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September 21, 2007

End-of-the-Road Reds

Specialized boats help anglers score big
with redfish in the extreme shallows of Florida's Everglades ¿National ¿Park.


Flamingo, located at the southern tip of the Everglades, is a shallow-water paradise, yet the area shows little mercy for heavy boats. The solution? Tunnel-hulled jonboats, like the one Walt Stearns, right, and Captain Stu South used to connect with this ¿redfish.

As we approached the edge of the flat we could see dozens of fish scurrying away, but I told the two anglers who were fidgeting in the bow to hold their fire. "They're just mullet," I assured them. "Be patient. Redfish will leave a larger wake."

I poled onto the bank, into water so shallow that blades of grass broke the surface all around us. We strained our eyes for the back of a redfish, or perhaps a tail. The muddy water made it impossible to see below the surface, so we needed an above-water clue. Or so we thought.

As we began to cross the flat, three large boils erupted a few feet in front of the boat, then two more. The surface churned as the school of redfish streaked off in several directions, leaving telltale trails of mud. We had almost poled right over them.

"Cast now, ahead of the mud trails!" I shouted. Gold spoons arced away from the boat and landed into the general path of the fish. "Will they take when they're spooked?" asked Ron Ballanti as he began retrieving his spoon.

"We'll see," I said, watching the imminent convergence of fish and lure.

When the spoons got close, more boils erupted, and Ron and fellow angler Steve Waters were both securely hooked up. The rest of the school bolted, but soon settled down and began feeding again about 50 yards away. After brief battles on eight-pound test, the fish were photographed and released, and we poled on after the rest of the school.

That's one of the wonderful things about redfish: their generally cooperative nature. They are so programmed to feed that they will often stop whatever they're doing to attack a lure, fly or bait, even when spooked! They may not be the smartest flats fish, but they sure are fun. Of course, there are times when reds will refuse to take anything you show them, but most of the time they are willing to strike.

Shallow-Water Paradise

Sight-casting to redfish with gold spoons can be productive.
As Steve Waters proved, sight-casting to redfish with gold spoons can be productive, but the murky water can often make sighting fish difficult. In this case, look for large wakes and tailing ¿fish.

Our group had arrived the day before in Flamingo, an outpost at the extreme southern tip of mainland Florida, at the end of the road in Everglades National Park. Flamingo offers superb shallow-water fishing, as it is surrounded by miles and miles of flats in the north end of Florida Bay. Redfish, snook, trout and tarpon abound here, making Flamingo a paradise for the "shallow-minded" fisherman.

Experienced Flamingo flats fishermen know that most ordinary boats won't cut it here. The banks and bights of this area offer little mercy to those who don't know how to handle skinny water. Specialized boats are the key to getting around in the really thin stuff, where the reds are found in great numbers. Consequently, we had assembled three boats that were perfectly suited to the task at hand, which was to explore the extreme shallows in the hopes of scoring big with redfish, snook and maybe a tarpon or two.

Our mini fleet consisted of aluminum, tunnel-hull jonboats from Landau, Aluma-Weld and Weldbilt, all powered by efficient and quiet four-stroke Suzuki outboards. Tunnel hulls are all the rage on the flats these days, since they allow you to run much shallower than conventional hulls without damaging sensitive seagrasses. Furthermore, the aluminum hulls are light and can be poled in just a few inches of water.

The encounter described earlier was our first foray into redfish country. We had left Flamingo and headed for the large flats around Frank and Murray Keys just south of the marina, an area known locally as "out front." We had run to the mud bank just east of Frank Key, approaching from the south. An area of slightly deeper water known as Palm Lake lies south of Frank Key and extends east beyond Palm Key, and the vast flats and mud banks lining the northern "shore" of Palm Lake are some of the best-known redfish haunts.

Starting with the aforementioned bank next to Frank, we slowly worked the edges of the various flats between Frank and Palm Keys, and found one school after another. Our lure of choice, the quarter-ounce Johnson gold spoon, proved deadly, and we caught and released many redfish out of the numerous schools we came across. We also caught several fish by blind-casting to potholes on the flats, and writer Walt Jennings even pulled a ten-pound snook out of one of these depressions on a gold spoon.

