Vol 6 No. 43 - July 19, 2006

Tails of Matlacha

Rusty Chinnis caught this nice redfish, right, while working the flats around Matlacha.

By Rusty Chinnis
sun staff writer

The early morning summer sun was struggling to break through the layers of mist that hung over Matlacha Pass on the eastern flanks of Florida’s Pine Island. When it finally broke through, slanting rays of gold panned over the water’s mirror smooth surface.The intense light suddenly illuminated the mangrove forests and opened a window to the vast verdant grass flats. Standing on the bow, fly rod in hand, the scene was so elemental I could imagine an Indian dugout appearing from one of the myriad mangrove lined creeks in the distance.

The Calusa Indians were the first inhabitants of Pine Island. Legend says they were towed there by whales they enchanted with secret songs. Early European settlers followed, attracted by fish and shellfish which they harvested from the sound’s rich, clear waters

In the more recent past, generations of commercial fishermen made a living by netting mullet, sea trout, pompano and Spanish mackerel from these waters. It’s an area that today represents one of the finest examples of Old Florida, a place rich in the resources that attract fly anglers to destinations worldwide. The waters that surround Pine Island have become one of my favorite Florida destinations. I have been fortunate to explore them with two of the area’s premier guides, Captain Rick DePaiva and Captain Steve Bailey.

The sun lifted free of the clouds as Captain Rick DePaiva’s whispered words, "Tails, two o’clock, one hundred and fifty feet," broke the mesmerizing spell. Focusing to my right, I saw a trio of copper colored tails waving in the sunlight. Widening my gaze, I noticed no fewer than 30 tails spread out over the flat. My pulse quickened as I checked to see that my fly line was clear and ready to cast. I fidgeted with the fly positioned between my thumb and forefinger and visualized a presentation to the lead fish.

As we closed the gap to about 50 feet, I raised the rod, made a roll cast and released the fly. Two quick false casts helped me measure the distance, and on the third, I shot line parallel to the water's surface, floating the leader and fly two feet past a furiously waving tail. As the redfish dropped down to move, I gave the fly two short strips and watched as the red bored a hole through the water to intercept it. On the third strip the line came tight and I set the hook. The redfish bolted across the flat as I concentrated on clearing the line. When the fish was on the reel, I gave two more strip strikes and enjoyed the smooth bend of the rod as fly line morphed into backing. This redfish must have thought it was a bonefish, showing no sign of stopping until it was 50 feet into the backing. Five minutes and three runs later, we landed the 31" red and released it after a couple of photos.

I switched places with DePaiva and mounted the poling platform looking for more tails. It didn’t take long. In less than 10 minutes we were in range of two big fish that were working a shallow hump. He made a perfect cast, and only had to strip twice before the fly was attacked by both fish simultaneously. The bigger of the two reds somehow managed to get to the offering first and reacted instantaneously with a long, head shaking run.

After the first two fish, the tide died and the tails mysteriously disappeared. We realized that the fish had stopped feeding with the change of tide and poled to another area waiting for the tide to change and start back in.

It was just like someone had thrown a switch when the water began pushing back over the flat. As if on cue, the redfish began tailing again, but with a higher sun and a lack of any wind, they became extremely spooky. We had to work hard to get a fly to the fish without alerting them of our presence. It took a while, but a stealthy approach and a long cast finally produced the largest (32’) fish of the day. For the balance of the morning we had numerous shots at redfish and landed a number of trout. When the tide was nearly high, and too deep for tails, we decided to call it a day and return to the dock.

Captain Rick DePaiva runs Fly Nutt Charters, and fishes the waters from Charlotte Harbor to Pine Island Sound. While he fishes for all species from triple tail to tarpon, he’s made it a mission to master tailing redfish. DePaiva has what he calls a 1-2-3 formula for finding feeding redfish. First and foremost the tide must be moving and the water less than one foot deep. He then looks for flats with feeding wading birds and finally for baitfish action, primarily mullet. He has good action yearround, but has identified conditions that usually equate to excellent opportunities. During the warmer months, the late incoming tides have proved exceptional. He discovered that the water flooding in from the Gulf passes is cooler and well oxygenated. This gives redfish the perfect conditions, the safety of a rising tide, comfortable water conditions, and access to the small crabs and crustaceans that find refuge in the shallow grass.

The cooler months are also very productive, but in the fall and winter he prefers the early morning when low tides are more extreme. The fish move up with the water in anticipation of feeding as well as warmer conditions. The autumn and winter tides rise and fall more slowly, giving DePaiva and his clients a longer period of time to find tailing reds in the one foot depth range that’s optimum. He generally gets a fix on an abandoned crab trap or other obstruction to gauge the height of the tide and determine how much time he has before the water gets too deep. It has been DePaiva’s experience that redfish don’t like to tail on windy days. He finds the redfish in as skinny water (6"-8") as he can access with his Maverick HPX flats boat.

Tailing redfish can be extremely spooky and as wary as bonefish. DePaiva finds it requires a special fly to take them with any consistency. The ingredients of a successful fly demands that it casts well, lands softly, and sinks relatively fast. That’s a tall order for a fly, but DePaiva ties a bend back fly, with a chartreuse or light orange estaz body, a bleached squirrel tail wing and gold crystal flash. Bead chain eyes and a two prong weed guard help it sink and repel weeds. It’s his number one fly for tailing reds. His second choice is a Puglisi style baitfish fly tied to look like a small mullet. For very calm days, when the fish are extremely spooky, DePaiva uses a small Sea-ducer tied on a #2 hook. He ties them with a purple grisly hackle, an earth tone grisly body and gold flash. DePaiva fishes both sides of Pine Island but favors the eastern flats near Matlacha.

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