Whether you're a freshwater angler looking for a change of pace or a brand-new would-be fisherman, the world of saltwater fishing is a thrilling and challenging one.
But learning all the new terms, techniques, and other concepts that are crucial to saltwater fishing success can feel overwhelming. That's why we're breaking down the fundamentals in our beginner's Saltwater Fishing Guide.
What is Saltwater Fishing? How is it Different from Freshwater Fishing?
While the most critical aspect of saltwater fishing is right in the name, a few other key components also define this much-loved style.
This is the most obvious distinguishing factor of saltwater fishing, especially compared to its freshwater sibling. Saltwater fishing is done from a variety of locations—on and offshore. These include piers, beaches/jetties (surf fishing), and both nearshore and offshore settings like estuaries, reefs, grass flats, or the open ocean. This is a much more diverse mix of spots compared to freshwater fishing, which is usually limited to ponds, lakes, and rivers.
While most saltwater fishing gear can typically be used for freshwater fishing, the reverse isn't always the case. That's because of one critical factor in saltwater environments—corrosion.
Exposure to high salt levels in the water and air can quickly degrade rods and reels not created to deal with the impact. Purchase a specifically designed saltwater fishing rod with this in mind. Many saltwater fishermen opt for heavier lines and more durable tackle as well, reflecting the sometimes larger fish and rougher underwater terrain they may encounter.
While there's no doubt that rivers and lakes can produce some impressive fish, there's no comparison to the size and diversity of saltwater fish. Common choices include redfish, snapper, and snook, while exceptional options like tuna, tarpon, swordfish, and even shark are also waiting for you to reel them in. Fish can vary widely by region, allowing even seasoned anglers to always have something new to target if they're willing to travel.
The Different Styles of Saltwater Fishing
Those learning saltwater fishing basics are often surprised by the wide variety of techniques and styles that can be deployed. It reflects the similar diversity in saltwater fish and fishing spots, making it accessible to beginner fishers but complex enough to provide new challenges for a lifetime. Generally, they can be split into onshore and offshore categories.
The shoreline and shallow areas of the ocean, bays, estuaries, and other saltwater present some excellent fishing. The easiest and most accessible style for many is fishing from a pier or jetty, which allows anglers to practice jigging and float fishing in deeper and shallower waters alike without having to hop on a boat.
Surfcasting is also popular in spots with beaches, using a surf fishing rod to target shallow waters close to shore. Anglers who venture out into the shallows practice what's known as wade fishing, and there are even those who fly fish in saltwater, using sturdier gear to haul in impressive catches.
Nearshore offshore fishing includes areas from the shoreline to just a few miles out, using jigging, popping, and bottom fishing techniques to access fish throughout the water. Trolling behind a boat is also common. Meanwhile, deep-sea fishing presents some of the biggest and most exotic catch opportunities for those willing to go further out. This is usually at least 20-30 miles from shore and sometimes 100 or more on longer trips. Here, strategies like chumming can help draw big fish, while drifting and trolling are also popular. There are even those who practice deep-drop bottom fishing, a challenging pursuit requiring special equipment that accesses areas of the sea floor up to a thousand feet below the surface.
The Best Saltwater Fishing Locations
To be sure, freshwater fishing is more convenient for many people, especially those who live far from the coasts. However, Americans are lucky to have some of the world's best saltwater fishing destinations right here at home, just a short flight or road trip away. These include the Florida Keys, North Carolina's Outer Banks, and the waters off San Diego, California, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and Montauk, New York, as well as Hawaii, the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay, and many, many more.
Those willing to venture abroad for world-class saltwater fishing can stay close to home at destinations like Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, or the Bahamas. But truly adventurous anglers can also head down under to Cairns, Australia, to the Galápagos Islands of the Pacific, or even Malindi, Kenya. This ability to see the world and experience other cultures through a shared love of fishing is one of the best parts of saltwater fishing travel for many.
Planning a successful trip
For many, the distance required to reach saltwater fishing areas requires an actual trip, as opposed to an impromptu afternoon at a nearby fishing hole. But whether you're plotting a spontaneous weekend getaway or a bucket list fishing trip, many planning principles are the same.
First, you'll want to ensure you travel during the appropriate season and the best time to fish. Fish numbers and presence can vary widely based on the time of year, as can the weather. You'll also want to look at the expected weather for your trip, using weather forecasts for upcoming journeys and historical averages and trends for ones in the more distant future. If this all checks out, you can move on to other planning considerations.
Next, decide the type of experience you'd like. For example, do you want to go out into deep water on a charter or party boat with an experienced saltwater fishing guide or enjoy a solitary, casual afternoon surfcasting or pier fishing from a favorite coastal spot? This will determine whether you need to make any bookings or reservations, as well as the necessary permits or licenses you'll need to stay on the right side of the law. You'll also want to secure your accommodations and other essential items at this point, such as flights, a rental car, or any other rented equipment.
