Ten Tips on Learning a New Fishing Environment: Inshore Florida Salt Water Fly Fishing

I love Kayak Fishing. It gets me into some magical places.

After over 60 years of fishing for trout in the Western United States, I have realized that my orientation towards salt water fishing will always be tainted by my trout fishing experience and knowledge. I can’t help it, it’s a part of me. When I set the hook it is still often a “trout set” instead of a “strip set”. Oh well, I still catch a lot of fish. I know that I am building a new salt water database of information and experience each time I go out. Now after 4 years of salt water fishing in Florida under my belt, I have learned a lot and am beginning to develop a sense of confidence that at least I have some idea of what’s going on in the environment. I know what a grass flat is, a sand bar, a cut, a mangrove stream, and an oyster bar. I have caught many different kinds of fish including Snook, Tarpon, Mackerel, Sea Trout, Redfish, Pompano, Jacks, Catfish, Pinfish, Ladyfish, Mangrove Snapper, Little Tunies, Puffer fish, Lizard fish, Skip Jacks, Permit and several others that I don’t know the names of. However, the more I know, it seems the more there is to learn. The important thing to me at this point is not about the numbers of fish I catch. The important thing on each trip is “Did I learn anything? ” “Did I figure out what was going on with the fish? “Did I add to my salt water fishing database?” Did I connect with the environment?

Some of my best trips have been the ones where I didn’t actually catch a thing! For instance I went out to Piney Point, which is located in South Tampa Bay. This is an area I really like because there is no development, except for Port Manatee, for many miles. This is an area I had fished many times. I was in he winer and when I got there I was shocked. Much of the grass flat area that I fish was not there. It was all dry for as far as I could see. I had to drive my truck out on the hard sand a couple hundred yards to launch my kayak. I knew I would be there at low tide, but I had never seen it this low. After doing some post trip research I discovered it was a negative tide, a minus .5 tide. I learned these tides happen in the winter. Now I know what a negative tide is and how important it is to watch the tides. That day I went out fishing anyway. The wind was blowing hard in my face, there were consistent high waves. Bait fish schools collected around my kayak. There were schools of bait everywhere and lots of birds were diving on the bait. I felt sure there would be predator fish around, but I found none. I had to drag my kayak across a muddy flat to get into the mangrove stream that I usually fish. I found no fish there either. Why weren’t the fish there? There was lots of bait and birds. There was also current from the incoming tide. Sometimes you just don’t know why you are not catching fish and this builds the mystery of salt water fishing. The fish do what they do, and no matter how much you know about the environment, you may not be able to figure out an effective method to catch them. Sometimes you are not going to connect with the fish. They just may not be there, or they may not be feeding. It has been said that “the ocean has no fences”. Fish that are here today, may be gone tomorrow. The best day I have had fishing saltwater was in this same area. I jumped 9 baby Tarpon, caught over 20 Snook, and two Redfish. I came back two days later, I fished the same area and only caught one small Snook. The bait schools were gone and so were the fish. This is a key difference in Salt Water fishing from Western Trout fishing. Trout can’t jump out of the stream and go somewhere else. Saltwater fish have the whole ocean to travel in and they move around a lot. They follow the bait schools, and are affected by the tides, the wind, and water temperature.

The grass flat area that I fish at Piney Point was not there! It was a winter, negative .5 tide.

Here are 10 things that I have found helpful in learning to fish the saltwater environment where I live in Florida.

Friends from the Mangrove Coast Fly Fishers have taught me a lot about fishing the salt and freshwater in Florida, and having fun on the water.

I. I found local anglers.

Flyfishing is best learned from one angler to another. I joined the Mangrove Coast Flyfishers, a Federation of Flyfishers International chapter in Sarasota Florida. I found there a group of really nice guys and guides. I began going to meetings and volunteered to help instruct fly casting before the meetings. During my career of owning a fly shop in Colorado, I really didn’t have the time or desire to be a part of a fly fishing club, but since retiring I have the time and energy to get involved. Soon I developed a couple of relationships with accomplished members willing to pass on their experience and knowledge of salt water fishing. Monthly meetings got me in touch with local anglers and local information. The monthly outings got me in touch with local kayak launches, places to fish, and how to fish from a kayak. For me finding friendly anglers with local knowledge is number one on the path to becoming a successful Salt Water angler.

