Fresh for the Salt

Fresh for the Salt

  • By: Ed Mitchell

Flies get reputations and that’s a trait as old as our sport. You can expect it to go on as long as we continue chucking feathers at fish. Some reputations ebb and flow—first we love them and then we forget them. Some become regional favorites that no respectable angler would explore a local fishery without. Other flies are secret killers, living quiet lives known only by a handful of tiers who use them on their favorite rivers and lakes. At the top of the reputation ladder are flies used across the land, the popularity superstars. You know the ones I’m talking about—ever try an Adams? This popularity game is innocent, but here’s a warning—most people think that particular fly patterns only work on certain species and in specific locations: That’s a smallmouth bass fly! they shout; That’s a Northwest steelhead fly! they contend. And in doing so they fail to recognize a pattern’s real potential.

Take, for instance, the Connecticut River, where I’ve caught loads of hickory shad on bonefish Crazy Charlies. And one day I was in Old Saybrook, Conn., fishing schoolie stripers. Juvenile bass feed on trout food, such as caddisflies, in the upper estuaries.

With that in mind I rigged a strike indicator and a large beadhead stonefly and allowed it to drift through a shallow rip where stripers held. Soon, the indicator jumped and I was fast to a striper on a stonefly nymph. And this: Several years ago I fished a marine worm hatch in a Rhode Island salt pond. I hooked several striped bass, but the fish got fussy. The following day I returned with every red fly I owned, including a small Skykomish Sunrise…and it worked.

The truth is, many patterns entice multiple species and some jump a divide between freshwater or saltwater connotation to become a special breed of so-called crossover flies. What follows is a description of my favorite crossovers, plus a list of additional patterns, to get your crossover adventures in high gear.

Woolly Buggers
When I first started fly-rodding in the salt, anglers in my area leaned heavily on two or three patterns. You were either fishing a Gibbs Striper Bucktail, a Brook’s Blonde or a Lefty’s Deceiver. That was pretty much it. But down the road one day came a fly I should have seen coming—the Woolly Bugger.

As best I remember, Connecticut angler by Tom Piccolo first brought the idea to my attention when he began whipping up large Woolly Buggers on stainless-steel hooks. My first reaction was: No way, that’s a trout fly, I protested. Yet, to my surprise, and to the surprise of many others, Buggers proved deadly on striped bass and bluefish.

Dreamed up by Pennsylvania angler Russell Blessing, the Bugger’s reputation back then had taken the freshwater world by storm. Yet why on earth would it work in the brine? After all, Buggers were intended to imitate freshwater forage including leeches, Dobson flies, stoneflies and crayfish.

Right enough, but at its core the homely Woolly Bugger proves to be an all-round great impersonator, capable of matching a diverse range of life. And therein lies the pattern’s power. By varying the size and coloration of the fly, you can echo a variety of marine life. Small, drab Buggers can be used to mimic a grass or mantis shrimp. Make it red instead and you have a marine worm imitation. Larger Buggers with flash mimic slim forage fish, such as sand eels and silversides. The biggest Buggers, tied in white, tan or pink, are excellent squid imitations. And you don’t need specific forage in mind—Buggers tied in fluorescent colors are fine general attractor patterns.

When you tie a Bugger for the beach, however, you have to make some changes. In fresh water, Buggers are typically tied in sizes 6 to 12, and often on 2X, 3X or even 4X long hooks. Two common choices are the Mustad 79580 or the 9672. Both are bronze hooks, and as you know the salt makes toast of those. In addition, long-shank hooks may be fine in fresh water, but saltwater fish are strong enough to open one up. So any 3X or 4X or longer shank hook, in my opinion, should be avoided. What’s needed is a stainless-steel hook, up to 2X long. A Tiemco 811S does the trick. For shrimp patterns try a size 2 or 4. For baitfish a size 1 or 1/0 should work. For squid, a size 2/0 or 3/0 makes more sense.


At bare bones the Bugger is a three-material fly—marabou, chenille and hackle. Yet most of us like to spice them up. For ocean duty I highly recommend putting flash material in the tail.

And while we’re talking about the tail, be sure to take a few wraps of thread under it, and you might stiffen the base with head cement or Softex. The idea is to prevent the tail from fouling on the hook bend during those windy coastal outings. You can also add weight to Buggers either along the shank or with a cone head, although I rarely do. If I want to get down, a sinking line is good by me. More recently, you occasionally see freshwater Buggers with rubber legs. They add additional action and no doubt would do the same in the salt. I simply haven’t tried it yet.

In the durability department, palmered hackle is the Woolly Bugger’s Achilles heel. Granted, in fresh water the hackle usually holds up, but saltwater fish aren’t only tough, they’re rough and ready to rip apart flies. Doubt me? Feed a Bugger to a bluefish and you’ll find out. If broken hackles become a problem, eliminate the palmered hackle and, instead, substitute a thick hackle collar at the head, wet-fly style. It’s a rugged substitute and, trust me, it will do the job.

Lefty’s Deceiver
I first discovered the Deceiver’s cross-over potential while preparing for a trip to New Hampshire. That’s when I spied a few small Deceivers lying on my workbench. I had tied them riding size 4 hooks for sight-fishing for striped bass. On a whim I stuck a few in my fly box and took them north.

If you have fished for landlocked salmon, you know they can be moody; either they have a terminal case of lockjaw or a wicked case of the munchies. Unfortunately, during this particular trip it was the former. After switching patterns with little success, I knotted on one of those small Deceivers. Bingo, I finally caught a salmon and eventually a couple more. Perhaps those fish had seen too many Gray Ghosts and Black Ghosts and were looking for something new. I’ll never know, but those small Deceivers earned a permanent space in my fly vest. Like the Woolly Bugger, the Deceiver is easy to tie, requiring just two materials—hackle and bucktail. Granted, in the salt world Deceivers are usually dolled up quite a bit. Typical accoutrements include flash material, wrapped bodies, topping of some sort, decal eyes and an epoxy head. On freshwater flies, I use just the flash and maybe a contrasting topping.

The long saddle hackles we use on saltwater Deceivers don’t cut it in fresh water so you’ll want shorter hackle and perhaps even neck hackle or marabou. But don’t totally disregard wide hackle; those hackles slim considerably when wet. The standard bucktail used on saltwater Deceivers also is an issue; it’s often too coarse for small streamers. But do not fret—instead, replace that bucktail with calftail.

Ed Mitchell is the author of three fly-fishing books; go to fly