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Saltwater Fishing Buying Guide

WriterAcademy Staff
10 min read
Are you ready to go saltwater fishing?

Whether you’re a seasoned freshwater angler looking to take the next step in your fishing game or a first-time participant with access to coastal shores, saltwater fishing offers exciting new challenges for anyone interested in casting into the deep blue sea.

To help you find success from the shore, dock, or boat, we’ve created this helpful guide to take you through the saltwater fishing equipment selection process for everything you’ll need to start reeling them in like a pro.

With rods, reels, and other gear from Academy Sports + Outdoors, you (or your angler-to-be) will be well on the way to bringing home everything from a delectable dinner to that elusive prize-winning fish.

Step 1: What are you fishing for?

The best way to determine the kind of gear you’ll need is to first investigate where and what you might be fishing for. Is this a deep-sea fishing party? Or do you plan on hitting the shore or local pier? Researching the species of fish likely to frequent these different habitats, as well as the equipment that might be available to assist you, will help to determine the best rod and reel for the job.

Can I use a freshwater fishing reel for saltwater fishing?

While freshwater rods can be used to fish in saltwater, they often lack protective materials to resist corrosion. If most of your fishing trips will include the ocean, be sure to choose a saltwater rod. If you must use a freshwater rod in the ocean, always remember when finished to spray it down with water to remove the salt.

In the following videos, Capt. Michael “Sharky” Marquez will show you how to get prepared for your next saltwater fishing trip.

Get helpful tips for both, inshore and surf saltwater fishing, the benefits of different locations, bait tips for catching fish, and even what types of fish to target.

Inshore Fishing Tips

Surf Fishing Tips

Step 2: How to choose the right fishing rod

Understanding how the various components of a rod work together is key to becoming a great angler.

The best way to approach choosing a rod is to first break down the various components that combine to make it an effective tool for fishing.

  • Rod or blank: This describes the pole, which can come in a variety of materials and lengths. We’ll get into the specifics on this one a bit further down in the guide.
  • Grips: This is the supportive end of the rod that the fisherman grips with his or her hand. Most are either made of EVA foam, a dense, lightweight, and comfortable material, or cork, which can be sanded and shaped to create a more ergonomic fit.
  • Guides: These are the loops attached to the rod that direct your line. They are commonly made of extremely strong materials, such as steel and titanium and feature an epoxy coating to resist corrosion from saltwater.
  • Tip-top: This is the very last guide on the end of the rod. Unlike the others, it comes with a sleeve to protect the very tip of the rod.
  • Reel seat: This is the part of the rod where you will mount your reel. Saltwater varieties often come with an anodized finish to resist corrosion.
  • Butt: This is the thickest end of the rod that generally contains the grip and reel seat. It terminates in a ‘butt cap,” generally made of rubber or cork. Saltwater rods generally have a longer butt than their freshwater counterparts that helps to facilitate two-handed casts.

Did you know? Fishing rods and fishing poles are not the same thing. A rod has all the components listed above, while a pole is generally made of cane and has no reel. The line is attached at the tip.

Step 3: Understand how rod action, length, and power relate to your fish

Labeled on each rod, often near the handle, you’ll notice some specifications delineating the rod’s length, power/action, and the weight of the line it’s rated for. What does all this seemingly cryptic information mean? Let’s break it all down below:

  • Length: Rod lengths can vary greatly in length depending on the type of fish and area you’re engaged in. A general rule of thumb is that shorter rods cast short distances and longer rods cast longer distances.
  • Line Weight: This is the recommended strength (measured in pounds) of the fishing line that the rod can handle.
  • Power: This describes the overall stiffness of the blank. Power ratings are often categorized as ultra-light, light, medium-light, medium, medium-heavy, heavy, and ultra-heavy. Light rods generally excel at catching small species of fish, where rod responsiveness is critical, while heavy varieties are better suited for larger species.
  • Action: This defines how the tip of your rod will react when you have a fish on the line. Power and action often go together. Action categories range from extra-fast to slow. A rod with fast action will bend near the top of the blank, while one with slow action will have a more parabolic bend throughout the length. Knowing the action rating of a rod will help determine what kind of fish it's best suited for landing.

Expert Tip:

If you’re unsure of the action of your rod, take the tip of the blank and very gently push it into a carpet to induce flex. Observing how the tip reacts along its length to this slight pressure will give you a good idea of what to expect once a fish is on the line.

