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
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
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
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