Football may reign king in Florida and much of the Deep South, but there is a phenomenon that literally overtakes the game played on 100-yard fields. Football-loving anglers often are drawn from the sofa or stadium by a group of fish that are ready, willing and able to please.
With all due apologies to University of Florida coach Steve Spurrier and Florida State's Bobby Bowden, their Gators and Seminoles take second billing to the crimson tide. No, we're not talking about the Alabama Crimson Tide. We're talking about the masses of redfish that school up in the shallows of the backcountry here along southwest Florida in preparation of their annual spawning run into the Gulf of Mexico. Anglers from Tampa Bay to Flamingo are able to participate in some of the year's best action from late August through September.
There's no place better to get in on the action than expansive Charlotte Harbor, a giant estuary located about 50 miles south of Sarasota near Punta Gorda along Florida's southwest coast. Redfish school up by the hundreds in the shallows of Bull Bay, Turtle Bay, Gasparilla Sound, Pine Island Sound, West Wall and the east side of the harbor. It's a time when the redfish can be easier than attracting a dog's attention with a sirloin steak.
Few are better at the game than Brandon Naeve, a 44-year-old professional fishing guide from Nokomis, Fla. A flyfishing specialist, Naeve is equally at home with artificial lures or live bait. All three techniques work just fine on these shallow-water brawlers.
As in any form of fishing, key to success is locating the redfish. And that can be tricky to do at times.
"It helps if you're out on the water every day," said Naeve. "You'll quickly discover that the schools will remain in the same area day after day. They won't necessarily be in the same spot, but they'll be the same general area."
Charlotte Harbor guides have learned the best technique for finding schools is to run their flats skiffs along the perimeter of the shallow areas. If there's a school nearby, the outboard noise will cause it to move. And when it does, the school will push water, giving away it's position. Then, it's simply a matter of shutting down and poling into casting position. Electric trolling motors aren't stealth enough to approach the fish. Poling is a must.
"I like to get upwind of the school," said Naeve. "I've found that if I'm in position and downwind of the fish, the water pounding against my bow often is too much for the reds. When I'm upwind, I can get close to them and they don't even know I'm there."
I accompanied Naeve on a trip and we encountered a vast school of reds that had our hearts pounding and knees knocking. There literally were 500 redfish tails piercing the water's surface as the fish foraged in the turtle grass for food.
"They're feeding on small pinfish (a plentiful, white baitfish)," Nave said. "That's why a small white fly has been so successful. I've found that you've got to pay attention to what they're feeding on and try to give them something that resembles it."
But when the fish are schooled up and hungry, you should be able to cast any fly. Right?
I cast a Prince of Tides, a popular fly created by Flip Pallot, for a half-hour without a look. I always figured that a hungry fish would eat just about anything. I was proven wrong, but I was humble and willing to change. So, I snipped the Prince of Tides off and tied on an all-white baitfish imitation that had a spun deer-hair, muddler-type head.
First cast resulted in four smashing hits before I finally connected solidly. It was much the same for the next half-hour. I landed several redfish that ranged from 28 to 32 inches.
An eight-weight fly rod and floating line are perfect for this game. Nine-weights come in handy, however, when the wind blows. I suggest a 10- to 15-pound, 12-foot monofilament leader. Some anglers will add a short length of 20-pound mono or fluorocarbon as shock leader, but I've found there's really no need since redfish do not have teeth. There is the possibility that they can cut your line on the sharp-edged turtle grass, but that doesn't happen often.
In most cases, a 60-foot cast is sufficient. Of course, the longer you can cast, the greater your odds of hooking up.
"What you need to be aware of is not to cast into the middle of the school," Naeve said. "You want to work the edges. That way, you can pick a fish off and the rest of the school won't be bothered."
Those opting for spinning tackle won't go wrong with a 7- to 7-1/2-foot medium action spinning rod, 10- to 15-pound test monofilament and a reel with a smooth drag. Redfish don't often make long runs, but they'll make short, determined bursts that can snap lines easily if the drag is jerky. A variety of lures will work, including gold spoons, topwater plugs, jigs and jerk worms.
Live bait is very popular in the harbor, with scaled sardines (also known and pilchards, whitebait and shiners) the top choice. They are castnetted and kept in large, aerated livewells. Many guides are virtual Pied Pipers when it comes to luring redfish with live bait. I watched in amazement as one guide anchored his boat 100 yards from a school and tempted it right to the boat by tossing out handfuls of pilchards.
It's a sight to behold when the guides throw stunned baitfish in the water and the redfish home in on them like a heat-seeking missile. Then, it's just a matter of tossing a hooked pilchard into the fray.
Anglers are permitted to keep one redfish per day. Minimum size limit is 18 and maximum is 27. Landing a red that's small enough often can be a chore, but few complain after a day of rod-bending action.
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