Reds Love Flies

Around the state, redfish on the flats provide a nearly perfect target for flycasters.

In between dreams of outwitting a world-record bonefish, landing a washtub-size permit or outbattling the first 200-pound tarpon in the history of their sport, Florida fly fishermen need some steady nourishment to keep their reflexes in tune and their spirits up. As a fly fisherman’s meat and potatoes, you could hardly dish out anything to improve on the redfish.

In salt water there are plenty of critters, from pinfish to sailfish, that will gobble up a fly on occasion–many of them on frequent occasion. Still, none can quite match the redfish when it comes to the near-perfect combination of gaminess, widespread shallow-water availability, and general willingness to sample an offering of hair or feathers. It’s a trifecta of attributes that has of late earned the handsome species more flyfishing attention than any other Florida fish.

Of course, wide distribution is the starting point to earning that kind of popularity. As the crow is said to fly, the mouths of Florida’s two east-west boundary rivers–the St. Mary’s on the Atlantic shore and the Perdido on the Gulf Panhandle–lie about 350 miles apart. However, if some ambitious Georgia crow were to defy his alleged straight-line instincts and decide to make the trip by following all the nooks and crannies of Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastlines, he would arrive at the Alabama line too conked to caw, having flapped for about 8,000 miles.

One of the very few things that virtually all those watery miles have in common is the redfish, referred to along more northerly portions of the Atlantic Seaboard as the red drum. If you read old books you may also have seen it called the “channel bass,” which is a particularly inappropriate name to those who chase the fish with a fly, because they hunt for action over flats and oyster bars and along tidal shorelines, in some of the shallowest waters that could possibly float a decent fish.

No telling when the first red was caught on a fly, or where. The original victim was possibly done in elsewhere, but if it did fall prey to a fly in Florida, it was probably part of a mixed bag somewhere along the upper half of the Atlantic Coast. Fly fishing, after all, is the oldest form of rod-and-reeling, and fly fishermen have always been adventuresome, to say nothing of slightly nutty. If it swims, he will go for it, and the occasional flyfisher who ventured this far south early in the century, or before the turn of it, was certainly no exception.

As a modern and full-fledged sport, however, casting to redfish by sight developed in the Florida Keys shortly before and after World War II as a spinoff from bonefishing. On some flats in Florida Bay, guides and anglers began spotting “bonefish” with strange dark tails, sometimes protruding high enough above the surface to expose a black spot at the base. They were not bonefish at all, of course, but redfish. Maybe some visiting anglers were tempted to call them “channel bass” but how could they say such a thing about a fish rooting around in bare inches of water?

Once over their surprise, those pioneering anglers were pleased to discover that these redfish would succumb to the same baits and tactics used for bonefish, but with one glaring difference: The redfish succumbed much more readily. In fact, they often appeared eagerly cooperative, even with anglers throwing flies–a trait you would never find listed on the resume of a bonefish. And so they remain today–not only in Florida Bay but all over the state, where the history of shallow-water redfishing is far shorter than it is in the Keys. Believe it or not, less than 20 years have passed since substantial numbers of anglers on either coast of Central and North Florida “discovered” that redfish could be routinely found on skinny flats in their own angling neighborhoods and that, moreover, those fish are just as willing to gobble up flies as they are to gulp jigs, spoons or plugs; frequently, even more willing.

No great mystery surrounds that belated discovery. How could anglers have realized what delights those shallows might hold for them when they had theretofore shunned such water like the plague in order to avoid grounding? Today, however, Florida Bay has plenty of challengers as Florida’s leading grounds for flyrod redfishing–among them, the 10,000 Islands, Tampa Bay, Charlotte Harbor, Homosassa and the Big Bend, various Panhandle Bays and, on the Atlantic side, the Indian River, Mosquito Lagoon and the bays and marshes of the northeastern coast. Check a map and you’ll find that list doesn’t leave very much of coastal Florida unaccounted for.

