In this article, I’ll cover all the essential equipment you need to pack for a saltwater fly fishing trip. After returning from my recent saltwater fly fishing trip to the Maldives, I sat and went through all of the items I felt I couldn’t have gone without.
Table of Contents
I’ve been very fortunate to have traveled to numerous international saltwater destinations including the Red Sea, Costa Rica, and the Maldives. I also guided in Seychelles for 9 months where I got to experience firsthand what works in terms of gear and what doesn’t.
This article is aimed to give you a good and comprehensive idea of what you need. You can add items that will suit your trip or destination, keeping in mind what the luggage restrictions are.
To logically organize the gear mentioned in the article, I’ve split all the items between essentials on the water and essentials off the water.
Essentials on the Water
Essential gear on the water is everything you need to make your day on the flats successful. This is probably the main reason why you’re going on the trip, so the gear I mention here should be the bare minimum you take with you.
The fly rod, reel, line, and flies you take with you are determined by the target fish species. For the purpose of this article, we’ll look at the items I took to the Maldives to mainly target trevally and other reef species.
Saltwater Fly Rods
The fly rod forms the basis of your rig. For most tropical saltwater fishing destinations, I recommend opting for a 12wt and 9wt rig. These two rod weights will allow you to deal with almost any saltwater fishing scenario.
Any rod you take with you on a saltwater fishing trip needs to be saltwater ready. All components must be corrosion resistant. Also, make sure to rinse them thoroughly after each day’s use. If you’d like more information on the best saltwater fly rods, be sure to check out this article.
9wt Fly Rod
If you’re heading to a flats fly fishing destination, you’ll spend most of the time with your 9wt. Once you get into the groove, it’s light enough to cast comfortably for the entire day. It’s the ideal fly rod for species like bonefish, triggerfish, and small trevally.
12wt Fly Rod
A 12wt fly rod is, in my opinion, the heaviest rod that’s comfortable to cast. Even so, it’s not a rod you want to chuck around the entire day, so it only comes out in special circumstances or when you’re sight fishing.
Pack a spare rod for each rod weight you’re taking. The reason for this is that you’re going to a once-in-a-lifetime destination and the last thing you want is to not be able to fish because a rod broke.
Fly rods, in particular, take a massive beating on saltwater fly fishing trips, and if you go on them frequently, a broken rod is inevitable.
Saltwater Fly Reels
Out of all the components in your rig, a saltwater fly reel probably has the hardest job of all. Compared to a standard freshwater fly reel, which is just a glorified line holder, a good saltwater fly reel needs to have a smooth, strong, and reliable drag and deal with constantly being drenched in salt water.
Because a fly reel has so many moving parts, and a decent saltwater fly reel is so expensive, I recommend soaking your reels in water after every day’s fishing to prevent corrosion. Also make sure that the reels are serviced, checked, and tested before you leave on your saltwater fishing trip.
9wt Fly Reel
Your 9wt saltwater reel must be able to carry a full 9wt saltwater floating fly line and at least 150 yards of backing. Because you’ll be fishing a relatively light tippet on your 9wt rig, the drag application must be smooth.
12wt Fly Reel
Your 12wt rig will be used on big fish, and in order to stop big fish you need a decent drag system. Buy the best 12wt fly reel that you can afford because if something goes wrong it’s usually when you’re fighting a dream fish.
The reel must be able to carry a full 12wt floating fly line with at least 250 yards of 80 lb backing. You probably won’t end up using all the backing, but it does help to have that much already spooled on the reel just in case.
Backup Saltwater Fly Reels
If you invest in a reputable brand and regularly service and check your saltwater fly reels, there’s a good chance that you’ll never need a backup or spare reel. However, if you go on a saltwater trip on your own, I recommend taking backup fly reels.
If you’re going on a saltwater trip with a bunch of friends, and everyone has decent reels, a good option is to only take one set of backups for the entire group.
Saltwater Fly Lines
A fly line helps to load your fly rod and carry the fly to the target. Let’s look at the fly lines I recommend for the 9wt and 12wt rigs mentioned above.
9wt Fly Line
Most of the fishing you’ll be doing in tropical saltwater destinations is either going to be sight fishing or you’re going to fish relatively shallow. For this reason, I only recommend full floating fly lines that are designed to be used in tropical environments.
It’s always a good idea to have a spare 9wt line with you and make sure to carry it in your backpack each day.
12wt Fly Line
Your 12wt fly reel must be spooled with a 12wt fly line suited to where you’re going fishing. In most tropical flats scenarios, a 12wt floating fly line is ideal, as you’re sight fishing in relatively shallow water.
For some destinations, however, you’ll need other types of 12wt fly lines. For example, in Costa Rica a very fast sinking fly line was needed to cut through the dirty water and present the flies to where the fish were holding.
Many destinations or outfitters will send you an information pack stating exactly which fly lines you need for the specific fishery. Whatever it might be, make sure you take at least one spare with you.
