Little waters hold some big fish in fall.
First, you’ll need to buy a blindfold.
That’s a critical piece of equipment when you start fishing hidden creeks where inshore fish while away the fall and winter. The blindfold is your insurance that your fishing partner won’t be able to show anybody else your secret spot. It’s either that or…you know.
“About the time you start eating spider webs, you’ll start catching fish,” my mentor Dave Webster advised me on my first trip with him to a gnarly little creek on the south shore of Tampa Bay. He had agreed to leave the blindfold off, but I was pretty sure he would have no qualms about following the alternative if ever I tried to reveal his spot.
He was not wrong about the spider webs. We pushed in to the point that the mangrove crabs were falling in the boat in clusters. Branches threatened to knock us out of the boat, and I was eating spider webs by the pound. But it was worth it—about a hundred feet after the first webs wafted across my face, I dropped my swimbait into the mouth of a 26-inch snook, which was just about all the fish I wanted in a creek barely 10 feet wide.
And the snook was not the only fish in that tiny vein of brackish water; we also caught two slot reds and an 18-inch trout on the way in, all on the 4-inch swimbaits. We found a place to turn around, no easy feat in these tight, shallow confines, and Dave then suggested we put aside the artificials and switch to the live shrimp he had bagged and iced before the trip. Popped the heads off and threaded the tails on 1/0 hooks. On the way back out we caught two pretty good sheepshead, a 3-pound black drum and a couple of sub-legal reds in the deepest hole by easing the bait along bottom. Not bad for a little chunk of water barely 300 yards long. And the great thing about it was we had the feeling that we were truly in a “secret spot;” we saw no other boats or any evidence that any had been there anytime recently.
Tiny creeks all around the state are among the last honeyholes left in these days when there’s a flats boat on every pothole outside. Their names are legion; every area of the state has plenty of them, and their names alone are intriguing; Bumblebee, Bullfrog, Big Trout, Little Trout, Blind Alligator, Graveyard, Nightmare, Moccasin and hundreds of others. Some of the best are unnamed and not even on the charts; currents gradually cut new ones through the mangroves, particularly in a stormy summer like 2004. And some old favorites get closed by silting, or blocked off by blown-down trees. Exploring the creeks is a constant voyage of discovery—which in itself makes creek fishing interesting.
They share in common that they’re too small to attract a lot of attention (with the notable exception of Gopher Creek in the Everglades, which sometimes has a dozen guide boats in it these days) but big enough to attract a lot of fish. The basic requirement is that there be deep water somewhere inside; if the holes are there, the fish will find them, even if they have to pass over hundreds of yards of water barely deep enough to float them.
Deep water is relative, of course. A “deep” creek hole may be only four feet, but some of these tiny flows have surprising depths, 10 feet and more where the currents are strong.
A few years back some friends and I found a creek out of Suwannee where monster black drum were feeding among the oyster shells. The fish were 30 to 50 pounds, and they were “tailing” in three feet of water! The creek was actually too narrow to turn the boat around in, so we wound up backing out of it when it was time to leave. But while we were in there we had almost constant action casting 1⁄4-ounce rootbeer-tail jigs to these giants. Not to say that a black drum puts up a stellar fight, even in a narrow creek, but it was awesome to catch fish that big in such tiny water.
There’s a dredge hole miles up Mason’s Creek, south of Homosassa, where redfish gather by the dozens during the cooler months each year. And they usually bring an assortment of eating size black drum and plenty of sheepshead with them.
In the Everglades, there’s a creek south of Port of the Islands where you can just about bet on seeing a hundred 3-foot-tarpon when you round one particular bend on a full moon rising tide, and that creek is no wider than a bass boat before it opens out into the bay where the tarpon hang out.
Why do fish go to these spots? Several reasons, probably. First, the water in the creeks is black from tannin stain and does not flush as much as water on the flats, and this probably keeps the water warm as winter approaches.