Power/Action Setting

for Saltwater and Freshwater Fishing

Power Action Fish Line weight Rod length
to light
Slow Crappie, bluegill, panfish,
sunfish, flounder
28" 29"
to Medium
Medium Bass, trout, catfish,
walleye, mackerel
28" 29"
to Heavy
Fast Pike, salmon, steelhead,
bluefish, striped bass, shark
28" 29"

Capt. Sharky also has some helpful tips for choosing the best saltwater fishing rod. Watch below:

Step 4: Understanding Rod Construction and Types

Most saltwater rods are made with fiberglass or graphite. Reference the chart below for a brief overview of how each material can factor into helping you land the big one:

Saltwater Rod Materials

Material Pros Cons
Fiberglass Least expensive, durable, impact resistant,
slow-medium action class (deep bend),
great at working tough bottoms where snags are common.
Heavier, slower recoil (not as much natural lift),
less sensitivity for feeling when a fish is on the line.
Graphite Lighter, fast recoil (more natural lift),
excellent sensitivity, resists corrosion
Costs more, can be easily damaged,
extreme sensitivity can sometimes induce the feeling of phantom strikes.
Composite Qualities of both graphite and fiberglass.
Offers a versatile rod for most species.
More expensive than fiberglass,
less sensitive than graphite.
There are many kinds of fishing rods to experiment with and each are specialized for certain species and environments.

Expert Tip:

Holding a rod and getting a feel for both its weight and length is just as important as the materials it’s made of. Be sure to stop by your local Academy to try out a few.

Different Types of Rods for Saltwater Fishing

Now that we have a solid understanding of the components, materials, and performance ratings of a rod, let’s look at the most common specialized varieties:

Surf Rods

Averaging between 10-14 feet in length, surf rods are used to cast a lure and weight into or past the breakers of the ocean. Their length is not only useful for long casts, but also for allowing walkers to pass under when placed in a rod holder on the beach. These rods are typically in the medium action range, heavy, and paired with high-capacity spinning reels.

Dock Rods

Generally paired with spinning or baitcasting reels, these rods are used to present bait off a pier or dock. The blank is generally very stiff, with its slow action allowing an angler to easily haul a heavy fish out of the water. With casting not as a great a priority, these rods also only average between 6-8 feet in length.

Offshore Rods

These rods average between 6-8 feet and are typically oversized to handle trophy fish like marlin, swordfish, tuna, and other large species. They are usually paired with baitcasting or trolling reels and feature large, durable, guides, tips, and handles. Many even feature roller guides to reduce friction as the line moves over the rod. Offshore rods also generally include a notched butt that fits into the gimbal on a fighting belt or chair.

Expert Tip:

Reel seats in surf rods are subject to corrosion. When choosing a rod, make sure the reel seat includes a non-corrosive material like graphite.

Step 5: How to Choose a Saltwater Fishing Reel

Choosing the best reel for your rod boils down to the kind of fishing you plan on doing. Reels come clearly marked with numbers indicating both the strength of the line it’s designed for (called "test") and the rated capacity. So, if you see a reel marked with 8/225 and 12/175 it means that it is designed for as much as 225 yards of 8 lb. test or 175 yards of 12 lb. test. Reels designed for saltwater often feature much higher capacities than those for freshwater species.

First, let’s examine the most common reels available to the angler:

Spinning reel

Spinning reels are generally mounted below the rod and are excellent for throwing light lures and bait great distances. A versatile reel for all kinds of tackle, both right-handed and left-handed anglers can easily pick one up and start fishing. While not effective with heavy lures, they’re great for ice fishing, surf fishing, and dock fishing.

Baitcasting reel

A baitcasting reel is mounted above the rod (hence its name in the Southern Hemisphere as the “overhead reel.”) and allows for smooth-flowing, accurate casts that are easily controlled by the angler. They are well suited for heavy line and lures and generally used in both shore and offshore fishing applications.

Conventional reel

Conventional reels, also known as “trolling” reels, are designed for use in offshore trolling. They generally have extremely high capacities and feature a bait-clicker alarm that alerts an angler to the presence of something on the line other than the tackle.

Watch Capt. Sharky break down the anatomy of these reel types and help you decide which saltwater fishing reel is the best for your fishing spot, bait types, and the best choice for beginners:

What does a fishing reel’s drag setting mean?

All reels feature a “drag setting,” which will determine how much resistance the fish will encounter when it runs with the line. A good rule of thumb is to set the drag to 25% of the breaking strength of the line you’re using (for example, 12-lb. test line would have a drag setting of about 2-lb). A properly set drag can wear down big fish that otherwise might snap a line.

How do I choose the right gear ratio?

When shopping for a reel, you might see some options for choosing a specific gear ratio at checkout. For instance, a baitcasting reel may come in different gear ratio versions of 7.4:1 or 6.2:1. These numbers indicate how many times the spool turns for each single turn of the handle. For instance, a gear ratio of 7.4:1 means the spool will undergo 7.4 revolutions for every single rotation of the handle.

Lower ratios (slower retrieval) are great for lures with lots of pull, such as deep-plunging crankbaits, while high-speed ratios are used for lures designed to zip along the surface. For the average angler, a gear ratio between 5.4:1 to 6.2:1 is generally adequate for most lures and baits.

