Use creeks and cuts to plot your fishing course.
By Sam Hudson
“He who covers the most shoreline wins,” said Capt. Kent Gibbens, as we meandered along a spartina-
spiked edge encompassing the western portion of Tomoka Basin. If you’re not fishing up a creek in this part of a state, you’re probably fishing outside one. Ahead was a series of cuts that could have been pulled from any of the salty waters that spatter the upper east-coast watershed from Daytona Beach to St. Augustine. It’s a great place to learn about fishing Florida creeks.
A pack of reds stationed at the mouth of a creek was definitely aware of our boat’s location. No tails pierced the surface, but we watched the school circle around the area, making wakes as they roamed. The water’s surface looked like a group of oversize sandpiper prints left in the sand.
Waters along this zone are tidally influenced by St. Augustine, Matanzas and Ponce inlets. Coastal swamp marsh and wetlands, and even artesian wells, drain fresh water to create the estuarine mix.
Kent quietly anchored near a bar where the reds kept touching base. Then he cast a topwater Storm Chug Bug toward the front of the school. He worked the plug slowly, and an enthusiastic redfish quickly located it. The drum did its best imitation of a porpoising dolphin, eventually mouthing the plug after two misses. The slot fish darted all over the mud flat until Kent finally grabbed it with a lip-gripper.
“Starting with that first cold snap, these reds begin to school,” explained Gibbens as he released the fish. “They’ll hang together all the way until July. They move up and down this shoreline and are liable to be anywhere along the creek mouths.”
When reds school during cool water months, savvy anglers don’t chase after them. Observe their movements and figure out where the spot-tails want to be. Usually it’s a forage area or optimal water temperature keeping them in one location. As a tipoff, look for bait schools. During low tide, reds often hang in deeper sections near shallow bars outside of creek mouths. On the high, reds may sit on top of the bar or head up a creek. Bonus points if structure such as oysters, rocks and pilings are nearby.
We played with the reds—three landed, along with a couple of failed hookups, in an hour—until the fog lifted and took the school with it. Our redfish catches on the Tomoka Flats illustrated what most Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) creek fishermen should already know. Nothing beats putting in the hours on the water to wade through productive and idle water.
Kent’s been fishing these waters for decades, but even he can’t tell the fish where to be. “Just because guide and god begin with the same letter of the alphabet doesn’t mean we are related,” he likes to say.
You might cast to every cut and creek along a shoreline with little results. And some trips you might come home with nothing but a sore casting arm. But that doesn’t have to be. And there are definite indicators to look for when identifying top areas to fish in these creeks, ranging from New Smyrna Beach all the way to Jacksonville.
Some creeks are so big they should be treated like rivers. Fishing the mouth of a large creek is pointless if it lacks any physical attributes that attract gamefish. The lone exception is a drastic depth change that can “hole-up” fish in extreme summer heat or winter cold. Instead, head up that large creek, cover
that ICW channel edge, or search out that bay until you find attractive creek mouths. The majority of creek-caught fish are hooked at the entrance. Most anglers who fish “creeks” are really fishing “creek mouths.” But what makes an attractive creek mouth? Not every creek mouth holds fish.
Make sure the creek is influenced by the tide. If the cut is only a couple inches deep at high tide, reds and trout won’t venture inside after crabs, shrimp and baitfish because they won’t fit. Plus, they’re extremely vulnerable to predators such as eagles and ospreys. It’s best to fish outside of creeks like this, especially during low tides.
More often than not, there’s a deeper ledge or hole in front of the opening. Always cast to that section before running it over with a trolling motor or paddle. Creek bends also tend to feature deep holes, as tidal currents can scour the bottom. Deep waters near shallow serve as ambush points. It can be a ledge, an embankment or a hole—they’re all worth a try.
If the creek sees a fair amount of tidal movement, that’s a positive indicator. Fish the creek at different tidal ranges to figure out where fish like seatrout, redfish and flounder are holding at different stages. During high tide, creep back into the cut, casting toward shorelines, overhangs, eddies and oyster beds. Keep in mind some of the best creeks won’t fit a motor boat. There, kayakers have the advantage.
Captain Kent Gibbens likes to fish MirrorOlure plugs in these scenarios. Other top lures include the Bomber Badonk-A-Donk, Sebile Stick Shad and Rapala Glidin Rap. If the creek is rich in structure, cast weedless spoons and soft baits to save time re-rigging. A medium-action spinning or casting outfit loaded with 8- to 20-pound-test polyethylene line is ideal for this type of fishing. Bump up to 30- or 40-pound fluorocarbon leader when fishing near structure. Water in mud creeks and on mud flats stirs up easily, so your leader won’t be visible.
