Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that over the last ten years or so the redfish’s stock has really been on the rise. It seems like lots of people have started reserving a week in the fall or winter for a trip down to the Louisiana marsh chasing giant redfish. From what I can tell, it sounds like sometimes people get lots of ‘em, and big ones. I’m going to be honest with this blog, and if I’m being honest, I never felt like I was missing much. From afar, redfish just never really did it for me. Maybe it’s because I’ve been in a committed relationship with bonefish for years, and there wasn’t really ever room for another flats fish in my life. But, as I’ve written before, circumstances dictated that I had to move to Florida, and redfish were one of the major targets to look forward to. To be sure, I was excited that, over the long term, I would be fishing much more than I ever had before. And if redfish were what was on the menu, I was gonna eat. But there’s a reason that people rave about Louisiana: it has the best redfishing in the world. From what I’ve heard, my part of Florida has redfish, but it is not Louisiana.
On my first outing, in which I had my tippet education, I felt like I was in pretty redfishy water: a series of six-foot deep flats, separated by channels, with a mangrove shoreline nearby. It felt pretty fishy to me. But, as I awkwardly balanced on my boat, I was out for maybe four hours and didn’t see a redfish. On my next few outings, I saw some snook, but no redfish. It was only when I was walking in a park along a sea wall, straining to see in the water as always, that I saw what was quite obviously a 15ish pound redfish cruise swiftly along the wall, turn on its side and aggressively yank something off the bottom, probably a crab, without breaking stride. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a rod on me, but I feel like that fish would have been pretty catchable. I had made several walks along that seawall before, and I would make many more without seeing another redfish. The good news was that that particular seawall happened to be a six-minute walk, albeit brisk, from my first Florida apartment.
The first redfish I ever hooked was at a low tide spot, casting along some rocks for snook. At that point, my success had been limited to lizardfish, ladyfish, one mangrove snapper, a catfish, a pufferfish and one snook that was quite nice. I had gone back to the spot where I caught the snook, except this time I was casting from a rock pile out to deeper water. It felt very fishy. I was using a fly I had tied for Hawaii bonefish: a mantis shrimp with tan rabbit strip claws and permanent marker mottling over a white shellback. I believe that fly, or one very similar, had caught me a Honolulu bonefish, albeit a small one. It was also the same fly that had caught me my very first snook. My fly landed probably in about ten feet of water and I stripped it back slowly alongside the rocks. After maybe ten casts my fly stopped, and I drove my hook into something about 40 feet away. The fish, or whatever it was, paused for a couple of seconds before making some deep, low-frequency head shakes. It was a good fish. “Awesome, another snook!” I said to myself. I adjusted my footing so as not to let the gentle waves push me off the barnacle-covered cluster of rocks I was standing on. The fish pulled all of the slackline that was floating around me and forced me onto the reel. The fish was strong. I would gain a little line and it would take it all back, stripping line off of my reel that would have been making a lot of noise were it a click pawl. This went on over and over again. Unlike a bonefish, this fish fought hard on the way in as well as the way out. After a few minutes the fish rolled on the surface and I was able to get a look at its copper sides and spotted tail. A redfish! Awesome.
If I could land this fish it would add significantly to my overall Tampa Bay record. After a few more minutes of close-quarters fighting I grabbed the leader and landed the fish, and suddenly realized that I had been wrong about redfish. This fish had fought extremely hard, very similar to a chum salmon. It had big, beautiful scales, super cool “double” pectoral fins, an awesome spot on its tail, and a lovable face. And I had to love the mouth toothless and relatively soft; along with that of a bonefish, it was one of the most hookable mouths I had ever seen. So, my first ever redfish had come blind casting. It was swimming around a super fishy spot, for sure, but it wasn’t the classic grass flat that one might expect. Having come from steelheading, where one fish makes a day, and not wanting to pound my local fishery too hard, I waded back to my car and called it a day. My first redfish, as well as my first snook, had been quality. That felt good.
