If you’ve spent any time on the waters around Matlacha and Pine Island, you know that our flats are home to an abundance of redfish, and December is one of the best times of year to chase them. If you’ve tried catching one with a fly rod then you also know that we have an abundance of very tricky redfish, maybe some of the most difficult to fool in all of Southwest Florida. There are several reasons for this but none of them are obstacles for fly anglers that can’t be overcome with a modest amount of local knowledge and time on the water.
Fly fishing for redfish basically means sight fishing for them and that is a big challenge in this area. Unlike the Florida Keys, our shallow flats are rarely clear, especially during the summer. Matlacha Pass in particular looks like a freshly brewed cup of coffee for most of the year and Pine Island Sound only brightens up once the temps drop into the lower 70s. These tannic stained waters wrap themselves around our copper colored redfish and even when you’re standing on the deck of a skiff they appear and disappear right underneath you in the blink of an eye. Just getting your eyes locked on a cruising red long enough to get a good cast off is often a serious struggle.
The dense grass on our flats is also the perfect camouflage for redfish, which are primarily a bottom foraging species. The turtle grass blades in Pine Island Sound grow over two feet long and redfish burrow through them like prairie dogs. During a rising tide it’s not uncommon to float right over a big red, completely hidden in the grass until the shadow of the boat blows them out in a huge swirl of water and cloud of mud.
Fortunately, late fall and winter brings us some of the year’s lowest tides in Southwest Florida. During December, huge expanses of flats are exposed during these negative lows forcing the shrimp and crabs that reds crave down into the mud for shelter. Once the water starts flooding back in the redfish will follow with their noses on the bottom and tails in the air. These are the famous tailing tides that all the TV shows love to film and fly anglers love to fish. Given the right conditions, our local reds will tail for hours until the water deepens enough to cover them completely.
The right flats to go looking for these tailers can be easy to locate with a navigational chart and tide table. Any area with a controlling depth of less than one foot is likely to become exposed during a negative low tide. If the tide bottoms out within a half hour of sunrise that is an even better situation. This gives you at least three hours of excellent light that actually illuminates the bright orange tail of a redfish when it pokes above the surface.
When you’re out on the water at low tide, look for any area near the mangrove that holds a lot of birds. Wading herons, white pelicans, and dozens of cormorants mean that the grass is full of food and redfish will follow the rising tide after it becomes too deep for birds. Wading birds usually move along shortly after the flood tide begins so don’t worry that their commotion will spook any possible fish. The reds are used to feeding alongside these guys.
Since our local redfish will rarely tail in water more than two feet deep, you obviously need a shallow drafting boat to chase them in these conditions, especially with a fly rod. If you’re new to the Pine Island area, a lightly powered skiff such as a Gheenoe, or even a kayak, is one of the best platforms to get you out to these fish safely without grounding yourself for several hours.