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Saltwater Fishing on the Cheap

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The Compleat Skinflint's Guide to Saltwater Angling

Many of you are lucky enough to escape the frigid grip of winter, if only for a week or two to warm weather destinations. Don't be afraid to pack a spinning or fly rod along. Many of us can only lay in the sun for so long before we get the itch to flog some water.

A Word About Guided Trips
A guided fishing charter is a great way to experience what real saltwater fishing is all about. The advantages are many, with the main ones being:

  • Good guides are on the water nearly everyday and know what's happening and what's biting.
  • They can provide everything you need, including rods, reels, bait, etc. - making life pretty simple.
  • They will take you to good fishing spots only accessible by boat and help you catch fish regardless of your skill level.
  • They will also point out interesting aspects of the natural environment, including birds, plant life and, of course, fish species.

The main issue for guided charters is the cost. A good guide will get $500 - 650 for a full day charter. Half days are always available, but you don't save much as they run around $450.

If that kind of expenditure is beyond your reach or comfort level, try a little Do-It-Yourself Saltwater on the Cheap!

Whether you're going to the Caribbean or the U.S. southern coastal waters, here's some tips to put you on fish for the cost of a rental car. Bring along some basic equipment, rent a car, or walk to cool places to fish - for little of nothing!

What equipment should you bring?

Spinning Gear:

  • Medium to Medium Heavy 6 - 71/2 foot rod. Typical "stiffer" walleye-type equipment works great.
  • 8 - 12 pound monofilament line
  • 20 - 30 lb mono tippet material (you will often want a a couple feet of heavier mono on the business end of your set up since many of these fish can break or saw through light mono.
  • Larger spinning reel that will hold at least 100 yards of line, the more the better.
  • Assortment of jigs in different bright colors (white is one of the best) with barbed stainless steel hooks. Sizes 1/4 oz, 3/8 and 1/2 ounce will handle most situations.
  • Bring plastic tails in various shapes such as twister tails, shad patterns, shrimp plastics and worm patterns to dress your jigs.
  • Assortment of plugs and spoons. Everything should be stainless or non-rust type tackle. If you don't have any stainless plugs or spoons, buy a couple when you're down there - or don't worry about it and throw jigs everywhere.

Fly Fishing Gear:

  • 8 - 9 wt - 9 foot fly rod. Pack or Travel rods are great since they'll knock down to 6 or 7 pieces and will easily fit into any luggage. Four piece rods will need to be in an external hard tube, rod/reel case, or placed into an oversized roll bag. I can get several four piece rods into my oversized roll bag that is 30" high. I use an 8 and 10 weight four piece NuCast Smokin' Hot Fly Rod. The four piece rods are 30" long in a short soft rod sock and need to be angled to fit in the suitcase and they will not fit if in a standard four piece rod tube. Make sure you cushion the rods with soft clothes etc. to prevent damage.
  • 7/8 or larger fly reel will work in most cases. Since you won't be off shore and it's doubtful you'll hook a large, long running fish (like a giant tarpon), standard floating weight forward (WFF) or intermediate sink tip fly lines will work great. I use a NuCast Blue Crush which is a saltwater reel with a captured waterproof drag system that keeps the corrosive elements at bay. Saltwater reels are more expensive, but worth it, since they'll hold up in these harsh environments and the drags are built for saltwater fish which can really smoke your line.
  • Leader and Tippet. If you have a tapered bass-type leader, stay with that and use at least a two foot 12 lb tippet of hard mono or flourocarbon. If you don't have a tapered leader, bring smaller capacity spools of: 12, 20, and 40 lb flourocarbon. You can build a quick leader with a butt section 6 feet 40 lb and the next section 3 feet of 20 lb, then add a short section of 12 lb. You can tie directly off the 12 for smaller fish, such as sea trout, smaller jacks, redfish, snook and ladyfish. For larger fish, add a shock tippet of 20 lb (approximately 2 feet long). Join the line sections together with a Surgeon's connection knot, especially when pursuing larger fish. If you don't know how to tie this knot - learn!
  • Flies - If I had to bring one kind of fly, I'd bring a bunch of Clousers. You can tie various colors to emulate bait fish and shrimp with different weights by simply varying the eyes on the flies. Always tie the flies on stainless steel or rust resistant metal hooks. Most common sizes for smaller flies are sizes 4 & 2 with larger flies tied on 1/0 - 2/0. Nearly all of my Clousers are tied on size 2.