That first redfish came pretty easily, but from then on it got more challenging. I returned to the city park seawall several times, and eventually saw some redfish. They appeared and then disappeared into the glare. I looked to my side and looked back just in time to see a fish finish nibbling my fly. It was one of those awful situations when the fish takes a bite just at the end of your strip, so you make enough contact to prick and thus spook the fish but not enough to set the hook. But, but…. Come back! The fish, and its group of probably three or four small ones, moved on. It wasn’t an ideal encounter. But, it was encouraging to be in the presence of redfish. Maybe they’ll be here tomorrow… But they weren’t there the next day. Over time it began to seem that they were totally unpredictable. I would go at low tide and see none. I would go at high tide, falling tide, incoming tide, and see nothing. Beautiful grass flats, presumably all a redfish could want, covered many acres of shallows. But apart from that random blind casted fish, and the small ones I saw that one time, I didn’t see a redfish for quite some time. It was only when I returned to the park and started deliberately stalking the edge of the weedline, where I might be able to spot one against the sand, that I finally saw another redfish. Why it was there that time and not on so many others, I have no idea. Again, it was a small fish, but enough to get me excited. The problem was that it materialized about 25 feet away from me, not an ideal distance for me to make enough false casts to get my leader out of the rod tip (I was fishing a 14 foot leader), make a decent false cast, and put this fly in front of the fish that had already moved several feet since I saw it. I can’t remember if I spooked the fish or if it refused the fly. Either way, I didn’t catch it. I saw about five more fish, all in the same pattern. They just ambushed me, causing me to frantically pre-false cast and try to drop a decent presentation with mostly leader in the air. The fly could drop in the right place, or it could fall six feet away, and with so much line, there really wasn’t much I could do about it. After a little while I stopped seeing fish, and called it.
Around that time I made a post on Facebook stating that “I have learned almost nothing about redfish.” They seemed to appear at random. And there just didn’t seem to be that many around. I follow the hashtag tampabayfishing and it was clear that some people were getting them, just not me. The only thing it seemed I knew was that they preferred swimming over a dark bottom if they could help it. I made many, many false casts around that same weed line over the next few weeks, and only caught ladyfish. I would often take walks along the seawall, peering into the buckets of the local castnetters. Often other fishermen would strike up a conversation with me. One day a grizzled, tattooed and long haired fisherman told me, “if you wanna catch redfish you’ve got to go up there.” He motioned to a little patch of mangroves about a quarter-mile to the north. “The redfish hang out around there. Yesterday I saw about forty up there.”
“Thanks!” I said. This was the type of information I needed.
The next day, on a rising tide, I walked just a little ways to the north and waded in at the spot the Florida Man had pointed me towards. The water was a little murkier up here, even though it was just a short ways from where I had been fishing. I waded in until the water came to my lower thigh. It didn’t take long for a redfish to appear. It was about thirty feet away, coming straight at me and it was moving slowly. I don’t know about you, but I hate it when fish move slowly like that. It makes it impossible to lead the fish. Instead, you must place your fly in that very limited zone where it’s visible to the fish, but not too close to spook the fish. That’s almost always a very fine line, especially with a pressured redfish. What’s more, again this fish was too close for comfort. I threw a cast. My fly landed maybe ten feet to one side of the fish. Probably too far for a fish moving that slowly. As my fly hit the surface, the fish did an about-face, accelerated slightly, and swam off out of view. My fly really wasn’t close to the fish, but it had made a mild spook. But not a panic. As the day went on many fish exhibited this same behavior. They seemed to realize I was there and move a short distance away, only to begin their ultra-slow cruise as close as a few yards from where they spooked. These fish are clearly smart enough not to panic over me once they know I’m there.
More fish started appearing, and a couple of times my fly landed in that magic zone in front of a fish that was in a feeding mood. One smaller fish followed my fly almost to the rod tip, wagging its tail excitedly like a cat, and spun around in a complete circle in its pursuit. The fish ate the fly almost at the rod tip, as I had long ago run out of line and started jigging the fly with my rod. My rod bent deeply as I stung that fish, which made a short run and unfortunately got off. That was one of the best eats I’ve ever had. I also hooked a couple of other fish that I hadn’t seen, as I was fishing to other fish. That first day at the new spot I hooked three redfish, but that was the easiest it got. Almost always, in the relatively deep, murky water and brown bottom, the fish would ambush me, causing me to frantically false cast and almost always spook the fish, either from my body, my frenzied casting or my fly. I have seen many dozens of fish there, and have never had what I would call a truly good shot. I would often see other fishermen there. Like many places in Tampa Bay, this spot is no secret. The redfish there get pounded by conventional fishermen as well as fly fishers. They’ve learned that anything that hits the surface means danger, which makes it extremely difficult to get your fly in front of a slow-moving fish, much less convince it to eat. There are some big fish, over twenty pounds, on that flat. I say “on that flat” because it is quite clear that the same fish hang around on that same part of that same flat day after day. Walk a few hundred yards to the south and you won’t see a redfish. What they love about that particular part of the flat, I have no idea. I still don’t really know that much about redfish. At least for now, I’ve largely stopped going to that flat, partly because I don’t live nearby anymore. Challenging fishing can be fun, but there comes a point where I’ve had all the abuse I can take.
