There was a time when South Florida fly fishers and light-tackle flats anglers turned to redfish for a quick and easy fix. If the bonefish were not cooperating, then redfish would save the day.
Longtime fly fishers I know jokingly called redfish the antidote for big Keys and Miami bonefish, which were becoming more educated by the day. We’d simply head for Florida Bay and life was easy. The reds tailed like there was no tomorrow and they were easy to catch. Landing dozens of tailing redfish sure took the sting out of that long drive home.
But we are no longer dealing with redfish or bonefish of the past. Through our dogged persistence, we have wised them up plenty. In other words, inshore gamefish are more pressured than ever before. And in some states, there simply aren’t as many redfish as there used to be. When flats fishing today, fly fishing anglers most take the stealthy approach.
Stealth Fishing in Shallow Water
Stealthy fishing begins with the way you stalk fish in skinny water. On the subject of those dumb reds, it was not unheard of to reach out and actually tap a busy, engrossed tailing red with the pushpole tip. We really did that occasionally on fish that would not stop feeding in the grass. They were that buried in the turtle grass! I have not gotten that close to one in quite some time. But that was in the pre-rodeo days before anglers in shallow-running skiffs on both coasts of Florida would bump up a school of reds, run up ahead of them, shut down and cast to the fish. And those redfish actually ate a fly or lure despite being dogged and hounded.
Again, those days are over. I for one am glad they are. That was not classic flats fishing. It was lazy and environmentally insensitive. The staunch flats anglers with pushpoles loathed the rodeo crowd. Fast forward to today, and only fools rush in.
Those Florida Bay flats are a prime example of a fishery that has evolved due to fishing pressure. Mid-summer breathless days raise the bar — every precaution is made to get close to reds, snook, baby tarpon and trout for a presentation. It starts with poling with caution in soft bottom much of the time. If you pushed too mightily the pushpole foot got stuck. So many of us switched to pole feet called “mud bars” that somewhat prevented burying the foot too deeply in the mud with each thrust. Pulling a buried foot out makes an audible sucking sound which is heard above and below the water. And if you struggle to pull it out, you shift your weight and make the skiff move more than necessary and that sends out waves that can alert fish nearby. It matters little if your skiff floats in spit and has a silent hull in a chop.
On the subject of poles, on the front end, consider installing a “rock picker,” which is a stainless point for rocky bottom, such is found along the Florida Keys oceanside flats. A standard hard rubber foot slips on hard bottom and makes a lot of noise, which spooks fish, and worse, is dangerous. Count me among poling anglers who have pushed hard over rock, had the foot slip and end up coming off the platform! The point of the picker gets a good hold over rock, but be sure to not stick it too hard, which can be heard at a distance. I spooked a school of 20 oceanside bones once because of it. And they were over 70 feet away.
Generally, anglers pole too much and too fast. Hustling to get to spot where you see life well ahead of the skiff is one thing. But when I’m in an area where the grass is dense, water a bit muddy, or the light is poor, I take baby steps. By that I mean pole gently, stop often and observe. Let fish come to you.
And there are those times when your high profile on the platform is the reason fish either spook outright, or just stop feeding and move away. High sun and clear water gives fish a clear window to your world. Remember, pioneer flats anglers did not have high poling platforms. They at most stood on a cooler in the bow when casting, or at the stern while poling. They also poled from the bow so as not to strike the outboard motor with the pole — a sure fire way to spook fish. Same goes for the caster — when fish are spooky, that front casting platform might not be the place to be. Stand down on the front deck. It won’t deter your ability to spot fish under most conditions.
There are shorelines on the Indian River Lagoon in Florida, between Jensen Beach and Vero Beach, that I fish where poling from the tower is a waste if the water is super-clear and the sun is shining. A couple of years ago, quite a few redfish were around in the dead of winter, but I could not get close to them before they spooked. I poled from the bow, and when fishing solo, bumped along with my bow electric motor to cover ground. Much of the time I held position with my stick anchor; if I spotted reds, I’d give the area a thorough look. I let the fish come to me. I love to pole, but the reds were easier to catch once I fished in this manner.
Wade Fishing Shallow Water Flats
Don’t assume that wade-fishing with a fly rod makes you invisible. Your lower profile sure helps, and taking boat noise out of the equation does wonders. But, you can’t slog around like a bull rhino. Whether you wade a flat as a primary tactic, or have bailed out of your boat to deal with some super spooky bonefish, be mindful of any sound you make. Shuffle your feet slowly for two reasons — stay quiet and don’t step on stingrays. As you advance, notice how much of a pressure wave you create. Trust me, fish can feel you coming. They may not explode in fear, but they might just swim out of range, or quit feeding entirely. Have you wondered why a tailing fish stops waving that wet flag as you close in?
I’ve often wondered about clothing color and the effect on flats fish. If you’re up on a skiff deck, I doubt that sky-blue shirt is going to make the boat invisible. But on foot, you will get much closer to a fish before you cast. Thus, neutral colored garb might be a plus. I always wear Earth tones when wading. Light blue shirts on open flats with sky backdrop only, or maybe olive green shirts and beige shorts when fishing along tree-line flats. When I sight fish on beaches for snook, it’s always blue shirt and beige shorts.
I never wear mirrored sunglasses. Think about that one! Years ago, a buddy who I bonefished with dulled his shiny rod blanks with light sandpaper. Many trout stream anglers are convinced that shiny rods in close quarters definitely alert trout. Nowadays, rod makers offer models with matte blanks. I own some and like their appearance actually. If it makes a difference stealth-wise, all the better.
Stealth Fishing With Fly Tackle
The first stealth rule of thumb with fly tackle is lighten up within reason. A 7-weight fly line makes a lighter landing than a 9, and a longer than typical leader distances the line tip impact from the fly. You might switch out that 10-foot tapered leader for a 12-footer for starters. In extreme cases, Keys anglers routinely fish 14-foot leaders for those wise old bonefish in skinny water. Be sure your butt section comprises 60 to 70 percent of the leader for good turnover.
Go with the lightest fluorocarbon or monofilament bite tippet possible. In the name of stealth, Keys tarpon guides are down to 50-pound-test max. Some are sold on clear fly lines. The go-to rod weight is now 10, with an 11-weight reserved for truly big fish. Sparser flies tied on hooks as small as No. 1 and even 2! The fish have seen it all, and these measures have reportedly resulted in more bites.