Fly Fishing Essentials for the Flats

Fly Fishing Expert Alex Ontkos provides a crash course in the essential fly fishing tackle you need for a successful outing on the flats.

An aerial image of "the flat," shallow areas of land underwater between islands.

Photo by Fernando Jorge

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In the world of saltwater fly fishing, there are few images more iconic than an angler quietly stalking a school of expertly camouflaged bonefish on a slicked-out flat with dense, lush seagrass.

However, saltwater fly fishing is incredibly diverse. As a fly angler in the ‘tech era’, you have probably seen astonishing images of pristine atolls in the Seychelles, teeming with explosive giant trevally patrolling shallow flats. Or, maybe you are better acquainted with the ‘analog era’ videos of Jose Wejebe sending tarpon airborne in the Florida Keys. No matter how you get stoked while in the comfort of your own home, it is obvious that flats are at the epicenter of saltwater fly angling.

An underwater image of seagrass about a foot below the surface of the water. The blue sky is visible above.

Photo by Benjamin L. Jones

In the saltwater world, ‘flats’ generally refer to relatively large areas with uniform depth that tend to be shallower than the surrounding water. For the sake of generalizing, flats are usually composed mostly of sand, mud, or seagrass and provide key elements for excellent fly fishing—shallow water, high visibility, and hungry fish.

The goal of this article is to provide a crash course in the essential fly fishing gear for a successful outing on the flats. This article will highlight the tackle you need, including saltwater rods and reels, along with crucial items that should be included in a well-curated gear bag. Whether you are preparing for a destination fishing trip to the Bahamas or Mexico or a lifetime of adventure, this article should get you on the path toward choosing the right tools for the job.

Choosing a Saltwater Fly Rod

An aerial shot of someone standing on a platform on a boat above shallow water. They are casting with their fly rod.

Photo by Anita Denunzio

As you would expect, choosing an ideal rod and reel setup depends largely on the species you intend to pursue. Generally, saltwater fly anglers have 7–12-weight setups in their quiver and choose gear based on their fishery of interest. While you may find that your needs are different, I have chosen to outline the benefits of three common rod sizes and the species these setups are routinely used to target. Keep in mind that intermediate setups (7-, 9-, and 11-weight) may prove to be better options for you and your unique goals.

Ideally, a fly rod for the flats should have fast action and be relatively stiff. If you are interested in fishing the flats, it is likely that you will sling big flies in strong winds, so having a heavier line weight will be advantageous. Also, the corrosiveness of the saltwater environment can wreak havoc on your gear, so choose a rod with high-quality components. Finally, you will want a rod with a fighting butt for comfort and power during extended fights.

8-Weight

A 9-ft 8-weight setup is well-rounded and suitable for most species targeted by saltwater fly anglers. An 8-weight excels due to its power and castability while being lightweight enough to comfortably cast even after a long day on the water. An 8-weight is ideal for most species commonly found on the flats including redfish, snook, bonefish, spotted seatrout, and baby tarpon. On a normal day in the backcountry Everglades or Mosquito Lagoon, an 8-weight is my go-to setup.

10-Weight

A 9-ft 10-weight rod will provide a little more power than an 8-weight, which is ideal for targeting larger species such as permit, bull reds, big jacks, and tarpon. A 10-weight will be slightly bulkier than an 8-weight setup, but still relatively comfortable to cast for extended periods of time.

12-Weight

A 9-ft 12-weight rod is usually the largest size you will see folks using on the flats. This rod is perfect for large and particularly aggressive species, including adult tarpon and giant trevally. A 12-weight will be too much rod for the majority of species you will encounter on the flats, but if beach tarpon on the Gulf Coast are in your sights, then this is the size for you.

An image of a man holding a large fish while sitting on a boat. Across his lap is a fly rod setup.

Photo by Kyle Ontkos

When it comes to purchasing a fly rod for saltwater use, it may seem like the options are endless. Luckily, a Fly Fishing Expert on Curated would be more than happy to assist you with finding the perfect rod that is in your budget. Some excellent options include the Temple Fork Outfitters Axiom II and Orvis Recon. Both rod families feature decent lifting power, fast action (well, medium-fast for the Axiom II), multiple sizes, and excellent quality. Check them out!

Choosing a Saltwater Fly Reel

Many saltwater species are tough contenders with a lot of endurance, so you will be relying on your reel quite frequently after hooking up. It is important to choose a reel with a durable, sealed drag system to ensure that it is reliable and has adequate stopping power. Remember, you can always palm your spool if you need some more braking power! Saltwater is extremely corrosive, so having a high-quality reel with a sealed drag system is crucial! Most reels developed for saltwater fishing will feature a large arbor, which will supply extra capacity for your backing...and you will need it! It is fairly easy for even a small redfish to get you into your backing on an 8-weight reel, so just imagine what a 100+ pound tarpon can do, even on a 12-weight! A large arbor reel also allows you to recover line quickly when a fish is racing towards you.

