A Trav­el­ing Pro An­gler Of­fers Tips on Tackle, Flies and Hot Spots

Sport Fishing - - CONTENTS - By Pat Ford

had never seen a tail that big or that color. I’d heard sto­ries about redfish in the Biloxi Marsh, but on my first trip to Louisiana for mon­ster drum in 2006, I saw a golden tail the size of a shovel break the sur­face 50 yards ahead. My guide, Capt. Gjuro Bruer, ma­neu­vered his skiff into cast­ing range, and I man­aged to place the fly just a few feet ahead of this thing, which looked like a gi­ant koi.

The fly hit the wa­ter and the redfish in­haled it like it was the best meal it had ever seen. I set the hook, and the fish rock­eted along the shore­line, throw­ing mud and wa­ter. My hands shook.

I’ve caught a lot of big fish in my day, but noth­ing like this. My idea of a nice red was a 7-pounder in Florida’s Ever­glades Na­tional Park. This brute weighed more than 30 pounds. What a rush.


If I had to guess at the most pop­u­lar coastal salt­wa­ter fly-rod fish in the United States, I’d have to pick redfish. They’re not as ex­plo­sive or ex­cit­ing as tar­pon, or as elu­sive as bone­fish and per­mit, but for East and Gulf coast fly-rod an­glers, they’re eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble and ex­tremely fun to catch.

Redfish range from Vir­ginia (tech­ni­cally Mas­sachusetts) south to the Keys, and then north and west along the en­tire Gulf Coast. They tol­er­ate a wide range of wa­ter tem­per­a­tures and salin­i­ties, and eat ev­ery­thing from crus­taceans and mol­lusks to bait­fish. For food and shel­ter, they seek out sea-grass beds, man­groves, marshes, oyster bars, mud and sand flats and beaches. Each area of­fers some­thing to the fly fish­er­man.

Redfish weigh­ing less than 15 pounds can be landed us­ing most any fly rod. Th­ese fish fight strongly and stub­bornly, but they don’t make long runs and they’re usu­ally caught in shal­low wa­ter. There­fore, tackle choices re­volve more around cast­ing and pre­sen­ta­tion ease than on fight­ing the fish.

Fac­tors that af­fect cast­ing, such as wind and bushy flies, also af­fect rod choice. Most guides I know pre­fer a 9-foot, 8- or 9-weight rod paired to most any brand of salt­wa­ter reel and spooled with a warm-wa­ter, weight-for­ward float­ing line. Lead­ers can mea­sure 9 to 12 feet, with a 40-pound butt sec­tion ta­per­ing to a 15- or 20-pound tip­pet.

Many an­glers pre­fer an 8-weight rod for smaller reds, but I usu­ally throw big bushy flies. If there’s any wind at all, a 9-weight makes cast­ing eas­ier. For tar­get­ing bulls over 20 pounds, a 10-weight works best and han­dles the big­ger flies those fish pre­fer.

Tackle choices aside, the size of the fly can be the most im­por­tant fac­tor. Be­cause reds usu­ally feed in grass and of­ten cruise in murky wa­ter, fly an­glers must throw some­thing the fish can see.

My fa­vorite redfish pat­tern is a fuzzy vari­a­tion of Tim Borski’s Ch­er­nobyl shrimp. Tie it on a 1/0 hook and use bead eyes, even though it’s a shal­low-wa­ter fly. Most any color com­bi­na­tion will work, but I like brown or white and hardly ever use any­thing else.

Truth­fully, many dif­fer­ent pat­terns will catch redfish. Most come with bead eyes, are weed­less and mea­sure about 3 inches long. Don’t try to feed a redfish a bone­fish-size “gotcha.” This fish is look­ing for a meal, and it will eat just about any­thing it thinks it can fit in its mouth.

I bump up to a 5- to 6-inch mostly syn­thetic yet very puffy white fly for the big bull reds. I know it works be­cause the guides keep all my leftovers. The fly doesn’t re­ally re­sem­ble any­thing spe­cific, but it catches fish.

Try white, char­treuse or black col­ors on a 2/0 Ga­makatsu stinger hook. I use large, black bead eyes most of the time, but al­ways tie some flies with lead eyes for deeper wa­ter. Use a 9- to 10-foot leader with a 50-pound butt sec­tion ta­pered to a 20-pound class tip­pet and add a foot of 30-pound fluoro­car­bon as shock tip­pet for in­sur­ance.


