Jim Cannon Explores Florida's Fresh and Saltwater Fishing
Author: Jim Cannon
My father made sure I had a spinning rod, and as I got older, a fly rod in my hands at a young age. I would often go out at night with a flashlight and get night crawlers before going fishing. On one side of my belt was my salmon egg holder with the spring loaded cap filled with Pautzke Balls of Fire. On the other side was my metal worm holder. It was a deadly combination of bait that trout couldn't resist. I learned to tie our flies from a Herter's catalogue as there
were no fly shops or internet around in the 60s. Growing up in Walla Walla Washington allowed me to spend much of my youth hunting and fishing. It was just a part of life, and Dad and I spent many days catching rainbow trout from the lakes and streams in Eastern Washington state, or hunting pheasant, waterfowl, and deer in the Blue Mountains and wheat fields of Eastern Washington. The passion for fishing never left. Dad asked me, "What are you going to do in life?". I told him, "Well you taught me how to fish". I founded the Blue Quill Angler fly shop in 1988 in Evergreen CO. The Blue Quill was fortunate to acquire permits to guide on the South Platte, Colorado, Arkansas, and Blue Rivers in central Colorado. The retail shop in Evergreen, guide service, fly fishing school and on line internet business has grown to become one of the best shops on Colorado's Front Range and the West. I had the opportunity fish and guide on some of Colorado's most famous trout streams. I also taught fly tying, casting and all aspects of fresh water fly fishing. My wife Martha, our bookkeeper (the one who held us together) and I sold our shares in the Blue Quill in November 2016. In May 2017 we moved to Bradenton Florida to be close to family and of course explore the many saltwater and freshwater fishing opportunities in Florida. I am able to access the many hundreds of miles of inshore areas and freshwater streams in my NuCanoe Frontier kayak. I also love walking the beach looking for Snook in the summer. Let's go fishing.
My grandson Gabe, when he was 14 years old, was hit by a car. The car was traveling at 55 miles per hour and hit him as he was getting on the school bus at 6:30 am. The impact of the hit knocked off both his shoes as it propelled him into the stationary school bus. His left Tibia was broken and also his pelvis in 4 places. He also received a bad gash on his scull with a serious traumatic brain injury that left him unconscious. He was rushed to the hospital where he was in intensive care for several days. A Titanium rod was permanently inserted into his femur. He went through rehab for months and although he has mostly recovered, he is unable to do long distance running which was his passion. He also still has some difficulty from the concussion. Great thanks to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, for their fantastic care of him. Once the Dr’s gave him clearance to go kayak fishing, about a year later, I put him in the front of my double seated NuCanoe Fronteer12 and we headed for a hidden lake through a Mangrove tunnel .
Gabe is an avid fly angler and we have been fishing partners since he was a toddler. We hit several spots back in the Mangroves that usually hold numerous Snook. He only caught one small Snook after several hours of casting. I could tell Gabe was getting tired and his energy fading when we came to one last Mangrove shore line where I had caught Snook in the past. I encouraged Gabe to keep casting and told him it was just a matter of time before he got a hook up. The lake was very shallow, only a foot to two feet deep. The afternoon sun was bright but the Mangrove shoreline created a shadow line that I knew could be a safe haven for any Snook in the lake.
Gabe made a long cast back into the shadows. He made several strips of the little minnow pattern and then he got a violent strike in about 1.5 feel of water. Fortunately the Snook ran out into the center of the lake and made a jump instead of heading into the Mangroves. Gabe’s reel was screaming and he got his knuckles knocked from the reel as the fish made several powerful runs back toward the Mangrove shoreline and jumped a second and then a third time. I began paddling hard, trying to keep up with the Snook as Gabe’s whole fly line was out the end of his rod and into the backing. Gabe was able to keep the Snook from going back into the overhanging Mangroves and out of the roots. Finally the Snook, exhausted from the battle, turned over and slipped into the net.
In the shallow water we both got out of the kayak and took a couple pictures and released the giant Snook. It was 30″ long and very thick. Then we hugged each other in the midst of that hidden lake, and filled with joy and awe were thankful to God for healing, for life, for that great Snook, and being able to fish together. A memory made forever!
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.
Here are 10 things that I have found helpful in learning to fish the saltwater environment where I live in Florida.
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.
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!
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 Changerby Blane Chocklett
101 Favorite Saltwater Flies by David Klausmeyer
Innovative Saltwater Fliesby 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.
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.