To find redfish in fly situations, you obviously look for the shallow-water conditions they prefer. Beyond argument, the easiest and best approach to that little task is to engage a guide, of which good ones are up for hire in all the territories noted in the preceding paragraph and many more. The pro not only knows where to look for the fish but also does his best to make sure that you approach them from the most promising casting angle and are well-coached in the upcoming procedures. Often as not, the coaching degenerates from gentle lecturing before a fish is sighted, into Butkus-like bullying after they swim into view. Fortunately, the fly rodder is generally too excited by that time to pay much attention and so mayhem is avoided.

On second thought, there is an approach even better than hiring a guide–go out with a buddy who is one of the countless enthusiastic and experienced Florida amateurs who own top-quality flats boats and peripheral equipment. In addition to professional gear, he probably knows the local haunts of redfish about as well as local guides, and may possibly be thinking about turning pro himself. This makes him better than a full-fledged guide because he doesn’t charge you anything. Of course, he may not yet have developed the ultimate talent in guiding, which is the ability to wring a decent cast out of a customer by means of browbeating alone. But how much can you expect for nothing?

Lacking such a buddy, or the willingness to engage professional guidance, boat owners can start their personal search for good flyfishing grounds by simply sneaking into watershallower than they have previously been probing. How shallow? Well, it’s better if the hull doesn’t drag bottom too often. To pick a good average depth out of a hat, two feet is fine. Much deeper, you’ll have considerable trouble spotting fish in the water unless it’s exceptionally clear. Neither will wakes and other surface disturbances be as easy to make out. And if you hope to throw flies at tailing fish, you’ll nearly always have to go even skimpier than that.

Unfortunately, there is more to the riddle than depth alone. Huge expanses of flats contain no reds at all–or much of anything else. To thin out your search pattern, look for areas with hard bottom–rock, shell or live oysters. If the hard stuff is abundant but well scattered over softer bottom, that can be even better.

Florida Bay–the area where all this got started–is, paradoxically, the major exception to the hard-bottom rule in all of Florida. The reason is that there just isn’t any hard bottom in Flori
da Bay. But there is plenty of redfish food hiding in the grass and silt, and so the fish have made an exception.

As in all flyfishing, the heft of your redfish tackle will be largely determined by the size and bulk of the flies you throw. This translates to a minimum of about a No. 7 outfit, with No. 8 or 9 rigs being the choice of most redfish seekers, all with floating, weight-forward lines. Fighting strength is not the reason. Experienced bonefishermen, in a spirit of high adventure, may sometimes choose outfits as light as No. 4 or 5, which prove at least marginally workable–in terms of casting efficiency–because many popular bonefish flies are small enough to be thrown by them.

It’s different with redfish. Although they will often belt a small fly if they happen to take note of it, most redfish, regardless of size category (defined usually as rat red or bull red), are gluttons who much prefer to go after a substantial repast. You’ll enjoy much more success with redfish if you offer them streamer flies at least two inches in length–three or even four inches may be even better, particularly if you’re tossing them at fish larger than maximum keepers (27 inches).

But what flies? All who pursue reds with any sort of regularity do have their pet patterns and colors but, aside from making good conversation at the end of the day, those things don’t matter a great deal. General characteristics are more important than design details, and, as usual in saltwater flyfishing, size, presentation and retrieve are what might truly make the difference between acceptance and refusal. Good visibility is the starting point, and for that reason, various combinations of white, red, yellow or orange–perhaps with streaks of brown or black–will be found on the end of a great many tippets in Florida. Chartreuse is also high on the list, and it never hurts to include a dab or two of mylar for extra sparkle. Remember, both parties–angler and fish–should be able to spot the fly easily and keep up with its course without undue eyestrain.

