Break down the northern Everglades redfishery seasonally for best success.
Mention fly fishing for redfish in Everglades National Park waters, and indoctrinated South Florida fly fishers automatically think Flamingo, at the Park’s southern end on the shores of Florida Bay. Good reason for that—there may be more tailing redfish per acre there than anywhere else in the backcountry. Yet there is a lot more ’Glades redfish water to be plied, and much of it presents more challenging and diversified redfish habitat than your garden variety Florida Bay mud flat.
The Chokoloskee region of the Ten Thousand Islands is a prime example, where veterans long in the tooth normally think of the redfish run that takes place each fall along the oyster bars and islands of the “outside.” Not as much attention is paid to the labyrinth of mud bays, islands, rivers and creeks on the inside waters that harbor the lion’s share of the reds come winter. The reds move inland and back to the Gulf again like clockwork, so it’s a matter of knowing when and where to fish for them.
Capt. Kevin Mihailoff has prospected this neck of the Glades year-round for almost 20 years. One day in spring, while poling along 30 feet or so from the shoreline, a big wake materialized about 100 feet off the bow. “Snook? Red? Otter?” he recalls wondering.
“This looks to me like it might be a really big red,” Mihailoff said, angling the bow to give his angler a clear back cast, should the chance come. The wake closed in, and was soon in casting range. Mihailoff said calmly, “Robert, that is definitely a big redfish. Get the fly to him when you can.”
Though the air temperature was barely 70 degrees, there was a bead or two of sweat on Robert’s brow as he stripped out an extra few feet of fly line and checked his trailing loop alongside the hull of the skiff.
The enormous red drum glowed crimson and gold, standing out like a stop sign against the mottled bottom. Each thrust of its 9-inch broom tail brought it a foot closer, and without a word Robert roll cast the brown Muddler fly from his hand and got his line in motion.
Mihailoff quietly stuck the foot of the push-pole into the soft, muddy bottom and directed Robert to lead the fish by a few feet and let the fly sit. As the fly landed, the fish slowed, having detected it. The wake dissipated and Mihailoff whispered, “Hop it. Now stop it. Wait.” The fish rose in the water column.
“Now hop it again.” In response the giant fish flared its massive gills and inhaled the fly.
“You got him!” Mihailoff crowed. The fly line ripped across the surface and the water boiled like someone had hit the throttle of a 200 outboard.
“I’ve got him alright,” Robert said. “Now what am I going to do with him?”
Mihailoff spun the bow of the boat and the fish took off—luckily, not toward the mangroves. The fish plowed on, now well off the shoreline in open water where it wallowed and thrashed like a green cobia on a gaff. After 20 minutes of tug-of-war and photographs, the guide and angler released the red in great shape. At 39 inches and nearly 23 pounds, it was a big red for Everglades waters, where things are basically cyclic.
Snook season opens, snook season closes. The tarpon show up and the tarpon disappear. The only constant in the complex Everglades fishing equation is redfish. As stated, the problem is, if you’re fishing anywhere in the Park north of Flamingo, these bronze bombers are not always easy to find and they can often be even harder to catch, no matter what time of year it is. During the winter, water temperatures in the Everglades can dip into the 50s. During the summer months, surface temperatures can soar into the 90s. And in spring and fall, drastic temperature changes can confuse even the most seasoned angler when it comes to staying on top of the reds.
“Catching redfish in southern Everglades National Park is something that can easily be taken for granted,” said Mihailoff. “But, I’ve found that it takes a lot more effort to find reds than snook or tarpon in the northern regions where I fish most.”
Unlike Flamingo, where you find reds tailing on large grassflats when the tide allows, then hunkering in channels when it bottoms out, the northern region of this pristine environment actually offers very little typical redfish habitat, forcing anglers and guides, like Mihailoff, to improvise when trying to locate and catch them. The place looks more “snooky” if nothing else. Mihailoff is acutely aware of even the earliest and most subtle climate changes and how they affect the movements and feeding habits of redfish. During the fall months, as water temperatures drop, he finds that the best opportunities to catch redfish usually unfold along the oyster-lined shorelines of the barrier islands of the Gulf, but also in shallow backcountry bays. Although distinct environments, they both attract redfish due to good populations of finger mullet, a year-round staple in the redfish’s diet, augmented by plenty of shrimp and crabs.
