March 01, 2000
Wading flyfishers cash in on the Spanish invasion.
I admit it. I'm not the most talented fly fisherman in the world. Oh, I can get it out there where the fish are, but it's not always a pretty sight. I sort of take comfort in telling myself that except for maybe Ken Griffey Jr., or Michael Jordan, you have to be mediocre at something before you can be really good at it.
I also believe that the best way to get better at something is to hang around someone that already is. So, when my friend Tom Broderidge, a somewhat higher-caliber fly fisherman (sort of a Moe to my Curly) suggested we take a crack at catching Spanish mackerel with a new fly he had designed, I saw an opportunity to cop a free lesson or two.
Tom's level of interest in fly fishing can best be described this way; on the way to the boat ramp that morning he took note of my torn headliner flapping in the breeze over his head. Rather than telling me to fix the damn thing like everyone else who gets in my truck, he reached up, grabbed a frayed edge, examined it for a moment, and then ripped off a strip of the cloth.
"This might be good fly material," he explained, squirreling it away in some hidden pocket.
After launching our boat in East Slough in St. George Island State Park, we rounded Gap Point and ran out into the open water of St. George Sound. We had chosen East Pass for our testing grounds because it was likely there would be plenty of Spanish mackerel there.
After a 3-mile ride to the east, we pulled up at the end of St. George Island. There was already a line of boats and a line of anglers spread out along the shore. It was late March, and the water temperature had broken the 70-degree mark. Baitfish and warming water are all that's needed for the mackerel to show up at predictable locations along the Big Bend coast in the spring. Because of a mild winter, we had early spring conditions, and along with the net ban, we had all the ingredients in place.
Everyone there was fishing with the lure du jour for this spot, a bucktail jig with a live sand flea impaled on the hook. It's a combination best known for pompano fishing but also works well for Spanish mackerel. It's a good choice because most of the people who fish there are happy to catch either species. The water was alive. Schools of baitfish were sweeping by, and every few seconds a brief commotion would signal the end of a baitfish life and the continuation of the food chain.
We waded a few feet offshore and took our place at the end of the line. The fact that we were fly fishing on the beach in this part of the state made it novel enough. Spanish mackerel being the target made it even more so. The tidal current was running strong from our left to our right on its way into the Gulf. The white, sandy bottom was visible about 30 feet from shore where it dropped sharply into deeper, darker water. I started "windmilling" my line out, feeling a little like the one person on the dance floor that everyone is looking at and laughing at behind their back. After my second cast, I had stripped about half the line back in when a mackerel-driven V-wake appeared on the surface about 20 feet to my right and made a beeline for the end of my line.
I stripped the fly one more time, the mackerel corrected course, accelerated, and nailed it!
The hookup was immediate, and the silver fish began a slashing run in a panic. I could feel every bit of speed and energy as the fish ran downcurrent using the tide to its advantage.
I was stunned. I knew Tom was pretty good at the flytying table, but this was more than I could have hoped for. And it was no fluke; fish after fish brought the hammer down on those flies, striking with a careless ferocity normally reserved for real live, wounded baitfish in a strong field of competition.
It was great sport and another new way to fool an old adversary. Although we couldn't see the fish we were casting to, we had the right lure, and they were finding it just fine. We didn't have to move five feet the rest of the day. The most prominent feature of Tom's fly, which he calls the "Flasher," is a tiny spinner blade attached at the bend of the hook by a monofilament loop. The rest of the fly is basically a bucktail streamer that has a number of design characteristics to imitate baitfish. Among those are a two-tone wing material and a gold, Mylar body wrapped in a way that gives it a texture similar to the scales of a baitfish. Granted, mackerel will hit a lot of different flies, baitfish imitations and spoonflies in particular, especially if you put it right in front of their nose. But when they turn on a fly from a distance and race in for the kill, it means there must be some kind of prey response taking place.
Using the Flasher didn't require a lot of hard work either. An important part of mackerel fishing, be it with fly or conventional gear, is to work the lure fast to entice a strike. Interestingly enough, that proved unnecessary, and actually counterproductive with the spinner blade attachment. A simple, slow retrieve was all that was necessary for the blade to wobble and scatter light through the water. When it's working just right, the spinner blade, positioned at the rear of the fly, looks like the blurry tailfin of "motor-boating" baitfish. When it did come time to replace one, it wasn't because the bodies had failed; it was usually because fish had finally chewed through the 80-pound test that was holding the blade on. Tom has tried wire, but it's too easily crimped, and its stiffness restricts the action of the small blade.
