A Basic Guide to Saltwater Fly Fishing in Southwest Florida
©1996, Don Phillips

Chapter 2 - Our Saltwater Gamefish

Because of the influence of the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulfstream, the temperature of the nearshore waters of Southwest Florida generally range from the high 80's (F) in the summer to the low 60's in the winter. This temperature range is just right for the literally hundreds of fish species which inhabit the area. Another resource which promotes fish species diversity is our shoreline. A rich mixure of sandy beaches, barrier islands, intercoastal waterways, seagrass beds, mangrove-studded bays, oyster bars, salt marshes, estuaries and creeks provide the perfect habitat for fish and fly fishing. Many species like grouper and most snapper are primarily offshore in deeper water and so they are not usually considered fly fishing targets. Some inshore species such as catfish and mullet seldom respond to flies. Even so, eliminating these other species still leaves us with many availiable and formidable species which are regular fly fishing targets here in Southwest Florida. In the following paragraphs I'll briefly describe what I believe to be the "top eight" species for our fly fishers. I have listed them with the most popular species first, but keep in mind that this is strictly a subjective rating. Please click over to Species and Seasons to get more information on sizes, best months, etc.

Snook (Centropomus undecimales) The snook is a great fish to go after with a fly rod because they almost never strike softly and they are guaranteed to put up a good fight before landing. In clear water they can often be quite selective, but sometimes they'll attack anything you throw at them. Through a significant part of the year they are in and around the mangroves and the fishing is quite like fly fishing for bass and pickerel along the edges of ponds; i.e. the further you can cast into the cover without getting hung up, the more often you will be successful. Snook cannot survive water temperatures much below 60 F, and so during extreme cold snaps they will either head out into deeper holes or passes or will go way up into the creeks and mangroves where the warmer freshwater dominates and where they can soak up the sun in shallow bays. Snook are relatively easy to handle during landing; you just have to make sure to avoid their super-sharp gill covers.

Snook love good cover and they will therefore often be found adjacent to pilings, rock piles, bridge abutments and seawalls. A very popular local sport involves fly fishing for snook at night in our canals where baitfish are attracted to dock lights. Although the typical snook caught will be in the 5-10 pound range, 20 pounders are not uncommon and 40-50 pounders are sometimes seen. The world's fly-caught snook record of 30 pounds, 4 ounces (20 lb. Tippet) was caught in the 10,000 Islands in1993. Snook spawn off the beach in the spring and early summer; this is an ideal time to walk the beach or the sand bars in pusuit of this worthy adversary.

Redfish (Sciaenops ocellatus) More correctly called the Red Drum, the Redfish or "Red" is one of our most popular gamefish for fly fishing. Their propensity for seeking crabs, shrimp and baitfish on shallow flats makes them very available to the fly fisher. Although they don't jump when hooked like snook or tarpon, they can be a very dogged adversary when they are in their usual 5-10 pound range. They have an annoying tendency to hunker down under the boat when hooked, which can often jeopardize the structural integrity of your fly rod if you're not careful. Redfish spawn offshore and they usually remain offshore after they're up in the 10-30 pound range.

As a result of the popularity of Chef Paul Prudhomme's "Blackened Redfish", the gulf population of redfish was nearly decimated by commercial netting in the early 1980's. In 1988, however, the commercial catching of redfish was outlawed, and this species is now making a magnificent comeback. From the flats of Pine Island Sound to the bays and lagoons of the 10,000 Islands the redfish is now a readily available gamefish.

Redfish often travel in schools and they (or their wakes) can be sight-fished by the observant angler. They are most vulnerable when they are actively rooting in shallow water for crabs and clams. Then, like bonefish, their tails can be out of the water, making them quite visible even when the water is cloudy. Although redfish will sometimes lay up near structure, they are usually caught while near oyster bars or on shallow flats. Although redfish are more tolerant of cold water than snook, they will often go deep in the passes or holes when water temperature drops.

Tarpon (Megalops atlanticus) Also called the "Silver King", "Poon" and many other less friendly names, fly fishing for tarpon is considered by many to be the ultimate experience. You shouldn't embark on a tarpon adventure however unless you have a good guide, heavy-duty equipment and are generally ready for a physical challenge. The adult tarpon is migratory and during the spring and summer they move from South Florida and the Keys up the western Florida Coast. Starting around April they begin showing up in the 10,000 Islands area, pausing along their migration route to rest and feed in the warmer waters of the shallow bays and creeks. These adults range from 40 to 150 pounds in weight and when they are hooked, they will often jump three or more times in their usually successful attempts at getting rid of the hook. If the hook seats well in their hard mouth, get ready to be towed!

