December 16, 2014
Get a few fly-caught redfish on your resume, then test your mettle against Mosquito Lagoon trout.
When the sun's too low for sight casting, Joe Catigano blind casts flats strewn with potholes.
Fly fishermen possess a rare trait. A desire to experience hot fishing, in its purest form, boils through their veins. Never mind that spin fishing is easier. Tempting gamesters with your own hand-tied creations adds a personal touch. Ready for a topnotch challenge? Slip into the badlands, Mosquito Lagoon's infamous shallows, to experience sport fit for kings and flyrod purists. Speckled trout pepper these flats. Camouflaged grass ghosts hold court along the edges of interspersed white holes, hidden to all except the most astute sight caster.
Finding them can be difficult; getting them to eat is even harder.
Counting the minutes until spring's predawn light shone bright enough to navigate Mosquito Lagoon's maze of sandbars, shoals and humps fed my excitement. Ahead lay a challenge I'd dreamed of for the past two seasons--pursuing Lagoon gator trout with fly tackle. Captain Joe Catigano patiently took the wait in stride. He carefully double-checked my fly leader, running his fingers over every inch, inspecting for telltale nicks. Satisfied it was up to snuff, Catigano announced it was time to go. Finally, gray skies soon gave way to daybreak's pale pink glow as he fired up the outboard and headed south, toward obscure, not oft-seen Lagoon backwaters.
Let me tell you, traversing the Lagoon before the sun rises high enough to really see the bottom is downright tricky. Several times I glanced over the gunnel, mildly alarmed at the seemingly too-shallow bottom. An array of subsurface features whisked by, disappearing in our wake at a clip slightly less than the speed of light. Joe never pulled back on the throttle. Instead, he trimmed the motor higher, and turned the skiff toward a tiny hole between two islands. With expert precision we came to rest in a small, three-foot by six-foot depression, without chopping even one blade of seagrass.
Pinch me. In front of my eyes was a shallow flat, neatly tucked behind a trio of scrubby mangrove isles. A humped ridge ran like a spine off to our right. Dark, green grass opened into irregularly shaped, shelly white holes a mere ten yards from the ridge's crest. I jumped onto the poling platform and silently glided the skiff deeper into trout wonderland.
From atop his bow perch, Catigano began fan casting to the first series of white holes in our path. He pushed the fly line long and low toward his target, using a minimum of false casts. Employing delicate finesse, he'd land the Muddler Minnow two feet beyond each light colored depression, softly dropping the fly onto the flat's mirror surface, barely raising a ripple. It became a rhythm. He continued his calculated blind casting with flawless form, picking likely hotspots. Grass ghost haunts we call 'em.
Cast, wait, strip, strip, stop. Strip, strip, stop.
His short, two-inch retrieve imparted lifelike action to the light pink-and-brown Marabou Muddler. I couldn't imagine any respectable trout ignoring the enticing, feather offering for long.
"Don't move," Joe whispered, barely pointing to a minuscule, lone depression some forty feet distant, cut by an old prop scar. "I noticed a silver flash, can you see anything?" he asked. Before I could reply, he pumped the line with one false cast and delicately laid the Marabou Muddler along the far edge of the hole.
The fly vanished into a hollow of another type; the kind made by a hungry trout that wants to eat. It was a strike best described to me by two Tennessee, smallmouth bass flyfishing addicts earlier this spring: a real commode flusher. Leave it to a pair of out-of-towners to coin an appropriate phrase to accurately illustrate a savage, flats-style surface slam.
Catigano set the hook hard, except this gator trout paid no heed. Joe never once turned the massive fish, now hitting warp speed. The trout blazed a trail toward a series of mangrove stumps. Then, it stopped scant yards short to initiate an unexpected, head-thrashing aerial assault. On the fish's third leap--that's right, it jumped--Joe's line went limp. He collected the fly line while I descended from the poling platform. Time to regroup. That bad boy ate us alive.
How big was his fish? We could only guess. But, both of us agreed on 10 pounds minimum, possibly 12 or 13.