When it came time to take a break and scarf down a sandwich, the fish were still biting. That's how good the fishing was. Spring and early summer are the best months here. The Spanish show up hungry and tend to concentrate in specific areas. Along the Big Bend area that includes the St. Marks River Ship Channel; the edges of the well-known "scallop bar" next to the channel's Range Finder Marker; the smaller channels leading into Spring Creek and the Turkey Point Research Station; and the passes and cuts between Dog Island, St. George Island, Little St. George Island, and St. Vincent Island.
There is a common denominator here--each of these places has shallow water next to a steep dropoff. In general, the deeper, darker channels are more productive at low or outgoing tides and when the sun is high. Tom describes wading along the edge of a channel and casting into the darker water akin to walking and fishing along a river. Take a cast, retrieve, walk a few steps along the banks of the channel and make the next cast.
"Even with just a 50-foot cast," he explains, "you're still covering a corridor through the water that's 50 feet long and 15 feet on either side. That's far better than dropping a hunk of bait on the bottom and dragging it back in. You can even pick the line up at 20 feet, after having covered a big slice of water, and still get the fly back in the strike zone in a matter of seconds. Shorter casts of 50 to 60 feet will also leave you more in control of the fly and will result in more hookups when the speedy mackerel strike."
By midsummer the mackerel become more scattered and less predictable. Many take up residence, or at least spend a lot of time over and around grassflats with deeper water nearby. Dog Island Reef between Dog Island and Alligator Point is one such place. Pelican Reef in St. George Sound, four miles north of the St. George Island Causeway is another.
The only problem (or not) with using flies (including the Flasher) over the grassbeds was that bluefish, ladyfish, jacks and seatrout climbed aboard too.
A more demanding way to catch mackerel on a fly here is to work on the schools of fish when they show up in St. George Sound or the deeper waters off Apalachee Bay. The sight is a fairly common one. A flock of terns, seagulls, and other assorted shorebirds begin dipping and diving down to a surface that's erupting in a war of attrition on a school of baitfish. The object is to get there before the frenzy stops, and then get a cast out before the boat scares them off. About the only thing you can do is set up downcurrent and wait for the fish to get to you. Tom refers to it as "cutting off the ring," and it works, to some extent, but it takes a lot of jumping around in between the chance to take one or two casts and one or two fish.
Whatever fly you choose, a sinking fly is usually the right choice for mackerel. We were using a short piece of 40-pound-test monofilament leader and were prepared to use an 80-pound-test tippet if the fish turned out to be exceptionally large. Forty-pound leader may not seem like much protection against a mackerel's teeth, but in almost every case the head of the fly and the knot was outside the fish's mouth. That was especially true of the Flasher. Tom feels that the spinner blade apparently changed the dynamics of the fly--giving it additional length--and caused the fish to strike at the rear.
Perhaps the way to look at choosing a leader is to start with the premise that the fly works best without any shock tippet, and work your way up from there. It's simply a tradeoff between the most hits and the most hookups. Another tradeoff is the heavier the leader you use, the slower the fly sinks. That's not much of a problem in shallow water or when the fish are actively feeding on the surface in the spring. But if you're trying to get below the baitfish carnage to the bigger fish hanging underneath, or down to the bottom of a channel, you'll need the fly to sink as quickly as possible. In shallow water over the grassbeds, you can use a floating fly line and adjust the length of the leader to the depth you want the fly to sink. An 8-foot leader will let the fly sink a little less than eight feet. However, if there's any kind of chop on the water, the line will rock with the surface and the fly will jig up and down on the retrieve rather than straight like a fleeing baitfish. With a sinking line, even in rough conditions, the fly will sink and stay below the chop with the line.
As we started to load up that day for the trip back to the boat ramp. I noticed Tom was playing with something in the water. It turned out to be that same strip of headliner material that would forever be missing from my truck. He was waving it back and forth, "admiring its characteristics" and planning a new fly design to try next time out. If it works as well as the Flasher, with all the mackerel we have around here now, I couldn't help but wonder how much headliner I would have left at the end of summer.