Since then I’ve caught a few more redfish blind casting, a few casting to vague, hazy, unidentified clusters of fish around structure, and one more sight fishing. I recently started fishing a new spot- again, not a secret spot, but probably not as pressured as my first spot. There, finally, I have had some excellent shots at redfish. The first redfish I saw there was moving quickly along the mangrove shore, 50 feet away, in bright sunshine. I threw at it, gave it a nice lead, and the fish followed for a couple of yards. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the fish panicked and spooked, swimming right by me, shaking its head frantically, clearly thinking it was hooked. Probably because it has been hooked before. Since then, my “new” spot has proved to be almost as challenging as my first spot. The fish are highly pressured, and more than one has exhibited the same hook shyness. The one thing this spot has going for it is clear patches where fish can be spotted a reasonable distance away. I’ve fished there maybe five times and had a bunch of awesome shots, where I actually had time to regain my composure, make a couple orderly false casts, and present the fly a nice leading distance in front of the fish. Unlike that first flat, on this one the fish move quickly. That makes it easier to lead the fish, but it also means that I need to use heavier flies to get near the bottom before the fish shows up. I’ve gotten one, beautiful, pearl-colored redfish there that, after a very slow follow, took the fly less than twenty feet away, just before I stripped leader. I hooked another fish blind casting to the grassy area where many of the fish were coming from. From the deep, slow headshakes, I am sure that fish was a redfish, and it felt quite large. So, now that I do know a very few things about redfish, here are some thoughts:
- Roving redfish are unpredictable. They can be caught blind casting, but it’s all about being there at the right time.
- They do seem attracted to structure such as rock piles, but they seem to inspect them while passing through rather than holding on them for long periods of time.
- On certain flats, redfish seem to exhibit very high site fidelity. Once you’ve found a good flat, you can expect redfish to be there consistently, at various tides, at least for many days in a row. Those fish may not go to another part of the flat just a few hundred feet away, so if you’re at a new flat, try walking as much of it as you can.
- Redfish can be every bit as tough as bonefish. I’ve fished for dumb bonefish, but I’ve never fished for easy redfish before, so I can’t speak to them.
That’s about all I know. Which brings me to a couple of fishing tips:
- Use light areas of the bottom to your advantage. Not only in seeing fish, but also in seeing where fish are NOT. Try casting with your line over a light patch, and just your leader over dark areas where fish might be. That way you can blind fish, knowing you’re not spooking fish with your line.
- Use a long leader. I consider 12 feet the minimum, and often fish as long as 16 feet. I still spook fish.
- I use weighted flies, without dumbbell eyes. I have mainly been using a heavy hook, but I will probably start wrapping lead or other weight on the shank. With shots at such short distance, it is critical that the fly sink quickly, but it is also critical to minimize splash.
I’m still learning, but I know more now than I did when I started. I think that with my training in Tampa Bay, I’ll be ready for Louisiana if the opportunity presents itself. Most of my fish have come on fairly simple, drab flies, but I have caught fish, and sadly missed other strikes, from some of the spookiest redfish I’ve written about on surprisingly flashy flies, like the 5D shrimp below. I think that my local redfish see a ton of plastic shrimp and soft plastic minnows, but they don’t see many flies like I’m throwing. I have been fishing mostly shrimp, since I like tying them more than crabs. A local guy who was netting grass shrimp told me that that's what the reds are eating right now. Here are some examples of my shrimp, all of which are super easy to tie:
Foxy Shrimp (caught one blind casting a rock pile):
Hook: Size 2 or 4:
Eyes: burnt mono eyes
Rostrum: Fair Flies Fly Fur or craft fur
Body: EP Foxy Brush, coyote (trim as needed)
Underbody (optional): shrimp pink chenille
Hook: Size 2 or 4
Eyes: burnt mono eyes
Rostrum: Fair Flies Fly Fur or Craft Fur
Body: EP Shrimp Brush
Underbody (optional): shrimp pink chenille or lavender dubbing
5D Shrimp: (also excellent on snook):
Hook: Size 1-4
Eyes: burnt mono eyes
Rostrum: Two wraps of Fair Flies 5D Composite Brush, in Steely Pink Shrimp and Lavender OR Sparse Shrimp Candy Pink/Lavender OR Sparse Shrimpy Tan/Pink OR Shrimpy Tan Pearl (trim as needed)
Body: EP Shrimpy Brush, pearl
Underbody (optional): Shrimp Pink Chenille