As for other characteristics, weed resistance is always a good one no matter where you seek your redfish, not only in Florida Bay and other areas where grass is abundant on the feeding grounds, but also around emergent growth–such as shoreline grass and mangroves–or oyster bars. Nearly any pet design can be made weedless with a loop of monofilament to guard the hook, and will lose little, if any, of its hooking power in the process. Bend-back and keel-hook arrangements are other good solutions to keeping the lure unburdened by grass.

Sink-rate figures prominently in the equation as well. Rather bushy streamers of bucktail, polar bear or other hair will stay close to the top on the retrieve, and can be made to bulge the surface as you strip them in–a strategy that often turns the trick when it seems difficult to get the red’s attention. Of course, you can attract even more attention by using popping bugs.

When you want to get down deeper and faster, switch to more sparsely tied feather flies. Built-in sinking devices, such as metal eyes and epoxy heads, add sinkability if more is needed, but for redfishing it seldom is.

Proper depth has to be figured out on the spot. When in clear water and spotting mostly fully submerged fish, I like a fly that sinks fast and stays down near the bottom when stripped in by short pulls. A fast strip or two at the start of the retrieve may be helpful in catching the red’s eye, but once he takes notice, it almost always pays to slow things down, and to pause for a second or two between strips.

When you see a redfish tail sticking above the surface, it means that other end is buried at least to its eyeballs in grass or mud, and that’s when things can get tricky. You may have to try several approaches.

First, you might drop your sinking fly as close to the tail as you can–even touching it won’t usually spook the fish–and let it rest until the tail dips under. Then strip it once or twice. If the fish moves, or begins to tail again in the same spot, try something else, such as throwing a leader’s length past the tail and retrieving, with very short and slow tugs, into the zone where the rooting is going on. Or, you might wait until the tailing stops and the fish starts to move, whereupon you can try casting in front of him and retrieving across his path. Failing all that, put on a surface bug, toss it three or four feet away from that tantalizing tail, and glug it rather gently for a time or two. Hair bugs, or pointy-headed sliders, are likely to work better here than loud popping bugs. After expending so much effort just getting the tailer to notice your lure, you don’t want to risk chasing him away with it.

Of course, it isn’t absolutely necessary to spot a redfish, or his tail, before you can hope to catch one, although nearly everyone who gets hooked on fly fishing prefers to do it that way. Frequently, however, conditions are such that you couldn’t spot a fish in the water with the help of a seeing-eye osprey. Don’t despair. No matter where you do your redfishing, blind-casting can be a successful strategy.

When the water is too murky to see through on the open flats, and no tails are in evidence, the solution is to pick out “maybe” targets. The best of these are wakes and similar surface disturbances. While most of these are made by mullet, and many of the rest by needlefish and other pests, it won’t hurt to cast. At worst, you get good practice–both in casting and in reading wakes.

You will quickly learn to discount most of the mullet wakes. They are numerous, skittery and erratic. Occasionally though, a lone, large mullet will run a steady course for long enough to cast doubt. Then, the most logical way to determine the wake’s author is to throw your fly several feet in front (emphasis–in front) of it. If you get a boiling strike, the mystery is solved. The fish is a red, not a mullet.

Potholes–defined by anglers as any depression deeper than the surrounding flat–are also good blind-casting targets–so inviting that most experienced anglers cast to them, whether or not they have been spotting fish on the flat. Reds, and other species too, like to sink into such depressions and take things easy for a while. If you have a streamer on your tippet, pull it across the pothole slow and deep–several times if the depression covers much area. If using a bug, work it just as slowly across the top, with short pulls and long pauses.

One of the most untapped approaches to flyrod redfishing is shoreline casting–exactly the same, in essence, as you would do if working shorelines for bass in fresh water or inside snook in the salt. Spin and baitcasters do this all the time along oyster bars, mangroves and marsh grass, usually tossing weedless spoons or topwater plugs. Fly fishermen can easily do the same with a streamer or popper. The range is short enough–30 to 50 feet, perhaps–so that you needn’t wear yourself out with a lot of hauling and false casting.