Secondly, when the rains stop in late summer, the creeks become brackish refuges for fish that prefer medium salinity—including snook and reds. The salinity is just right for growing a lot of oysters, and reds and sheepshead eat these, while snook and trout love the tiny crabs and killifish that live among them. And porpoises can’t get in the smaller creeks. Porpoises are deadly predators when the water cools because they are warm-blooded; they remain fast and hungry when the fish are cold and slow. Last but not least, in most of these creeks, there’s little or no angling pressure; most anglers don’t even know they exist.
In fact, finding these creeks can be a challenge. Many have “blind” entries screened by mangroves and sharp bends. To locate them, you have to study large-scale charts, aerial photos or satellite imagery like that found at Terraserver.com. But the study will pay off; the smaller the creek, the fewer anglers will find it. And though you may have to sort through three or four before you find one that produces, when you do locate a good one, odds are you’ll have it mostly to yourself, and that you can return to catch fish there with some frequency.
Just remember that you can’t go to the well too often; overfishing will quickly ruin a small creek, even if only one boat is applying all the pressure. I’m not inclined to hit my favorites more than once every two weeks.
Fishing these waters can be tough, too, especially in a full-size flats boat. You have to shut the outboard off to avoid totally blowing out the fish, and it’s best to avoid the troller as much as possible; instead, go in on a rising tide and let the water carry you. Tie off on a mangrove limb anytime you see a hole ahead and fish it thoroughly; holes typically occur where there’s a sharp bend, or a narrowing of the passage—the narrower flow blows out the sand and forms the hole.
In fact, a canoe or kayak, or a little one-man cat like those made by Hobie and others, is the ideal tool for fishing these little creeks—no noise, almost zero draft, and less mass—it seems the fish can almost feel the presence of a big boat moving in a creek, even if you’re poling. But then you face the problem of transporting your paddle-craft to sometimes-distant creeks. I have been known to strap my Hobie on the back deck of my bay boat to get it to where I’m going with the help of 150 horses rather than a lot of paddling.
Wading is a good approach where possible, but many of the creeks are too deep or muddy in the areas where the fish are, and overhanging mangroves make it impossible to fish from shore. Still, take your wading booties along and take advantage of them when you can, because you’ll nearly always catch more on foot than in any sort of boat due to the reduced disturbance.
Short rods and short casts are the order of the day, and unless you’re an expert at the steeple cast and the roll cast, leave the flyrod at home; space for backcasts is conspicuously absent in many of the little creeks. It’s not a bad idea to move your tackle up a notch for creek fishing, maybe switching to a spool of 15- or 20-pound microfiber rather than the 10-pound test you might use out on the flats, because you can be sure that encounters with tree limbs and oyster shells are going to be part of the game. Particularly if you’re in snook country, stouter tackle will be appreciated.
“Slow” lures are a good bet in the creeks because there’s not much water to cover; an assortment of swimbaits, which can be slow-hopped on bottom, a plastic shrimp you can drift with the current, and maybe a prop bait for topwater action, and that’s about all you need. Live or fresh-cut shrimp also does very well.
Needless to say, if the weather is warm, a 50-gallon drum of DEET is required to fish close cover in the mangrove backcountry. In fact, one of the Thermocell skeeter-chasers that are now becoming standard equipment for spring turkey hunters can be of great use in the calm, still air of a tight creek. And you’ll also want to be very aware of the tides. Follow the rise into the creek, and get out shortly after the turn; many creeks are guarded by shoals that are only inches deep—or dry—on low water, so you don’t want to get caught inside. (On the other hand, though, the very best fishing inside can come at low water; the fish are forced into the holes, and you can just about wear yourself out reeling them in. But you’ll need a kayak or an airboat to get out unless you wait for rising tide.)
Finally, a word about sharing your secret creeks.
You can be sure that sharing one of these spots with anybody will result in it being drained. Even if you show the spot only to your dad, the chain of destruction begins; your pop shares the spot with only his best friend—who then shares it only with his son, who shares it with only his best pal, and so on. Sorry, Dad, but you have to find your own secret creek.
It’s either that or the blindfold. FS
First published in Florida Sportsman magazine, print edition.