 2. I joined Salt Strong.

Not sure how I found Salt Strong but it has proven to be one of my best resources. Salt Strong is based in Tampa FL and was started by two brothers, Luke and Joe Simons. It has many levels of information including complete coursed on catching Snook, Redfish, Sea trout, Pompano, Tarpon, and just about anything that swims. I spent the first year here in Florida having a monthly on line meeting with Luke Simon. I learned what to look for on Google Maps and other online maps. I joined the Insider Club that put me in touch with thousands of anglers all over the country who record their fishing experiences.  Helpful courses I watched include kayak fishing, fishing for Snook, Redfish, Sea Trout, plus many others. Although the club is aimed at conventional tackle angling, much of the info is relevant to the Flyfisher. One of the most helpful courses  is the spot dissection videos. They take a certain area on Google Maps and explain where the fish should be and how to catch them. Then they actually go to the spot and then give feedback on what happened. The club also has parties and get togethers with opportunities to meet other local anglers. If you join the insiders club you can see a map with thousands of fishing reports from anglers in the area you are interested in. You can also post your reports for others to see and give feed back. The highlight of my experience with Salt Strong was going out fishing with Luke Simons and catching a slam of Sea Trout, Snook and Red fish, all on the fly. If you want to learn about Saltwater angling, SALT STRONG WILL HELP YOU BECOME A STRONG ANGLER, QUICKLY!

3. I hire guides as my budget allows.

I totally believe in the value of hiring a fishing guide. They are our teachers, historians, mentors and gurus. They are on the water daily and consequently have a daily view of what’s going on. In Salt Water fishing, having a guide is even more important because the resource is so large, there are so many different things going on in the environment, and so many types of fish to catch. In freshwater fishing in Colorado I never had to check the tide, or the moon and seldom the wind. I did check water flows on the rivers that had flow stations measuring cubic feet per second. I would also check the general weather conditions, but thats all that was necessary. In the saltwater kayak fishing that I do, it is necessary to check the wind, weather, tides and the moon phase . Because the salt water environment is so enormous, diverse, and complex, going out with a teaching guide, one who doesn’t mind sharing information, can cut through years of struggle. A good salt water guide will have consistent days on the water. He or she will have checked the tide, moon phase, water temperature, wind and general weather conditions plus the guide probably has a network of other guides who are sharing information. Checking these things come naturally to a guide but for us newbies they may seem a little complicated and we may not know how they effect the fishing. He will also know the kind of food the fish are feeding on, whether it is minnows, crabs, shrimp or any of the thousands of food items available in the ocean. If a guide doesn’t want to share the process he goes through to find the fish, I wouldn’t go out with him. Hiring a guide for the day is very expensive. Good guides here in Florida charge $600.00 -$800.00 a day for two anglers, plus gratuity. This includes the use of a boat. Is it worth the money? It depends on who you hire and what your goals are. For me I like to take a guide to areas I have never been to before and then ask a lot of questions.

When one of my friends came to visit from Colorado we hired Captain Rick Grasset of Sarasota Florida to take us out fly fishing for False Albacore. The first day was windy and we couldn’t get out into the Gulf where the Albacore were, so we fished Sarasota Bay. We drifted the grass flats and caught Sea Trout, Blue Fish and Mackerel. Rick took us to a spot, explained why we were fishing there, what to expect, flies to use, and how to fish them. We got an education, it wasn’t the one we were looking for, but it was valuable. On the second day the weather and waves were perfect and the Albies were there. We would not have found them without Rick’s knowledge, and of course his boat to get us a mile or so off shore where the Albies were attacking bait balls. I learned what a good 9 weight fly rod was made for, what a strong drag was made for, and how to play a large, powerful fish. It was the first time I had seen predator fish blow up on schools of bait. It was exhilarating to see and hear the ocean turn into a washing machine from the Little Tunies as they attacked huge bait balls. Without a guide who has a boat, knows where the fish are, and knows how to approach a school of feeding fish, it would be practically impossible to catch these awesome fish. Thank you Rick!