Adult tarpon spawn offshore between May and September and their eel-like larvae are moved by the tidal currents into the backwaters and estuaries. These larvae eventually grow into "baby tarpon", which stay in the backwater for many years before they become migratory. These baby tarpon will grow to 20 pounds or more before joining their larger relatives offshore. In the meantime, they can be great sport for the fly fisherman. Like snook, baby tarpon are very happy in near-100% fresh water and they will often move way up into the back country. Like the adult, the baby tarpon supplement their supply of oxygen by periodically porpoising and taking in gulps of air, a habit which does not usually go unnoticed by the experienced fly fisher. Tarpon have essentially no food value and thus their status as a plentiful gamefish seems secure.

Spotted Seatrout (Cynoscion nebulosis) The Spotted Seatrout, a relative of the northern Weakfish, is a species now in transition. For many years, they were plentiful and their 1-4 pound weight range is perfect for light tackle saltwater fly fishing. Over the past 20 years however, the combination of commercial netting and harvesting by sportsmen has brought their population down to relatively low levels. The July 1995 ban on all inshore netting, plus some significant reductions in allowable recreational kills, seems to be reversing this declining trend. Even now, there are sufficient numbers of spotted seatrout to warrant fly fishing excursions for this species.

Spotted seatrout seem to prefer the grassier flats for feeding, although they are also often found on mud flats, adjacent to oyster bars, and along the edges of tidal currents. Like redfish, they will move into deeper holes during extreme cold spells. They spawn inshore, usually in seagrass beds, between March and November. They are relatively easy to handle during landing, except you must be careful of their few sharp teeth and dorsal spines.

Jack Crevalle (Caranx hippos) The jack crevalle is perhaps the salvation of the fly fisher on those days when the snook are sullen, the redfish are resting and the tarpon are travelling. This species has already bounced back considerably after the July 1995 commercial net ban. They run in schools of a dozen to hundreds, usually all about the same size within any one school. The typical size caught runs from 3 to about 15 pounds, although they can get much larger after they move offshore. Pound-for-pound, the jack crevalle or "jack" is one of the strongest fighting fish in salt water. They don't jump around like snook, but a 10 pound jack will keep your muscles straining for 15 minutes or more before landing. They are not too difficult to handle, but they do have a few sharp edges top and bottom.

This relative of the pompano and permit feed primarily on baitfish and shrimp. A school of jacks will typically follow the tide up into the estuaries and canals, trapping schools of baitfish against mangroves, banks or seawalls and gorging themselves on their hapless prey. I have many times witnessed this scene in the canal in back of my house, especially in the spring and fall. Hundreds of jacks will herd perhaps thousands of glass minnows against a seawall and the resulting commotion will bring dozens of pelicans and terns to pick up the remnants. The jack crevalle can sometimes be selective, but usually he'll try to eat anything that moves. Jacks are usually caught throughout the backwaters, but sometimes off the beach as well.

Ladyfish (Elops saurus) This diminutive cousin of the tarpon usually weighs in at 1 to 3 pounds and, like the tarpon, ladyfish like to jump when hooked. They spawn offshore, but spend most of their lives in the inshore bays and estuaries. They will gather as small groups in narrow coves, but they tend to run in quite large schools in the larger bays. Once a school is spotted, they can often be fished at the same location for several days in a row. Their primary food is small baitfish and shrimp, and when a large school of ladyfish chase a school of baitfish to the surface, the resulting commotion is evident to anyone within 100 yards.

Like the tarpon and the jack crevalle, the ladyfish has little food value but is a lot of fun to catch and release. For some reason, the ladyfish has a very slimy exterior and requires gloves or a careful grip to extract the fly. Like with many other species, I find that by grasping and manipulating the fly with forceps while the fish is still in the water, I can remove the hook without actually handling the fish.

Mangrove Snapper (Lutjanus griseus) The mangrove or gray snapper is quite prevalent in the backwater as well as offshore. Inshore, their weight is usually in the range of 1-3 pounds, but their offshore relatives run 8-10 pounds or more.. They are a very agressive fish and will readily take a properly presented fly. As their name implies, they are often found adjacent to and up in the mangroves. They tend to cluster in small groups and their main food is small baitfish and shrimp. Watch out for these little guys when you take them off the hook; they have pretty sharp teeth and they won't hesitate to try to grab onto a finger that's in range. They aren't called "snappers" for nothing!

Spanish Mackerel (Scomberomorous maculatus) Spanish mackerel usually travel in rather large schools, following the schools of baitfish upon which they feed. They are usually available to the fly fisherman when they are near the beach or in the passes, although they sometimes will come into the bays and canals when chasing their prey. Although only 1-2 pounds in size, they can be a lot of fun on a flyrod; especially if you happen upon a large school in a feeding frenzy. Wire leaders or at least very heavy shock tippets are required because of their sharp teeth.. They are most prevalent in southwest Florida in the winter, when water temperatures are in the 70 degree range.

Next Article - Fly Rods

Table of Contents