Stealth, Fly Rods and Reluctant Redfish

Get out of the way and into the fish on the Indian River.

Florida Sportsman member Dj Dan Decibel with a great redfish on the fly.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” My words of gratitude came in rapid succession as we landed our third redfish in less than an hour. But this success was a long time coming. It didn’t come easy. For several weeks, I had known that there were schools of redfish on the shallow flats at the southern end of Mosquito Lagoon. Until now, however, I had been unable to catch more than one or two fish a day, no matter what I seemed to do. I was about ready to give up.

I changed locations from the grassflats to the shoreline to culvert mouths, hoping to find feeding fish. I repeatedly changed my method of retrieval, and changed lures until there was nothing left to try. I even waited to see if the fish that I located would feed on a different tide. Nothing seemed to work.

Rather than giving up, I called my long-time fishing friend, Pete Elkins, explained the problem to him, and asked his opinion on what I should do. What had become very frustrating for me turned to anticipation when he offered to come down from Alabama and see if we could find a solution to the reluctant redfish of the Indian River system.

Florida’s Indian River offers the best opportunity in the country to catch bragging-sized redfish in shallow water. That’s a bold statement, but since the banning of the nets just a few years ago the number and size of redfish has increased dramatically. The word has long been out that massive schools of redfish roam the extensive grassflats of the Indian River, the Banana River, and Mosquito Lagoon. As a result, fishing pressure has increased significantly. Today’s flats fishermen are good. They have better boats, improved tackle and are more informed than ever. Still, redfish continue to frustrate such anglers most of the time. At times, redfish can be difficult to find. They also spook rather easily. When you can get close enough to cast to them, redfish sometimes refuse every spoon, jig, and plug that you cast.

When I phoned Pete and asked him for advice, he first asked me why I thought it was that the redfish had refused all of my offerings. I really dislike it when people respond to a question with another question, but upon reflection, the answer was simple: fishing pressure, and the fact that caught-and-released fish survive, become educated, and the dumb ones become fillets. Because of the fishing pressure on the Indian River, redfish feed at different times and places. They have learned to recognize the most commonly fished baits, and they have developed a fear for their ultimate predator, the flats fisherman.

But redfish are redfish. They are going to continue rooting around for small crabs, seizing an unwary shrimp, or taking a fingerling mullet that stands out from the rest. On the Indian River system, it’s just that reds are going to greater lengths to avoid contact with fishermen. Places which have traditionally held fish no longer seem to have the same numbers. As more anglers learn of redfish hotspots, the fish simply relocate. They don’t move to better feeding places (one has to assume that the hotspot was the best feeding place), but they do move to a place where they can feed with less pressure. Even when redfish remain in a hard-fished area, they often refuse lures that worked so well in the past.

Like all fish, redfish detect vibrations in the water. Lures emit a repetitive vibration when they wobble. In time, the fish catch on to the very lures they’ve been caught on, or have been bombarded by time and time again. It’s simply learned behavior. If you don’t think fish are capable of catching on, you don’t give ‘em enough credit. To help solve my reluctant redfish problem, Pete has a sugestion: When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Or in this case, do as the redfish do-get away from the crowds.

“We need to fish some good water that other flats fishermen are not fishing,” Pete began.

“But they’re everywhere!” I responded.

“Then we just need to get into shallow water that few fishermen can get to. Water where only a small boat can go. Do you know of a place where we can launch a small boat that is near water that a flats boat would have difficulty running in?” he asked.

A quiet approach in a canoe allowed Pete Elkins and the author to enjoy multiple hookups.

I thought for a moment and recalled Eddy Creek, east of Titusville, at the southern end of Mosquito Lagoon. There is an unpaved ramp there that gets little use because the area has so much shallow water. I agreed to get my square-back canoe and 8 h.p. kicker ready that evening so that we could be the first ones there the following morning. At Pete’s insistence, I got a fly rod ready, too.