Finally, take the time to review your itinerary and carefully pack your gear in the days ahead of your departure. This will allow you to pick up any missing equipment or replace any in less-than-optimal condition. Waiting until the night before can make life much more difficult.
Saltwater Fishing Safety
The often wilder and more adventurous world of saltwater fishing also requires a serious focus on safety to ensure you and your fishing companions make it home safely. Understanding tides and the differences between coastal weather and the systems that can develop around inland freshwater locations is vital. Severe weather can strike almost without warning, and tides and currents can be especially important for navigation offshore, especially for those in lighter boats or kayaks. The further offshore anglers go, the more challenges and hazards are presented by navigation, meaning you should always have backup tools, as well as radio communication, in case of emergency.
Even those practicing onshore saltwater fishing should be aware of the potential for large waves, slippery surfaces, and unexpected weather changes. Wade fishers also need to be mindful of how changing tides can affect access, as well as the potential for strong rip currents.
No matter where you're saltwater fishing, you'll often be exposed to the intense sun for extended periods. Unless you like being sunburnt to a crisp (and risking serious long-term effects like skin cancer), sun protection is a vital safety consideration. Use broad-spectrum sunscreen (blocking both UVA and UVB rays) with an SPF of 30 or more. Natural sunscreen alternatives are also available for those who prefer to avoid the chemicals in mass-market versions.
Sun protection also factors into what to wear fishing. Look for clothing that will keep you cool and comfortable while also shielding your skin from the sun's rays. Free Fly offers a wide variety of men's fishing clothes and women's fishing clothes that fit the bill, made of viscose from bamboo and crafted to provide UPF protection (the equivalent of SPF for clothes) of up to 50 or more. That's as much as ten times more sun protection than typical clothing.
What Happens After the Catch?
So you've reeled in your first saltwater fish. Congratulations! What happens next will vary by law or your personal preference.
Catch and release
Many anglers simply unhook their catch and release it back into the water. When done right, the fish can go right back to living its life. This process requires careful handling that avoids touching sensitive areas like the fish's gills, with the unhooking ideally done in the water when possible.
The reasons for catch and release fall into two primary categories: ethics and environmental considerations. Outside of notable sportfish or large catches, most anglers who don't plan on eating their fish have little use for it once they've enjoyed the fun of reeling it in. Therefore, there's no reason to needlessly kill it, especially when it could someday provide future fishermen with another catch.
It's also crucial to the environment in many cases. Releasing fish that don't meet specific guidelines helps keep the fishery and overall ecosystem healthy and ensures stocks stay strong for the future. At the end of the day, a third consideration may also make your decision for you. In many fishing areas, laws and regulations strictly spell out when fish should be thrown back. Follow these rules carefully, or risk hefty fines or worse.
Cleaning and cooking your catch
When legally permitted, some folks use fishing for its most primal use—food. Popular species that show up at supermarkets and on restaurant menus can be pulled right from the ocean in some spots, including mahi-mahi, tuna, red snapper, grouper, and many more.
Preparing the fish is relatively straightforward. First, descale it with a knife or special fish descaler. Then, rinse the fish to clean it before removing the head just behind the gills) and the fins, if desired or necessary. With caution, slice open the fish's belly from tail to head, being careful not to puncture any organs. Remove these organs and entrails. At this point, you can either remove the backbone to create filets or slice crosswise through the spine to form steaks. Rinse the cuts again for a final cleaning, then cook or store them.
From here, the world is your oyster in how to prepare your cuts. Depending on the type of fish, it can be pan- or deep-fried, steamed, baked, grilled, or even served raw as sushi/sashimi, ceviche, or tartare in some cases. Fish is consumed by an incredible variety of cultures around the globe, ensuring there's likely a recipe no matter what flavor profile you're craving.
21st Century Angling: Tech and Saltwater Fishing
The world of fishing has seen some incredible changes since the days our parents and grandparents were learning their skills. Personal GPS and sonar make it easier than ever for amateur saltwater anglers to navigate and understand their fishing grounds. These can often connect to popular fishing apps, another valuable resource for modern fishers.
These days, apps provide everything from tidal and weather conditions to social networks that help pinpoint precisely where the fish are biting, sometimes for free. Fishfinder technology, which uses sonar to find the best spot to cast your line, is another advancement old-school fishermen would consider a miracle. Some even use drones to get a bird's eye view of areas and spot large fish or schools on the move.
Get Started Today with These Saltwater Fishing Basics
While it's impossible to cover the entirety of a topic like this in a beginner's saltwater fishing guide, these principles and tips should provide a great foundation to get started. Like any new hobby or pursuit, there's a learning curve for those getting started. But don't let the breadth and depth of the world of saltwater fishing intimidate you. The best lessons are learned by doing, so get out there as often as possible. Before you know it, you'll be providing your own tips to new saltwater anglers and reeling in those legendary catches.