Why fly-fish­ing off the coast is worth its salt

Pur­su­ing salt­wa­ter species with a fly re­quires no spe­cial tackle and is avail­able all around the UK coast­line, of­fer­ing rods fab­u­lous sport – if you don’t mind get­ting your feet wet


Chris Og­borne casts into the West­coun­try waves

There’s a crys­tal clar­ity to the blue sky above, with barely a line where sea meets dis­tant hori­zon. The sun beats down and seabirds call as they hunt. Golden sand­bars sparkle, emer­ald sea­weed cloaks the rocks on the shore­line and colours soften into dusky shades on the cliffs. As the tide turns the first grey shapes ap­pear in fleet­ing glimpses as they spot the wad­ing an­gler and bolt for the safety of deeper wa­ter. The rod wades slowly, cau­tiously, along the edge of the drop-off, where turquoise wa­ter be­comes lapis blue. The float­ing line lands at the ex­act spot where the wa­ter deep­ens. In an ex­plo­sion of spray the sil­ver-grey flank of a feed­ing bass slashes at the lure. The rod strips line at high speed and the sec­ond take en­gulfs the fly. The bat­tle is joined.

Where is this hap­pen­ing, you might ask? The Mal­dives? A Caribbean is­land? Some fa­bled des­ti­na­tion reached only af­ter two days’ ex­haust­ing travel?

Ac­tu­ally, it’s Corn­wall in sum­mer. The rod is one of a new band of afi­ciona­dos who are com­ing to re­alise that some of the best fly­fish­ing in the world is avail­able right here on our doorstep. A grow­ing num­ber of rods are dis­cov­er­ing the joys of salt­wa­ter fly-fish­ing and hav­ing the time of their lives for a frac­tion of the cost of some of the more ob­vi­ous but ex­pen­sive “des­ti­na­tion” op­tions

The coast­line of Devon and Corn­wall of­fers hun­dreds of miles of beach, rock and cliffs, much of which has fan­tas­tic fish­ing po­ten­tial if you know where to look. This ex­tends round through Dorset and the south, or up to Pem­brokeshire and be­yond. In­deed, this po­ten­tial ex­ists all around the coast of Bri­tain, re­stricted only by the cooler north­ern lat­i­tudes and va­garies of our cli­mate.

De­spite what some may tell you, you ab­so­lutely do not need spe­cial­ist tackle. The

Some of the best fly-fish­ing in the world is avail­able right here on our doorstep

sea will not ruin your favourite reels and lines and, pro­vided you ob­serve a few sim­ple safety rules, wad­ing in the At­lantic Ocean is not dan­ger­ous. Yes, you do need to rinse your gear in freshwater af­ter ev­ery ses­sion in the sea but it takes just a few min­utes with a gar­den hose and is a small price to pay for the amaz­ing sport that you’ll en­joy.

when and where to go

Quite lit­er­ally, you can fly-fish any­where around the coast of Bri­tain, al­though I’m nat­u­rally bi­ased to­wards my home base of Devon and Corn­wall. The sum­mer weather down here is justly fa­mous and the cli­mate can al­most feel sub-trop­i­cal on oc­ca­sions. The farther north you go the more there is a chance of colder weather and even colder wa­ter, whereas the At­lantic coast of Corn­wall is washed by the Gulf Stream and has the ben­e­fit of more hours of sun­shine than most of the UK.

While we don’t have a clearly de­fined sea­son, in re­al­ity for most peo­ple the sea­son starts in May. Prior to that the winds can have a chill fac­tor that af­fects the fish and the fish­ing. Sea tem­per­a­tures around our coast are sur­pris­ingly reg­u­lar – more so than most peo­ple think – but it’s when they hit the mag­i­cal 11°C mark that things start to hap­pen. In the south-west, this is usu­ally in mid May al­though it can be ear­lier. We also en­joy an ex­tended sea­son well into au­tumn; in fact, some of the very best sport in 2016 was rock-hop­ping in Novem­ber.

There are so many op­tions and dif­fer­ent ways to ap­proach the avail­able sport. In its sim­plest form, you take a fly rod down to the beach, look­ing for drop-offs, chan­nels, sand­bars, rocks or any other spots where fish will con­gre­gate look­ing for food. Sea bass and mul­let will come right into the shal­lows in sum­mer and the smaller schoolie bass of­fer great fun on light tackle.

