Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that over the last ten years or so the redfish’s stock has really been on the rise. It seems like lots of people have started reserving a week in the fall or winter for a trip down to the Louisiana marsh to chase giant redfish. From what I can tell, it looks like often people get lots of ‘em, and big ones. Despite all the buzz, I never felt like I was missing much. From afar, redfish just never really did it for me. Maybe it’s because I’ve been in a committed relationship with bonefish for many years, and there wasn’t really ever room for another flats fish in my life. But in 2019, circumstances dictated that I had to move to Florida, and redfishing was a big part of the upside. To be sure, I was excited that, given the proximity of fishable water to my new apartment, I would be fishing much more than I ever had before. And if redfish were the game, I was going to play. 

There’s a reason that people rave about Louisiana: it has the best redfishing in the world. From what I had heard, my part of Florida had redfish, but on a fly, you can’t catch them in sizes and numbers like you can in Louisiana. On my first few outings, I saw a couple of snook, but no redfish. Every little catfish rooting around on the bottom looked like a small redfish. 

A few days after I showed up in Florida, I was walking in a neighborhood park along a sea wall, straining to see into the water. I saw what was obviously a 15ish pound redfish cruise swiftly by me, turn on its side and aggressively rip something off the bottom without breaking stride. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a rod on me, but I felt like that fish would have been pretty catchable had I been wading about forty feet off the seawall at that second. I had made several walks along that seawall before, and I would make many more afterward, without seeing another redfish. 

Around that same time, someone from Instagram gave me a tip on a rock pile just a few minute’s drive from my apartment. At that point, my success in Florida had been limited to the mighty lizardfish, several ladyfish, one mangrove snapper, a catfish, a pufferfish and one decent snook. I wasted no time getting suited up and driving to the rock pile.  I waded in a few hundred yards, cast from the rock pile out into deeper water and let my fly sink for five or ten seconds. It felt very fishy. 

My fly landed in about ten feet of water. I cast about fifty feet, stripping it back slowly along the rocks. After ten casts, my fly stopped, and I drove my hook into something solid about 40 feet away. It felt like a ten pound bag of rice. The fish, or whatever it was, paused for a couple of seconds before making a few deep, low frequency head shakes. It was clearly a good fish. I adjusted my footing so as not to let the gentle waves push me off of the fly line-and oyster-covered cluster of rocks I was standing on. The fish sprang into action and pulled all of the slack line that was floating around me, forcing me onto the reel. I gained a little line and it took it all back. This went on over and over again. Unlike a bonefish, this unseen fish fought hard on the way in as well as the way out. After a few minutes, the fish rolled on the surface and I was able to get a look at its copper sides and spotted tail. A redfish! After a few more minutes of close quarters fighting, I grabbed the twenty pound fluorocarbon leader and tailed the fish, having suddenly realized that I had been wrong about redfish. It had a handsome copper back and flank, big, beautiful scales, super cool “double” pectoral fins, and a lovely black spot on its tail. And I had to love the mouth: toothless and smooth; just like a bonefish.

Redfish  caught on fly in Tampa Bay Florida

Not wanting to pound my local fishery too hard, I waded back to shore, past a line of palm trees and frolicking dogs, to my car and called it a day. That first redfish had come pretty easily, but from then on it got more challenging. 

I returned to the city park seawall several times, and eventually saw some redfish. They appeared suddenly and then disappeared. Several times I looked to my side and looked back just in time to see a fish finish nibbling my fly. It was one of those awful situations where the fish takes a bite just at the end of your strip, so you make enough contact to prick and thus spook the fish but not enough to set the hook. But, but.... Come back! The fish, and its group of three or four small ones, moved on. It certainly wasn’t an ideal encounter. But, it was encouraging to be in the general presence of redfish, even if they were tough to catch. I hoped they would be there the next day... 

…But they weren’t. Over time it began to seem that redfish were totally unpredictable. I would go at low tide and see none. I would go at high tide, falling tide, incoming tide, and see nothing. Beautiful grass flats, presumably all a redfish could want, covered many acres of shallows. But apart from that random blind casted fish, and the small ones I saw that one time, I didn’t see a redfish for quite some time. 

It was only when I returned to the park, and started deliberately stalking the sandy edge of a seaweed line, where I might be able to spot one against the sand, that I finally saw another redfish. Why it was there that time and not on so many others, I have no idea. It was a small fish, but enough to get me excited. The problem was that it materialized about twenty five feet away: not an ideal distance for me to make enough awkward false casts to get my leader out of the rod tip, make a decent, albeit rushed false cast, and put the fly in front of the fish that had already moved several feet since I spotted it. The fish turned tail and disappeared into the murky glare.

Around that time I made a post on Facebook stating that “I have learned almost nothing about redfish.” They seemed to appear at random. And there just didn’t seem to be many around. I follow the hashtag “tampabayfishing” and it was clear that some people were getting them, just not me. The only thing it seemed I knew was that they preferred swimming over a dark bottom, if they could help it. I made many false casts around that same weed line over the next few weeks, and only caught ladyfish. 

I would often take walks along the seawall, peering into the buckets of the local castnetters. Often, other fishermen, not used to seeing fly fishermen, would strike up conversations with me. One day a grizzled, tattooed and long haired fisherman told me “if you wanna catch redfish you’ve got to go up there.” He motioned to a little patch of mangroves several hundred yards to the north. “The redfish hang out around there. Yesterday I saw about thirty up there.” “Thanks,!”  I said. This was the type of information I needed. The next day, I walked just a little ways to the north and waded in at the spot the Florida Man had pointed me towards. The water was a little murkier up there, even though it was only a manageable wade from where I had been fishing on the main flat. I waded into the soft sand until the water came just past my knees. It didn’t take long for a big redfish to appear. It was about forty feet away, coming straight at me and moving very slowly. I tried to place my fly in that very limited zone where it’s visible to the fish, but not too close to spook it. That’s almost always a very fine line, especially with a pressured redfish. 

