What is The Difference Between Saltwater and Freshwater Rods?
What is the Difference Between a Saltwater Fly Rod and Freshwater Fly Rod?
Our shop, located in the Pacific Northwest, is frequented by salmon and steelhead junkies typical of the left coast. These folks rely on 8 and 9-weight rods in their pursuit of anadromous fish, yet when they opt to stretch their legs, to chase some fish on the saltwater flats, well, I’m (understandably) met with the same rendition of the same question: "what rod should I get for my upcoming tropical trip? Is there a difference between a salt and freshwater 8-weight?”
The answer: Yes, yes there is. However, the differences are basic, so let's hope this longform answer demystifies those subtleties en route to helping determine whether a salt or "all water" rod is right for you.
What Does a Saltwater Rod Do for You?
First, there isn’t a freshwater equivalent to the brutality of any species roaming the salt. Yeah, I said it, and I can already hear those couch cushions deflate as the armchair warriors jump for keyboard battle. And in response to those select few: I was born and bred in Washington—you think I don't know what a King or Steelhead is capable of? So please tamp down that puffed up chest, relax those knotted fingers aching to type venom, and hear me out: Its true, preaching nothing but the good gospel over here, folks. Saltwater fish are aquatic bulls with unmatched stamina, muscular animals unfettered by the boundaries of inland watersheds. Yanking a hook into the hardened jaw of a salt-reared fish conjures raw, unadulterated violence—a thunder of headshakes and runs invoking both immediate fear and infantile joy, a split second in which we hold the combustible power of Iron Mike Tyson’s fist as it splinters an opponent's orbital bone. In short, it’s a damn good time that demands damn good equipment. As such, a saltwater rod will withstand harsh tropical climates and simultaneously endure the continuous impact of piscatorial foes unlike any other.
Summary of the reasons to get a Salt Rod:
Strengths: These are big, strong, nasty fish that don't care about anything except kicking your arse! Plus, warranties don't do you a damn bit of good when you are mid-way through a week-long trip.
Line Speed: These rods are meant to muscle tight loops with whip-esque line speed.
Non-Corrosive Components: I didn’t think much about this until I witnessed just how potent saltwater is near the equator. It’s battery acid.
Distance and Pick-Up: These rods can carry more line in flight and pick up more line/weighted flies off the water.
Hook Sets: Although you will initially strip-set, a tough rod capable of reinforcing hook position is key. Breaking a rod on the initial lift is not a great way to start the fight...
Why are Salt Fly Rods Usually Only 9'?
Most salt rods are 9' for several reasons. The most obvious being that beyond 9' rods lose their capacity to shoot tight, accurate loops-- it's also challenging for engineers to construct longer rods that are tough yet castable.
Steelhead and Salmon anglers love 9'6" and 10' rods. The longer rods are mend and roll cast friendly, offering the angler the ability to finesse their fly into currents. In salt situations, none of this is necessary. You will cast a long straight line, strip it straight back, no bologna.
Can you fish a 9'6" or 10' rod in the flats? Sure. The sacrifice is accuracy, durability, and usually line speed. Nobody says you can't, though. I have fished many 9'6" rods and have done fine, but I prefer a 9' rod.
If you are going after Snook and Tarpon in the mangroves, consider an even shorter rod. There are companies that make Bass or Mangrove rods under 9', and this can be a huge advantage when skipping flies up under the trees.
Why Buy an "all water" Rod for a Saltwater Trip?
All water rods are the most versatile and do a fine job, most of the time. Most anglers will carry "all water" rods on the flats, and there are some advantages. Yet, most anglers don't have a solid grasp on the differences.
Salt rods are tough to fish anywhere but open water flats. They don't handle on rivers. Finesse is required when fishing moving water. Consider the mending, line feeding, and roll casts needed on a river. Exactly none of that happens on the flats. Salt rods aren't to drift or swing. They are intended to blast a 2/0 Tarpon Bunny into the wind. Zero finesse, all horsepower.
Nymphing with a saltwater rod is a recipe for insanity. Ain't happening. In fact, come to think of it, the only plausible way a saltwater rod can break is if it happens over the knee of a nymph fisherman trying to catch a steelhead!
All water rods are much more delicate (if you can say that about a 10 weight), because they are designed to hook and fight fish with longer, more flexible leaders; and much of the fight often takes place at longer distances which gives extra stretch due to the longer length of fly line. When a Tarpon is hooked close to the boat, the initial hook up is chaos. To add to an already hectic scenario, if, say, a tuna flashes from beneath the skiff moments before landing said tarpon (it happens), well, that hypothetical dynamite will put a deeper bend in the rod and risk breakage. Broken rods=broken dreams. :(
Summary and Advice
If you are purchasing your first 8-weight and plan to fish for Bones, you should get an all-water rod. Bonefish aren't that tough on gear. If that same 8-weight is going to end up doubling for baby Tarpon, then consider a salt rod.
If you are fishing the Florida Keys, or another trophy Tarpon destination, then go with a salt rod.
If you might be fishing where there might do a lot of blind casting (think Salmon), then an all-water rod is the best fit for that application. I like a 10-weight Sage Response (all water) for saltwater situations where there is going to be a lot of blind casting. It is flexible and what I lose in strength and line speed, I make up for in ease of casting so I can fish all day and make better casts.
If you are going to fish Bluewater for Billfish, Tuna, Sailfish, etc. Salt rod for sure.
If you are a novice: all water rod in a medium/fast action.
I hope some of you found this article helpful and please feel free to comment with encouragement and advice for other anglers, as well. There are so many choices out there and making sense of it all can be tough!