Saltwater fly fishing is a different game. As my buddy Captain Scott Hamilton of FlyFishingExtremes.com says, "this is not about trout."
If you've never fly fished in saltwater and are interested in booking a guided trip, take those words to heart. Not only are both the gear and fish often bigger and stronger, but just the simple task of delivering the fly effectively can prove frustrating if you're not prepared. Out on the salt, you're often faced with many different variables like larger/heavier flies, strong winds, fast presentations, and the ability to cast different directions. For someone that spends most of his or her time fishing for panfish and trout, they may not initially be comfortable with this whole new set of challenges!
In the past, I've fly fished with a few folks that were brand new to the saltwater realm. Having mostly come from small-stream trout fishing backgrounds, their transitions were a bit rocky—especially when it came to casting. For someone that's used to making short casts to 10 inch trout with a 4 weight rod, I can definitely understand that. Despite this, I always wonder why some folks don't go into the salt better prepared?
Every so often, a picture or cringe-worthy video pops up on social media of a guide's client that can't cast 20 feet—or really even at all.
I usually don't know if it's all in fun and that client actually does know their lack of ability will be broadcast for all to see, or if it's done on the sly. Either way, I always feel sorry for them....kind of. I mean, it's one thing to learn on the water by yourself, but when booking a $600 guided trip, why not come prepared with some skills that can help put fish in the boat? Someone certainly doesn't have to be expert-level, and I'm sure most guides would be fine with giving some lessons and pointers, but that severely cuts into actual fishing time. On top of that, more than just one lesson may be required to really get dialed-in on the proper technique.
On top of just basically knowing how to cast, there's several points when it comes to casting that should be known before the trip:
Accuracy: Being accurate while casting is always a great skill to have, but it's even more important when sight-fishing. Don't worry about being able to cast onto a dish 60 feet away every time, but at least be able to put the fly in the general vicinity of a target at different ranges. If you can achieve consistently decent accuracy up to about 40 feet, that's a strong start. Remember, accuracy is often better than distance!
Distance: In many cases accuracy is more important than distance, but don't ignore being able to cast a long line. To be honest, out of the guided saltwater trips I've done, I can only think of one instance where I HAD to cast more than about 50 feet. It really depends on what type of fishing you're doing, but if you can at least lay out a solid 50 to 60 foot cast that should be plenty sufficient much of the time.
Double Haul: This is probably the biggest one of them all. Knowing how to double haul is of MAJOR importance for saltwater fly fishing. Not just useful for serious distance, the double haul builds line speed that also helps deliver chunky and/or weighted saltwater flies and cuts through a brisk wind.
Wind: Like I just eluded to, wind is a major factor in saltwater fly fishing. Much of the fishing is done in wide-open areas where there is zero wind protection. Despite what may be shown on TV fishing shows, the wind can and often does honk pretty good out there. Just ask a Florida Keys tarpon guide how windy it can get on the flats in the springtime! Having a strong double haul, accuracy, and line management skills helps make the best of what can be otherwise maddening conditions for someone who comes unprepared. Get out and practice at all angles to the wind.
Casting Backhanded: Being able to present a fly backhanded is a huge advantage not just on saltwater but anywhere. In this type of cast, you're simply presenting the fly on the back stroke rather than the front stroke. This is great for dealing with wind coming off the casting shoulder, for avoiding objects that may be blocking your cast on the dominant side, or for presenting a fly quickly off the opposite side of a boat.
Speed/Direction: If the fish start busting off the port side or a bonefish suddenly shows off the bow, it's in your best interest to deliver the fly asap. Saltwater fly fishing often means you have to move quickly and also be able to adjust direction sometimes even during a cast. Casting with minimal false casts and being able to quickly change your casting direction at any time can give you many more quality shots.
Gear: Saltwater gear can be big and clunky. If you've never done it before, tossing a stout rod like a 12 weight is a vastly different experience compared to a more "average" fly rod. Find out what gear you'll be using on your trip and, if possible, practice casting with a similar rod and line beforehand to get the feel for it.
When booking that first trip, have a meaningful conversation with your guide. You don't need to talk their ear off, but get informed.
Be honest about your experience, get a solid feel for what to expect on the water, and ask what casting skills will be expected of you. Practice can mean a more successful guided saltwater fly fishing trip, but remember these casting skills are not just saltwater-specific. On the freshwater side, there have been a bazillion instances where one or all of these skills has come into play for me during a fishing day. It never hurts to be a more well-rounded angler!