Then there’s the “rock-hop­ping” op­tion, where you can ac­cess deeper wa­ter and more species of fish. Mack­erel, gar, pol­lack and wrasse will all take a fly, pro­vided it’s pre­sented at the right depth and with the right re­trieve.

At the other end of the scale is cliff hik­ing, where you’ll be look­ing for struc­ture and fea­tures that bring fish closer to the shore­line in their search for food than they would nor­mally be. All the above species are on the menu here, with bass, pol­lack and mack­erel be­ing the star per­form­ers.

Above all, you have to think like a fish. A wide-open expanse of sand with a long line of rocks giv­ing you a per­fect cast­ing plat­form might look good but is there any weed on those rocks? If there isn’t kelp, weed or mus­sels there won’t be any bait­fish and the area is likely to be ster­ile. Look for the drop-offs, the ar­eas where darker blue wa­ter in­di­cates depth, rocks and struc­ture. Tum­bled rocks and sea­weed hold loads of things that fish eat. Most estuaries have chan­nels marked by red and green buoys – find the chan­nels and you’ll prob­a­bly find fish.

I’m lucky enough to live on one of the best river sys­tems in the UK, the River Camel, but you don’t have to have a com­plete es­tu­ary at your dis­posal. I run my guid­ing busi­ness all around the Devon and Corn­wall coast­line and some of my best bass marks ap­pear in the least ob­vi­ous places. They can be found on a seem­ingly bar­ren beach, an un­likely look­ing stretch of bland coast­line or an un­promis­ing set of rocks. What they all have in com­mon is the bit you can’t see – the un­der­wa­ter struc­ture. It’s not the pretty scenery that holds the fish but sub-sur­face fea­tures that of­fer a sup­ply of food. You won’t al­ways see the kelp beds but the pol­lack will. You may not be able to see the mass of bro­ken rocks and boul­ders but the peeler crab that live there are ir­re­sistible to bass.

The trick is not to be too proud to ask. There are great tackle shops in most coastal towns and the staff or own­ers will be only too pleased to point you in the right di­rec­tion. Buy a few flies as well to com­plete the two-way trade.

VIS­UAL de­lights

One of the real joys of salt­wa­ter fly-fish­ing is that it’s vis­ual. We all know the buzz you get from catch­ing a ris­ing trout on a dry fly in the river but in the sea this is taken to a whole new level. On oc­ca­sion you will see fish feed­ing, ei­ther slash­ing at sandeels on the sur­face or send­ing them spray­ing into the air as they take them a foot be­low. Most of the time, how­ever, you’ll be watch­ing for in­di­ca­tions of fish feed­ing at depth. Things to look for are the fa­bled “ner­vous wa­ter”, a patch of dis­turbed wa­ter pushed to the sur­face by a feed­ing swirl. Then there’s a rip­ple go­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion to the rest, a small up­swell in an oth­er­wise flat sur­face or a hint of a boil or un­usual wa­ter move­ment.

What you will not see is the full-on head and tail of a trout, as sea fish rarely feed in that way. Keep your eyes peeled and look out for feed­ing gulls or terns, a sure in­di­ca­tion of bait­fish on the sur­face. And where there are bait­fish there are preda­tors.

se­lect­ing tackle

As I said be­fore, there is ab­so­lutely no rea­son why your nor­mal trout-fish­ing gear won’t work in the sea. My typ­i­cal set-up would be a 9ft 6in rod with a #6 or #7 line – in other words, your nor­mal reser­voir out­fit. This will cover you for at least 80% of the fish­ing on of­fer. Ex­cep­tions are when we are out stalk­ing spec­i­men sea bass in the evening, when I like to go re­ally sub­tle with a 9ft #5 out­fit, pri­mar­ily for ac­cu­racy and the del­i­cacy of pre­sen­ta­tion this of­fers. Con­versely, when we are out on the boat or long-cast­ing sink­ing lines from the rocks then a heav­ier #8 can be an ad­van­tage.

On the beach or shore­line, I reckon that around 60% of my sport comes with a float­ing line, the re­main­der be­ing on in­ter­me­di­ates or slow sinkers. In surf con­di­tions of medium to big waves you get a lot more con­trol with ei­ther neu­tral den­sity or in­ter­me­di­ates. I also favour fluoro­car­bon lead­ers here, while on the rocks I’ll of­ten change this to copoly­mer for the ex­tra abra­sion re­sis­tance. All you need to re­mem­ber is to give ev­ery­thing a thor­ough wash in freshwater af­ter use, not just to get rid of the salt­wa­ter but also to re­move any sand or de­bris that’s in­evitable in the surf. Five min­utes with a gar­den hose is enough to keep things ship shape and free from cor­ro­sion.