If you are looking for an entry-level 8-weight, the Orvis Hydros packs a big punch for a solid price. This reel is durable, lightweight, and features an excellent drag system without breaking the bank. The Nautilus CCF-X2 family of reels is also an excellent choice for hitting the flats. These reels feature an award-winning drag system that has the power to stop even the mightiest saltwater species. Nautilus reels are expertly machined and have a solid reputation in the saltwater realm. There are countless reel options on the market, so if you need more insight, reach out to an Expert on Curated for additional recommendations.

Choosing a Fly Line

With so many fly lines available from a slew of reputable brands, it can be quite daunting to select a fly line for your needs. Choosing the right fly line is just as important as purchasing a suitable rod and reel. Generally, most saltwater fly anglers focused on flats fishing will choose a weight-forward floating line that matches the weight of their rod. Sinking lines are far less common but may prove beneficial if fishing on relatively deep flats where fish are hugging the bottom.

A man sits on a boat and holds two fish in the air, one in each hand. He smiles at the camera.

Photo by Alex Ontkos

A lot of brands have developed lines that are designed for a particular species, such as RIO Products Elite Tarpon and RIO Products Elite Permit, that feature special tapers and unique elements that make them excel for a specific fishery. Seeking out these specialized lines is often a good place to start; you can always branch out if your needs change in the future. There are also well-rounded lines available, such as Scientific Anglers Mastery Saltwater, that are designed for multiple fisheries and scenarios.

Your ‘ultimate’ fly line will depend largely on your fishing style, target species, and individual preferences. Keep in mind that most fly lines are coated for a particular temperature range, so if you are planning to fish in tropical or subtropical conditions, purchase a line designed for this climate so it casts smoothly and effectively!

Tapered leaders and tippets should also be on your mind when you are researching line options. Generally, tapered leaders that are 9–10 feet in length are ideal for weary predatory fish. Fish in shallow water can be extraordinarily wary, so long leaders can help you avoid scaring fish with your fly line. Additionally, the diameter or strength of your leader should be chosen carefully based on the water clarity and the size of fish you are targeting. If fish seem hesitant to eat your flies or are spooking away from them, go a few ‘pounds’ down on your leader to see if that helps.

Tapered leaders are a lot like fly lines; most manufacturers design leaders with specific species in mind. If you are fishing for bonefish in gin-clear water, an 8-pound leader may be appropriate. For most redfish, I would recommend starting with a 12-pound leader. As the size of your fish increases, bump up your leader size to accommodate for their extra pulling power. For snook and tarpon, you will definitely need a shock tippet due to their highly abrasive sandpaper-like teeth. I recommend fluorocarbon leader material for this.

Essential Accessories

This section serves to highlight the accessories that each saltwater fly angler should have in their gear bag. First and foremost, catch and release fishing is promoted by most anglers that focus on flats fishing. If releasing fish alive is high on your priority list, check out my article highlighting tips and techniques to minimize mortality in the fish you handle. No saltwater angler should be without a pair of high-quality pliers, such as the Simms Guide Plier. Easily accessible pliers allow anglers to retie quickly and also allow hooks to be removed from fish efficiently. Quick hook removals allow for faster releases, so do not be caught without them!

The author's underwater image of him holding a fish right below the surface of the water, with his hand and the fish's belly close to the seagrass on the bottom.

Photo by Alex Ontkos

If you intend to wade, you will need a good set of wading boots to protect your feet. Even if you are fishing on sand, there could be plenty of hidden dangers that may ruin your trip, including sharp shells and coral fragments. A simple bootie, such as the Orvis Christmas Island Bootie, is a lightweight and cost-effective option to protect your feet. If you prefer more of a shoe-like option, the Simms Flats Sneaker provides an excellent solution for wading that is also suitable for the deck of a skiff. Since the majority of flats fishing occurs in warm climates, waders are usually unnecessary, and getting wet reigns supreme!

Sun protection is an important consideration when fishing flats in a tropical environment. Clothing with a UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) rating will keep you safe from the sun’s harsh rays and keep you cooler on the water. The Simms SolarFlex line is excellent and Orvis offers some great options for both men and women. Simms SolarFlex Sungloves are also a popular item for protecting your hands from getting burned. Also, do not forget a pair of polarized sunglasses; these are essential to your sight-fishing success!

Summary

Whether you are sneakily wading for bonefish or poling a technical skiff toward daisy-chaining tarpon, it is likely that you are fishing the flats—and that is for good reason. Flats are the heart and soul of saltwater fly angling; they are relatively shallow areas where fish come to feed and anglers can successfully present flies to fool unsuspecting (yet wary) predators. This article presents the basic fly fishing gear needed for a successful outing on the flats. Keep in mind that individual fisheries are unique and nuanced, so as you spend more time on the water, it is likely that you will refine your techniques and hone in on the gear that truly counts. If you have any questions or recommendations, we are here to help, so feel free to message an Expert! Our mission is to help you find the right gear for your unique goals.

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Written By
Alex Ontkos
Alex Ontkos
Fly Fishing Expert
For my day job, I am an experienced fisheries biologist and ecologist. But first and foremost, I am an avid outdoorsman and fly fisherman. I have years of technical and personal experience to help guide you to gear choices that are a perfect fit for your goals and desires. ​ My fishing experience sp...
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