Pete is an avid fly fisherman who penned the book Catching Freshwater Striped Bass in 1977. I showed him several mullet flies tied by Florida fly tyer Ken Bay. Dressed on a 1/0 hook, the fly has a deer-hair head and a grizzly hackle body and tail. Bay colors the gill area with a red permanent marker and adds plastic eyes for a touch of realism. “These look like perfect imitations of finger mullet, I’m sure they’ll do the trick. We just need to find the fish,” Pete exclaimed. His 8-weight rod was rigged with a floating, weight-forward line, as was my 9-weight. We both tied on a leader and a mullet fly and stashed the rods in my van so that we wouldn’t have to rig up in the morning darkness.

We arrived at the Eddy Creek ramp well before first light. The ramp is on the barrier island separating the Atlantic Ocean from Mosquito Lagoon, and is within the Canaveral National Seashore. We were the first to launch and as the light came up, we motored a short distance to the extensive grassflats where we lifted the motor and began to paddle.

We were looking for relaxed fish. When we found them, if need be, we would cast the mullet flies from as far away as possible. I was confident that our mullet flies were unlike anything reds in this section of flats were used to seeing. Lagoon reds have seen every crab and shrimp pattern in the book. They were certainly nothing like the familiar lures they had likely seen time and time again. We paddled perhaps a half-mile across the grassflat when I spotted the tell-tale wake of what I hoped was a redfish moving away from us a short distance ahead. “Do you think it could be a school of redfish?” I wondered aloud. Pete began to paddle harder to get around and in front of the annoyed reds.

The redfish wakes disappeared. We wondered if the school had stopped, turned, or was just continuing to move away at a slower pace. Here we were in inches of gin-clear water and we had no clue where the redfish had gone. We paddled slowly for ten minutes, sure that we were close to where the school had headed.

“Pete, put down your paddle and get ready to cast,” I whispered. “We’ll only want one paddle in the water so that we don’t spook them again.” Just ahead, what looked like no more than a blade of grass sticking up above the surface gradually sank from sight. Then a second and a third one poked into view. After a moment, the grass blades disappeared. Fins! A school of redfish was directly in front of us, but if I stood to see them more clearly, they would see me, too, and surely spook.

“Cast to the edge of the school, as softly as you can,” I whispered to Pete, wedging the paddle into the soft bottom to hold us. It may have been presumptuous of me to suggest he not line any of the fish and spook the entire school. Pete has been married to the same woman for 30 years and takes directions well. He made two false casts then gently laid his mullet fly just beyond and in front of the nearest blue-tipped tail.

Pete made two slow strips and the tail disappeared. On the third strip, a swirl indicated that the red spotted the fly. Pete’s fly line seemed to defy gravity as it rose from the water when he set the hook.

Pete worked furiously to get the line cleared to the reel. Once the red was on the reel, its locomotive run pulled the canoe in semi-circles as Pete pulled in the opposite direction his fish wanted to go. He managed to pull his fish away from the departing school, and when the red was finally alongside the canoe, we could see that its copper color perfectly matched the tint of the submerged grass.

We maintained contact with the same school for the next hour and each caught another redfish. The stealthful approach that we had used to find the redfish kept them in a feeding mood as long as our first presentations were good. And the delicate entries of our flies didn’t put the fish on alert. Never did they feel more like prey than predator, for a change. We were able to hook a fish out of several more schools as the morning progressed and came across single redfish cruising in the emerging grass while we paddled and drifted in search of the schools. The singles required a more precise presentation-which meant multiple casts for me-to get the fly to land just right. So long as I did not touch or cross the red with my floating fly line, they accepted the fly.

By midday, the wind picked up, making it harder to detect redfish from a distance. When the sky darkened, I knew that it was time to get off the water. Afternoon showers were imminent. I was satisfied that we fooled the reluctant redfish of the Indian River system. It took stealth, fly rods, and on this day, an unfamiliar fly.

First Published Florida Sportsman Feb. 2005
By Larry Kinder