Here are the phone apps I use before and during a trip.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Back in my teens I used to come to Florida to visit my family that lived in Sarasota. My Aunt Hazel was the fisher woman and we would go out and fish at least every other day. We used live shrimp, or if there were Mackerel around, we would use a silver spoon. We fished primarily off of the bridges and overpasses. We would catch Sheephead, Mackerel, Catfish, Sea Trout, Grunts, Pinfish, Redfish, and hope for a Snook. Back in the 70’s I never heard of Red Tide but over the years I heard some about it. Well, I have experienced it now, and it’s no joke! I witnessed first hand the devastation of what many say, was “the worst Red Tide in Florida history”. It lasted a year and a half. It began on the West Coast of Florida in the Gulf of Mexico in October 2017, and dissipated in the winter of 2018/2019. The area effected was from Naples up north past Tampa bay, and even some areas around the Panhandle and on the East Coast. It did not get into the Keys or the Everglades south of Naples. Tampa Bay was mostly spared and the Red Tide didn’t get much up into Charlotte Harbor. As of April 2019 it seems to be gone. I walked the section of beach around Venice on May 19, 2019 and the water was beautiful, there was lots of bait balls (schools of minnows), and I found groups of Snook close to shore actively herding, and then attacking the schools. Its quite a sight when a pack of Snook, in unison, explode with open mouths into a billion minnows, sending them into panic mode flying out of the water. This is a sight and sound every fly angler should witness. I would love to get a video of it but at this point, I am more interested in fishing when that happens and can’t seem to pull myself away to get a video. I have been back to the same location twice but with no luck. Not sure what happened. There was lots of bait but no interested Snook.
May 19, 2019. Water on on the West coast is free from Red Tide
One of several Snook I found feeding on schools of bait coming in from the Gulf
The current red tide report for Florida and Texas is available here.
In 2017 when I first heard that the red tide had arrived on my local beach on Longboat key, only 5 miles from where I live, I went out to see for myself. The water had definitely changed colors and was a brownish, olive color. Of the beach there were some fish floating belly up, but not too many. I continued on down to Longboat pass where the tide was moving out. When I got out of my truck, the smell was noxious. Lots of fish were belly up. I watched a huge dead Snook slowly float by. There was a constant stream of smaller fish floating belly up as far as the eye could see. Other people were watching the spectacle and complaining of the smell and dead fish. I snapped a couple pictures and by the time I got back in my truck, my lungs were beginning to burn and a funny taste was developing in my mouth. Some people are not sensitive to the Red Tide smell, unfortunately I am.
Red Tide is a discoloration of seawater caused by a bloom of toxic algae. Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota has this definition of Red Tide. “Red tide, a harmful algal bloom, is a higher-than-normal concentration of a microscopic alga (plant-like organism). In marine (saltwater) environments along Florida’s west coast and elsewhere in the Gulf of Mexico, the species that causes red tides is Karenia brevis, often abbreviated as K. brevis. To distinguish K. brevis blooms from red tides caused by other species of algae, researchers in Florida call it “Florida red tide.” For more on what red tide is visit the Mote Marine Web Site.
For the next year and a half the Red Tide devastated the Florida west coast for 150 miles of coastline. I was devastated too, and so were many thousands of anglers, homeowners, boater, restaurant owners, tourists, and anyone living close to the Gulf and intercostal waterways. The places where I had been fishing on Longboat Key, AnaMaria Island, and Sarasota bay were now turned into a marine graveyard. During the summer of 2018 sight fishing for Snook off the beach was no longer an option. Over the next year and a half, thousands of tons of dead marine life were scooped up from the beaches, canals, and intercostal waterways. Dumsters were put on the beaches not for trash but for dead fish!
The devastation continued and began to kill Dolphins, Manatees, Turtles, Sea Birds, and even some sharks. In Robinson Preserve, only a few miles from my home over 30,000 pounds of Mullet washed up dead. Commercial Mullet fishermen went from cast netting live schools of fish to cleaning up the rotting catch with pitchforks.
Dead Fish Don’t Eat Flies!
I quit fishing the salt water. It was too noxious to my lungs and depressing to my soul to witness such devastation.
It takes a lot to get me to quit fishing, especially since I just moved to Florida and have fallen in love with salt water fishing. Since the Red Tide has now subsided, I am back exploring, but the fishing is not the same. My experience is there certainly are not as many fish around. It may take several years for the numbers of fish to recover. Some of the local areas I don’t fish at all because there are just no fish there. I have been fishing mostly south Tampa Bay, only a half hour drive, and some in Charlotte Harbor to the south. I am finding few Pinfish on the grass flats as millions died off, sank to the bottom, washed up on the beach, and were taken to landfills. Lots of Sea Trout were lost. Lots of the huge Snook that were off the beaches spawning died. They are gone and their progeny. There seem to be quite a few Snook still around the Mangroves in certain areas. They are beginning to appear on the beaches so it will be interesting to see how many show up. The Snook population was not hurt too bad, according to some experts. The Florida Division of Wildlife has closed the harvesting of Redfish, Snook and all Sea Trout. Now is the time for all anglers to pinch down the barbs and release Redfish, Trout and Snook.