Expert Tip:

To set the drag, place your rod in a holder and pull on the line with a hand scale. Tighten the drag until the desired amount of pressure has been achieved.

Step 6: Breaking down fishing line

Now that you have a good sense of which rod and reel you’ll take with you, what kind of line is best to pull it all together?

The first thing to understand is that fishing line strength is called “test” and is measured in pounds. This number (i.e., 12-lb. test) is a guide to how much stress in pounds can be placed on the line before it snaps. Knowing what kind of fish you’re looking to catch, and their average weight will give you the needed guidance when determining the proper test strength.

For an overview, here is a chart to test line strength for the most common saltwater fishing applications:

Fishing Line Strength Test

Test Type Species
4-10 lb. Mono Sea trout, flounder, sea bass,
haddock, mackerel
12-25 lb. Mono/Braided Bluefin, cod, striped bass
30-130 lb. Braided Tuna, shark, marlin, tarpon, kingfish

What kind of line should I purchase?

The three most commons materials for fishing line are monofilament, fluorocarbon and braided. Each one comes with its strength and drawbacks, but all do an excellent job when matched with the right test strength. Review the chart below to understand the differences between these three fishing lines.

Fishing Line Differences

Line Pros Cons Best for:
Monofilament Great for casting, very low visibility, good stretch,
holds knots extremely well, floats, inexpensive
Easily absorbs water, degrades from exposure to UV light,
stretch can reduce sensitivity
Fluorocarbon Low visibility, thin diameter, good sensitivity,
abrasion resistant, sinks fast
Bass, trout, catfish,
walleye, mackerel
Braided Superior strength, no stretch, durable,
not prone to twisting, very small diameter
Pike, salmon, steelhead,
bluefish, striped bass, shark

Capt. Sharky is back to share his tips for the best saltwater inshore bait rigs to reel in your next big catch:

You can also learn more about our recommended Top 10 Saltwater Baits so you have them in your tacklebox and ready for your next ocean fishing adventure.

Step 7: Tips for Saltwater Fishing Gear Maintenance

If you want your rod and reel to perform flawlessly season after season, you’re going to want to show your most important investments some love. Here are some easy steps to take after each outing in saltwater:

  1. Gently rinse your rod, reel, reel seat, and guides with freshwater. Dry with a towel.
  2. If fishing in deep water, you may want to consider cutting away any line that previously hooked a large fish. Line under extreme stress can become compromised and may not perform as well the next time a trophy species takes the bait.
  3. Consider using a light oil and grease on your reel and its components. There are many in-depth tutorials available online with recommendations for products and disassembly to help guide you through the process.

Step 8: Choosing the most critical fishing accessories

Once you have your rod and reel selected, you’ll want to invest in some of the following fishing accessories:

Saltwater Fishing Guid

Landing Net

Landing nets come in all shapes and sizes, depending on the species you’re angling for, and are extremely handy for gently bringing a fish out of the water. Many landing nets are designed to rest comfortably on your back so that they can easily be retrieved when a fish is on the line.

Fishing vest

These lightweight fishing and boating vests come loaded with lots of pockets and are extremely handy for loading up with lures, hook, and other accessories without constantly having to walk back to the tackle box.

Tackle Box

One of the most enjoyable aspects of fishing is building up a collection of various lures, baits, and other items for different species of fish. A tackle box is a critical piece of equipment for keeping your wares all organized. Just remember to size your box to the location you’re headed to. A large box would do well on a boat, but less so for hiking with several miles to a secret fishing hole. Every tackle box should include:

  • Long nose pliers – Essential for removing a hook from a fish
  • Scissors – For cutting line
  • First Aid kit – For cuts and scrapes
  • Polarized sunglasses – Protect your eyes from the harsh glare off the water, help spot fish below the surface
  • Insect control
  • Sunscreen
  • Tape measure
  • Flashlight

Other Helpful Tips for Saltwater Fishing

Learn the Bimini Twist Knot

Knowing fishing knots of all kinds will be useful when attempting to keep a fish on the line, but one is the most important: the Bimini Twist Knot. It’s the only knot that retains 100% of its strength when tied.

Know the tides

A good rule of thumb for shore fishing is to arrive an hour before the peak of high tide and plan to stay at least another half-hour after. Fish move with the tide and are often active around saltwater estuaries and marshes.

Talk to the locals

The best way to quickly grasp where the best fishing spots are is to talk to the locals. These seasoned anglers can also give you advice on the best lures, bait, and time of day to make a catch.

Don’t forget your fishing license

Unless you’re under the age of 16, nearly every state along the coasts requires anglers to possess a saltwater recreational fishing license. You can get yours in-store at Academy Sports + Outdoors along with all your other fishing gear and accessories.