We surveyed our network of professional guides and outfitters to bring you the best saltwater fishing gear, tips, and tactics.
Earlier this year, I had my first experience fishing in salt water. My buddy Benji and I hopped on a halibut charter out of Valdez, Alaska, and spent about nine hours in the Gulf of Alaska catching everything from dogfish and skate to ling cod and halibut.
While it felt similar to fishing for big lake trout on Flaming Gorge Reservoir, saltwater fishing is full of more nuances and technical skill than I expected. From presentation of baits to fighting fish, there’s a lot that goes into fishing the salt that you just don’t experience anywhere else.
Whether you’ve never fished the salt before, or you’re already addicted and looking to up your game, the results from this survey are for you.
These results came directly from the tens of thousands of professional guides and outfitters here on Guidefitter. This survey was conducted in June 2018, distributed via email, and was completely voluntary. The guides and outfitters who responded weren’t compensated, and all numbers below represent the percent of the total responses we received.
We asked a broad question to all guides and outfitters: Which style of fishing leads to your highest success rates? The answer was overwhelmingly bottom-bouncing, though that’s a vague term that encompasses many different techniques and styles of saltwater fishing.
“Bottom bouncing . . . could mean any number of things,” said Frank Breakell, a guide with Brynnie-B Inshore Fishing in Cape May Court House, New Jersey. “Dropping a diamond or butterfly jig down for black sea bass or structure holding striped bass. Or simply dropping a large bucktail down to search for flounder holding tight to a wreck.”
Since 64 percent of respondents indicated that fishing some type of rig on or near the bottom was the most productive for them, it’s a safe bet to assume that most guides were thinking along Breakell’s lines.
While in Alaska in June, I fished for halibut with nothing more than half a herring speared on a big hook beneath a fluorescent pink skirt. Later in the day, we fished rock fish with diamond jigs. Technically, it was all “bottom bouncing” and it filled my daily limit of fish. It’s no surprise to see this listed as the most productive style of saltwater fishing.
Across all types of fishing, I think this might be the most commonly asked question: When should I fish? Fly anglers swear by spring or fall, while spin and baitcasting enthusiasts love early summer for spawning bass.
For saltwater fishing, you’re likely to catch either the most fish or your preferred fish if you go during the summer. A whopping 71 percent of our respondents said that’s when their clients have the highest success rates.
It makes sense, since summer temperatures warm up the water, and migrations of fish from wintering to breeding areas create an easy-to-follow trail of aquatic life.
If deciding when to fish is the most commonly asked question, then the type of lure or bait you need is the second most common. When sharing pictures of fish on social media, I’m asked where and what I caught the fish on in equal measure.
Our guides indicated that deep-sea bottom jigs work really well 41 percent of the time, but “other” lures and baits will be more effective. So what exactly constitutes “other” in this context?
“I fish inshore for speckled trout and redfish,” said Tommy from Custom Charters in Houma, Louisiana. “Live shrimp are the very best bait around for consistent action.”
However, Gary Dubiel with Spec Fever Guide Service in Oriental, North Carolina, said, “Casting jigs and lures to fishing areas with distance and accuracy has the highest success rate.”
What we can gather from the disparate responses and seemingly down-the-middle split between jigs and live bait is that your bait choice depends on your target fish. Bottom-feeding fish like halibut and other flounder tend to be picked up more often on bait. Predatory fish, on the other hand, are more susceptible to lures and jigs.
Daniel Caison of Instigator Sportfishing Charters in Manteo, North Carolina, says his preferred way to fish saltwater is by, “Trolling lures for big blue marlins.”
If you have to settle on just one way to fish, though, then go with what our guides say is their most effective all-around rig: a combination of live bait and lures.
If push came to shove and our guides had to choose their go-to saltwater rig, few would choose the same thing. Twenty-nine percent said they’d use both popping cork or a three-way saltwater fishing rig, while 24 percent said the Carolina rig would be their only choice. Eighteen percent indicated that a two-hook bottom fishing rig would be their go-to.
What these survey results underscore is the sheer unpredictability of saltwater fishing. With more water – and more species of fish – to catch in the ocean versus freshwater, that’s no surprise.
Even with my limited experience in saltwater, I can already tell it’ll be an area of my angling life I explore much further. From fly fishing the flats to deep-sea excursions for marlin and sailfish – a la Santiago in “The Old Man and the Sea” – there’s so much to learn and do in the ocean that I’m not sure one lifetime is enough to experience it all.
What else would you like to know from our guide network? Let us know in the comments below.
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