Rigging for Reds

Don't be afraid to blind-cast to white potholes
Don't be afraid to blind-cast to white potholes if you lack immediate signs of fish activity. Walt Jennings hooked this hefty snook doing just ¿that!

Redfish experts prefer the single-hook Johnson spoon because of its weedless design, but pretty much any gold spoon will work. Gold spoons offer flash, which is often needed to draw the attention of reds that have their noses buried in the marl. Many anglers rig a soft-plastic grubtail on the hook for added action, but the spoons work well unadorned. Eight-pound spinning tackle is a great choice for Flamingo reds, and you only need a foot or so of Bimini Twist at the terminal end. If you plan on throwing at snook, however, a short 30-pound shock leader is a good idea.

The following day we worked farther east after hearing reports of tailing fish near Buoy Key. The large flat, which is bordered in a roughly triangular shape by Buoy, Curlew and Cormorant Keys, was covered by crystal-clear water, a surprise since it is only a few miles from where we had encountered the muddy conditions. Here we could see the fish coming, rather than casting to mud trails or wakes, and this demanded longer casts.

We also tried some new tackle and techniques. Outdoor writer Bob Stearns took quite a few reds on a topwater plug, and several of us cast flies at the fish, although we didn't hook any. The reds were wary in the clear water, but it was a lot of fun sight-casting to them. We made repeated drifts across the flat until the tide receded to a point where even the tunnel hulls were short of water.

Danger in Snake Bight

Our group found the redfish mostly on the flats between Buoy and Frank Keys, but we also spent some time searching other well-known areas. Perhaps the most famous of these was Snake Bight, a large bay on the southern tip of the mainland just east of Flamingo. Snake Bight is very shallow, and not a place for novices to venture without caution. In fact, several well-known flats fishermen have spent the night here after being stranded by a falling tide.

However, Snake Bight can offer outstanding redfish action when the fish move far up into the shallows. Snake Bight Channel runs north along the western edge of the bight, and the edges of this channel offer some superb fishing. You can also run east, past Buoy Key in Tin Can Channel, then head back to the north towards Porpoise Point, which divides Snake and Garfield Bights. A slightly deeper finger of water extends into Snake Bight, towards the point, and is an excellent place to look for reds.

The method of choice is to run into these shallow areas, then shut down and pole. Look for large wakes (don't let the hordes of mullet fool you) or tailing fish, and cast to the numerous white potholes you'll see. When casting to tailers, lob the spoon past the fish and retrieve it right in front of their nose.

When fishing deep into these flats or bights, always think about how you are going to get out again, and know what the tide is doing. It stays very shallow for a very long way into Snake Bight, so you need a boat that draws very little water and can get on plane quickly. The white potholes are good spots to jump up on plane.

All of the areas mentioned above are within a few miles of the lodge and marina in Flamingo. By doing some rudimentary exploration you will no doubt find plenty of redfish on your own. You'll also discover that it's possible to cover a surprising amount of ground by drifting and poling along.

The obliging redfish of Florida Bay provide outstanding light-tackle action in the beautiful surroundings of Everglades National Park, for those who aren't afraid to venture into serious shallow water. Many who do become hooked on it!

The Road to Flamingo

The Road to FlamingoFlamingo isn't the easiest place in the world to find, being at the very end of SR 9336 out of Florida City, in extreme southern Florida. If you're trailering a boat, the Florida turnpike ends in Florida City, dumping you onto US 1 about 200 yards shy of a traffic light. Turn right at the light, and signs will lead you to Everglades National Park.

The Flamingo Lodge Marina and Outpost Resort offers a variety of accommodations from basic hotel rooms to suites and even cabins. The marina sells gas and basic supplies, including insect repellant - always a good idea in this part of the world. Its tackle selection is modest, though, so bring plenty of your own.

Excellent boat ramps on both sides of a levy afford access to both the inside waters towards Whitewater Bay and the waters of Florida Bay. If you're not familiar with Florida Bay, Waterproof Chart No. 33E-Florida Bay will help you find your way around. - John Brownlee

Flamingo Lodge Marina and Outpost Resort
(800) 600-3813, (reservations line open 8:00-5:00 EST),
(941) 695-3101

Waterproof Charts - (800) 423-9026
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