Rick also has a monthly fishing report. In Colorado the seasons are much move defined into winter, spring, summer and fall. After over 35 years fishing Colorado I have a good understanding of what would probably happen each month on several Colorado streams. This seasonal information is very important to understand in the salt water environment also. Reading Captain Ricks monthly reports for several years has helped me better understand seasonal changes.

Captain Rick Grasset took us out to chase Albies. My arm got sore!
My friend Steve and I went out on an evening trip with Captain Brian Boehm owner of Quiet Waters Fishing. We connected! Thanks Brian.
Captain Josh Greer of Westwall Outfitters has taken me into some remote areas of the Everglades and taught me a lot about the many different types of fish there, and the necessity of conservation and sending the water south.
I gave Matt Thomas at age 15 his first job teaching a kids fly fishing class. Now he is called Captain Matt. He guides in Colorado, Louisiana, and the Florida Keys. He is on me about “strip setting”, vs” Trout Setting” and has taught me a lot about Saltwater fishing. His website is http://Riplips.com and he has hundreds of short videos on Saltwater and
freshwater fishing and fly tying.

4. I Fish as much as possible and keep a log by taking lots of pictures.

There is not a better teacher than time on the water. It is important that you have done your homework on the location you are going to fish by checking the weather pattern, including the wind forecast, and the tide table. I like fishing an outgoing tide the best, but have also caught fish on an incoming tide. The most important thing is to find moving water that is bringing bait. Pictures are important as they document time and place, and flies used. I am not really good at keeping a log so my pictures on my cell phone that are downloaded to the cloud allow me to look back at a timeline of my fishing history. I have not totally mastered the GoPro but I have learned enough so that I have some great footage to look back on. I add pictures to my Instagram account. You can follow me on Instagram at jimcannon.saltyquill

5. I invested in a great kayak.

Except for walking the beaches and wading the few local flats, it is almost impossible to fish much of Floridas intercostal with out some kind of watercraft. I decided on getting a NuCanoe Frontier 12 kayak. It is a very wide kayak at 43 inches, and is 12 feet long. It has a padded sit on top seat and is now outfitted with a trolling motor. It is a heavy kayak so I also have a trailer. With a kayak I can access miles of the intercostal waterways, bays and mangrove creeks and lakes. Some of these areas can only be accessed by a kayak as most boats can’t get into these shallow areas, no wonder kayak fishing has gained such popularity in the past 10 years. The Frontier can also hold two anglers so I can take my grandson out. The online course I took on Kayak fishing in Salt Strong created by Tony Acevedo gave me some great background info on fishing from a kayak and boating safety. I have only flipped my kayak once. Don’t tell my wife Martha!

My NuCanoe Frontier Kayak. In Florida you must have a flotation device and a whistle while on the water.

6. I purchased a number of fly fishing books.

I have several hundred fresh water fly fishing, fly tying, entomology and Gierach books that I have collected over many years of owning a fly shop, guiding and teaching fly fishing. I have started with a few Salt Water books and have a bunch more I would like to get. Here is my current collection I have found helpful.

The five books below give info on building a salt water data base.

Fly Fishing in Salt Water: Third revised edition by Lefty Kreh. If I could only have one book it would be this one. Info on tides helped me understand where the fish might be holding on an incoming and outgoing tide.

Fly Fishing the Inshore Waters: Lefty Kreh. A small book but covers the basics from tides to flies.

Saltwater Fly Fishing: by Jack Sampson

Seasons On The Flats by Bill Horn

Snook On A Fly by Norm Zeigler

These two books below are great to help you identify what salt water fish may be eating and patterns that have been tied that imitate them:

Fly Fisherman’s Guide to Saltwater Prey: by Aaron J. Adams , PHD.

A Flyfisher’s Guide to Saltwater Naturals and Their Imitation: by George V. Roberts Jr.

Books about Flies and Fly Tying are many. These are the ones I have on Saltwater tying..

