Fly Fishing for Coastal Gamefish
A version of this article appeared in American Angler magazine in 2008.
If You Want to Figure Out What Fly to Throw, Understand the Habitat
Fly anglers who pursue redfish are simultaneously blessed and cursed because the redfish's diet is so varied (scientific studies recorded more than 60 species of prey in redfish stomachs). We are blessed because we can choose any number of flies that, with the correct presentation and a hungry fish, will pique the interest of a redfish. But we are cursed because redfish can sometimes focus on one prey type exclusively, and with such a large variety of potential prey we can go home frustrated and fishless.
These were the thoughts going through my head as I picked through my fly box for the fourth time in the evening. The tide was perfect - early incoming after a strong low tide - and winds were calm. Tails were popping up across the shin-deep grass flat as far as I could see. But despite what I thought were some good casts to tailing fish, each of the flies I used was ignored. The fish were tailing so intently that after multiple refusals I was able to sneak up on a few and touch their tails with the rod tip. I solved the puzzle only once that evening, with a small mud crab imitation.
If you've fished long enough for redfish, you've certainly experienced this same frustration. While we can't have all the answers all the time, we can use what we know about redfish, their habitats, and their prey to at least get a more level playing field. We could fill a whole book with discussions of what redfish eat in any number of situations, but when attempting to figure out my strategy for a particular day, I usually start with habitat.
Redfish are able to tolerate a wide range of salinities (salt content in water), from almost fresh to full ocean, which makes them perfectly suitable for estuarine and coastal waters, and is the reason we can fish for them everywhere from backcountry creeks and ponds to coastal beaches. Their ability to use just about any habitat means that you may find redfish in just about any coastal area you can cast a fly rod, so the trick becomes figuring out what prey they’re eating in these different habitats. A challenge to fly anglers is choosing flies appropriate for the situation at hand, but doing so from a reasonably sized fly box. In this article I’ll concentrate on the most common prey species eaten by redfish in a handful of coastal habitats.
Anglers are able to fish for redfish in seagrass beds throughout much of the Gulf of Mexico, the southern half of the east coast of Florida, some portions of the Outer Banks in North Carolina, and Virginia. In Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, Turtle Grass (Thalassia testudinum) and Shoal Grass (Halodule wrightii) make up the grass beds. In North Carolina and Virginia, it’s all Eel Grass (Zostera marina). Both Turtle Grass and Eel Grass are generally confined to protected areas because they can’t tolerate a lot of wave action. And although they require areas shallow enough for light to penetrate so they can grow, their root systems can’t tolerate frequent exposure at low tide. In contrast, Shoal Grass can tolerate more wave action and more frequent low tide exposure to air, so can grow in shallower water than Turtle Grass.
Why might this information be important to fly anglers? In simplest terms, we can use the locations of these grasses to clue us in to typical low tide marks. And why is this important? In the example of tailing redfish I gave above, I concentrated my efforts on areas where Turtle Grass transitioned to Shoal Grass because this is typically the first place redfish begin to tail once the tide starts to flood.
So what are redfish most likely to be eating when they’re in seagrass beds? The list is long (almost anything they can get their mouths on, at times), but a handful of prey are consistently at the top of the list. Here are the top three groups of prey I try to imitate when fly fishing in seagrass beds.
Mud crabs (family Xanthidae) feed along the bottom, and hide at the base of grass blades, burrow into the soft bottom, or scurry under a shell when chased. As their name implies, they are most often associated with soft bottoms. They are present throughout the year, so flies to imitate them can be particularly good patterns during winter when many other prey are absent. Flies to imitate mud crabs should never be given much action. A good pattern is appropriately shaped and gets to the bottom quickly. A good presentation, very close to the fish, is a must for these flies. I’ve found that round-bodied flies, such as wool patterns, are good imitations.
Swimming crabs (family Portunidae) are pretty well known to most fly anglers, and are the type of crab most imitated with flies. As their name implies, they are able to use their rearmost paddle-shaped legs to swim. Swimming crabs are voracious predators and scavengers, and always seems to be on the move. When pursued by a redfish, they usually try to bury in the bottom or hide. They may try to swim away before the redfish sees them, but usually dive for cover when pursued. Crab flies imitating blue crabs are best presented by giving them action until the red drum sees the fly, then letting the fly dive for the bottom. Del Brown’s yarn crab (aka Merkin), tied with a weedguard, is effective, as is its most recent variation the Kwan.
Juvenile mullet (family Mugilidae) are most abundant in seagrass beds in fall through early winter. In many areas the juvenile mullet will migrate out of the estuaries and southward for the winter, and fishing during these fall runs can be spectacular. But before they migrate out of the estuaries, juvenile mullet will feed many redfish. Redfish feeding in seagrass beds will often interrupt their tailing to ambush a school of passing juvenile mullet, and can be suckers for subtle surface flies like a Gartside Gurgler.
Other common redfish prey in seagrass beds include snapping shrimp, common shrimp, mantis shrimp, blennies, gobies, and pinfish.
Mangroves and Marshes
Although redfish will also feed on swimming crabs and mud crabs in mangroves and marshes, they love to eat fiddler crabs (family Ocypodidae). One of my favorite fly patterns to use along black mangrove shorelines and in salt marshes is a fiddler crab imitation. Fiddler crabs comprise 52% of the diet of South Carolina red drum less than 21” (Grass Shrimp are 19%, Mud Crabs are 11%), and 19% for larger fish. And my own examinations of red drum stomachs from black mangrove shorelines in southwest Florida revealed that fiddler crabs are also a common prey item in this habitat.
