Welcome to Salt Water Fly Fishing

Welcome to Fly Fishing The Salt! If you are just discovering the joys of fly fishing the salt (or salt chuck as some call it) here you will find information to steer you in the right direction. Tips on what equipment to use, why, where and how to fish. And we will try to include a little inspiration to get you going. For the experienced salt water angler, there will be personal stories about real fishermen and their experiences, tips on what flies for which fish and techniques that work. Your stories and articles are also most welcome. Share the knowledge and adventure. Pass it on! This is for you.

The Dry Tortugas Are Indeed An Anglers Nirvana

By Dr. fish

We had been running for just over two hours and now we could see the buoys that mark the eastern edge of the park. My Garmin handheld GPS confirmed we were almost there. Our destination and home base for the next three days was Dry Tortugas National Park. Originally named Las Tortugas (the turtles) by Ponce de Leon in 1513, the area was later listed as Dry Tortugas on maps so sailors would know that no freshwater existed here. This amazing marine environment is roughly 65 miles west of Key West. It was June 26th and it was HOT, HOT, HOT. As we entered the park waters, we could see Fort Jefferson off to our west. The deep blue waters changed to a light turquoise, teals and greens as the depth went from 100ft to 4ft. The colors were simply stunning. We could hardly wait to start fishing.

Blue Waters of Shallows

After studying a hydrographic map, we focused on a couple of good looking spots where hard coral shallows were surrounded by deeper waters. There are a few reasons why the Dry Tortugas offers such excellent fishing. First and foremost is the fact that commercial fishing is illegal within the park boundaries. This includes sportfishing charter boats. So, the angling pressure within the park is restricted to only recreational anglers. Since this area is such a long run and there are no services (gas, water, electricity), many are reluctant to make the trip. The Tortugas acts as a border between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The rich tidal flows provide plenty of food along this dividing line. The location and rich waters help to offer a good mix of fish species. While we were there, the Gulf Stream was only about 7 miles south of Fort Jefferson.

The wind was blowing steady at around 18 knots all three days we fished which made the seas a bit choppy and fly-casting a challenge. We also had four anglers onboard a 25ft Contender (The Bigger B) so things were a bit cramped, not to mention all the gear we had. The park waters offer a very wide variety of species to target. The main quarry for us was Black Grouper, Red Grouper, Mutton Snapper, Yellowtail Snapper, Tarpon and Jewfish (sorry but I refuse to use the new PC name of Goliath Grouper).

Red Grouper

We also enjoyed catching Permit, Jack Crevalle, Mangrove (Gray) Snapper, Barracuda, Bar Jacks and Bull Sharks. All but the Jewfish are manageable on fly-fishing gear in the 6WT to 14WT range depending on the species. Most of the Jewfish we encountered were more than willing to eat a big fly but since they averaged 250-400+lbs, landing one was impossible on the long rods.

Good Sized Jewfish

We spent most of our time targeting the Grouper and Snapper in the shallower reef areas. Prime spots were in the 8 - 12ft range with a good bottom of scattered hard coral. The Grouper prefer to live in the larger coral formations while the Mutton Snapper prowl the reef patches and sand flats between patches.

Sand Patches and Coral

Recommended gear for this fishing is a 12WT rod and a reel with a very stout drag system. I was fishing the Islander 4.5LX with a Scientific Angler Quad-Tip (used the floater mostly). Rod of choice was a 9ft Thomas & Thomas 12WT which cast like a dream. Leader set-ups are simple. I use 4ft of 60lb Seaguar fluorocarbon to 3ft of 40lb to 15 inches of 20lb and a 10-inch bite leader of 40lb Terminator Titanium wire. You can tie it like regular line and since it does not kink, you do not have to replace it like standard steel leader. You can get away without the wire and instead use a bite leader of 60lb or 80lb fluoro or mono. These fish will take a wide variety of baitfish patterns in the 3-inch plus range but topwater fishing is certainly the most exciting way to fish here. Poppers were the ticket and the louder and splashier they were the better. Short but very firm strips which caused a great deal of commotion were rewarded with some amazing strikes. What a sight it is to have a 30-pound Grouper come charging from 12ft down and launch 3ft out of the water at your fly!

Big Black Grouper

Enticing a strike is only the first part of this type of fishing. Once you are hooked up it is a battle royal in order to keep the fish from getting back into its coral lair. They know where to go and they know what to do to get there. The Grouper are very strong fish but they do not hold a candle to the strength of the Mutton Snapper.

Mutton Snapper

This type of fly-fishing is like A River Runs Through It meets the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment). It is a full contact sport and it is a lot of fun! Be forewarned, you will go through a lot of flies, leader material and maybe even a rod or two. You will have close encounters with some large Grouper and you will be helpless to stop them. You may win the battle of keeping your fish out of the coral only to have a 60-inch long Barracuda take everything but the head from you. Yes, it's an eat or be eaten world out there in the salt.

If you are up for some light tackle fun, break out your 6WT or 7WT and tie on a small Chart/White Clouser for the Yellowtail Snapper and smaller Jacks.

Schooling Yellowtails

These species tend to not dive into the structure so break offs are less common. Yellowtail's have very good eyesight and can be quite line shy so I really scale down my leaders for them.

Yellowtail Head Shot


I run a 10ft leader that consists of 3ft of 50lb Seaguar fluoro, 3ft of 30lb, 2ft of 20lb and 2ft of 12lb. Target the large coral heads and you can enjoy sight fishing for the larger snapper that chase your fly. You are also likely to catch a few Mangrove Snappers, Jacks and may get a Grouper to take the fly as well. The Barracuda will also oblige but they and the Grouper will take your fly and keep it. The shallow water Yellowtail Snapper average around 10-13 inches and offer a lot of fun on the lighter rods.