Clouser Flies by Bob Clouser

Designing Poppers Sliders and Divers by Steven B Schweitzer

Snook Flies by Drew chicone

Feather Brain: Developing, Testing, and Improving Saltwater Fly Patterns by Drew Chicone

Game Changer by Blane Chocklett

101 Favorite Saltwater Flies by David Klausmeyer

Innovative Saltwater Flies by Bob Veverka

Essential Saltwater Flies by Ed Jaworowski

Ultimate Guide to Fishing South Florida by Steve Kantner

Backcounry Flies by Steve Kantner

7. I tie a lot of flies.

Nothing gets you closer to the fish and the environment than tying flies. When you can study the types of bait the fish are feeding on and then reproduce it on the vice a connection of understanding is made, never to be forgotten. I tie a lot of flies. Youtube is the best resource for any type fly you want to tie. Just search it out. You will find it. Although the Salt water environment is huge, I carry fewer fly patterns than I did when fishing the Western Trout habitat. My opinion is this. If you find feeding fish, they are not as selective to eating the fly as in fresh water trout fishing. Some may disagree with this. Try to imitate size, shape, color, and movement of the natural. I am putting together an article just on flies coming soon.

A small glass minnow that was puked up out of a Snook and my tied fly that worked.

8. I use my Cell Phone.

My cell phone is critical to giving me information on where I can launch my kayak, what the fishing area looks like, the weather condition, the tide and the wind, the moon phase, and as a GPS. I can locate my position to islands, cuts, grass flats, and other important areas I want to fish. I can tell how far I am from the put in or other locations. It could also be used in case of an emergency. I have lost two cell phones overboard while taking pictures. Now I have a leash on it. I really like the phone leash made by Rogue Fishing CO, called the Protector Phone tether at only $19.95.

I have to have my phone on a tether!

Here are the phone apps I use before and during a trip.

Navionics. https://www.navionics.com/usa/

This program has many helpful uses. It will track your route and save it for later use. You can add pictures to your route. It will show you exactly where you are in the environment. It has weather and tide info, plus much more that I have not learned to use. When fishing around Mangrove Islands it is very easy to get lost. Without an app like Navionics I would have spend some time overnight in the Mangroves. Many guides don’t want you to track your trip. Please have a conversation with your guide before you track a guided trip.

Wind Finder: https://www.windfinder.com/ap

Especially if you are going out in a kayak, it is necessary to check the wind. You can get into lots of trouble if the wind comes up too strong. You may not be able to get back to the launch if the wind gets intense. In kayak fishing I am very cautious, but I have still made some mistakes. If the wind is more than 10-15 MPH I probably won’t go, or at least it will narrow down where I go. The other thing about wind in Florida is that it can increase and reverse direction quickly. When fishing from a kayak, if the wind changes, you may have a tough time getting back to your put in. I always try and have an alternate route to safety if I can’t get back to the put in. Several times I have had to beach my boat and walk back to my vehicle. If you are walking the beach and fishing on the West Coast of Florida where I live, it’s best to look for wind coming from the east that will help lay down the waves. A strong westerly wind makes big waves, stirs up the water, can bring in sea weed, and the fishing will probably not be very good. Wind finder will help you see where the wind is coming from, if it will change direction, and how strong it will be. There are also some live cams that will allow you to see how big the waves are on the beach.

The Weather app. Weather App

A weather app comes on all smart phones and I use it before and during each trip. Using radar can help you see what conditions are on the way. Florida has more lightning strikes than any other states. You don’t want to be on the water in a lightning storm. Storms come in very fast in Florida and is is easy to get caught in a storm if you are not careful. I have only been caught in a storm a couple of times. One time I had to head for shore and wait it out under some mangroves. I always carry a raincoat. Most of the time the rain is warm but in the winter it can get cold, and when you get cold in Florida, because it is so humid, you are really cold.

TheTIDES App. is on my phone.

TIDESCHARTS is on my computer.