I’m a great ad­vo­cate of the “travel light” ap­proach to fish­ing and this is never more rel­e­vant than in salt­wa­ter. You sim­ply don’t need to take all that gear with you. Leave the tackle bag in the car boot. All you need is a small fly box, spare leader ma­te­rial and for­ceps, all of which can be ac­com­mo­dated on a neck lan­yard or in a pocket. This way, you’re free to roam the beach at will, fol­low­ing the in­com­ing tide up the beach, chas­ing shoals of fish when you see them, or mov­ing from rock to rock along the shore­line. The only ex­tras that I re­gard as es­sen­tial are good po­lar­is­ing sun­glasses and a line tray. The for­mer are needed to spot the fish and for safety, while the lat­ter will stop your line from wash­ing around all over the place in the waves. The line tray is an ab­so­lute must on the rocks, as noth­ing slices through a fly line like the sharp edge of a mus­sel shell.

The only area where you’ll need to make changes to your nor­mal trout gear is in fly se­lec­tion. While there are cer­tainly some reser­voir pat­terns that would work, the vast ma­jor­ity of sea species spend much of their time eat­ing each other, so you’ll need to re­flect this in your fly choice. Pretty much any bait­fish pat­tern will work but right at the top of ev­ery­one’s list will be the sandeel. Sandeels are pro­lific and form the sta­ple of most of the marine life around our shores, both fish and birds. Less well known is that sandeels come in dif­fer­ent sizes. Early sea­son sees the ar­rival of the small, 3in “boot­lace” eels that you see in huge shoals. Then the more typ­i­cal “sum­mer sandeels” ar­rive and at 4in to 6in in length th­ese are on the menu for ev­ery preda­tor. Fi­nally, there is the gi­ant sandeel or launce, which grows to well over a foot in length and is a sig­nif­i­cant meal for a spec­i­men bass or pol­lack.

In re­cent years, and in con­junc­tion with the long-es­tab­lished Devon-based fly com­pany Tur­rall, I’ve de­vel­oped a se­ries of flies to imi­tate th­ese vary­ing sizes. Of ne­ces­sity, we’ve scaled down the launce pat­tern as a fly of 12in in length is be­yond the cast­ing abil­i­ties of most rods; how­ever, the fish don’t seem to mind that the ar­ti­fi­cials are a bit shorter. For stalk­ing pur­poses, on cer­tain tides or at cer­tain times of the year, we may use crab or shrimp pat­terns but as the sandeel cov­ers so many op­tions it’s al­ways the de­fault choice.

va­ri­ety is Key

In trout fish­ing, I have long been con­vinced that it’s not so much the fly but the way you fish it that mat­ters. How­ever, this isn’t

The only area where you’ll need to make changes to nor­mal trout gear is in fly se­lec­tion

en­tirely true in salt­wa­ter; it def­i­nitely helps to have a rea­son­ably close copy of a sandeel on the end of your line and most cer­tainly makes a dif­fer­ence if you can fish it prop­erly. For­tu­nately, this isn’t rocket sci­ence and you can take all man­ner of lib­er­ties with your re­trieve rates. Va­ri­ety is the key, with as many changes of speed and length of pull that you can give.

I al­ways tell clients that it’s im­pos­si­ble to fish a sandeel pat­tern too fast. Even with a high-speed re­trieve you’ll of­ten see a bass leisurely fol­low­ing the fly, look­ing for all the world as though it’s not mov­ing a fin. The se­cret is in the pull-and-pause, a reg­u­lar “chop chop” ac­tion, us­ing the rod tip to change the di­rec­tion of the re­trieve and that all-im­por­tant va­ri­ety fac­tor.

Give your cast a de­gree of for­ward lead. If you’re drift­ing loch style for trout you rarely cast di­rectly at the fish but will al­most cer­tainly aim for a spot a few me­tres in front of its last-known po­si­tion. It’s the same in the sea, only more so as ev­ery­thing hap­pens much more quickly. Let’s imag­ine you’re on a sand­bar and you’re see­ing the fish swim­ming in to­wards you. The tide is prob­a­bly mov­ing at sev­eral knots and the fish will be do­ing the same, so you’ll need to land the fly at least four or five yards in front of the fish. This avoids spook­ing the fish if pre­sen­ta­tion is less than per­fect and it also gives you time to take a pull on the line to straighten the leader. In this way, you’ll be ready to give that all-im­por­tant “life” to the fly just as the fish reaches it.