My turn. After trading places, we worked our way across the hidden flat and never saw another trout. Not one. Plenty of redfish, but no trout. Happy redfish pushed on our left, teasing us without mercy. Ever notice how hard it is to think trout when a school of redfish flashes tails nearby? Catigano read my mind. He quickly reminded me if I wanted a gator trout we needed to utilize the early morning's low light to our advantage. "We'll come back to the reds later," he promised.
Our next destination bore little resemblance to the first stop. Flat number two's rarely visited backwaters were also nestled neatly behind mangrove islands skirting Mosquito Lagoon's eastern shore, almost due east of Haulover Canal. Yet, that's where their similarities ended. This flat consisted mostly of mud, with grass splotches randomly dotting the bottom. Adjacent to each grass patch was a rim of hard bottom. The white holes in this stretch were not holes per se, but fine, shell skirts separating intermittent grass parcels from mud bottom. Sparse bottom terrain made sight casting to trout much easier. There simply were not many places for them to hide. Grass ghost gator silhouettes stood out against the mud. Yet, we experienced one drawback. The trout could see us, too. Most blew from cover before we could maneuver into casting range. Wisps of mud trails crisscrossed our path.
Frank Bolin admires a gator trout.
Seventy-five yards down the flat we saw two husky trout slowly meander across barren bottom and take up station alongside a lone grass patch. Joe gathered up the sixty feet of loose fly line below his feet, and delicately punched it beyond the grass with one false cast. Again, his pink-and-brown Marabou Muddler whisper-landed on the surface. No strip this time. Both trout charged the fly. Show me a fly fisherman who doesn't relish competitive feeding. The Muddler disappeared in a gulp. Several minutes later, Joe worked a 3-pounder to the boat for release. It wasn't the double-digit mammoth that said adios earlier, yet it was a fine trout all the same. We were on a roll.
For the next two hours, we spotted trout, missed trout and enjoyed many ballistic crunches. Several times, unseen redfish beat target trout to the fly, erupting on the surface into a layer of foam. However, we solidly hooked only one of the wild-eyed redfish. Their bow wake, a.k.a. nose wake, worked against us, often pushing the ultralight surface fly out of the strike zone. On strikes where we did not see the fish clearly, we could still guess the species by the take. Trout and reds hit that Muddler much differently. The sneaky, grass ghost gators would slip under the fly, usually unseen, and slurp it quietly before charging away. Redfish were not so subtle. Every time an errant red spotted one of Catigano's custom-tied, Ken Bay Muddlers, it humped the water and attacked the fly with abandon. Teasing the blitzing reds with quick, short strips drove 'em crazy.
This day culminated many exploratory trips. Catigano stays on top of the trout and invites me along every so often. I've released many using my light spinning tackle and topwater lures. Yet, every time I cast a fly their way, I usually experienced that uppity, grass ghost sneer. I swear I could see these trout break a grin when I worked my favorite, Matanzas Inlet variety, Sea-Ducer through the feeding zone. I tried shrimp patterns and Deceivers, but never had a strike. Clouser Minnows kept snagging on the grass. During our search for a workable, productive fly, Catigano brought Ormond Beach flytyer Ken Bay into the picture. He showed Bay the terrain and gave him a firsthand look at these oversize, close-mouthed trout. Bay later contacted Joe for his color preference. Joe called me. My answer? "Chartreuse. I don't care what color they are as long as they're chartreuse. And maybe one or two pinks," I recall.
Let me clarify my color preference. I'm not an exacting disciple of fly fishing, still I really enjoy tinkering with the art. Truth is, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool topwater enthusiast. Chartreuse and pink are the colors I use to catch gator trout in my home waters. My records prove trout love these two colors. That's all. Catigano relayed my sentiments to Ken Bay. One week later, we hit the Lagoon to launch the Muddler probe. Seeking Bay's advice made the difference. There's no doubt that Marabou Muddlers entice Mosquito Lagoon's gator trout.
Of course, successful shallow-water gator trouting requires more than a well-stocked arsenal of Muddlers. Knowledge of trout habits is essential.
Gator trout often display characteristics that can help an angler guess their whereabouts. Veteran trout anglers pay keen attention to minute details such as water temperature and clarity, the available forage, bottom contour and structure, and light conditions. These factors all weigh heavily into the equation.
