 10-weight Orvis Helios 2 has the lifting power and toughness I need to deal with big flies and heavy line in the salty rips and current of the Northeast, from Boston Harbor to New Jersey's Sandy Hook. You can get away with an 8-weight for stripers in many situations, particularly in June when you're sight-fishing on the flats and the fish are feeding on sand eels and small crabs. But in the fall during the menhaden migration, the bass are looking for big baits, and you'll need a big rod like a 10-weight Helios 2 to push big topwater flies like a 4/0 Flat Fred or 3/0 Roosta. More important, you might have to get down to the stripers in some pretty heavy current. I use Airflo's Cold Saltwater Striper line, you can get it in densities from floating (for when stripers and bluefish are crashing bait on top) or DI7, which drops at 7 inches per second. The lifting power of the rod really comes into play when you're pulling that heavy line up for the next cast, not just as a fighting-fighting attribute. Spool that line up on a durable 9-10 Abel Super Series reel and you're set with everything but the flies.
Best Choices For Tuna and Tarpon
G.Loomis's 9-foot 12-weight NRX is as fun to cast as any trout rod, but it has the speed and power you need to deliver large flies quickly. If you load a 12-weight RIO Tropical Outbound Short (with clear intermediate tip) you can load this rod very quickly with just one backcast, which is critical when yellowfins suddenly crash bait at the surface, a tarpon suddenly "appears" in poor light conditions, or a giant trevally on the flats is headed your way, and coming in hot. In real life you don't always have the time to make a far and fine 80-foot cast, and if you load up the right line, the NRX is quick—and it's super durable. Of course if you're dealing with large, powerful fish you need a reel with big capacity and smooth, dependable stopping power. Try the completely sealed Nautilus CCF-X2 Silver King ($685) with the Giga Arbor. This bad boy takes 450 yards of 50-pound test gel-spun backing and will still handle any line you want to put on it. The 5-inch diameter reel picks up 14 inches of line with every crank of the handle, which helps keep the line tight when these extremely fast fish are coming toward you and you need to keep the line tight.