If you’re going to catch something decent with a 12wt, it’ll be a big fish. Big fish like tarpon or giant trevally place incredible strain on fly lines, and there’s a good chance that the line will get damaged around coral heads or other structures.
Your 9wt fly reel must be spooled with at least 150 yards of 40 lb or 60 lb braid. This means that if you hook into that decent bonefish, it can run almost 180 yards before hitting the bottom of your reel.
The 12wt reel, on the other hand, must be spooled with at least 250 yards of 80 lb backing. If there’s a chance that the fish at your destination will run farther than that, make sure to get a bigger reel. Bluewater fish species like tuna or marlin can peel 250 yards of backing off your reel in the blink of an eye.
The backing must be spooled very tightly on the reel to prevent it from cutting into itself. Ask your local fly or tackle shop to assist you with this.
I also recommend you take at least one full spare spool of 80 lb backing with you on your trip. In the event of anything going wrong with either of your reels’ backing, you can spool that onto the 9wt or 12wt and get back onto the water.
When it comes to leader material, I can only speak out of my experience and what I’ve used over the years. Let’s look at the leader material I take with me for both the 9wt and 12wt rigs.
Leader Material for the 9wt Rig
9wt rigs are used to catch fish species like bonefish, permit, triggerfish and even milkfish. The fly sizes you cast with them range from a size 8 to a 1/0. For my 9wt saltwater setups, I carry the following leader material with me on the water:
- 12 lb fluorocarbon
- 16 lb fluorocarbon
- 20 lb fluorocarbon
- 25 lb fluorocarbon
- 40 lb fluorocarbon
The abovementioned leader material will allow you to target most saltwater flats species you come across.
Leader Material for the 12wt Rig
My point of reference for 12wt rigs is giant trevally and large tarpon. I’m not an IGFA (International Game Fish Association) record angler and will never be, so I don’t carry class tippets and stuff like that with me.
My leader options for my 12wt rig are pretty simple:
- 80 lb fluorocarbon for when the fish are finicky
- 120 lb monofilament for most of the time
Flies and Fly Boxes
It’s important to have a good selection of flies for your saltwater trip. The outfitter or lodge will be able to tell you what patterns they recommend, and make sure that you stock up well before heading over.
The best plan is to have an agreement with one of the guides at the lodge or destination to purchase flies from them. In this way, you’re supporting the guides and you’re getting flies that work.
Smaller-sized flies can be carried with you in fly boxes so that you can change on the go. Some of the best fly boxes for this application include:
- C&F Grand Slam Box, and I particularly love the bonefish version.
- Tacky Pescador
- Umpqua UPG HD Flats Foam
For large flies, I take a big boat box and select four or five flies out of it every session to carry with me. Some good options for boat boxes include:
Whether you’re spending most of the time fishing off the front of a skiff or wading in the surf, there’s a good chance that most of your gear will get wet. It’s the nature of the environment we enter to target saltwater fish.
An absolutely essential piece of kit is a quality waterproof backpack. Don’t attempt to go on a saltwater fly fishing trip and think your normal everyday backpack will suffice.
A good backpack keeps all your gear dry and you can use it as a floatation device should things go wrong. I prefer a rolltop backpack, as there are fewer things that can go wrong with it, but ultimately, the choice of brand or zip versus rolltop is up to you.
When you see photos or videos of a tropical destination, it looks so calm and serene, but in actual fact it’s a bloody harsh environment. Just the saltwater alone dehydrates you and causes weird rashes. Throw in the sun beating you from above and the glare from below, and add a dash of uneven coral and wide expanses of sand flats, and you’re in for a harsh time.
Your choice of clothing is what will keep you alive and fishing.
Cap or Hat
Starting from the top, you need to have a primary cap or hat and a spare. This not only gives you a small piece of shade to hide your head under, but the darker underside of a hat or cap makes it easier to spot fish.
Note, if you’re bald, don’t wear a trucker cap with a mesh top.
A basic and simple piece of kit that’s as essential as a cap is a buff (different brands call it different names). It protects your neck and face and also holds your cap and sunglasses in place in heavy wind.
I take a bunch of these with me on every trip and cycle through them as the week progresses.
Going on a saltwater fishing trip is all about finding sight fishing opportunities. This means that you do need a good pair of polaroid sunglasses. They protect your eyes from harmful sun rays and enable you to cut through the glare to spot fish.
If you don’t have sunglasses and would like some buying advice from me, buy polaroid sunglasses with glass lenses. Unless you lose or break the sunglasses, these lenses will outlast plastic lenses by a mile and they don’t scratch as easily.
Each pair of sunglasses must have some sort of lanyard or retainer attached to it that will secure it around your neck. The worst thing in the world is leaning over the gunnel of a boat to land a fish and in falls your brand new pair of Costas.
On that note, make sure you take a spare pair with you.
Pack at least two long-sleeved shirts that offer UV protection and dry quickly. At the end of your fishing day, rinse the shirt you had on and let it dry the following day while you wear the next one.
I’ve never been a huge fan of sun hoodies, but in the last couple of years, it’s really become an on-the-water essential for me, as they offer so much more protection.