I threw a cast. My fly landed ten feet to one side of the fish. Probably too far away for a fish moving that slowly. Sure enough, right as my fly hit the surface, the fish did an about face, accelerated slightly, and swam straight away from me, out of view. My fly really wasn’t close to the fish, but it had elicited a deliberate, slow spook.

Redfish on fly in Tampa Bay Florida

As the day went on, many fish exhibited this same behavior. Redfish seemed to realize, even accept, that I was there. Those fish seemed smart enough not to waste energy over me once they knew I was there. More fish started appearing, and a couple of times, my fly landed in that magic zone in front of a fish that was in a feeding mood. One smaller fish followed my fly almost to the rod tip, wagging its tail excitedly like a cat, and spun around in a complete circle in its frenzied pursuit. The fish ate the fly almost at the rod tip, as I had long ago run out of fly line and started jigging the fly with my rod. My rod bent deeply as I stung that fish, which made a speedy short run and got off. 

That first day at the new spot I hooked three small redfish, but that was the easiest it got. Almost always, in the relatively deep, murky water and brown bottom, the fish would ambush me, causing me to frantically false cast and almost always spook the fish, either from my body, my frenzied casting or my fly. I saw dozens of fish there, and never had what I would call a truly good shot. I would often see other fishermen there; like many places in Tampa Bay, this spot is no secret. The redfish there get pounded every day by conventional fishermen as well as fly fishers. They’ve learned that anything that hits the surface means danger, which makes it extremely difficult to get your fly in front of a slow-moving fish, much less convince it to eat. There are some big fish, perhaps up to twenty pounds, on that flat. But if you walk a few hundred yards to the south you won’t see a redfish. What they love about that particular part of the flat, I have no idea. 

Eventually I learned another spot- again, not a secret, but probably not as pressured as my home water. There, finally, I got some quality shots at redfish. The first one I saw there was moving quickly along the mangrove shore, 50 feet away, in bright sunshine. I threw at it, gave it a nice lead, and the fish followed my fly rapidly for about five yards. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the fish panicked and spooked, swimming right by me, shaking its head frantically, presumably thinking it was hooked. 

Since then, my “new” spot has proved to be almost as challenging as all the others. The fish are highly pressured, and more than one has exhibited the same post traumatic hook disorder as the first. The one thing this spot has going for it is large clear patches where fish can be spotted a reasonable distance away. I fished there several times and had a bunch of good shots, where I actually had time to regain my composure, make a couple orderly false casts, and present the fly a nice leading distance in front of the fish. I got one beautiful, pearl-colored redfish there that, after a very long slow follow, took the fly less than twenty feet away, just before I stripped the leader. So, now that I do know a very few things about redfish, here are some thoughts:

  1. Roving redfish can be unpredictable. They can be caught blind casting, but it’s all about being there at the right time.
  2. Redfish do seem attracted to structures such as rock piles, but they seem to inspect them while passing through rather than hold on to them for long periods of time.
  3. On certain flats, redfish seem to exhibit very high site fidelity. Once you’ve found a good flat, you can expect redfish to be there consistently, at various tides, at least for many days in a row. Those fish may not congregate in another part of the flat, just a few hundred feet away, so if you’re at a new flat, try walking as much of it as you can.
  4. Redfish can be every bit as tough as bonefish. I’ve fished for uneducated bonefish, but I’ve never fished for “easy” redfish before, so I can’t speak to them.

That’s about all I know. Which brings me to a couple of fishing tips:

  1. Use light areas of bottom to your advantage. Not only in seeing fish, but also in seeing where fish are NOT. Try casting with your fly line over a light patch, and just your leader over dark areas where fish might be. That way you can blind fish, knowing you’re not spooking fish with your fly line.
  2. Use a long leader. I consider 12 feet the minimum, and often fish as long as 16 feet. I still spook fish.
  3. I use a standard saltwater hook, without dumbbell eyes. I have found that the “plop” of dumbbell eyes spooks these fish from a long way off. With shots often occurring at short distances, it is imperative to minimize splash.

Redfish Fly Tan and Pink with Fair Flies materials

I’m still a novice, but I know more now than I did when I started. I think that with my training in Tampa Bay, I’ll be ready for Louisiana if the opportunity presents itself. Most of my fish have come on fairly simple, drab flies, but I have hooked fish on surprisingly flashy flies. I think that my local redfish see a ton of plastic shrimp and soft plastic minnows, but they don’t see many flies like I’m throwing. I have been fishing mostly very simple shrimp, since I like tying them more than crabs. Here's a simple recipe:

Brushy 5D Shrimp
Hook: Size 2 or 1 Standard Saltwater
Eyes: burnt mono eyes, long
Rostrum/Tail (optional): Fair Flies Fly Fur, Tan
Body: Fair Flies 5D Brush, in Shrimpy Tan Pearl, Charly Cream/Tan/Pink or Shrimpy Tan Pink 5D brush. One or two wraps.
Underbody (optional): shrimp pink chenille or dubbing

Have your own redfish story? Share your story or tips with us in the comments below and receive 10% off your next Angler’s Trading Post order. 

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