Cool Weather, Clear Water; Are You Up To
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By Capt. Kevin Chamberlain
Of all the great fish we have the pleasure of chasing here in southwest
Florida, there's little doubt that redfish are my favorite, hands down.
And, winter is one of the best times of the year for these bronze
beauties. When the water clears up and the tides get lower, sight
fishing for these gamesters can be the ultimate challenge, especially
when casting flies.
This type of fishing is not for everyone. It can be tough and it
requires some patience. It's usually referred to as hunting rather than
fishing, and that's an accurate description. These fish are in
gin-clear, shallow water and they can be very nervous. Sometimes it
doesn't take much to spook them, and precision casting is in order
here. They can be tough to fool, and dropping your coffee cup on the
deck will probably not earn you many new friends.
Anglers using spinning or baitcasting gear generally won’t have too
much trouble getting the long distance casts often needed. However,
chase them with a fly rod and, unless you can cast a mile, wading will
put the odds in your favor. Though there are times when super long
casts are not needed, you’ll probably experience more hook-ups while
out of the boat.
Tackle in the eight to ten pound range is perfect to start with,
and unless you’re extremely proficient with baitcasing gear, spinning
reels will allow for more distance on your casts. A seven foot, medium
fast or fast action rod is a good match. For fly anglers, an eight
weight, nine foot rod with a weight forward, floating line and a nine
foot leader is all you’ll need. In both cases, a twenty to twenty five
pound fluorocarbon shock leader will prevent break-offs.
Probably the most rewarding way to pursue these fish is to hunt for
"tailers". These are fish that are feeding in very skinny water. While
they feed off the bottom, their tails will break the surface, waiving
back and forth as they search out small crabs and shrimp. Just getting
within casting distance can sometimes be a pretty tall order. The idea
is to present a fly or lure out in front of them and drag it across
their intended path, sometimes no small feat. If it hits the water too
hard, they'll spook. If it lands too softly, and their nose is buried
in the grass, they won't know it's there. It can take several casts to
actually hook up.
The only thing more satisfying than poling a skinny flat and having
tails popping up around you, is actually casting to one and watching
him take. The battle that ensues ain't too bad either. An early,
incoming tide is the best time to keep an eye peeled for tails.
Weedless baits are the best choice. I’m not aware of too many fish will
charge an artificial lure or fly with a piece of grass trailing from
it. Lightweight surface lures and popper flies will get their
While a redfish is grubbing, tail in the air, cast the lure or fly a
few feet past, and about two to three feet ahead and let it sink. You
can actually get closer, but feel the fish out and see just how nervous
they are. Then, when he comes off-tail, when the tail drops below the
surface, strip or work the bait back in front, slowly, for the hit. If
there are several fish in the area, resist the urge to put the fly or
lure into the school. Instead, cast to one fish around the outside, to
prevent spooking them.
A productive, but only slightly less challenging way to trick them is
to go for the live shrimp. Place one ahead of them, and more often than
not, they'll smell the bait and search it out. Actually, the shrimp
doesn't really have to be alive, but it should be fresh. If the cast is
accurate, let the bait sink and resist the urge to move it. Just take
in the slack, and when he hits, drive home the hook.
Redfish have an excellent sense of smell. Breaking the tail off will
put the scent in the water and if you rig it "Texas" style, it will be
weedless. Be bold, bite the tail off, and with a 1/0 or 2/0 live bait
hook (depending on the size of the shrimp), run the hook into the end
of the tail and out the under side. Turn the hook around and bury the
hook in the body of the shrimp, toward the shell. The hook point will
not be exposed, therefore weedless. Cast it as close to them as
possible without hitting them on the head (or tail) and they'll sniff
it out. If the cast is too long, drag the bait back into the zone and
let it settle. For more distance, add a small split shot just above the
hook eye. If they’re feeding in the column, instead of off the bottom,
a popping cork can be used.
A low, incoming tide when the sun rises is a good one. On low water,
reds will stage in deeper areas, waiting for the tide to push in. As it
does, they'll move up on the flat, spread out, and feed. Finding fish
stacked up in these areas before they move can mean hot action, not to
mention several tight lines and more than a grin to two. The secret is
finding them in these concentrations. Once they move, they'll scatter,
and the game plan changes.
On some Sarasota flats, redfish will gather in potholes. Locating a
hole that holds fish is a matter of paying your dues. You might have to
try several before that first hook-up. Holes are usually light colored,
sandy areas that are deeper than the grass surrounding them. They can
be difficult to see without polarized sunglasses, or at times of low
A good approach is a silent one. Anchor within casting distance and
fan-cast your lure or fly to cover the closest side of the hole. If you
don't get tight there, move up and cover the rest. Early in the day,
they’ll lay on the edges, where sand and grass meet. Points and
pockets around the holes are good areas to target, too.
