Winter Fly Fishing in Florida

By – Mike Connor

Head for cover when it’s whistling. Stalk the flats when it’s not.

Saltwater fly fishing isn’t always about sun-baked flats kissed by light winds, and bathed by sparkling warm water and battalions of tailing fish. Sometimes Florida fly fishers have to literally run for cover once December cold front winds arrive. But there are some good alternatives to getting blown out on wide-open flats, inshore bays or out in blue water.

Sheltered waters not only give you a relative lee in which to fly cast, such environs happen to hold fish at this time of year, too. And remember that less chilly wind on the surface translates into warmer water temps in many cases.

When we do have a window between cold fronts, flats fishing can certainly shine. The farther south you fish, the better when it comes to water temps—and air temps for those of you who hang up your fly rods when you can’t wear shorts all day.

Statewide, redfish are the most dependable and widespread species for sight casting during winter. Before going into specific areas, here’s the general rule: Redfish are pretty tolerant of chilly water, and in fact show a propensity to school up as the mercury falls. That may or not please you, depending upon your favorite style of redfishing, and your past experiences with schooling fish. Whatever you do, resist the urge to “flock shoot” at redfish schools. Always pick out an individual, even if they are rubbing gill covers. Your accuracy will be better.

Baby tarpon strike flies with abandon in brackish and fresh headwaters.

Northeast fly fishers tuck into oyster and spartina-lined creeks where reds and trout look for a place to warm up. Such places also lend a bit of wind protection. Fly fishers from Amelia Island to St. Augustine seek out reds in some of the clearest water of the year, mainly on bright, sunny days during the bottom half of the tide. During low water, reds are easier to locate, plus, the shallower water warms up more quickly over the mostly dark mud and shell bottom. Expect water temps in the mid-60s this month, and fish that appear a bit sluggish. School fish will eat, however, due to competition, and a lack of forage at this time of year. Top flies in this area include black Clouser Minnows and various fiddler crab patterns.

Mosquito Lagoon will give up good numbers of reds, as will most of the northern end of the Indian River, and afternoon may be the best time to see them up shallow. Same goes for seatrout, which are far spookier than reds, if sight fishing is your plan. If the weather is mild, morning hours can be productive times to cast poppers and Muddlers to lee shore mangroves, or potholes dotting grassy flats, though cold spells dictate that you fish midday until late afternoon. The potholes and white spots, and spoil island dropoffs abutting the Intracoastal Waterway, hold your best shot at a big trout, and snook, particularly if mullet are available.

Mid-river Indian River spoil bars, whether submerged or sticking above the water, just may be your best potluck opportunity, unless there’s a big northerly or southerly breeze blowing “right down the pipe.” Cast a popper or diver, or soak a chartreuse Clouser Minnow or Deceiver with a slow-sinking line when the tide is moving briskly around a spoil point. Your catch could include trout, snook, bluefish, jacks, some of the biggest ladyfish of the year, and even an occasional pompano.

Speaking of pomps, more and more fly fishers are targeting them in peninsular waters. Once you hook one on conventional tackle, or in the event that you see them skipping in your boat wake, fish the area patiently with a sinking line, short 12-pound-test leader and a chartreuse-and-white, yellow, or pink Clouser that has lead dumbbell eyes. The heaviest you can cast comfortably is the best choice. You want it to hop along bottom and fall like a jig. The Indian River stretch between Sebastian and Stuart holds schools of fish this time of year. On the Gulf Coast, Sarasota Bay, Tampa Bay and the outside flats from Cape Romano to beyond Chokoloskee are productive. Fly fishers in Sarasota Bay in particular have been targeting these fish with good results the past few seasons.

Water temps usually don’t fall too far for a bonefish’s liking until sometime around Christmas, barring an early influx of “arctic air.” If you fish Biscayne Bay, figure on seeing more fish on oceanside flats than along mainland shorelines. Relatively warm ocean currents make all the difference. After a chilly night or two, the water temp on covered-up flats can flirt with the 70-degree mark (borderline stuff for bones) as can surface waters just off the flats edges. Yet an incoming tide can push slightly warmer water out of channel depths, and on a sunny day, the water will warm even further, putting bonefish in the mood to crawl up and look for a meal. It goes without saying that dark grass bottom is a plus, too. If given a choice, I would pick a December day prior to, or at least three days or so after a cold front passage. Since most December fronts are short-lived, winds typically clock back around to the northeast to southeast within two to three days, and the sun will get that mercury back into the mid 70s.

Reds go shallow during post-front warm-ups.

But do not expect many glassy flat days for tailers or that 7-weight rod you love for summer work. When the wind is brisk out of the southwest to northwest, the oceanside flats of Biscayne Bay are in the lee of the spine of the islands from Elliot Key to Key Largo. When fish come into very shallow water and grub around and tail, lightweight flies are fine, but for fast-moving mudding schools, it’s best to cast heavy, bulky patterns that sink fast, and that they can find in murky muds. Offer them a weighted Merkin crab fly, a Borski Bonefish Slider or Mangrove Critter, or a Kwan fly tied on a No. 2 hook, with a leader no longer than 10 feet. When pitching lead-eyed stuff, also scale up in rod size. This is not delicate casting per se, and a 9-weight rod will get the job done when the wind’s up. I would consider an 8-weight a light rod at this time of year.

Everglades National Park gives you lots of options. Many fly fishers prefer to work the backcountry waters from Whitewater Bay clear to the Wilderness Waterway as far as Everglades City for wintering snook and tarpon.

Classic Everglades mangrove snook fishing begins this month and lasts through spring. Depending on water depth in the back bays and creeks, you can pole along, or electric motor while pitching deerhair bugs and streamers to mangrove points and oyster bars. Top flies include Dahlberg Divers, Koneheads and standard poppers, though a Sea-Ducer or Deceiver may outfish the topwater stuff some days. This entails lots of casting to likely lairs, so pick a rod that handles bigger flies and loads well for mostly short casts in the 35- to 50-foot range. Whatever you cast, be sure to tie on a 30- to 40-pound mono or fluorocarbon bite tippet for rough-mouthed snook.

While these attractor patterns are go-to backcountry flies, have a selection of smaller baitfish flies ready—sometimes snook target killifish (a.k.a. gambusia or “mosquito” minnows) where the water is brackish or totally fresh. Tied on No. 4 or even No. 6 hooks, these little minnow flies can save your day FS

First published Florida Sportsman Dec. 1998

  • david azar

    Hi Mike,

    Great to see you're still doing your thing. Had a great redfish trip back in January with Capt Duane Baker. Took 10 fish on fly near Flamingo…great way to spend a winter day!

    All the best.,
    Davie Azar