Some of the most consistent saltwater fly fishing available today can be found on the grass flats of any number of states in the Southeast, where anglers by the thousands search every day for telltale tails rising above the surface. These anglers are chasing red drum, the target of choice for a growing legion of fly anglers, thanks to the fact that there are more red drum in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico waters today than we’ve seen in years.
Reds customarily feed on small crabs, shrimp and baitfish, such as mullet and mud minnows. Almost any fly that imitates such forage works well. But many cutting-edge anglers are using flies that are constantly being tested by the ever-growing numbers of fly-rod redfishermen. Here is a brief overview of some hot fly patterns in vogue today among the “in the know” coastal redfish angling set. Most have been well tested via the school of hard fishing knocks – endorsed by the anglers who cast them and the redfish that eat them.
Cone-Head Wooly Bugger
In Georgia the water is dark and turbid, and the tides run hard and high. Redfish, big ones, are abundant, with fish in the 20- to 30-pound class available at times on barrier-island shoals that kiss the entire coastline of the Peach State.
Georgia also has vast areas of inshore spartina grass flats. But because tides run so strong, flats fishing can be difficult, more difficult than that found elsewhere in the Southeast, even in areas as close as Florida and South Carolina. The fishing is good, but different, and the type of fly required to dupe reds is different too. Most of the time fly-rodders are working from kayaks and canoes, casting to pushing fish or blind-casting to creek mouths.
Longtime Georgia fly-fishing guide Larry Kennedy, owner of Bedford Sportsman Fly Shop (912-638-5454) on St. Simons Island, says that while a number of different flies work for Georgia redfish, his favorite is a small, all-black classic Wooly Bugger streamer. He ties the fly on a barbless 34011 Mustad size 4 hook, with a bright-gold cone head to help get it deep. The fly body is black ice chenille wrapped Palmer-style with black hackles, and a black marabou tail.
The dark color and bulky body make an easy-to-find target for Georgia reds, Kennedy says. He and his clients fish it slow, slower and slower still. He wants the fly right on the bottom, where a redfish can find it. Kennedy nicknamed this all-black cone-headed Wooly Bugger the “American Express Fly” because he never leaves home without it.
Corpus Christi, Texas, guide Bill Sheka (512-991-7191) has fished Baffin Bay and lower Laguna Madre for many years and devised a bright-colored fly called the Sheka Shrimp. He ties several versions of it, making it suitable for redfish in a wide variety of waters and angling conditions.
Sheka ties them on a size 2 to 1/0 Mustad hook. Most are very bright-colored, which work well in the clear waters he fishes, where shrimp are an important forage. Reds can spot a bright Sheka Shrimp fly from a long distance and can be counted on to home in quickly for a fast meal. Sheka Shrimp come in weighted and unweighted versions, with or without weed guards. Colors run the gamut too, from pink to orange, and from yellow to hot green. Sheka Shrimps tied in subtle browns and cream colors perform best in stained water.
The fly is tied to look like a gaudy shrimp, which is something to keep in mind when viewing it. It’s a pretty basic fly, with a small head and burnt nylon eyes. The body is bulky, shrimp-like, made of bright cactus chenille. On some versions, the chenille body is wrapped with a contrasting-color hackle feather, which gives the fly very buggy shrimp look when the hackle is trimmed with scissors to simulate legs. Silver Krystal Flash is used liberally on many patterns, s’nce it’s a long-range attractant in clear water. Additional tail materials can consist of marabou, bucktail, calf tail or Krystal Flash.
For a slow-sink fly, a bucktail tail is good. In weedy water, the Sheka is tied with a monofilament-loop weed guard. For deeper redfishing, Sheka includes lead under the chenille or substitutes lead eyes for nylon ones, and he ties it large to be a more visible target, usually with a marabou tail that absorbs water to help it get down.
I fell in love with the Spoonfly the first time I held one. It also helped a bit that the first cast I made with a Spoonfly hooked a fish. The Spoonfly is an epoxy creation of Capt. Jim Dupre (352-371-6153), a Gainesville, Florida, fishing guide who, with his father A.J., spent countless hours testing and perfecting a fly-rod lure that had the same fish-attracting action as the venerable Johnson Weedless Minnow. They succeeded by producing a smaller, thumb-size fly version of the Johnson lure that every inshore saltwater angler worth his skiff owns.
The Spoonfly is made of flashy Mylar covered and sealed with clear epoxy on a long-shank 2/0 Mustad. The fly is then adorned with a bit of colored hackle and a wire weed guard. The fly is only available in one size, but colors are almost limitless. Standard hues include gold, silver, copper, burnt orange, silver prismatic, pink-and-black and black prismatic. Dupre can make custom colors if necessary.
What makes the Spoonfly so unique and such a fish-catcher are the same things that make the Johnson Weedless Minnow a hit for bait-casters and spin fishermen. The Spoonfly is about as weedless as the Johnson lure. It retrieves through pencil reeds, spartina grass, over rocks, oysters and through brush as well as any weedless lure. Yet it has good fish-hooking capabilities. Best of all, redfish love it. It has a unique wobbling action when retrieved that’s identical to a Johnson wobbling spoon. It flashes and dances so well that it’s easy to spot even 100 feet out in thick grass and cattails.
Du’re won’t divulge exactly how he molds epoxy into just the right shape to produce a replica wobble of the Johnson spoon. He will say, however, ‘t wasn’t easy to develop. If the precise concave shape isn’t made, the spoon will plane to the surface during the retrieve rather than wobble. On the inshore saltwater scene the Spoonfly has few peers. It’s death on redfish, with gold and silver models remarkably effec’ive. I’ve also caught flounder, ladyfish, bluefish, jacks, Spanish mackerel and snook on Spoonflies. And I’d bet striped bass and salmon would go bonkers for ’em too.
