Aside from the incidental joys of the sport—the smells of a salt marsh in an early-morning mist, the freshness of an onshore breeze—the saltwater fisherman's addiction is justified by catching fish. There is, however, an exception: the saltwater fisherman who uses a fly rod despite his awareness that spinning tackle is easier to master and produces more fish. On the grassy flats of Barnegat Bay in New Jersey these single-minded and artful enthusiasts are catching striped bass on long, multi-winged streamers and bucktails that resemble small baitfish. In the shallows of San Francisco Bay fly-casters are taking stripers on deer-hair bugs that resemble nothing that swims or flies. They are members of a rapidly growing cult of fishermen who have discovered the pleasure of taking whatever they catch—one-pound snapper bluefish, tarpon over 100 pounds or striped marlin—on saltwater fly tackle. And they will tell you that even if they catch nothing they are doing it right.
They like to think of themselves as—well—purists. No saltwater fly-caster ever catches as many fish—or such large ones—as do anglers who use conventional tackle. Wind is a constant problem, and even on rare windless days the fly-caster has to work twice as hard to cover half as much water as the spin-caster. Fly lines have a way of tangling around anything and everything—out-boards, gas tanks, barnacle-encrusted rocks, seaweed and marsh grass. A sudden gust of wind can collapse a cast, and unless the angler has learned to duck instinctively he may get the fly in the back of his head. It is worthwhile learning to duck.
Fly-fishing in salt water is not a new idea. By the turn of the century anglers were using cane salmon rods and flies to catch stripers and shad in coastal waters. By the 1930s a few pioneers had graduated to small tarpon, snook, sea trout and even bonefish. In 1948 in Coos Bay in southern Oregon a famed Virginia fisherman named Joe Brooks took a 29-pound 6-ounce striped bass on a popping bug. Fly-fishermen ever since have been trying to top this record. Last week one finally did. Russell Chatham, a commercial artist from Black Point, Calif., using a homemade six-inch-long double-hook brown-and-black fly he calls the Black Phantom, caught a 36-pound 6-ounce striper in San Francisco Bay.
The current boom in saltwater fly-fishing, however, is due primarily to the recent development of fly tackle refined for saltwater use, tackle that has removed the sport from the domain of the expert. The fisherman needs a powerful but flexible medium-action rod between 8½ and 9½ feet to drive out his big, wind-resistant flies. The average saltwater fly rod weighs 5 to 7½ ounces. It has, however, some special features: outsize stripping guides for shooting line, an extension butt below the reel seat for extra leverage when playing big fish, and a rust-resistant reel seat and ferrule. Big saltwater fish are played directly from the reel, and reels carrying fly line and up to 400 yards of backing have been perfected.
To bring out the action in the big rods, line manufacturers have come up with weight-forward saltwater taper lines. Basically they are the old torpedo-head lines, with the thick, heavy belly section moved to within 20 or 25 feet of the fly to enable the angler to drive out longer casts with a minimum of effort. Leaders that taper down from heavy butt sections to tippets of 12-pound-test or less (to which heavy shock tippets are tied) make it possible to turn over bulky flies even on a windy day.
So equipped, these purists of saltwater sport feel they have added a new dimension to fishing. "With heavy tackle, I felt like I was using a windlass to crank a fish in," says Fred Claudio, a San Francisco authority. "With the fly rod I have more feel. The sensation in the fingers of the left hand as the line is drawn out is instant and delicate. It is more difficult—you have to let the fish run. But it just gives me a bigger kick."
And some enthusiasts do not need the fly-fishing mystique to account for the appeal of the sport. "Purists, my foot," says Cap Colvin, a New Jersey expert with the fly rod who runs a bait and tackle shop a good cast from Barnegat Bay. "We look down our noses at guys who heave treblehooks or clam sandwiches around. But we're not so pure ourselves. When we can't find stripers or bluefish schooled up and feeding actively, we use spinning rods to locate the fish. Then we break out the hero rods. It's a lot easier than flailing away blindly all day, and it can save you a bad case of fly-rod elbow."
Fly-casters who stalk tarpon in the Florida Keys do not worry about fly-rod elbow. Their sport is quick and precise spot casting. But the sight of a school of big tarpon trying to shoulder one another out of the way in order to be the first to reach a bright streamer darting through the water may so paralyze a fly-caster that he will simply forget about leaning back and striking the fish. If casting to tarpon is too nerve-racking, fly-fishermen can head offshore for school tuna, albacore, mackerel and other pelagic fish that can be caught on flies. When hooked, most ocean game fish sound and fight down deep. Fly-casters who get their kicks from jumping fish concentrate on the dolphin. When a dolphin is not flinging itself out of the water its powerful, head-shaking runs are usually near the surface and it sounds only as a last desperate measure. Dolphin like to hang around under bits of flotsam, and they are suckers for a buck-tail fly skipped along the top.
The ultimate fly-rod trophy is a sail-fish or a marlin, and in such a contest even the most skilled angler needs an expert boat captain, a nimble mate and a considerable measure of luck. To raise a bill fish, a hookless teaser plug or strip bait is trolled in the boat's wake. If a fish shows, the mate jigs the teaser until the fish is thoroughly excited. Then the teaser is quickly hauled in and the angler makes his cast. Not surprisingly, fly-fishermen have managed to subdue few bill fish. The late Dr. Webster Robinson of Key West, Fla. was one of the first. He managed to boat a 145-pound striped marlin on a 12-pound-test leader after a three-hour battle in Baja California waters three years ago.
Anglers who have always considered any form of light-tackle fishing unsporting argue that the long, resilient fly rod exerts greater pressure on a fish than is possible with any other tackle. Fly-fishermen, naturally, say just the opposite is true. It is doubtful if that argument will ever be resolved, even in a laboratory. But fly-casters really believe they have found a new enjoyment in salt water to be added to the scent of the tidal stream, the cries of the sea birds and the fresh salt air.