Saltwater Fly Fishing

A handful of local fishermen have been fly fishing in in the waters surrounding Hilton Head Island since the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, but the sport has been growing in popularity in the past five years. More than just a “yuppie sport,” saltwater fly fishing offers a unique challenge and an opportunity to experience the natural beauty of the area.

Cobia Photo: Captain Miles Altman

A year-round sport in the Lowcountry, saltwater fly fishing is especially popular in the winter months, when Redfish and speckled trout are abundant. In the summer, Spanish mackerel, Jack Crevelle, Lady fish and Bluefish can be caught in the Lowcountry’s nutrient-rich inshore waters. Offshore fish like dolphin (mahi mahi) cobia (in the Spring only), amberjack and barracuda can also be hooked on a fly rod. The average fish caught on a fly rod ranges between 18 and 40 inches.

Fly fishing, as a rule, requires generous doses of patience and skill. A sporting method of catching fish, fly fishing tends to be more active than conventional bait and tackle fishing because it requires frequent casting and constant involvement with the fish. Enticing fish to eat the fly is more challenging than using a lure or live bait.

With live bait, the fisherman usually throws the baited hook in the water and waits for the fish to take the bait. With fly tackle, the opposite principle applies: you literally take the fly to the fish.

Red Fish Fin

As a result, sight is of primary importance when fly fishing. First, you literally have to see the fish in the shallow water. Then, you have to try not to spook the fish when you cast the fly. Redfish in particular can be easily spooked. If you slap the water too hard with the fly, the fish will swim away.

Presentation of the fly itself is crucial. Unlike flies, bait has a scent which naturally attracts fish. Accordingly, flies must simulate food in their appearance and motion. Flies with names like the Weber Rattle shrimp, the Clouser Minnow and Lefty’s Deceiver simulate the movement patterns of fish’s natural food sources. Shrimp, crab, mullet and minnows are among the most popular prey. With Redfish, where you put the fly in relation to the fish matters.

Lefty’s Deceiver
Photo By Mike Cline (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

If you put the fly too close to the fish, it will likely flee the scene; if you put the fly too far away from a Redfish, it may not respond. Usually you’ll have two or three shots at a school of fish before you either hook up or spook them.

Redfish fly fishing is most successful in shallow water, on flats at, or near, low tide, with a water depth ranging from six inches to two feet. Because the water is so shallow, you can actually see the fish you’re trying to catch.

In the summertime, Redfish travel further inland into the flooded marsh grass. When the tide is 7 ½ feet or greater, the redfish swim up on fiddler flats to dig fiddler crabs out of the marsh mud. The fish’s tails stick out of the water as they burrow, making them easy to spot.

Saltwater fly fishing is not quite as popular in the summertime however, mainly because it competes with tarpon season. It differs from freshwater fly fishing in that the equipment tends to be larger and heavier. The flies themselves are bigger as well. Also, a boat is usually required for saltwater fishing to access the places where schools of Redfish and other species congregate.

Best of all, fly fishing offers an opportunity to observe spectacular wildlife and to witness breathtaking sunsets. After taking a fly rod out on the water, many people discover that sight casting the flats is so much fun that fishing itself can sometimes feel secondary.