Late summer and early fall provide some of the area’s best opportunities for redfish. September is one of the premier months, a time when reds congregate in spawning schools on area flats. These schools can provide anglers with fast action and an exciting spectacle. When they are disturbed or moving en mass, big schools “hump up” as they travel through shallow water. When they settle down they can disappear as suddenly as they appeared. Sometimes even a jet taking off or an angler making noise in the boat is enough to cause them to move. Occasionally they can be spotted feeding on a flat. One of my most exciting memories of schooling fish was watching a large group of reds moving across a flat as baitfish, shrimp and small pinfish sprayed to the surface in an attempt to flee the voracious school.
When fishing for redfish on the flats anglers who opt for light tackle have a better chance at success. An eight-pound spinning outfit or a seven-weight fly rod and reel are sufficient. Besides being more sporting, light spin and fly tackle is easier to carry, more fun and less likely to spook fish. When the weather isn’t ideal and the wind is strong, anglers using conventional tackle can still benefit from light tackle. Fly anglers may want to switch to an eight or even nine weight outfit to help with a cast into the wind. A change of leader may also be needed by fly anglers. Under light winds and clear skies a long leader to 12 feet allows for a stealthier presentation. When the wind puts a chop on the water redfish are less wary and a shorter leader, eight to nine feet, is all that’s needed. The one thing anglers using conventional tackle might want to do is use spoons and jigs in lieu of plugs and lighter lures that are adversely affected when casting into a stiff breeze.
A wide variety of flies, plugs and spoons are effective depending on the stage of tide and the depth of the water column. In the morning, if you’re prospecting deep edges, use a quick sinking Clouser or jigs and work them close to the bottom. When it’s time to move up on the flats try shrimp and crab patterns, spoons, top water plugs and flies. Over shallow grass on low tides, poppers and flies that float or suspend in the water column like seaducers or bend backs work best.
Look for flats with a good sand and grass mixture. Start fishing the shallows adjacent to deep water “staging areas” on the edge of the flat. As the tide floods in, explore points, troughs, slues and bars that “funnel” fish onto the flat. These areas act as side roads, feeder lanes and highways that fish use to enter and leave a flat with a rising and falling tide. Reverse this strategy on a falling tide. Savvy anglers pay close attention to the lanes that are exposed on low tides, making mental notes and marking charts. They can use this knowledge under low light conditions on subsequent fishing trips.
Local flats use to get a lot more pressure than they do now. Commercial fishermen, anglers and even some guides ran the flats looking for fish. This practice drove many schools off the flats and made the remaining fish very wary. Fortunately, most local flats are now signed as “no-wake” zones close to shorelines which has reduced the problem and helped fishing.
Local redfish can still be a challenge. If you find fish that are spooky, try this tactic: Get out of the boat and position yourself about 30 feet away from an area where you have good visibility and wait. Reds forage over the flats and will eventually cross potholes and light bottom. This requires patience, but is extremely effective when stalking wary fish.
When fishing extremely spooky fish in clear water, calculate where you think a fish might show up and then put your fly, spoon or jig there ahead of time. If you have the lure waiting at the intercept point as fish approach, the odds of a hook up are greatly increased.
Tampa Bay and Sarasota Bay are two of Florida’s largest estuaries. Although progress has taken a toll on these areas, new environmentally-friendly practices and awareness of the resource has improved water quality and increased sea grass coverage and fish stocks. Redfish are not an easy target, especially for fly fishers, and can be extremely challenging. Anglers will need to be up on their game to be successful, but quality late summer and early fall fishing for redfish will be at its best.