Once the fish move up on the flat, they'll usually spread out to feed
in the shallow water. The higher the sun gets, the easier it is to spot
them, whether they're in the holes or over grass. Keep in mind
though, the higher the light, the easier it is for them to you,
Another way to locate them is by fan-casting artificial lures or flies.
Though the latter can be tiresome, you can cover a lot of water while
increasing your odds. Don't be in a big hurry while working a flat.
Take the time to cover the water. Cast until you've covered the area
within casting range, then move up about half the distance of your cast
and start the process again. Sometimes you’ll spook one or two, and it
does happen, but by taking your time, you’ll be rewarded in the long
As the sun rises, the water on the shallow flats will warm faster than
any other, and areas with dark bottom will warm first. Redfish are
fairly tolerant to lower water temperatures, but it may take them
awhile to get moving and turn on. They can be found over dark bottom or
on the dark edge of a hole early, and if the sun does it's job, in
potholes later on.
At times, they’ll be feeding in water just out of tailing depth They’ll
still be grubbing off the bottom, almost standing on their heads, just
below the surface. Some are so preoccupied, that many times, you’ll get
very close them.
Again, a quiet approach is preferred; these fish will be very spooky.
Poling the boat or wading are the best methods. An electric trolling
motor will work, but may put the fish on edge on some flats.
Catching an early incoming tide is not always the case, nor does it
have to be. Fishing in the afternoon heat of summer is a tough way to
go. The heat will shut the fish down, therefore, fishing either early
or late in the day is preferred.
In the cooler months however, the water temperature is low enough that
they'll feed throughout the day, with the tides. And, when the water
temperature dips down into the 50's, in January or February, it may
take awhile for their metabolism to kick into gear.
A recent trip presented us with a different scenario. High water early
in the morning had the fish feeding on the incoming tide and they
didn't seem to be too interested in feeding after the tide turned and
headed out. Not that they'll always adhere to that schedule, that's
just the way it unfolded.
At around 11:00am, we started finding redfish in potholes in 3 to 4
foot depths, and occasionally, one would eat. The tide bottomed out at
around noon and as soon as it started to move in again, they turned on
and started moving into the skinny to feed, waking and harassing
schools of mullet along the way. It felt good.
I poled the skiff onto a flat with more turtle grass than sand or
potholes, barely enough water to float, and waited. I was so sure it
was going to happen that I pulled the camera and was fumbling with it
on the poling platform. Then it happened. About 40 feet off the bow a
bronze tail broke the surface, waived and went under, then popped up
again. I raised the camera; the fish turned, waked and was already in
the next county.
"Sorry", was all I managed to get out. Even with his head down, that
red saw the movement, the flash from my watch, whatever. It was over
and the tension was thick. I couldn't bear the thought of that being
our only shot at a tailer and, by the grace of God, it wasn't. About 30
yards to the east, another tail, then another, and another. We were
back in business.
Though that first redfish was spooky, the others had nerves of steel
and were more preoccupied with the crabs, shrimp or whatever was down
in that grass, trying to hide. One tail would break and disappear, then
another. Occasionally two or three at a time would show.
A 1/8th ounce, weedless gold spoon landed three feet past the lead fish
and was slowly retrieved back. The tail dropped, a wake shot toward the
lure and turned into a boil when the hook was set. Though the others
moved off, it didn't matter. Five minutes later we had that camera back
out. What can you say? Life is good.
Of course, with cold fronts dropping down on us, this scenario won't
present itself every day. Best bet is to wait until a day or two after
the front passes, and the winds die down, then have at it. Most likely,
the fish haven't fed for a while and will be on the prowl.
A word of caution: winter tides are notoriously low tides. They can be
good for spotting those tails, but not so well for you if you run out
of water. Keep an eye on the wind and water. North winds will keep the
water from reaching the predicted tide height on the incoming side. On
the outgoing, they'll push the water out faster, and further than
predicted. Don't get yourself stranded in the backcountry. It could be
a long, cold wait. Also, there's no real need to be at the dock at
first light. Set the alarm clock an hour later and the sun will bring
that flat to life.
Now, you're on the bow of the boat, rod in hand, polarized sunglasses
and all. You've spent a good deal of time hunting, and maybe even
spooked out a few bruisers, without making a single cast. Your nerves
are on edge. Then, about fifty feet off the bow, maybe 10 o'clock, you
start seeing tails waiving at you. As you start to cast, and your knees
begin to buckle, try not to drop your fly rod in the water!
Capt. Kevin Chamberlain
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