In the south­ern parts of Florida and Texas, redfish gen­er­ally run smaller than their cousins in other re­gions, and they spend most of their time on the flats. Un­less you know the area and own a flats boat, you’ll need a guide.

To find the best guides, con­tact a lo­cal fly shop. A lo­cal cap­tain knows where the fish were yes­ter­day and runs a proper skiff de­signed to nav­i­gate the tar­get wa­ters. That ex­pert also comes with a trained pair of eyes to help spot the fish be­fore they spot you. How­ever, once the guide finds fish, the rest is up to you.

Flats-fish­ing equals sight­fish­ing, which is what makes it fun. Nor­mally, you’ll scout reds in less than 2 feet of wa­ter by look­ing for wakes, tails and bod­ies.

Of course, flats-fish­ing re­quires some level of ex­pe­ri­ence and the abil­ity to cast 50 feet ac­cu­rately — re­gard­less of weather con­di­tions. If you can’t get the fly to the fish, you won’t catch any, pe­riod.

What’s in­ter­est­ing about Texas is its va­ri­ety of venues. On the north­ern coast, the green­ish, dark marsh wa­ters of Sabine Pass grad­u­ally give way to the tinted shal­low ocean­front bays and la­goons filled with oyster beds and a va­ri­ety of marsh grasses. Those re­gions abut the nar­row, wind­ing canals of the back marshes and ponds near Galve­ston and Freeport.

The cen­tral-coast redfish wa­ters in­clude the jet­ties of Port O’Con­nor and the grass flats of Rock­port, all with shore­lines sim­i­lar to those in Louisiana. The main ex­cep­tion ex­ists in the rugged beauty of the south Texas, Port Mans­field and South Padre ar­eas. Imag­ine the crys­tal-clear wa­ters of Mex­ico and the Caribbean, and then add in the bright cop­per of redfish cruis­ing the white-sand flats and bril­liant-yel­low grass beds.

Trav­el­ing an­gler and worl­drecord holder Mered­ith McCord lives in Texas and fishes its flats for redfish ev­ery chance she gets.

The flats-fish­ing tech­niques and tackle for Texas mimic those else­where. But the vis­ual ex­pe­ri­ence can be breath­tak­ing.

McCord says there’s noth­ing like the sight of redfish cruis­ing a skinny shore­line with their backs fully out of the wa­ter, wav­ing elec­tric-turquoise spot­ted tails that can be seen from a hun­dred yards away. Any­where you can flats-fish for Texas reds, you’ll find that sen­sory over­load.

But be­yond that quin­tes­sen­tial vis­ual, if you’re tar­get­ing reds in Texas, you might also hear “the sound.” The sound of a sin­gle red pop­ping, gulp­ing and smack­ing on shrimp. Of­ten this sound car­ries across the marsh from two or three coves over.

Mag­nify that sound and it re­sults in a mu­si­cal “pop­corn” sym­phony per­formed by an en­tire school of reds feed­ing on flee­ing white shrimp.


My own per­sonal fa­vorite stomp­ing grounds for redfish in­clude South Florida and Louisiana. Ever­glades Na­tional Park of­fers prime redfish habi­tat with miles of flats. As you work up ei­ther Florida coast, the flats­fish­ing re­mains sim­i­lar from a tech­ni­cal point of view. Most of the fish weigh less than 15 pounds, but ev­ery so of­ten you’ll find a school of 20-pounders.

As you ap­proach the Mis­sis­sippi and Louisiana Gulf coasts, all that changes. This is where the big boys live.

In fall and win­ter months, the Biloxi Marsh and the coast of Louisiana can prop­erly boast the best red­fish­ing in the world. Boats leave from dozens of ports, and the runs to the flats can take any­where from a few min­utes to over an hour.

The marsh fea­tures a se­ries of shal­low ponds con­nected by chan­nels, all of which come lined with even shal­lower oyster bars and mud flats. An­glers who don’t know the ar­eas can find a lot of trou­ble very quickly, but the fish­ing is amaz­ing.

Most times, an­glers fish shal­low wa­ter that’s clear enough to spot a 30-pound red, but it can quickly be­come quite murky after a cold front.