Always cast upcurrent and let your presentation swim naturally with the moving water. Tidal stage is not as important as water movement—there must be water flow of some kind. Hit the points and allow the lure to sweep across the mouth, and then work the bait away from the shore. Snook, seatrout, tarpon and reds will follow a lure and hit far away from the shore.
Kent squashes the barbs down on his trebles for quick releases. He’ll also “crush the barbs to easily remove hooks from hands or clothing.” On our day of fishing, we had the “ladyfish shake” down to a science. After we hooked a ladyfish, they would jump once or twice next to the boat and then they’d come undone.
The sun lifted over the cabbage palms, and we were off to the headwaters of the Tomoka River to test a few other creek tactics. Running up river reminded me of my home waters of Spruce Creek, a half-hour south.
When I used to fish Spruce Creek regularly, I’d always look forward to the winter and spring months. Snook, redfish and tarpon hunker down in the upper regions to find refuge in the warmer waters. They’d hang there well into April before heading back to the Intracoastal. There were days when my dad and I caught 30 snook in an afternoon on chartreuse jigs, just reeling the baits slowly.
One chilly evening we anchored in front a creek mouth and caught oversize snook, one after another on paddle-tail jigs. A pelican grabbed at a snook hooked to my line, but couldn’t fit it in its mouth. Darkness fell and freezing temperatures forced us to shore. That sustained cold water caused a fish kill that’s still being felt today.
Back on the Tomoka River, Kent and I headed upriver to search out fish stacked in these thermal refuges. The sawgrass landscape turned into cypress trees as we motored past docks and underneath bridges. Around here, the farther upriver you fish, the more largemouth bass and mudfish (bowfin) are prevalent. Snook and tarpon also hold fort near downed tree limbs and pilings. An easy-to-remember dividing line is the I-95 bridge, though recent rainfall can push optimal salinity levels up- or downriver.
Kent cast out a blue MirrOlure MirrOdine to the middle of the channel and started retrieving it slowly, with pauses and twitches mixed into his cadence.
I asked, “So are these fish holding near the shoreline or pilings?” I wasn’t sure what he was aiming at or aiming for. “These seatrout have been everywhere—along the shoreline and in the main channel,” he responded. “You need a plug that sinks to get down to them.”
I continued throwing a D.O.A. CAL jig and Kent kept up with his plug until we both started catching seatrout. “I’ve never seen these fish this far upriver until this year,” said Kent, as he held up a dark-colored trout for a photo. “It has to be from the lack of rain.”
Seatrout prefer salinity levels from 15 to 35 parts per thousand (ppt), though they can handle waters down to 0 ppt for periods. Too hot or too cold of water can push seatrout to unlikely areas, even fresher waters that are often reserved for bass, tarpon and snook.
What’s surprising was that as we headed downriver, fishing back toward the Intracoastal Waterway, we hooked a couple of largemouth bass. Largemouth bass prefer minimal salt levels. Research suggests that salinity levels above 4 ppt cause sharp declines in their abundance. With the water holding at 68 degrees
and the salinity level somewhere between 0 and 35 ppt, we were in an environment to catch just about anything. And we did.
Kent had a ferocious strike, but whiffed. I watched as an estimated 30-pound tarpon swiped at his plug alongside the boat. “That was a tarpon!” I blurted out. Not bad for 68-degree water. All Kent had to show for it were a couple of scales impaled on his hook.
Working our way down the shoreline, casting at creek mouths, underneath docks, near fallen trees and toward ledges we hooked into short “freshie” snook, ladyfish, dark-green largemouth bass, seatrout and redfish. There was no telling what was attached to our lures until we saw the fish.
“That’s why I guide this area,” said Kent, alluding to the abundance and variety. Top areas include Spruce Creek, the Tomoka River and Bulow Creek in Volusia County; Pellicer Creek and the Matanzas River in Flagler County; and Moses and Moultrie creeks and the San Sebastian and Tolomato rivers in St. Johns.
Kent pretty much grew up here, landing a couple of International Game Fish Association (IGFA) seatrout along the way. He still holds the record for 12-pound-test. Obviously, he is a bit more tuned into the records than I am.
“Take a look at the record for largemouth bass from a female junior angler—15 pounds, 12 ounces from Spruce Creek.”
A world-record largemouth bass—a freshwater species—caught in a salty creek from East Central Florida. This state’s waters can be weird and strange. But if you can figure them out, they can be quite rewarding.
Mindful anglers are always attentive to the tides, shoreline habitat and creeks around them but understand what really matters is what’s underneath the water’s surface. Figure out when to hit the creek mouths and when to move on. So get up a creek. The paddle is optional, but fishing rods are recommended.FS
First Published Florida Sportsman, April, 2011.