Having a tide app will show you the estimated tide and will help you know what time you should be on the water, and where you should be when it changes. I personally like fishing an outgoing tide but have also caught lots of fish on an incoming tide. The important thing is that you have moving water that is bringing bait to the fish. It still amazes me to be fishing an outgoing tide, then have the water stop and then start going the other direction. I know this is common to anglers who have been fishing salt water, but for me it is a true act of nature that still confounds my mind. In fishing Colorado tailwater streams like Cheesman Canyon on the South Platte it was always exciting when Denver Water would begin to release more water out of the dam. The increased water flow would often send the Trout on a feeding frenzy. Aquatic earthworms, nymphs, hoppers, beetles and ants would get washed into the stream and the fish would begin feeding. Many times I caught Trout with fat bellies and aquatic worms puking out of their mouths when caught. This water change is similar to the changing of the tide. The moving water begins bringing more bait to the fish and the fish start feeding. It is important to understand the tides but it will take some time on the water at each location to get a feel for how it effects the fishing. For info on tides read Lefty Kreh’s book Fly Fishing Salt Water chapter 3 and this article from Boating magazine.

9. I look at the marine biology

I am learning to get the most out of each day on the water. Each day is different and has something unique to experience. In Colorado I used to take a seine net, collect and study the bugs in the water. I had a collection of the many species of insects. Identifying the minute midges, swimming Baetis Nymphs, the stout Trico’s, the huge Stonefly’s, and the net building Caddis was fascinating. I knew their lifecycles and could identify the hatches. I knew approximately when to look for the hatch and the fly imitations that would work in the different stages of the hatch. At times after being on the water, I couldn’t wait to get home and tie flies to imitate what I saw in nature. I do the same in Saltwater. I look for the type of minnows the fish are feeding on. Sometimes they are in huge schools all around my kayak. I often see shrimp flipping out of the water and crabs crawling on the bottom or drifting in the current. Saltwater is much more diverse and complex. There are many more types of bait the fish feed on. There are many more species of fish, each having its own niche. In Saltwater, everything is eating and being eaten at the same time. I guess it’s the same in the freshwater environment, but Saltwater fishing seems a lot more violent. I was fishing a grass flat in my kayak and had hooked a nice Sea Trout. As I was bringing the fish in all of a sudden something changed. I thought I lost the fish but there was still some weight on the line. When I lifted the fly out of the water, on the end was the Trout’s head. The body had been bitten off, probably by a shark. That never happens in Rocky Mountain fly fishing unless there are Pike around! I have occasionally caught several larger trout with sculpins or smaller trout in their mouths but it’s rare.  I remember the first crab I saw crawling around on an oyster bar. I said to myself, “Wow that’s a crab!” I had looked at crab flies for so long, I was amazesd when I saw the real thing. Observing the food items that fish are feeding on increases your chances of choosing the right fly for the right fish, at the right time

10. I have realized the importance of Conservation.

Sometimes the fishing in Florida is amazing. Sometimes I catch a lot of fish and many different kinds of fish. Sometimes I don’t catch anything but I still realize it is a privilege to be on the water. I am very concerned about the marine environment here in Florida, as are thousands of other anglers. There are huge pollution problems in Florida. There are wastewater spills, septic tank leaks, pesticide and farm pollution, pollution from phosphate mining, nutrient pollution into and from Lake Okeechobee, Blue/Green algae and Red tide explosions, the release of polluted water down the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. The Everglades is half the size of what it used to be. Florida Bay has lost thousands of acres of sea grass. Thousands of people are moving here each day, adding to the stress on the environment. The marine environment is at a critical point . There are often huge die off’s of fish, Dolphins, Manatees and sea grass.  In listening to those guides who have been fishing the salt water for many years, I realize the fishing in Florida is not near as good as it used to be. We don’t even know what has been lost unless we talk with the old timers. In 2017 and continuing into 2019 the West Coast of Florida experienced a very destructive event of Red tide.  Hundreds of thousands of pounds of marine life washed up dead on the Florida beaches. It was at least 450,000 tons. The governor declared a State of Emergency. Tourism for the most part stopped and real estate values plummeted. Restaurants and beaches closed. The Florida Wildlife Commission put a moratorium on harvesting Snook, Redfish, and Sea Trout on much of the west coast where I live. Now just as the fish are recovering, the Red tide is coming back on the west coast of Florida. In the past several weeks over 1700 tons of marine life has washed up in Tampa Bay due to another Red tide outbreak. Red tide is also present south of Tampa Bay on into Sarasota and south towards Venice. I am no longer fishing the area from Tampa Bay to Charlotte Harbor until the Red tide is gone and the fish recover again. I don’t want to put any more stress on the fish than it’s already suffering. It’s not fun to catch a fish that is already struggling to survive. Its depressing to see and smell the dead fish. Breathing Red tide fumes is also very bad for humans and causes respiratory issues and has even been linked to the development of Alzheimers. The federal, state and local governments are spending millions of dollars to study Red tide and literally billions of dollars are being spent to try and correct the pollution issues in Florida. Hopefully its not too late for meaningful restoration.