As with all flats-fish­ing, you look for wakes, tails and bod­ies. The only dif­fer­ence be­tween here and south­ern Florida and Texas: Th­ese reds range from 15 pounds up to al­most 50. You still must put the fly in the right place, but you def­i­nitely need a 10-weight rod and a re­ally big fly.

As you move south and west to the Venice and Grand Isle ar­eas of Louisiana, the fish­ing changes a bit. The lakes, ponds and coves in th­ese ar­eas prove deeper, so you won’t see too many tail­ing fish. Look for big redfish laid up at the sur­face like tar­pon. You might see in­di­vid­ual fish or, in cer­tain ar­eas, schools of a dozen or more.

Most reds top 20 pounds, and again, if they see your fly, they’ll eat it. They’ll even at­tack pop­pers with gusto, at times.


Vir­tu­ally ev­ery re­gion of salt or brack­ish wa­ter in the greater Jack­sonville area holds reds, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal an­glers. Dur­ing the win­ter months, the wa­ter on the flats clears. Plan a win­ter fly-fish­ing trip around an af­ter­noon ris­ing tide. If you’re for­tu­nate enough to hit a warm day, you’ll find hordes of reds rush­ing up on the flats to feed over the warm, dark mud left ex­posed by an ear­lier low tide.

In spring, the reds work the edges of bars and creek mouths. You’ll find good num­bers of 18to 27-inch fish. Bushy shrimp pat­terns and white or char­treuse Clousers work best, de­pend­ing on how deep the fish hold. They can be in wa­ter from 6 inches to 3 feet, based on vary­ing con­di­tions of tide and tem­per­a­ture. Keep flies with bead eyes and lead eyes avail­able.

On warmer days, work a sur­face-pop­per or gur­gler pat­tern in white or in dark col­ors such as black and pur­ple. Watch­ing a redfish try to suck a sur­face fly or pop­per into its un­der­slung bot­tom-feed­ing mouth can be hi­lar­i­ous. The fish looks un­nat­u­ral and un­co­or­di­nated, but it’s the most ex­cit­ing sur­face-lure strike you’ll see.

In the summer, mul­let start to move through the surf, and that sig­nals “game on” for fly fish­er­men. Wad­ing the surf with a fly rod ranks right near the top of most peo­ple’s list of fa­vorite things to do, and the only guid­ance you’ll need can come from a quick visit to a lo­cal fly shop.

Find an area near any of the lo­cal in­lets with clear wa­ter. Let a good cast’s worth of line drag be­hind you and start wad­ing in about a foot of wa­ter.

Watch the waves roll close to the beach, and look for a red as break­ing wa­ter crests. Quickly toss the fly in front of the fish be­fore it heads back out to sea. The best fly choice: a good-size shrimp that sinks quickly. Lo­cals like the Surfin’ Wooly.

In Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber, reds cruise the marshes on early and late fall­ing tides. This means stalking in its purest form — usu­ally via kayak. Bump a pad­dle or come in too fast, though, and the reds you saw at a dis­tance mys­te­ri­ously van­ish.

Out in the St. Johns River chan­nel, the bull reds con­gre­gate. Dur­ing the full-moon pe­ri­ods both months, an­glers an­chor along the edges of the

chan­nel be­tween Blount Is­land and May­port. The bull reds, on av­er­age, top the 20-pound mark, and they seem to num­ber in the thou­sands. You’ll def­i­nitely need 10-weight rods and 400-plus­grain sink-tip lines with big lead-eye flies. Try a white or char­treuse pat­tern, and if that doesn’t work, switch to some­thing dark in black or pur­ple.


Chas­ing schools of bull reds off­shore is an en­tirely dif­fer­ent op­er­a­tion than flats-, chan­nel and surf fish­ing, but that spec­tac­u­lar scene hap­pens from North Carolina through north­east Florida and in the Gulf from Florida’s pan­han­dle past Louisiana. An­glers can ac­ci­dently bump into th­ese schools, but many guides, such as Capt. Sarah Gard­ner, out of Nags Head on the Outer Banks, ac­tu­ally tar­get them.

