Check out this innovative strategy for sight fishing from little boats.
Pick up a chart of the Intracoastal Waterway in the Jacksonville area and study the maze of tidal creeks that winds off to the east and west.
It all looks like perfect redfish habitat, doesn’t it?
Like a lot of things in fishing, this one comes with a big, “Yes, but…”
Local experts John Eggers and John Henninger showed me an approach to targeting reds in those no-name creeks of the Intracoastal Waterway. It’s a complete angling style, one which blends traditional sight fishing with some clever tricks for teasing fish out of tight confines.
The general area we fished were creeks south of the St. Johns River between Chicopit Bay and Palm Valley. We left the dock at Beach Marine in the team’s well-equipped Ranger Phantom. Captain Eggers and Henninger fish a lot of redfish tournaments on this shallow-draft boat; it makes sense, as the two basically let the fish determine where they fish. They’ve been successful with this approach, and I was eager to tag along.
Our day started at dead low tide, and we would fish the rising tide for the next six hours. Our first stop was a skinny creek on the west side of the Intracoastal Waterway. The creek was maybe eight feet wide. It was one of many unlabeled creeks on the chart. Perhaps it was too skinny to deserve a name. One little redfish was circling in the mud with its back just above the surface. Henninger poled toward the fish, and Eggers cast a soft-plastic jerkbait three feet in front of it. Eggers set the hook and quickly skated a 22-inch redfish across the surface into the boat.
Poling farther into the creek, Henninger quickly spotted another fish in a tiny side-creek, separated from us by a grass shoreline. As Eggers wound up to cast, I wondered if he planned to drag the fish across the spartina island back into the boat. It really was like casting over a fence. My two hosts grinned at each other with confidence; this stunt was nothing new for them. Eggers made the cast and hooked up immediately. Henninger poled rapidly and strategically placed the bow of the boat on top of the spartina bank while Eggers hauled the fish to his grasp. With another good red successfully landed, they explained the method behind the madness.
Henninger said that this fish was more likely to eat because our boat was totally out of the picture. We were basically casting across land, and any hull slap or other noises we made that could be transmitted underwater would be undetected to these redfish. Another secret the team revealed was Henninger’s position on the team. Henninger is on the pushpole and Eggers is the angler; as long as this team is poling, that’s where they play the game from. There was no switching off. Henninger’s poling skills were impressive. He worked as hard as a nose guard protecting a quarterback to get that boat spun around and positioned perfectly in a short period of time. Quick reflexes and teamwork are key.
We proceeded through a maze of skinny creeks for the rest of the day. Every turn we made was determined by the fish or the water level. Protruding tails, fleeing baitfish or V-wakes were all signs that would lead our direction of travel. Most of our travels had Henninger poling us through the creeks from the platform. The extreme shallow-draft boat was a necessity where we were fishing. These waters would have been off-limits in my personal 20-foot flats boat.
As the tide began to rise, we followed the water. Some of the creeks we entered had zero water at low tide. It was like we were gradually climbing a stair-case. This strategy allowed us an extended time fishing low water conditions, which are pretty much the best conditions in Northeast Florida if sight fishing is your preferred method.
Lure selection changes with the water level. Eggers likes to throw shallow-running crankbaits, spoons and spinnerbaits when the water gets up to the weedline. The hot lure on this particular day was a 1⁄4-ounce Equalizer copper-plated weedless spoon by Precision Tackle.
The wind was out of the southeast, not really the favored direction. Nor was the spoon their favorite lure. Eggers prefers to sight fish with soft plastics, but sometimes you have to fish the conditions. The spoon was the best choice for the hand we were dealt. The spoon sure casts nicely through the 20-knot gusts. The retrieve was as simple as it gets: Just reel. Reel it fast enough to keep it from getting hung on the bottom. The key was proper placement of the spoon. Eggers caught most of his fish off spartina grass points. He cast beyond the point and the fish would strike just as the lure approached the spartina grass.
Henninger used the Power-Pole often. As we approached a spartina point, Henninger would drop the Power-Pole using a remote control around his neck. This gave Eggers multiple casts to prime spots. The wind made boat control quite difficult, and the anchoring device was a big part of our success.
As we approached high tide, Eggers worked the area with spinnerbaits. Throughout the Intracoastal Waterway you will find little pockets where the grass is less dense. Eggers cast his spinnerbaits into these pockets to pluck out redfish. Eggers explained that the spinnerbait was another great lure for windy days. He prefers to fish these pockets with soft plastics.
“On a calm day when the water is clear, we can see fish in the grass,” said Henninger. He likes to pole Eggers right into the pockets and lower the Power-Pole. “Then we place a weedless-rigged soft-plastic lure right in front of the fish.”
Eggers likes to just sit there and watch the fish; he watches how they position themselves. When the fish go from a vertical position to tipping their tail he knows they’re ready to feed. Eggers says sometimes in tournament competition he will sit and watch fish 10 or 15 minutes while waiting for the right moment to pitch them a bait. “It’s so cool to watch them flare their gills when they grab the soft plastic,” said Eggers.
Eggers says these creeks are the last of the unexplored creeks in the Jacksonville region. It’s different because it’s not “honey-hole fishing.” You won’t really find an oyster bar that holds redfish on the last of the outgoi
ng tide or first of the incoming tide which is the way most have success for redfish in some of the more popular tidal creeks in the Intracoastal Waterway. Eggers believes that a lot of the redfish that have really been pressured have moved to these skinny creeks to avoid being harassed by fishermen. Eggers suspects the fish are more likely to take your offering in these less pressured creeks. He also says that the amount of forage—finger mullet, mudminnows, blue crabs and shrimp—in these skinny creeks makes them extremely inviting to redfish.
One of the fastest growing sports in the Jacksonville area is kayak fishing, and redfish are perhaps the most popular species targeted from a kayak in Northeast Florida. The no-name creeks of the ICW are without a doubt kayak-friendly. The kayak may be the best way to access them but I have my doubts about the Henninger-and-Eggers patented, over-the-grass, creek-to-creek redfish cast sitting down in a kayak. FS