Anglers walk the outer reef of Alphones Island, Seychelles.

Saltwater Fishing 101

Photo: Matt Jones Photography/Tandemstock

It makes sense that the biggest fish would live in the biggest water.

Ocean or saltwater fishing can yield some serious results when it comes to both the size of the conditions and the species to contend with. Big water, however, can also mean a relaxing day on the local pier. There are plenty of ways to access salty waters across the U.S., given the diversity of environments, tens of thousands of miles of coastline, and the open invitation of extended ocean expanse. With such varied modes of saltwater fishing, there are a few specialized gear considerations and skills needed to get you going.

Pier Fishing

Fishing off of piers, jetties, or directly from a beach (see more below) might be the easiest (and cheapest) method to gain a foothold fishing the ocean, though only the first option guarantees you keep your feet dry. The weather isn’t nearly as much of a factor as it would be if you were bobbing around off-shore—plus you’ll have an easier time keeping your lunch down.

The big downside: Instead of chasing the fish, you’re stationary and waiting for them to come to you. That means you’ll need to do a lot more research. One easy way: Look for fishing reports from the area you’re hoping to fish. Ask a local shop or look online. Different piers and areas have ideal times of day and conditions for fishing, something you’ll eventually learn about your regular spots. And piers create their own unique ecosystems and habitats, so you might have better luck on one particular side than another. Talk to fellow anglers once you get there. Odds are good they’ll pass along some tips. Also, be sure to pay attention to the tides this close to shore; a pier that's fishable at high tide might not be once it bottoms out.


Unique to pier fishing, you’ll want a hoop net or pier gaff to pull your catch up to the pier. Don’t rely solely on your rod and line (that’s an easy way to be disappointed). It’s further than it looks from the water to the pier. 

As you’re typically not casting from a pier and fishing directly below, a shorter 6- to 9-foot, medium- to heavy-action rod should suffice. Even with a pier gaff, set yourself up with a heavier (say, 20-pound-test) line, as reeling fish in from this high can be difficult.

Surf Fishing

This might be the next easiest style of ocean fishing to try. Again, you’re not as beholden to the weather and you don’t need to buy or rent a boat, plus on a hot seaside day, you can get in the water to cool down. Surf fishing has you either standing on the shoreline and casting into the water, or wading into the surf to cast.

At the beach, look for troughs parallel to the shore, jetties and breakwaters which make good places for fish to hide and seek shelter, and inlets. Keep your eyes peeled for birds (which often follow baitfish), visible schools of fish (look for the color of the water to change), and signs of underwater currents. And always try fishing when the tide is either flooding in or ebbing out, rather than at the “slack tide” when it’s either all the way in or out. Moving water forces the baitfish to move and encourages the bigger fish to feed. 


You’re casting now, so look for a rod as long as 12 or 15 feet with a heavy-duty corrosion-resistant saltwater spinning reel (expect everything to get wet). Use sinkers to get your lure or bait through the waves, and consider a rod holder that mounts in the sand, just in case you want to go hands-free. Keeping any moving parts out of the sand will help your gear last longer. Live bait like shrimp, crabs, or squid do well near shore, as do lures like spoons and jigs.

A closeup on an ocean fishing rod off a boat Photo: zsv3207

Backwater and Flats Fishing

Protected backwaters and flats are further ashore and aren’t as affected by the tides or surf, making them a great next step for anglers. They’re also easily accessed with a small boat like a skiff or a fishing kayak. And you won't have to sacrifice on the fish you’re catching: flounder, sea trout, and tarpon all like these calmer waters. Head for moving currents like saltwater inlets, the marshy, brushy edges of backwaters, mangrove trees, and in-water vegetation like grass beds. 


You’ll be fine with a 6- to 7-foot rod, especially if you’re fishing from a small boat. Use lures like gold-colored metal spoons. 

Bay Fishing

This is another step up, introducing a little more swell energy than you might find in a backwater area, but still being more enclosed and protected than the open ocean. Reefs, hills, and depressions like channels and holes are good places to look in bays. You may want to use a map of the bottom or fish finder to help identify these prime spots.  


Depending on where you’re targeting, you might need slightly different setups when bay fishing, but in general, a 6- to 7-foot slow-acting rod will work well with either a spinner or baitcaster reel. Try more live bait here, like shrimp, as well as the classic gold metal spoons. You may need to experiment a bit more in deeper water to find the fish.

Deep Sea Fishing

Now you’re into the real deal. Deep sea (aka blue-water) sport fishing is the kind of saltwater game fishing that tourists pay big bucks for—for good reason. Heading far offshore and fighting a big fish will give you a simultaneous adrenaline boost and a workout like no other. Though better technology has made this type of sport fishing more accessible, it’s easily the most dangerous and experience-intensive style of ocean fishing. Navigation is also a factor, the weather can be deadly, and you’ll be a long way from help. Beginners should definitely consider hiring a guide to gain some experience before trying it on their own.

You’re obviously not going to see anything below the surface, so do plenty of research for good spots before you head out, or use a fish finder and map. Look for reefs, rocks, and even shipwrecks. Hills, canyons and other terrain features make popular spots for fish, as do man-made structures like buoys and lighthouses. 


The variety of fish you’re likely to find offshore is nearly limitless, so you would be well-equipped to have multiple rods to swap out based on what you’re hoping to catch. In general, another 6- to 7-foot medium-action rod will do well (you might be able to find ones designed specifically for offshore fishing). With the size of the fish, consider stronger line (especially if you’re targeting bigger fish in deeper waters). Find a large baitcaster reel to handle all the line you’ll need, and make sure it’s strong. Live bait like squid and herring work well. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.