If you are interested in catching one of the larger Barracuda that patrol the reefs you should step up to a 10WT and a reel with a decent drag. I love to use my the Islander 4.0LX with a Scientific Angler Mastery WF-F saltwater line. The same leader set-up as I used for the Grouper is fine but wire is a must. These fish will cut through 100lb mono or fluoro like sewing thread.

Cuda Jaws

Shiny baitfish patterns with a thin profile to mimic a Needlefish or Ballyhoo are good choices here. Despite what you may have read elsewhere, you do not have to strip the fly very fast to get a 'Cuda to strike. If you have a good fly and the presentation is good, they will take a fly that is stripped slowly or even dead-drifted. The key is to not give them a good long look at it up close. I will often pull the fly away on a false cast and slap the water a few times with false casts before putting the fly out in front of the fish and stripping it. Try to bring the fly across in front of the Barracuda. You will spook them if you strip the fly right to them. Baitfishes don't make a habit of attacking Barracuda so this type of presentation does not sit well with them. On this trip we saw Barracuda up to around 65-inches but most will average around 36-40 inches. They are a great deal of fun once hooked with their blistering runs and aerial acrobatics. Much care must be taken when handling these fish. Their teeth are like scalpels and can do a great deal of damage in a split second. Being a long way from medical help can put ones life as risk if you suffer a serious injury out here.

If you want to try your hand at catching a Tarpon, the waters around Fort Jefferson are the spot to be. There is a solid resident population of Tarpon here near the fort and there are some VERY large fish to tangle with.

Looking Down the Barrel

While we were there, we spent only three or so hours fishing for the Tarpon. We literally hooked as many as we wanted and had a great time. The fish ranged from easy to handle 40 pounders to leviathans in the 150-170lb range. What a sight it was to see a 160-170lb class Tarpon eat a fly right at the boat and then explode into a series of somersaults. The gear needed for this depends on the size of fish you are targeting.

Tarpon Head Shot

You at least need a 12WT and would be much better off with a good 14WT and a stout rod. Brighter attractor type patterns and baitfish patterns are your best bet for these fish.

Permit can also be found in large numbers within a short run outside the park. We found them on wrecks and on sand bars when the water was shallow and dropped off quickly. These Permit are not your typical Keys fish. These are very large Gulf Permit and fish in the 30-45lb range are not at all uncommon. Recommended setup would be a 10WT or 12WT with a clear sink tip. Leader should be long and extra low visibility. I prefer a knotless fluorocarbon tapered leader of around 12ft and throw larger crab patterns at them. Typically, where you find the Permit, you will also find large Bull Sharks. These are also a lot of fun of the fly but be prepared for a battle that may last a while. The Bulls we saw were in the 250 - 300lb+ range and were more than willing to take a fly.

Bull Shark

If the weather cooperates, the Gulf Stream is often only 5 - 12 miles south of the park and can offer some excellent fly-fishing for Dolphin.

Cow Dolphin

Just use the run and gun approach, which is simply running until you see birds working. Where you find the birds you'll find the baitfish and often the Dolphin as well as Sailfish, Tuna and the occasional Marlin or Wahoo. A 9WT or 10WT will suffice for the smaller Dolphin (less than 12lbs) but keep a big stick handy as a 40 pounder can show up in an instant.

While the fishing is simply outstanding, you also need to take the time to do some snorkeling or diving within the park. You will be rewarded with lots and lots of fish and wonderful coral.


Blue Tang and Spotfin Butterfly

You also may see some of the large Lobsters that live here (sorry, they are protected) along with Bottlenose Dolphins and three different species of Sea Turtle. We saw lots and lots of large Loggerhead Turtles along with some Green Sea Turtles and Hawksbill Turtles. There were even some Loggerhead's nesting at night up on the beach while we were there.

Sea Turtle

Fort Jefferson is also a must see. It is a very impressive brick structure (largest 19th century coastal fort) with a lot of history.

Fort Jefferson from Top

SW Corner of Fort

Construction started in 1846 and continued on through 1876 but was never completed. As if the fort was not enough to see, if you go during the spring or early summer, you will also see a massive number of sea birds nesting near by. While we were there, over 100,000 Sooty Terns and Noddy Terns were nesting on the island.

Noddy Terms

It is also a stopping point for many migrating songbirds heading north and south. Of course, you are also likely to see Frigate Birds, Brown Pelicans and several species of shore birds. If you are on Garden Key at night, be sure to bring a flashlight, as the ground is covered with thousands of Hermit Crabs.

Hermit Crab

If you happen to be in Key West for a few days I highly recommend a visit to the park. Even if you cannot devote enough time to fish, you should catch a fast ferry for a days visit. There were a few there who brought their kayaks and spent the day fishing around the fort before heading back to Key West in the evening. You can also charter a seaplane to fly you out and back and the view is spectacular.

I have been blessed over the years and have gotten to travel around the world in search of new fishing adventures. Of all the places I've been, the Dry Tortugas stand out as one of the very best. I'll remember the trip forever and cannot wait to return and once again enjoy this fishing paradise.

For more information on the Dry Tortugas National Park and Fort Jefferson, check out the parks website at www.dry.tortugas.national-park.com. For information about booking a fishing adventure to the area contact one of the captains below.

Capt. Rob Delph, Capt. Mike Delph - www.delphfishing.com

Capt. Rob Hammer (office 305-253-1770) (cell 305-321-1473) ~ Dr. Fish, July 2004

About Dr. Fish:

Dr. Fish (Jeff Pierce) is the Sales Manager for O. Mustad & Son. Along with being an avid fly tier, he's a diehard fly fisherman that's always looking for something new to bend the long rod.

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