Fiddler crabs dig burrows in soft ground in the intertidal zone, or just above the high tide line, mostly in areas protected from wave and heavy currents. In the subtropics, they are most common among black mangrove pneumatophores or above the high tide line of a red mangrove stand. In salt marshes, fiddler crabs are common in low marshes that are routinely flooded at high tide, and along the banks of tidal creeks that crisscross the low marsh. Fiddler crabs usually are out of their burrows feeding during low tide, and retreat into their burrows during high tide. But the burrows may be shallow enough or some fiddler crabs may remain active enough at high tide to be found and eaten by red drum. Sometimes fiddler crabs will climb the stalks of the marsh grass during high tide, and I’ve heard some theorize that red drum purposefully bang into the grass blades as they swim through, hoping to knock fiddler crabs into the water. Whether by a purposeful act of the redfish or not, I have seen fiddler crabs knocked off the grass when the grass is bumped by a passing redfish. In this situation, a good ‘plop’ of the fly in front of a red drum feeding in a flooded marsh is part of a good presentation.
Killifishes (aka mudminnows, family Fundulidae) are also common prey for redfish in mangroves and marshes. Killifish are generally small (from one to as much as 7 inches long, but typically 2-3”) and earth-toned in color. Among the most common killifishes in mangroves and marshes are Mummichog (Fundulus heteroclitus), Gulf Killifish (Fundulus grandis), Sheepshead Minnow (Cyprinodon variegatus), Longnose Killifish (Fundulus similis), Striped Killifish (Fundulus majalis), Bayou Killifish (Fundulus pulvereus), and Marsh Killifish (Fundulus confluentus), with the species varying by location and habitat type. Fortunately for fly anglers, killifishes are similar in size, shape, and color, so the same flies should work throughout the red drum’s range. My favorite fly for these situations is a Mangrove Muddler, which should be fished slowly, with short strips and twitches. Other common items on the redfish menu in mangroves and saltmarsh include mojarras, mud crabs, swimming crabs, snapping shrimp, common shrimp, and grass shrimp.
Snapping shrimp (Family Alpheidae) live in burrows and are very common on oyster bars. Sometimes you can hear an oyster bar even if you can’t see it – the snapping sound of hundreds of snapping shrimp passes from the water through the boat hull, giving their location away. Although they can vary in color, drab earthy greens and green-browns are typical. They move slowly along the bottom or over oysters, and often retreat into shelter when they see a predator approaching. Snapping shrimp patterns should generally be fished slowly, and adding a small rattle is not a bad idea.
Gobies and blennies are bottom-dwelling fishes that rest on their pectoral fins, and dart about to feed or to chase off competitors. They generally don’t move great distances, and typically hide, rather than swim away from, feeding red drum. The gobies and blennies eaten by red drum range from brown to dark green, and are typically around 2” to 4” in length. Gobies are round like a pencil, with a larger head tapering to a more narrow tail. Blennies have a large head and slender tail, and are taller than they are wide, so from the side they provide a high profile. Dark clousers or weighted goby and blenny imitations fished around the edges of oyster bars are good bets.
Grass Shrimp (family Palaemonidae) are common in most shallow, protected coastal habitats, but can be especially abundant on oyster bars. Although they are small (less than 2” long), and mostly clear, they can be common in red drum stomachs. This is especially true during winter and early spring, when they are most abundant and other prey are less abundant. There are days in winter and early spring when red drum will ignore larger shrimp flies in favor of small flies that imitate grass shrimp. The Common Grass Shrimp (Paelomonetes pugio), and several related species that are indistinguishable by all but experts, is the most common species. Small, light-colored shrimp patterns work well, with my preference being unweighted or lightly weighted (beadchain eyes) patterns.
A Fly Box for Every Occasion?
Even within similar habitats, the effect of season on redfish diet differs by region. Redfish in the northern Gulf of Mexico, for example, tend to eat more fish in winter, while in southwest Florida crustaceans are high on the list during winter. This is mostly due to prey availability. Crabs and shrimp are available year-round in southern Florida, but are absent, in low abundance, or dormant (buried in the mud) during the cold of winter in the northern Gulf. Redfish off the coast of Louisiana gorge on menhaden in the fall, whereas redfish in south Florida miss out on this all-you-can-eat buffet. This doesn’t mean anglers have to have a completely different fly box for each location they fish, but rather a good selection of flies that represent the major groups of prey eaten by red drum.
Presentation is an important component of fly fishing for redfish. Very often, the fly must be cast very close to the redfish to be noticed. Although some may think this is because redfish have poor eyesight, it may also be because of their feeding behaviors. In seagrass beds, with their noses down in the bottom, they are surrounded by tall grass blades. Chances are that a poorly placed fly is never seen because it is tucked behind a grass blade, out of the redfish’s sight. Similarly, when feeding in thick stands of marsh grass, it’s tough to see more than a few inches. In this situation, a more pronounced ‘plop’ when the fly lands often causes a redfish to investigate the commotion and to find the fly. Finally, the water in many coastal habitats can be rather murky. In these situations, a small rattle added to a fly, or flies that move water, are more likely to be found by redfish in search of a meal
The Fisherman's Coast approach focuses on how coastal gamefish interact with their habitats and prey. The more you know about the gamefish you pursue with a fly rod, the more often you'll be in the right place at the right time with the right fly making the right presentation. It's about catching more fish.
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