Mosquito Lagoon trout are mobile fish. They move often, continually combing new territory, and never hang around on any particular flat for long. Here today, gone tomorrow sums 'em up. The largest trout, gators of five pounds and better, are loners. These fish don't depend on the rest of the school. They graduated class with belly-whompin' honors. Although bigger trout roam in singles and pairs, sometimes certain flats will attract a loose-knit group of big fish. For this to occur, conditions have to be right. Water temperature is key when targeting the Lagoon's big trout. During spring, the shallow waters heat up quickly. Surface water temps may vary considerably on windless, sunny days. In March, we visited a klinker's flat and found a sunrise water temperature of 58. By 1:00 p.m., the temperature gauge indicated a major warmup to 71. Not surprisingly, the fish proved sluggish during morning but fired up in the afternoon, aggressively slamming baits across the flat.
"I believe spring and early summer offer the Lagoon's premier gator trout opportunities," Catigano explains. "From March through early June, the water temperature averages in the mid 60s to low 70s, the optimum range. I like early morning low-light conditions best. But, don't rule out a midday, summer shot. Trout make a habit of surprising you. I've pulled 10-pounders off flats with 90-degree water temps."
Catigano's fussy about water clarity. As are gator trout, preferring crystal, gin-clear water. Trout are sight feeders and rarely take up station in muddy territory. At least, not in Mosquito Lagoon's pristine flats. The most productive flats provide trout good ambush zones--points and white holes, and bottom structure such as logs, shell beds and other debris that represent optimum feeding spots and a good place for trout to hide.
"And don't forget bait," Catigano adds. "Easily accessible meals are a requirement. Always look for baitfish, anything from mullet to glass minnows. That's where you'll find trout."
On our trout forays, we used two distinctly different rigs. Catigano prefers to cover the upper and lower reaches of the water column. His "deep" rig, designed for 9-weight rods, is an interesting culmination of many hours spent plying the Lagoon's back stretches. He starts by looping 18 1/2 feet of leadcore line to a 100-foot shooting line. Next, he nail-knots a 12-foot tapered fluorocarbon leader to the leadcore line. He finishes the rig with 12 inches of 8- to 12-pound fluorocarbon shock tippet. Catigano developed this combination to entice trout that hug the bottom of potholes. Granted, this line is not easy for novices to cast, yet it is effective once you practice a bit. According to Catigano, with the leadcore-shooting line combo, a good fly caster can load the line with one false cast. This is especially important on days when the trout are spookier than normal. Then, success relies on fast, 60- to 70-foot casts. The leadcore line really punches it out there. He uses this line to cast the biggest flies like the Woolhead Mullet, a gator trout favorite.
Catigano's other line choice, suited for a 7-weight outfit, is fairly straight-forward--a bass bug taper floating line with a 12-foot, knotless, tapered fluorocarbon leader with a short trace of fluorocarbon shock tippet. He uses a non-slip loop knot to tie on his flies. Fluorocarbon offers two real pluses. First, it sinks faster than ordinary monofilament. Fluorocarbon leaders get the fly down into the strike zone. And it's reportedly less visible.
Stealth is a must for all flats fishing, even more so when pursuing gator trout. Keep boat noise, movement and shadows to a minimum. Even the overhead shadow from more than one or two false casts blow wary trout out of there. And trout spooked off a flat rarely return to hammer your fly.
A typical day on the Lagoon calls for two distinct flyfishing techniques. You'll be blind casting during early morning before the sun lights up the bottom enough to sight fish. And don't just hit those white holes that look good to you. Gator trout often hide out in the less visible holes, those invisible even to the most trained eye. Sight fishing is best during late morning until midday. A trout's camouflage makes them hard to see even on bright, windless days, and feeding trout don't usually sit motionless in the middle of a white hole so you'll need to spot them along the dark, grassy edges. I've found that concentrating on the edges of the holes for movement works best for me.
Presenting a fly to a Mosquito Lagoon grass ghost gator is not an easy gig. If you prefer easy fishing, stick to reds. And the sight of a double-digit gator boiling on a fly may over-stimulate some. And bore others. Me? I like it. And I've got a certain trout in my sights. One that rattled my nerves one early morning on the Lagoon. Come on back, Mr. Gator. I just want to play with ya. I promise to let you go. FS
First Published Florida Sportsman February 2000
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