A Basic Guide to Saltwater Fly Fishing in Southwest Florida
C 1997, Don Phillips
Chapter 9 - Places to Fly Fish
No-no, put your notepads away folks; I'm not going to divulge the Loran coordinates of anybody's favorite fishing hotspots, nor draw maps of local waterways with x's over the honey-holes. I'm going to describe the types of places to fish and justify why fish inhabit these locations. Snook, Tarpon, Redfish, etc. don't just wander around aimlessly during their life. They travel somewhat predictable paths and establish feeding positions in somewhat predictable locations. Notice I twice used the qualifier "somewhat" in the preceding sentence. As in most elements of nature, many fish march to the beat of a different drummer and repeatedly confound attempts to reduce fly fishing to a science.
To have full access to fishy locations you really need to have a boat, or be with a guide who has a boat (More on boats in Chapter 11). Nevertheless, the walking angler has many fly fishing opportunities available to him. Beaches, passes, bridges, creeks and canals are often accessible to the angler and they can be very productive at times.
Although I'm not formally trained in the science of fish behavior, my observations and reading tell me that fish move from place to place for three main reasons: Reproduction, comfort and hunger. Let's examine each of these reasons in more detail.
I'm not familiar with the detailed reproductive habits of many of our local gamefish species, but it is apparent that many of them move toward or into the Gulf when it's time to spawn. Rising water temperature is often the trigger that sets off the spawning urge and thus mature fish move toward the Gulf in the Spring. Tarpon spawn far offshore, miles and fathoms beyond the reach of the fly fisher, but before and after they are just off the beach and very accessible. Snook and Redfish release their eggs near the passes, probably to guarantee the maximum dispersion on the incoming tides. This migration toward saltier water may also be nature's way of maximizing dispersion due to higher egg buoyancy in salty water. Seatrout on the other hand spawn very close to the grassy flats where they live, probably to ensure that the fry will find cover in those very same grasses. All four of these species are very tolerant of high concentrations of fresh water, but when it's time to spawn they all migrate toward the salt.
Comfort is of paramount importance to all species. Water temperature is one of the factors because it has a dominant effect on the fish's bodily functions. Each species has different limits however. Water temperatures in the 60's (degrees F) are traumatic to snook, disturbing to Redfish and Tarpon, and not much of a problem for Seatrout. At the other end of the scale, Snook seem to do well with water temperatures in the high 80's, while Tarpon, Redfish and especially Seatrout are beginning to get uncomfortable. Thus, each species has a comfortable temperature range of about 15-20 degrees and when these limits are exceeded the fish want to move elsewhere.
So, where is "elsewhere". Keep in mind that the Gulf water temperatures posted on the local radio and TV stations are indeed Gulf temperatures, away from the beach and a few feet down. Surface water temperatures can be much higher in the summer and much lower in the winter due to the effect of ambient air temperature. The winter effect is especially great because of the added effect of surface evaporative cooling. Under these circumstances, fish will tend to abandon surface feeding and will move off shallow flats for the insulative comfort of deeper water. Note that this movement can take place in both summer and winter conditions. When the Gulf water temperature begins to go outside their comfort range, fish can't simply change their position in the water column. They will often move toward freshwater, which can be warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. In the winter, they will move onto the flats on sunny days, especially where a dark bottom absorbs the sun's rays and adds to the warming effect.
Another comfort factor is safety. Fish are constantly aware of predators like pelicans, eagles, ospreys, dolphins, larger fish, etc. Instinctively, they like either some sort of cover, plenty of room to run, or both. Fish on shallow flats seem to know that they are very visible to predators and they are generally quite spooky under these conditions. Seawalls, pilings, rockpiles, oyster piles, dropoffs, sunken logs, etc. all provide good cover, but the mangrove root structure is perhaps the best of all. Here they are protected overhead by a leafy canopy, to the rear by dry land and on all sides by mangrove roots. A snook so situated, in 80 degree water, with a brisk current flowing by, carrying baitfish and crustaceans, is one happy camper!
The third comfort factor is energy conservation. A fish simply cannot hang in a heavy current for long periods of time with only a scrap or two of food to sustain him. Fish will gladly enter a heavy flow for a juicy morsel, but afterwards he retreats to a position in calmer water where he can watch for another opportunity. If a fish is going to continually fight a heavy current, this current must be filled with crabs, shrimp or other energy-sustaining food. Normally, therefore, when you find good flow you should also be looking for eddies, bars, uneven bottom, rocks, flow seams, or anything else which will provide a nearby, comfortable ambush lie for the fish.
Finally, hunger is a most important item in determining a fish's location. Simply put, if a fish is hungry he'll be where his prey is in greatest concentration. That doesn't necessarily mean that he is constantly feeding, but he will seldom be far away. I've watched snook under the lights at my dock for hours at a time. There will be hundreds of glass minnows circling under the light and several snook will be up against the seawall or the dock pilings, watching the scene intently. Then, suddenly, something triggers the senses of one snook and he'll race into the school of minnows, grab a few with his shovel-mouth and return to his prior resting place. Later, another snook will take his turn. This can go on for hours! The message here is even when there's a constant supply of food, fish will often pace themselves and feed sporadically.
Keep in mind that food availability is not restricted to areas of water flow. The Redfish's favorite foods, crabs and shrimp, are often on stillwater flats and sometimes just under the surface of the bottom. Seatrout also inhabit shallow grassy flats, for the shrimp and baitfish that utilize that locale for food and cover. In these instances, the gamefish are often just moving around, singly or in schools, prospecting for their next bite. Single fish or schools of fish will also roam other areas like the beach, sandbars and mangrove edges where they can concentrate, trap and ravage schools of baitfish. Jack Crevalle are particularly noted for this type of strategy.
I've often heard stories of how many mullet, snook, redfish, etc. there were here in southwest Florida 20 or 30 years ago. You could literally go out to a likely place and spend all day catching fish. Even with continued conservation measures I doubt if things will ever get that good again. There's simply increasing numbers of fishermen competing for a limited resource. And so, there's more habitat than there is gamefish to occupy that habitat. In other words, to catch fish, you'll have to keep moving in order to find locations where the fish are both present and feeding. Sure, there are some places that are frequently productive (but I'll never tell where), and probably worth 2 or 3 fly changes. Usually though, it's best to move slowly but constantly to cover as much geography as practical.
Hopefully, these bits of information will help you locate cooperative fish when you are out on the water. There's no magic formula for success. You should consider the tides, water temperature, season, topography, hydrology, etc. and then use perseverance to locate and catch fish. Don't forget also that there's an alternate strategy. Hire a good guide and let him find the fish for you! These guys make their living finding fish in the backwaters and no matter how much you read and explore, it's unlikely you'll achieve the level of knowledge that they have gained being on the water day after day, year after year. And most good guides will readily share their knowledge with you, so that you will be better prepared in the future if you venture out on your own.
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