Saltwater vs. Freshwater Fishing: Ultimate Comparison
There are countless comparisons that can be made in the world of fishing. From comparing the differences between catfishing and bass fishing to comparing ultra-light tactics to super-heavy rod usage, just about everything can be picked apart and scrutinized.
However, one of the comparisons that actually have a massive impact on fishing is saltwater and freshwater.
When you're transitioning from freshwater fishing to saltwater or vice versa, it's not as simple as switching up your tactics a little bit to target new fish; the two are completely different experiences.
Since this is the switch that will catch most anglers off guard long after their first foray into the opposite of what they’ve done for so long, we’re going to go into detail.
We’ll separate this comparison of saltwater vs. freshwater fishing into sections covering differences in gear, fish availability, experience, tactics, and even potential dangers.
Let’s get started.
First, let’s go over what you should expect in general. Obviously, the fact that you’re on the ocean doesn’t change the fact that you’re still floating around tossing your gear in the water. However, everything outside of that is much different.
“Bank” fishing on the ocean typically requires massive casts with heavily-weighted rigs to get out past the shallows of the beach and resist the incoming waves. That, or you can skip casting past the beach and try pier fishing. In general, it’s a little more complicated to fish from the bank when you’re fishing in most saltwater areas. Some calm tributaries provide a more traditional experience.
With freshwater, none of that is necessary when fishing from the bank. Sure, you can’t reach all the best spots unless you’re willing to do a lot of maneuvering around the watering hole, but it’s a lot easier to deal with the water itself.
Getting on the water is a different situation, as well. Most lakes and rivers in the United States aren’t overly deep, and watching for underwater hazards is usually something you have to keep in mind. However, the water is typically fairly calm, and there’s little reason to worry about extreme weather capsizing your boat.
On the ocean, the weather is a much bigger concern. Storms can create massive waves that can and will damage your boat or throw you overboard. There’s also a much larger waterway for you to get lost in. If you get lost floating around a river system, the worst-case scenario is that you end up landing somewhere far away from where you started. Not navigating properly, and going too far out in the ocean, can be disastrous.
However, there’s rarely a reason to worry about hitting something under the water, and you can safely go at much higher speeds in most situations.
Different fish are present in different bodies of water. If you’ve ever branched out from your local area, you probably know how exhilarating it can be to hook into a new species; such as catching bass and catfish in Illinois, just to hook into a massive alligator gar in Texas.
Well, the difference in available fish between saltwater and freshwater is even more exciting.
In freshwater, you’re going to see a lot of the same panfish. Species such as bluegill, green sunfish, rock bass, shiners, and similar small species are present in every state and the vast majority of waterways. Then, you have your mid-sized species that make up the bulk of your impressive catches. These are fish like channel cats, bass, most gar, etc. The most commonly targeted fish fill this category, and most of them are fairly plentiful while still requiring a good amount of skill to consistently catch.
Finally, there aren’t many large species in the mainland’s waters. The main giants you’ll find are flathead catfish, blue catfish, giant sturgeon, landlocked striped bass, and alligator gar. There aren’t many other species you’ll find that can compete with much of what the ocean has to offer. These are also fairly uncommon unless you’re using specialized tactics and gear in certain locations.
In comparison, the ocean has a massive variety of fish. Even if you fish in a saltwater tributary that doesn't support the real beasts of the depths, you'll find everything from exotic fish smaller than bluegill, to the tarpon that makes bass look docile. The further you go out, the more extreme that variety gets. It's extremely common for saltwater fishermen to hook into fish weighing more than 100 pounds. This is a big reason behind the difference in the gear used, and it can contribute to the dangers of saltwater fishing, but we'll talk about that soon.
In general, you’re going to find a lot more species of fish in the ocean, and they can get much larger than anything you’ll catch on the mainland, but that can have some major drawbacks. When you’re fishing for monsters in America’s lakes and rivers, they can be plenty large enough without being too much of a threat to your livelihood.
There’s also less room for the fish to migrate and scatter in freshwater. So, if you think it’s boring waiting for a bite on a slow day of freshwater fishing in a small pond, wait until you’re tossing your rig into the largest body of water on the planet.
There are some similarities between saltwater gear and freshwater gear. The weight classes for rods are largely the same up to a point, lures used for medium-sized fish and smaller are largely the same besides their designs, and the tactics used to implement that gear are very similar.