Pants, Tights, and Trousers
The most important form of protection for your legs and butt is tights. They help protect you from chaffing and act as a screen against sunburn. I recommend wearing long tights, and although it may look strange, remember we’re not there to look good, we’re there to fish.
Similar to the shirts, I always take two pairs with me and cycle through them as the week progresses.
You can decide whether you want to wear a pair of trousers or shorts over the tights, but the most important is that base layer.
Note, take a tub of chafing cream with you. Although the tights do help with chafing, it doesn’t hurt to butter yourself up each morning before you head out.
If you’re carrying a knife or pair of pliers with you, a wading belt is very handy.
Boots and Wading Socks
To round off the clothing that you’ll wear on the flats, let’s look at what to wear to protect your feet. Coral and rocks will cut your feet if you don’t wear the correct protection, and this can cut your trip short.
Do you buy dedicated wading boots or go in your running shoes? Many people ask me this, and my reply is how often are you planning on going on these kinds of trips?
If it’s an absolute one-off and you probably won’t be doing any similar saltwater fishing in the next three years, go ahead, by all means, use your trail running shoes. Just be aware that you’ll likely have to discard them after the trip.
If you’ll be doing a lot more of these trips, I recommend buying dedicated saltwater flats boots. They’ll protect your feet and make the entire experience a lot more enjoyable. Here are some excellent options:
Your feet will thank you if you also get them a pair of wading socks and gravel guards:
Apart from your fishing gear and the clothes that you’re wearing, there are other essentials that you need to carry in your backpack.
Fishing and Tailing Gloves
A cheap pair of tailing gloves can go a long way to protect your hand, especially when you’re targeting fish species that have sharp scutes or mouths. I tailed a giant trevally without a pair on my recent trip to the Maldives, and it really caused me trouble for the remainder of the trip.
Loop connections between the backing and the fly line and the fly line to the leader can fail, especially on your 12wt rigs. Carry the material and spares to repair it on the water should anything fail.
Pliers are an essential piece of kit for every saltwater fly angler. You use it to debarb hooks, remove a hook from a fish’s mouth (or your guide’s shoulder), and cut leader material. The one you choose will depend greatly on the amount of time you plan on spending in the salt.
Saltwater-ready pliers can be surprisingly expensive, but once you’ve broken a couple of cheap ones you’ll know why guides prefer specific brands. Here are my favorite options that I’ve had personal experience with:
Although I am Mr. Disorganized, I like to think that I try to keep things stored in some sort of logical way. Get a couple of relatively inexpensive waterproof bags that you use to arrange everything inside your main waterproof backpack.
There’s always a risk of a rogue wave or boat splash hitting you right as you’ve opened your main backpack, and these will give you that added piece of mind.
It goes without saying that you need to take sunblock on your saltwater fly fishing trip.
Some lodges and outfitters include all the drinks on the water, especially if you’re fishing from a skiff. I still like to take a water bottle with me everywhere I go just in case.
Whether you’re fishing in a cold saltwater environment or the warm tropics, a rain jacket is absolutely necessary. You’d be surprised how cold you can get if a squall or a couple of waves hit you. Wind chill is a real thing.
First Aid Kit
Always carry a small first aid kit with you that has the following essentials inside:
Last but definitely not least, a camera is of utmost importance. Like Chris always says, if there’s no photo, it didn’t happen. I know that phones take epic photos these days, but it’s super risky to whip out your phone in a saltwater environment.
Get something like a small GoPro or another waterproof camera that you can use to take a couple of quick pics of your catch.
Essentials off the Water
Now that we’ve looked at all the gear you need to carry with you on the water each day, what are the essential things to keep in mind and pack for your time off the water?
The first thing you need to find out before packing anything additional is what the luggage restrictions are. You might take a big international flight to Seychelles where you’re allowed two checked bags of 23 kg each.
You then arrive at the domestic terminal for your charter flight and you’re met with an 18 kg maximum luggage restriction. Find out if there are any luggage restrictions on all your flights and plan according to that.
You need at least two sets of clothes per day so you can relax in the evenings. After you get off the water, take a shower and get into something cleaner, better smelling, and more comfortable.
You’ll notice that the days on the flats fly by with troubling speed, and the one downside of that is that you often forget to hydrate. The evenings when you’re back at the lodge or hotel are when you need to focus on hydrating yourself and replenishing those electrolytes.
Be careful of spending too much time at the bar, as this usually leads to dehydration.
Pack your essential toiletries like soap, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and other items you need. Find out beforehand whether the lodge or hotel will be supplying towels.
Power Adaptors and Chargers
Find out from the lodge or hotel what power supply they use and make sure that you have adaptors that can charge your electronic devices.
Packing for a saltwater fly fishing trip is almost as much fun as going on the trip itself. Being thorough and doing your research is necessary to prevent that dreaded “oh, crap” moment when you’re in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
I hope that this article has shed some light on the topic and that, after reading it, you feel prepared and ready for your big saltwater fly fishing adventure.
Until next time.
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