Some read­ers will throw their hands up in de­spair at this but my reg­u­lar clients will smile know­ingly. The lat­ter will have ex­pe­ri­enced wet wad­ing and will un­der­stand the huge ad­van­tages as­so­ci­ated with it.

Apart from the first few weeks of the sea­son, leave your waders be­hind and en­joy the ben­e­fits of wet wad­ing. All you need are shorts and shirt, noth­ing more. Apart from the won­der­ful feel­ing of free­dom that you get from wet wad­ing, the real ben­e­fit comes from the abil­ity to “feel” the tem­per­a­ture changes as you wade. Mul­let, in par­tic­u­lar, love to swim in the tran­si­tion ar­eas be­tween cold and warm ar­eas of wa­ter and the abil­ity to feel th­ese changes on bare legs helps you find the fish.

Un­like still­wa­ters – where you find hor­i­zon­tal lay­ers of vary­ing wa­ter tem­per­a­tures – the ac­tion of wind and wave in the sea turns th­ese ther­mo­clines into “blocks” of wa­ter. Find the tran­si­tion area and, more of­ten than not, you will find the fish. Above all, wet wad­ing al­lows you to wade cau­tiously and with­out too much dis­tur­bance. Re­mem­ber your quarry is truly wild and a cau­tious ap­proach is the best way to catch it.


While this is em­phat­i­cally not a plug for busi­ness, it is the best ad­vice on of­fer in this ar­ti­cle. The use of a guide can be in­valu­able and can make a mas­sive dif­fer­ence to your day out. There are plenty of good guides based around the coast and they should be able to elim­i­nate the guess­work for you and take you to their favourite spots. We call them “marks” down here. Good bass marks are of­ten passed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion and I still use marks to­day that my dad showed me 30 years ago. A guide will save an aw­ful lot of wasted time fish­ing in the wrong places.

But a good guide can help you with so much more. He should know the right state of the tide to fish, where the fish will be run­ning in a par­tic­u­lar com­bi­na­tion of wind and weather, and where fish have been feed­ing in re­cent days.

He’ll also keep you safe. You’d be sur­prised how easy it is to lose track of time when you’re out on the rocks or sand­bars, to the ex­tent that you for­get your route back to safety as the in­com­ing tide cov­ers the fea­tures. A good guide will pro­tect you from your own over-en­thu­si­asm.

So why not give salt­wa­ter fly-fish­ing a try this year? It you’re tak­ing the an­nual hol­i­day in the south-west it makes a nice break from the beach for a day and it’s an ab­so­lutely amaz­ing and re­ward­ing way of fish­ing. I have reg­u­lar clients who have been com­ing back for many years now and are be­gin­ning to ex­plore more of the coast for them­selves and find­ing their own se­cret “marks”.

More than any­thing, it’s a style of fish­ing that takes you right back to na­ture, bring­ing out the dor­mant “hunter gath­erer” in a way you never thought pos­si­ble.

Fly-fish­ing cham­pion Chris Og­borne has cap­tained England at World Cham­pi­onship level, gain­ing a record num­ber of caps as well as win­ning the Na­tional Cham­pi­onship (twice) and Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship. He is prob­a­bly best known for pi­o­neer­ing light-line tech­niques in trout fish­ing, a style that he now teaches through his guid­ing busi­ness in Corn­wall.

For fur­ther in­for­ma­tion, tel: 07885038203; email chrisog­borne@aol.com or go to www.chris-og­borne.co.uk

The writer (left), who ad­vo­cates wet wad­ing on the Cor­nish coast, where the mouth of the River Camel of­fers su­perb sport (above and far left)

Most bait­fish pat­terns will work in salt­wa­ter with sandeel pat­terns – in dif­fer­ent sizes – at the top of most rods’ fly list

Above: the bat­tle be­gins as a bass takes

Top: fly-fish­ing the Erme es­tu­ary in Devon; the scenery is stun­ning and fish­ing here costs a frac­tion of the price of “go-to” des­ti­na­tions

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