It is totally irresponsible for anglers to fish but not get involved in helping to save the environment. We are the ones who love the environment and we are the ones that can save it.

Florida Conservation Organizations I like are below. There are many more great ones.

Captains for Clean Water

The Everglades Foundation

Bonefish and Tarpon Trust

Tampa Bay Waterkeeperhttps://ccaflorida.org

Coastal Conservation Association of Florida

Sarasota Bay Estuary Program

Sunmcoast Water Keepers

Learning a new fishing environment carries with it the responsibility of making sure it remains and is restored. There are guides and environmentalist that say it’s too late for a meaningful restoration of Floridas environment especially the Everglades. They say, “enjoy it now” because it will be gone tomorrow. Others are optimistic that strides are being made.

I had the privilege of working for Paul Tutor Jones for over20 years, providing a fly fishing guide service for him and his family at his Blue Valley Ranch on the Blue River in Colorado. I witnessed how his environmental plans helped restore the native wildlife in the Kremling area. Paul is one of the founders of the Everglades Foundation. Whenever I feel discourages about Floridas pollution issues I go to the Everglades Foundation web site and read what has and is being done to restore the Everglades. It give me lots of hope. I know the healing power fishing has for humanity. It connects us to nature and nature connects us to our Creator. Without this connection we lose hope.

We read from the Bible. It was on the fifth day the oceans were created: 

Genisis chapter 1:20 And God said, “Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.” 21 So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living thing with which the water teems and that moves about in it,according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.”23 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fifth day.

God saw that his creation of the waters and the marine environment was “good”. Those of us who can’t help but fish know how good it really is. We love it and can hardly stay away.

We also know we must work to help keep it the way God made it!

Let’s get educated on the problems. Let’s get to work and partner with those who are finding solutions, before our Garden of Eden is gone!

8 thoughts on “Ten Tips on Learning a New Fishing Environment: Inshore Florida Salt Water Fly Fishing

  1. Outstanding article with so much information. Thank you Jim, for sharing your experience and knowledge. We are all better fishing men and women because of pioneers like you!!


  2. Jim,
    I just finished reading your new post, ( “Ten tips …… “ ) and thoroughly enjoyed it. Having followed a similar path in my fly fishing life. Trout fishing in the Catskills and the Adirondacks, I then retired to Sarasota. It was a definite learning curve that had to be navigated. Your insight into learning how to navigate that”curve”, will benefit many fishermen and fisherwomen, both inexperienced and experienced. Thank you for sharing. It is greatly appreciated.
    Ken Babineau


  3. Jim,I really enjoyed your article! I too got my start fly fishing for trout, up In Massachusetts and New Hampshire. My move to the salt started in 1990, with the resurgence of striped bass. But my move to Palmetto 5 years ago made me realize it’s a totally different game down here! I’m learning more every time I get out, and your writing is very inspiring. Thanks again and keep it coming.


    1. Roy, thanks for your kind words. It’s so great to see new things each time we go out. Wading and diving Birds, crabs, bait balls , rolling Tarpon, slashing Snook. It’s so violent in the salt, except for the Manatees. Best regards! Jim


  4. Jim, great article.
    FYI, The Blue Quill in Evergreen CO. was my local fly shop starting around 1990 until 2013 when I moved to Venice, Fl.
    Jim and his partner Pat Dorsey were local fly fishing legends (my favorite fly was Cannons Emerger)


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