Since so many fly fishermen prefer to sight fish, the best time to fly fish these areas is during the lower stages of both the falling and incoming tides. Baitfish crowd into the shallow water, and it is easy for reds to also forage on crustaceans at that time. However, this variety of food choices in extremely shallow, clear water makes fly selection a bit tricky. Mihailoff finds that natural colored Muddlers are top flies here. Deerhair Muddlers hang high in the water, making them excellent over craggy oyster bottom in a foot or so, and will take both cruising and the occasional tailing red. Add a weedguard to a Muddler, or any Bendback streamer that serves you well for reds elsewhere, and you can also cast right into mangrove prop roots or under mangrove branches with confidence.
Although redfish are definitely among the hardiest gamefish when it comes to temperature tolerance ranges, they can become as slow to eat a fly as snook when water temperatures are on the slide in the fall or as they hit rock bottom during the winter months. That’s when you have to find the warmest water around. Mihailoff says he enjoys some of the best fishing of the year by sticking to the shallow, muddy corners and coves of the backcountry bays where surface temperatures are the fi rst to warm under bright sunny winter skies.
“It’s no secret that snook don’t like cold water,” he said. “But, many anglers don’t realize that reds will flock to warm water, too, if given a choice. I find reds sunning in the same dark-bottomed shallows where I find snook during periods of cold weather.”
Mihailoff’s 16-foot skiff allows him to pole in water just deep enough to float a canoe, and, believe it or not, that’s where the majority of the big fish can be found when water temperatures plummet into the 60s. Shallow water is the most affected by changes in air temperature, but it’s also the fastest to warm up. Mihailoff looks for lee shorelines with clean water, lots of structure and soft, muddy bottom. Areas like these, especially those with dark, muddy bottoms, and grass or oysters, tend to hold warmer temperatures, which, in turn, hold more bait, which, in turn, draws fish to the area to feed. It’s just common sense, really.
In the backcountry bays south of Chokoloskee Island, Mihailoff fishes natural colored flies (brown mostly) but at times, brighter, more visible colors really seem to do the trick. White-and-red, black-and-purple, yellow-and-orange and chartreuse seem to fool both reds and snook in the dark tannic water.
“Sight fishing is really the key to successful winter fishing,” says Mihailoff. “If you’re looking to catch redfish in the Everglades in cold weather, just look for the warmest water and you’ll find ’em.”
Speaking of warmer water, there’s little debate that veteran Everglades anglers look forward to spring more than any other season. Not only is this the time of year when tarpon show up and the snook start smashing topwater plugs and poppers, but it’s also when you might see the occasional 20-pound red cruising the banks inside Lostmans River.
“I don’t know where they come from and I don’t know where they go,” said Mihailoff. “I just know that I always see a couple of monster reds in really shallow water every spring, and in general, spring is a great time of year for fishing the Glades, no matter the species. There’s fish on the outside, there’s fish in the back and everywhere in between.”
As is the case in summer, reds tend to stick to a little deeper water during the later spring months, which makes them a little tougher to target with conventional fly patterns. For that reason, it’s best to fish rivermouths and deeper shorelines with weighted flies such as Clousers and Deceivers, and specialty patterns like Tom Shadley’s Redfish Candy. Fishing a variety of subsurface and weighted or sinking flies like these makes it possible to cover the entire water column when searching for redfish in blind-casting situations. When sight fishing during the spring months, Mihailoff says size is a key factor in a fly’s appeal, and spring is when reds tend to eat a bigger fly best, especially in shallow water.
For these applications, Mihailoff likes 9-weight rods to handle a variety of flies. He rigs with 40-pound butt sections, and ties on 40-pound bite tippets in part because of sharp oyster bottom. His favorite big flies include deerhair sliders, woolhead mullet and any of a variety of patterns with rabbit hair strips, commonly referred to as zonker strips. Use them to blind-cast shallow, oyster-strewn edges and points, and when sight fishing in the skinny stuff.
By early summer, expect redfish to be most prevalent in rivers and deep channels, along deeper, current-swept shorelines and on the outside points of the barrier islands. Though not the easiest setups for fly fishing, baitfish pattern flies fished with intermediate and sinking lines can account for a few fish. And that is when good boat position is key. Mihailoff likes to put his boat in an area where reds will gather, such as an eddy, a deep hole or a shallow flat outside of a current rip.
“More often than not,” Mihailoff explained, “redfish will show up in areas like these at some point during the incoming tide. Sometimes you just have to wait a little while. But, I’ve found that, with a little extra effort, and by covering some ground through the course of the day, I’m able to find and catch redfish year-round in the Everglades.”
Originally written by W.H. Faulkner