Conditions were perfect. A flat, calm surface blanketed the mangrove-rimmed cove, the water clear enough to reveal the bottom several feet down. Only mullet splashes and the occasional squawk of a heron interrupted the stillness. My guide, Capt. Mark Benson, climbed from the poling platform, stowed the push pole and handed me a spinning combo. I watched curiously as he moved forward and sat down, straddling the bow with his bare feet dangling in the shallow water.
Walk 'em Up!
“OK, it’s showtime. Let’s find some redfish,” he said while pulling the skiff forward by walking across the sand and turtle grass bottom. As if on cue, first one tail and then another broke the surface about 60 yards away. In full stealth mode, Benson moved the skiff whisper quiet into casting range. Totally undisturbed by our presence, the redfish never stopped rooting for morsels — until the high-pitched whine from the drag interrupted the silence a moment later.
Fans of the classic novel and movie Catch 22 would appreciate the irony. Prior to their designation as a game fish in 1988 and Florida’s subsequent passage of the gill-net ban nearly a decade later, redfish stocks in the Sunshine State weren’t in the best shape. Those two landmark measures were instrumental in -jump-starting the recovery, and the fishery is now quite healthy.
But even though numbers are up, constant angling pressure often makes it difficult to catch them. In the clear, shallow waters of Florida’s estuaries and back bays, reds grow increasingly leery as they’re buzzed and badgered daily. They’ve seen enough lures to stock a tackle warehouse, which is why Benson, who fishes the congested Indian River and Mosquito lagoons, adopted his unorthodox, yet remarkably productive, signature stalking tactics.
“I like to keep a low profile when fishing skinny,” -Benson explains. “If I’m up on the poling platform, those fish can see me. If I’m on the bow, down low, I can really get on top of them undetected.” Since his -17½-foot technical poling skiff draws very little water, Benson employs the bow-walking approach, sitting on the bow with his feet on the bottom when the depth is less than 24 inches.
“With this method, you’re limited to pretty shallow depths, but that’s where I find most of my fish anyway. I’m not big on numbers or chasing schools. I enjoy the challenge of presenting a lure or fly to the wariest redfish on the planet and getting those fish to eat. This is the ultimate visual sport,” he claims.
Black drum and trophy seatrout are also frequent catches, depending on the calendar, but redfish remain the primary focus throughout the year. Benson’s fly boxes are stuffed with a variety of patterns in different sizes and colors, but for spinning tackle, he’s very selective — meaning he uses one lure only.
The Near Clear Is Tops
“For me, a ¼-ounce DOA shrimp, number 312 — the Near Clear — is the best bait in the world,” he explains. “It looks like a shrimp in high water, low water, sunny skies — even at night. I use it as a topwater bait, to sight-fish and to probe deep holes. When you make a good cast and the fish doesn’t eat it, he wasn’t going to eat anyway.” Benson arms his clients with Loomis Hot Shot 7½-foot medium steelhead rods, which have extra-fast tips and stout butt sections that provide the ideal action to cast the light artificial shrimp farther.
Once he transitions from the flats to deeper water, Benson uses a tactic he calls “minesweeping.” As soon as the fake shrimp hits the water, the angler closes the bail, holds the rod high and cranks fast so the lure skims the surface, making a wake. “These fish have it -imprinted in their brains from an early age to associate wakes on the surface with food. They boil up and charge like a heat-seeking missile,” Benson says. “You can cover a lot of water minesweeping, which is essentially nothing more than blind-casting along your path, without blowing out fish you can’t see. “Shrimp swim near the -surface when they’re moving, and the redfish react. It’s all pretty simple, really, and most of the time it works extremely well.”
On occasion the fish will shadow the lure but won’t eat. “When that happens, I pause to let the DOA sink and just shake the rod tip to give it some slight movement. That’s usually all it takes to trigger the strike,” Benson adds. “They either rush and crush or see and flee.”
While Benson sticks with the DOA shrimp, other shrimp and crab imitations, as well as soft plastic jerk baits that resemble a finger mullet or mud minnow can produce in Mosquito Lagoon.
Trick 'em With Flies
A certified fly-casting instructor, he scores many skinny-water red and black drum fishing a fly rod. Flies that resemble -crustaceans are most productive, as shrimp and small blue crabs are the primary diet for both drum species in the Indian River estuary. For the stealthiest presentation, Benson advises, 6-weight outfits are the preferred choice.
Key Fly Patterns
Fly patterns originally designed for bonefish and permit — like various small crab and shrimp imitations — are also perfect for targeting redfish and black drum in Mosquito Lagoon.
When quizzed about casting and presentation, Benson explains: “Tailing fish — both redfish and black and drum — focus on the bottom, so you have to be patient and wait until they start to move. The best cast angle is side-to-side or quartering. Cast across the travel path and crank the lure or strip the fly slowly to keep it out of the grass. It’s all a matter of water depth, clarity and timing. Watch the fish, and let it dictate how fast you retrieve. You always want the lure or fly to look natural, moving away. So when the fish gets close, let it drift down like it’s a real shrimp or crab diving for cover in the grass. They’ll usually pound it.” Or beat it, just like a drum.
Fast Facts For Success
AWAY YOU GO:
Look for tailers along protected shorelines and in secluded coves, away from boat traffic.
KEEP IT LIGHT:
Scale your tackle for long casts with light lures and flies to minimize disturbance.
You often get one chance at skittish fish, so practice to ensure every cast counts.
Mosquito Lagoon Boat Ramps
Visiting anglers find ample access points in Mosquito Lagoon, with well-maintained concrete ramps from north to south.
1. CAMERON’S MARINA MARKER 57
2001 South Riverside Drive, Edgewater
RAMP: single-lane ramp
PARKING: 15 vehicles with trailers and five without
2. CANAVERAL NATIONAL SEASHORE
North Apollo Beach Ramp on A1A, just past Canaveral National Seashore entrance,
New Smyrna Beach
RAMP: double-lane ramp
PARKING: 22 vehicles with trailers
3. RIVER BREEZE PARK
250 H. H. Burch Road, Oak Hill
RAMP: two double-lane ramps
PARKING: 100 vehicles with trailers and 36 without
4. LOPEZ RV PARK AND MARINA
375 River Road, Oak Hill
RAMP: double-lane ramp
PARKING: 10 vehicles with trailers
5. BEACON 42 BOAT RAMP
State Road 3, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville
RAMP: single-lane ramp (gravel)
PARKING: 24 vehicles with trailers
6. BAIRS COVE BOAT RAMP
Haulover Canal, off State Road 3, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Titusville