“It isn’t un­com­mon for us to find bull reds in 20 to 60 feet of wa­ter while we’re chas­ing schools of bust­ing al­bies,” Gard­ner says. “In the be­gin­ning, the most in­cred­i­ble, un­ex­plained marks ap­peared on our bot­tom ma­chines. When th­ese marks

started erupt­ing in huge, gold splashes, we fig­ured out that they were huge schools of redfish and that we had to be ready for them to pop up at any time.”

Big Carolina bull reds can weigh up to 80 pounds (the all­tackle world-record redfish — a 94-plus-pounder — was caught in 1984 out of Avon, North Carolina), so ob­vi­ously they pre­fer larger bait, such as smelt, bunker and croaker, which also at­tract big­ger birds. When the pel­i­cans, gan­nets and larger gull species start wheel­ing around in open wa­ter, don’t hes­i­tate to in­ves­ti­gate, Gard­ner says.

Sharks can also be a drum in­di­ca­tor, she adds, be­cause they like the same foods. On a calm day, you can see spin­ner sharks launch out of the wa­ter from a mile away. “One or two fly­ing sharks is worth a look, but a dozen si­mul­ta­ne­ous erup­tions de­serves full throt­tle and a shout on the ra­dio,” she says.

The car­nage hap­pens fast. An­glers must be ready to cast as soon as the boat lines up. “The key is to use a fly-and-line combo that will drop down in the wa­ter col­umn. We use gi­ant Clouser flies teamed with su­per-fastsink­ing fly lines that range from 450 to 700 grains. Get­ting the fly deep gets more bites, even when the reds are bust­ing on top. Get­ting down quickly also avoids the al­bies, which grab the lighter of­fer­ings,” she says.

Gard­ner al­ways keeps two rods rigged and ready. That al­lows her to keep an eye on the fast-mov­ing schools in­stead of fo­cus­ing on ty­ing knots and dig­ging for tackle.

She coaches clients in ad­vance of th­ese op­por­tu­ni­ties: “Drum prep is like a fire drill,” she says. “Ev­ery­one has to know where the big rods are on the boat and how to quickly stash al­bie gear. They also have to know when to cast and how long to let their of­fer­ings sink.

“If you’re not ready when a school ap­pears, you’re out of luck. If all goes as planned, hook­ing reds well over 30 pounds is the well-de­served re­ward.”


Now a re­tired Mi­ami at­tor­ney, Pat Ford spends his time tak­ing pho­tos and writ­ing about fish­ing des­ti­na­tions around the world. Ford is a found­ing mem­ber of the con­ser­va­tion group Bone­fish & Tar­pon Trust, has held mul­ti­ple IGFA world records and pub­lished two books on fly­fish­ing des­ti­na­tions. To see more of his pho­tog­ra­phy go to pat­ford­pho­

State reg­u­la­tions through­out the redfish’s range have helped th­ese hardy gamesters to re­bound. Be­fore you go, know the rules for reds in your tar­get area. And when han­dling and re­leas­ing any fish, par­tic­u­larly the larger bull reds, re­mem­ber to hold...

Right: Tie on a bushy fly in ei­ther white or brown with bead or lead eyes, such as this Ch­er­nobyl shrimp. Bot­tom: When pol­ing in the marsh, an­glers look for wakes, tails and bod­ies near oyster bars and mud flats. In fall and win­ter, the Biloxi Marsh...

The grass beds of South Florida wa­ters (above) at­tract school­size reds in great num­bers. The au­thor says many fly pat­terns tempt red drum, but he usu­ally keeps a se­lec­tion of bead-eye and lead-eye flies on hand. Left: Tail­ing fish set any an­gler’s...

Be­cause reds of­ten cruise in murky wa­ter, an­glers must throw a big enough fly for them to see. That means us­ing stout tackle for cast­ing: Try a 9-weight for fish to 20 pounds and a 10-weight for heav­ier bulls.

The au­thor, left, made his first trip to Louisiana wa­ters after bull reds on fly in 2006. The ex­pe­ri­ence left him truly ex­hil­a­rated.

In the coastal wa­ters off North Carolina, cap­tains have found enor­mous schools of redfish in 20 to 60 feet of wa­ter (be­low). An­glers watch for birds wheel­ing around bait in open wa­ter. Gear up with gi­ant Clouser flies and sink­ing lines that range from...

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