Fly Fishing for Coastal Gamefish
A fly that is cast to gamefish feeding among mangrove roots or resting in the shade of overhanging mangrove branches must remain in the target zone long enough for a red drum, snook, or other gamefish to see the fly and pursue it. The fishable area along a mangrove shoreline is often rather narrow, so a fly that remains suspended in the water column is a big plus. A second attribute for such a fly is that it have action, or imply movement, even if it is given only short strips. A third necessary component is that the fly mimics some characteristic of the prey that gamefish will be eating along mangrove shorelines. The Redfish Mangrove Muddler has all of these qualities, and has proven too much to resist for many red drum, and even some nice snook, resting in the shade of the mangroves in summer. Since first tying this pattern, it has become my go-to fly for fishing mangrove shorelines.
Another nice thing about this fly is that it uses leftover tying materials. All of the deer hair used in this pattern comes from the back side of the butt end of a natural white bucktail. Many tyers throw these portions of the bucktails away, while others have a stash stuck in the back of a drawer waiting to be used. So not only does this pattern catch fish, and is easy to tie, it makes good use of cast-aside materials.
Many of the small fishes you will find along mangrove shorelines, in nearby seagrass beds, and near oyster reefs are small and bland in color, often a shade of brown. Although I started tying this fly for use along mangrove shorelines, it also works in these other habitats.
Gobies (family Gobiidae) and blennies (family Blenniidae) are small, drab-colored fishes that live among the mangrove roots. The species of gobies and blennies will vary among locations, but they all have a similar appearance and behavior. These fish are generally small, brown to dark green, and they alternate between resting on the bottom and darting about to grab food or chase intruders from their territories. Gobies and blennies never make the top five prey items found in the stomachs of gamefish because they remain hidden in or near the bottom, are often well camouflaged to hide in their surroundings, and they are not highly abundant like silversides. However, most gamefish will take advantage of an opportunity to make a meal out of these feisty fish given the chance. In my research I have counted numerous gobies in the stomachs of red drum that were feeding along mangrove shorelines.
Other small, drab fishes are more abundant along mangrove shorelines than are gobies and blennies, and are more common in the stomachs of red drum and snook feeding in this habitat. Among the most abundant are killifishes (Family Cyprinodontidae), with Sheepshead Minnow (Cyprinodon variegatus) and Rainwater Killifish (Lucania parva) often the most common. Similar in size and coloration are the Sailfin Molly (Poecilia latipinna) and Mosquitofish (Gambusia holbrooki), both in the family Poecilidae. These species are especially abundant in brackish subtropical mangrove habitats. All are similar in color – brassy to dark brown/olive (some have bars, stripes, or other markings) – generally blunt-nosed, and somewhat cigar-shaped, and grow up to 2 or 3 inches in length.
While winter is probably the best time to fish for tailing red drum in subtropical grass beds, during the heat of summer, red drum often feed in the shade of red mangroves. On average, in much of red drum’s subtropical range, day-time tides are generally higher in summer when lowest tides tend to be at night. The high daytime tides of summer in much of the red drum’s subtropical range help them in several ways. First, red drum use the shade of the mangroves to find cooler water. Second, high daytime tides of summer allow red drum access farther back into the red mangrove prop roots and even into the flooded roots of black mangroves to feed on marsh and fiddler crabs, and on the numerous small resident fishes. Even when cruising the mangrove shoreline in search of fiddler crabs, red drum are opportunists, so will take advantage of what appears to be an easy meal and will pounce on flies imitating resident prey fishes. The heat of summer also makes mangrove shorelines great places to find snook, spotted seatrout, and crevalle jacks.
Casting flies tight into the mangroves is a tried-and-true method for catching these gamefish during summer, but knowing the best time for fishing these shorelines is as important as the fly you use. During high tide, when the mangrove prop roots are flooded, red drum, snook, and other gamefish can venture far into the mangrove forest. It’s not uncommon to hear gamefish feeding well into the shadows of the mangroves. For the fly angler, these fish are unreachable. There are mangrove shorelines, however, where the intertidal zone is narrow, and gamefish can’t travel too far away from the outer mangrove edge. These are good locations to fish at high tide. All things considered, however, low tide is the best time for fishing mangrove shorelines. Because of the low tide, they are forced from the shelter of the overhanging mangrove branches and can often be found resting along the outer reaches of the mangrove prop roots. This is when they are most accessible to fly anglers, and this is when the mangrove muddler is most effective. Cast into the shadows and retrieved with a strip-pause-strip retrieve, the fly is irresistible to red drum. The shape of the muddler causes the fly to undulate in place during the pause portion of the retrieve. The deerhair head creates a lot of drag, and immediately comes to a stop during the pause, while the rear of the fly is more streamlined, so wants to keep coasting along in between strips. The conflict of these portions of the fly causes the wobble that drives the red drum wild. Unlike other flies that are often taken by red drum only when in motion, I’ve had at least half the strikes on this fly come during the pause.
This fly is a simplified adaptation of the classic muddler. Since some of the killifishes live oriented toward the bottom, and others live close to the water surface, it is a good strategy to have unweighted and weighted fly versions. For the weighted version, slide a gold conehead onto the shank before starting to tie the fly.
It's important to use a loop know to attach this fly to the tippet – this allows the fly to wobble between strips.
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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