East Cut Redfish Popper
January and February is redfish time in the many sheltered potholes and ponds of the Biloxi, Mississippi, marsh. The water is air-clear. The redfish run from average, 4 to 7 pounds, to big, 12 to 15 pounds. It’s all sight fishing from small kayaks, canoes and flats skiffs, and the fish go crazy for popping bugs, according to Wesley Parks, avid fly rodder and manager of McCoy Outdoors Fly Shop (334-432-3006) in nearby Mobile.
Parks fishes the vast marshes around the town of Chalmette, Louisiana and uses a couple of poppers he says redfish go absolutely bonkers over. His favorite is the East-Cut Redfish Popper, made commercially by T.J. Neal of East Cut Saltwater Flies in Driftwood, Texas (512-461-4473). The bug is copper-colored, traditional bass-bug size, with a stainless hook and a Flashabou tail.
Gene Montgomery (334-478-7440) is a Mobile, Alabama, high-school teacher with a passion for fly fishing. He guides when not teaching and devised the Gold Frizzy for redfish because it does a good job of imitating a gold, flashing and wobbling spoon – likely the No. 1 artificial lure of all time for redfish.
Montgomery designed the fly for chasing world-record-size reds around the clear waters of the Chandeleur Islands in Louisiana, which he does with client Robert Cunningham Jr., who has boated several potential record fish wit’ this streamer. It’s tied on a size 1 through 2/0 Mustad 34007 hook, unweighted or with lead dumbbell eyes. The body is made from gold Mylar tubing with the cotton stuffing removed from the inside. The Mylar tubing is folded over lengthwise, and secured to the hook shank. Mylar is tied on both sides of the hook and on top. At the eye a few turns of crystal-red chenille are wound on to produce a head. Next the tubing is poked at liberally with a needle or ice pick to unfurl the mylar, giving it a frizzy appearance. This adds bulk to the streamer and allows the loose Mylar threads to catch and reflect light in every possible direction – much like a spoon.
Weighted Gold Frizzies are very popular in Alabama, according to Wesley Parks of McCoy Outdoors Fly Shop (334-432-3006) in Mobile. Flies must get deep quickly to appeal to upper Gulf Coast redfish, he says.
The Charleston, South Carolina, area has vast inshore areas offering fly rodders great opportunities for red-drum fishing. Much of the action is found around spartina grass marsh, where reds forage for crab’ when the tide is high.
It’s for this style of hunt-and-cast redfishing that guide Ben Alderman (843-906-3630) devised his favorite redfish fly, the Zap-A-Crab. It’s a simple Superglue fly Ben can make in about 10 minutes. What makes the fly different from other crab and glue-body designs, however, is that it’s extremely weedless. It always lands with the hook point up and away from snags; it swims very crab-like when retrieved; and most important, Ben says, it comes with a pair of small, redfish-attracting rattles.
Alderman is adamant that the rattles make a big difference in attracting redfish. To illustrate, he tells of the time he and another captain were wading a grass flat three years ago when he was first experimenting with the fly. The other captain stalked close to two big foraging reds and worked the fish with different flies for 10 minutes without a take. He called in Alderman, who cast, dropped the Zap-A-Crab 4 feet from one of the fish and waggled his fly rod to make the rattles pulsate, and instantly the red turned to the fly, rushed it and took. That’s when Alderman became a believer in rattling redfish flies.
The fly has a monofilament weed guard and burnt-mono eyes. Alderman is careful to keep the fly small, never more than 2 inches overall, so few redfish are missed at the strike. He uses a No. 2 stainless Tiemco hook and keeps the Zap-A-Crab glue body well away from the hook point to improve the fly’s ability to hook reds.
Fiddler, stone and mud crabs inhabit the Charleston marshes, and their colors are muted, from brown to a dark tan to almost chocolate. Consequently, those are the best hues for Alderman’s Zap-A-Crab.
Turkey in the Straw
Great fly-rod redfishing in northeast Florida can be found in the creeks and bays off the Intracoastal Waterway just north and south of the St. Johns River. With hundreds of creeks, bays and tidal washes that abound in the area, this region is a vast labyrinth of dark-stained tidewater.
Northeast Florida anglers seldom see cruising redfish beneath the surface. Usually a wake is seen, or a small part of the fish is spotted breaking the water’s surface. Caudal and dorsal fins poking above the surface usually give away the fish’s presence. Calm conditions are best for spotting redfish in dark water, but sometimes during strong autumn noreasters great flats action can be had.
Ponte Vedra Beach skiff guide Larry Miniard (904-285-7003) has a pet redfish fly he uses in this area called the Turkey in the Straw, which he and fishing pal Brent London devised. It’s tied in a size 2 hook, with a dark Furry Foam diamond-shaped body and lead eyes tied on the shank top, just forward of the hook bend. A small orange grizzly feather is tied in at the head to look like a fiddler-crab claw, with a single stiff mono weed guard positioned from the head toward the hook point. A couple of small rubber legs are tied fore and aft of the Furry Foam body, which is then coated with a quick-drying two-part epoxy. The fly is finished by tying in three dark but iridescent wild-turkey breast feathers that splay outward from the head over the hook point and bend, which makes it look very crab-like.
Miniard fishes primarily for tailing redfish in tough, tangled spartina grass along the northeast Florida coast. Reds there are primarily crab eaters, especially little oyster crabs and fiddler crabs, and the Turkey in the Straw is dead ringer for a little crab. Miniard adds that when a red takes the fly and crushes down on it with its mouth, it feels the hard Furry Foam body coated with epoxy. This makes the fly feel exactly like a crab in the fish’s mouth, he says, so a redfish rarely rejects the fly before an angler can set the hook.