Bigger, stronger fish. Heavier flies.
These are just two of the variables that the saltwater fly angler faces. It's a unique place to fly fish and one that often places added demands on the angler that he or she may not be accustomed to. To meet and defeat these challenges, both the skill level and tackle need to be up to par.
When it comes to tackle, the rod is often the first thing people start hunting for. While the fly reel just sits there and looks pretty much of the time, the rod has to perform for each and every presentation and of course for fighting fish. Not having the right rod is a downer no matter where you are, but in the often no-nonsense world of saltwater fly fishing that issue can be amplified even more.
Sticking to a fast action is generally the best choice. While a moderate or moderate-fast action rod excels at closer presentations and an extra-fast action kicks butt at delivering heavy rigs and throwing long bombs, the fast action is sort of a "jack of all trades" here. Of course there's no industry standard for rod actions so there can be some slight variance in flex and feel between manufacturers, but a quality fast-action rod will generally be a great tool for covering pretty much any situation both near and far. Other, more specialized rods can be added later to fill in certain niches, if desired.
Some saltwater species can be just as skittish as spring creek trout, but I put more emphasis on power over delicacy when choosing a fly rod for the salt. Whatever the mood and aggression level of the fish are, you're often dealing with moderate to long presentations, larger flies, and stronger winds than you might be used to when fishing freshwater. The fast action really shines here because it is workable in close and for relatively gentle presentations, but it has the guts to overcome the more demanding scenarios. If you have a very specific need that a softer action satisfies then you can go that route, but overall the fast action will be much stronger in the versatility department no matter the line, species, or destination the rod encounters.
They aren't super common, but there are some 1-piece saltwater fly rods on the market. Obviously, storing and transporting a rod like this might be an issue, but the big advantage here is the lack of any ferrules (the joints where multi-piece rods join together). This likely translates into added smoothness, a more precise taper, and increased strength over your typical fly rod. For the record, I don't 100% recall ever casting a rod like this, but the consensus I've heard is that you indeed do notice a difference in feel. A one-piecer might be something to look into if you want to keep it stored on a boat or own a vehicle that can easily transport it around.
Keep it simple with rod length and stick to a 9-footer if you want the best all-around capability.
You might come across a saltwater-friendly fly rod here and there in the 7 or 8 foot range. These are typically designed for specialized casting of heavy lines or, more typically, close-quarters target casting such as when snook fishing tight to a mangrove bank. An additional benefit is increased leverage which can be useful when pulling on a big fish vertically in deep water. All of that is good stuff, but the 9-footer can do everything well enough and in my experience is more enjoyable to cast while retaining excellent distance and line control capabilities.
The rest of a typical saltwater fly rod will be pretty standard. It'll have a full-wells grip (or a variation of that), a fighting butt, anodized-aluminum reel seat hardware, and usually 2 stripping guides. A fly rod appropriate for saltwater doesn't have to be specifically marketed for such, either. Manufacturers usually start offering a full wells grip/fighting butt on any rod starting at 6 or 7-weight for those who want to go into the salt and/or simply want a rod for freshwater streamer fishing. Rods made specifically for saltwater may just offer differences such as new cosmetics, larger-diameter guides, or beefed-up tapers, backbones, and/or tips. I hooked my very first tarpon on a fly using a Sage Z-Axis 10-weight loaned to me by a guide...a rod series that wasn't specifically marketed for just saltwater fishing, but the fish don't know that!
What weight to get? That's a tough one because there's so much variance depending on where and what you're fishing for. With that said, an 8-weight graphite rod is regarded as the winning choice here and that's hard to argue with. That size will handle a multitude of species, fly and line combinations, and can battle those all-too-common winds, but it may not be the BEST for where you'll be fishing most often. Do some research and talk to those in the know for the absolute best guidance.
Saltwater fly fishing is awesome. If you're only used to targeting fish like trout, hooking into that first tarpon, big striper, or whatever will be an eye-opening experience. It can forever change your outlook on fly fishing and opens up an entirely new world of opportunity. Get in on it!
Check out saltwater-specific fly rods right here!