The real differences come in when you’re talking about the big catches. A super heavy rod is often used for nabbing giant sturgeons and flatheads on the mainland, but out on the ocean, you may need a glorified broomstick and a seatbelt holding you to your boat to pull in giant grouper, marlin, sharks, and more. For some types of saltwater fishing, it’s even common for anglers to wear braces to help them get some leverage.
The reels also have to be proportionately scaled upward to deal with the larger fish, too. Once you get past the mid-sized ocean fish, most anglers deploy massive baitcasters (the drum-style ones. Not the fancy bass reels). This is because they hold a ton of line to get to appropriate depths, but also because they have the gear ratios necessary to combat such giant fish; even then, your arms will be worked to the extreme during the fight, and you can easily get pulled off your feet.
Lures are dramatically different past the mid-size range, as well. If you’re targeting smaller species, you'll feel familiar with the smaller ocean lures. Many of them are slender soft plastics like what you use for bass fishing, and even the hard plastics tend to be similar. The main differences tend to reflect the different types of fish they're imitating.
With larger lures, ocean lures will be a shock. The largest lure you’re throwing as a freshwater fisherman is a large swimbait that mimics bass or similar species. On the ocean, even a basic spoon can be the size of your hand with tremendous treble hooks.
One thing that really sets saltwater gear apart from freshwater gear is that it is always sealed and corrosion-resistant. Just bringing your freshwater gear out to the ocean would quickly destroy it; let alone fishing with it and letting saltwater get into its bearing systems or rust away your gears. Saltwater gear is designed to keep saltwater from getting into the gears and bearings of your reels, and most other pieces of equipment are protected in one way or another.
As a note, some saltwater hooks are actually designed to be destroyed by the water. That’s unheard of with freshwater hooks. You typically buy ones that will last as long as possible. However, there are saltwater hooks that are made to rust quickly and break apart; this is to let anglers cut their lines after catching dangerous species such as hammerheads, and they can do so without leaving that fish permanently injured.
So, keep an eye out for that if you decide to make the switch to saltwater fishing. Some specialty gear might be required that goes against the general philosophy of saltwater gear for a good reason.
The price of saltwater gear also tends to be substantially more expensive. While you can easily throw together a beginner's fishing kit with a couple of hundred bucks for freshwater fishing, you have to expect to spend quite a bit more to get into saltwater fishing. The strength and corrosion resistance requirements of saltwater equipment demand much more advanced manufacturing methods and materials that cost more.
Differences in Tactics:
The tactics you use for freshwater fishing won’t translate very well to most forms of saltwater fishing. Dropping a basic bobber rig into a fairly calm tributary can still get smaller saltwater species, and fishing a few feet off the top can still work, but in general, it’s an entirely different ball game.
With freshwater fishing, the generally smaller fish size and calmer waters allow you to have a lot more control over your rig, and even in choppy conditions, most of your normal freshwater tactics will work. It’s also far easier to work on the bottom of a freshwater waterway.
With saltwater, it largely depends on water conditions and what type of fish you’re targeting.
When targeting smaller fish on a calm day, you can mess around with varied retrievals using run-of-the-mill lures. This is a great way to pull in skipjack, herring, and many of the various mid-sized and smaller ocean fish.
When you get into larger species, your tactics have to change a bit.
For instance, when fishing for marlin or swordfish, many anglers will adopt a high-speed trolling technique. They’ll essentially use the speed of a speedboat to rip a massive lure or cut bait through the water and attract some of the ocean’s fastest fish.
However, when fishing for something such as a giant grouper, the technique is closer to freshwater crappie fishing. You’ll find yourself dropping a lure to extraordinary depths and going after suspended grouper. Being just slightly higher or lower than the fish can cost you the bite. Granted, once you’re hooked, you’ll have one giant hard fight on your hands, and you’ll want to make sure you have help onboard.
With sharks, you’ll adopt “chumming” strategies that are unheard of in freshwater. This is when you throw a bunch of cut bait into the water to attract sharks from far away.
With many of these fishing strategies, you also won’t land the fish. They’ll be too large to get on board, or with some predatory species, it is incredibly dangerous to mess around with them.
As you’ve probably noticed, the biggest differences tend to come in when targeting larger saltwater fish; coincidentally, those also tend to be what bring most saltwater fishermen out to the water.