    Incidently. I don't pre-crimp my saltwater fly barbs anymore. I may flatten the barb on-site, but some of these fish jump a lot and I use the barb to my advantage. Just make sure you have a good rust resistant pliers or heavier Mitten Scissor Clamp for barb crimping and hook removal. Most fish are typically lip hooked with flies so removal is not a huge issue - even with a barb. Also, I always carry a small wire cutters to cut heavier line (and emergency hook cutter when embedded in one's skin).

    Other flies to consider (and these are just a few) are:

  • Other Items
    • Sunscreen
    • Good polarized shades
    • Water
    • Head wear
    • Butt Pack
    • Tackle
    • Pain Reliever
    • Small towel (from the hotel?)
    • Pliers, nippers, and/or cutters.
    • Garden glove - you know those cheap cloth gloves with the rubber dots on them? They work great for holding fish in case you're not sure what you just caught.
    • Footwear

Where to Fish

Beaches - Yes, the very beaches you are gazing at through a drunken haze may be teaming with feisty gamefish. Experiment early and late in the day and on different tides until you find a pattern that works. Fish will be closer to shore generally on the higher tides so plan accordingly. You can get a smartphone app to tell you tides in your specific area.

If possible put on your snorkeling gear and look around. This goes over big with the wife and kids - they may actually believe dad wants to have family fun. What appear to be featureless underwater beach areas may contain oyster bars or other structures that hold fish. Many times artificial bulkheads of rip-rap are prime targets that hold baitfish and subsequent gamefish. Just watch your backcast unless you're trying to snag a bikini top off a hot coed during Spring Break.

Channels
Most saltwater destinations have channels dredged out for development or mosquito control. Drive around and ask around about such inland channels. Local bait shops should have some shore fishing information. Target any kind of structure you can find, including mangroves, docks, bridges - anything that disrupts the layout of the channels. Many times you'll notice variations of currents in bottleneck areas and these spots can be super depending on the tidal movements.

Lagoons
Tell your wife or girlfriend you want to do some romantic exploring in the rental car, she'll be excited by your newly awakened sense of adventure. Drive down some "out-of-the-way" dirt roads and see where they take you. Often you'll encounter lagoons, inland bays or other backwaters shallow enough to wade and fish. Always wear something on your feet when wading in saltwater and shuffle along - this will help you unearth critters burrowed in the shallows that can cause shock and awe. Yes, you'll probably get "the look" when she realizes it was all another thinly disguised fishing trip, but hey - it will soon be happy hour and she'll forget the whole thing (or at least you will).

Bridges
Most bridges will have areas underneath where locals park and sometimes even fish. Bring a bottle of Ripple or Muscatel for the chance encounter with resident inhabitants if you need a peace offering or just want to "fit in". These areas are best suited for spin fishing. Since bridges are generally built over straits, there's always current and there's always fish hanging around bridges.

Marinas
Marinas and even restaurants on the water will hold fish. People clean fish at the marinas and restaurants and throw much of the waste into the local waters (depending on where you are). Obviously, this periodic chumming keeps fish in the area and you'll often encounter jacks, tarpon and the omnipresent saltwater catfish in such spots.

Kayak Rental
Remember every place you go now has kayaks for rent somewhere. Perhaps for a small fee they'll even drop you and the kayak off on a nice stretch of water or explore a channel maze via kayak. What a great way to get some exercise and catch a few fish.  

When in doubt, ask at the local bait shop or even tavern. You never know who you'll run into and what they'll say. After all, you're clearly not a resident and will be gone soon. For the price of a beer or two, you might get turned on to some cool spots and avoid a bar fight.

Conclusion
I never go anywhere without a fly rod. Sometimes I don't use it, like last winter in the Bahamas (on a cruise) when I was all set to fish and realized I'd forgotten all my flies in Minnesota (my wife and daughter thought it funny). So don't be a dummy like me and plan accordingly. You need not bring a lot of gear to have a lot of fun.