The fight of a redfish is bullish and strong and punctuated by frequent eye-popping boils at the surface. The runs are relatively short, as a rule, but you still need a large single-action reel that has a dependable drag and holds substantial backing–at least 100 yards, just to provide a good margin of safety.

The mouth of a red is smooth enough so that you could probably tie your flies directly to your class tippet (if 8-pound-test or more) without undue worry about fraying. Still, I much prefer to add a foot of heavy tippet–20-pound test, or even 30–to the lighter one.

That’s partly because I don’t want to sweat things out any more than necessary whenever an extra-big red–say a 15 or 20-pounder–decides to hook himself up to my outfit. But it’s mostly because, as near-perfect as it may seem, flyrod redfishing is not really a perfect sport.

Nobody has yet figured out a way to keep such interlopers as snook, small tarpon, jacks, sharks, and barracuda from sticking their noses into a redfisherman’s business.

A Few Redfish Tips….

WHEN TO STRIKE BACK: The surging wake made by a broad-shouldered redfish as he charges a fly in foot-deep water is bound to set your blood aboiling. Your tendency will be to set the hook hard as soon as the fly disappears from sight. Bad move! Patience doesn’t come easy in such a situation, but if you can control yourself for a second or two, your hookup percentage will soar. Wait until you feel a tug before hitting back. Used to feeding on crabs, a redfish automatically proceeds to toss his perceived dinner to his throat, where his crushing pharyngeal teeth can go to work on it. Strike instantly, and you run the risk of pulling the hook, or setting it too lightly in the edge of a lip. By delaying your strike, you almost always will set the hook solidly–usually in tough tissue at the corner of the mouth.

WATCH FOR THE “HUMPS”: When an angler or guide announces–usually in a loud and excited tone–that he sees a school of redfish “humping,” he is not just talking naughty. What he sees is a school of redfish moving in shallow water–each sending up its own wake that blends with all the others to form what appears to be–at a distance–a small tidal wave. If you fish an area where a long stretch of flats lies parallel to deeper water, you can run the edge with your outboard motor and look for disturbances on the flat that might mean fish. A big, moving hump of water will not only mean fish, but lots of them and probably big ones. Your next move is to get well ahead of the traveling hump, shut off the outboard motor and pick up the fly rod or pushpole–according to your particular role in the operation.

SPOOKY IS AS SPOOKY DOES: Relative to the preceding paragraph, some anglers actually run their boats at the edge of the flats for long distances, hoping to spook a school of reds into humping visibly as they flee. Unlike bonefish, which endeavor to set a new marathon record every time you scare them, redfish normally lose their fear after a relatively short flight and can be fished gain. They may be more skittery this time, but they can often be coaxed into striking. This knowledge will stand you in good stead in many scenarios. For instance, if you start seeing puffs of mud from spooking fish while poling, or even slowly motoring, along a 2- to 3-foot-deep flat or shoreline, you needn’t figure that all is lost. Ease carefully away in a wide circle and approach the area again. Likely as not, the fish will have settled down and you’ll find them in the exact same territory, or not too far away. FS

Originally Published Florida Sportsman May 1997
By Vic Dunaway

  • Will Myers

    Article Quote –

    ” SPOOKY IS AS SPOOKY DOES: Relative to the preceding paragraph, some anglers actually run their boats at the edge of the flats for long distances, hoping to spook a school of reds into humping visibly as they flee. Unlike bonefish, which endeavor to set a new marathon record every time you scare them, redfish normally lose their fear after a relatively short flight and can be fished gain. They may be more skittery this time, but they can often be coaxed into striking. ”

    Promoting the use of this tactic – the “Burning” of shorelines – is not a good idea. The repeated use of this practice in Texas bay waters has lead to Reds permanently altering their patterns of movement and feeding, and in some cases, actually vacating once productive flats. Using your boat as a “fish finder” is not an ethical angling practice or an equitable way of sharing waters that have become increasingly crowded.