Red Tide has been around in Florida for hundreds, if not thousands of years but many believe it has been intensified by human pollution, namely Nitrogen and Phosphorus from septic tanks, agricultural run off, human sludge, wastewater runoff, dog poop, sewage from broken pipes, and pesticide spraying that have deposited billions of gallons of nutrients into the ocean. Nutrient rich water has also been diverted from Lake Okeechobee and sent down the Calusahatche river to the west coast, and the St Lucy river on the East coast. Many feel this polluted fresh water containing a different type of algae, the Blue Green Algae, kills fresh water marine life and birds and it also fuels the saltwater Red tide when it hits the saltwater. Because billions of gallons of water are being sent east and west instead of going south as it naturally would, the Everglades, located south of lake Okeechobee has lost half of its area. The Everglades is literally drying up. Many thousands of acres of sea grass has vanished in Florida Bay because it is not receiving the natural fresh water needed to sustain sea grass. Sea grass can not survive if the water is too saline.
My study of Red tide began and has led to the larger picture. Many harmful algae blooms (HAB) are occurring and increasing around the world! I think Florida is mearly a microcausum of what is happening in many places throughout the world where the ocean and waterways have become enriched with nutrients. Even in my home state of Colorado there are HAB’s occuring in some high mountain streams like the White River near Meeker. Everyone along both Florida Coasts, from fishermen, home owners, restaurant workers, vacationers, real estate brokers, and developers are on their knees praying the Red tide will not come back, and that the Blue Green algae in the freshwater canals and rivers will not occur again this year or in the future. A rather naive hope. Everyone knows it will show up again, after all it has been around for millennium and it is increasing in frequency. Unless there are new methods put in place to stop nutrients from entering the freshwater and salt water environment, I am afraid there will be continued increases in HAB in Florida. These methods cost Billions of dollars to put in place.
So what can you and I do to help combat Harmful Algae Blooms?
Get Educated. Goggle “Harmful Algae Blooms” in you state. No matter where you live there are probably some HAB close by. Find out what is contributing to HAB outbreaks.
2. Get involved with concerned local organizations that are concerned about reducing the amount of nutrients entering your waterways. and streams. In Florida the Everglades Foundation, Captains for Clean Water, Bull Sugar, are a few grass roots organizations with educational material, and fighting for laws to be changed, and money appropriated to clean up the problems.
3. Take a political stand: Vote for those legislators who are advocating for Clean Water. Unfortunately a problem that has taken hundreds of years to develop in Florida may take many years and billions of dollars to correct. Don’t give up hope!
4. Reduce the amount of chemical pesticides and fertilizers you use, clean up dog poop, and encourage others to do the same.
All algae are not harmful. In fact if it were not for Algae there would be no human or animal life. Algae produce the oxygen we breath and are the ” primary producers upon which aquatic ecosystems depend”. We are dependent upon algae for our lives and we must learn to keep HAB ‘s in check or human life upon the earth will perish! Nations will rise and fall depending on what they do with their poop! The Red Tide is gone now in South West Florida. It will probably take a few years for the fishery to recover. For now, my barbs are pinched down. I will continue to fish the beautiful salt water and appreciate every “hook up” I get.
After posting this article I found out that “In Southwest Floridaover the past week, K. brevis was observed at background concentrations in and offshore of Manatee County, background to very low concentrations in or offshore of Sarasota County, background to very low concentrations in or offshore of Charlotte County, and background concentrations offshore of Lee County.”
I love kayak fishing along Mangrove streams in Florida. These are brackish, tidal streams that eventually enter into the gulf or an inshore bay. Many of these streams are so small they can only be accessed by a kayak or small water craft. These are the nursery areas where baby Snook, Redfish and Tarpon grow up. They are also the areas where many Snook and Tarpon spend the winter. Perhaps I love them because for the past 60 years I have been primarily a Western Trout Stream angler and a Mangrove stream is at least a little familiar. After all it is moving water! There used to be many more thousand of square miles of mangrove jungles in Florida, but because of all the building on both coasts, many areas have been cleared out and replaced by cement sea walls, condos, canals, and high rises. Now we are learning how important mangroves are to the environment and it is illegal to cut them. There are still around 555,000 acres of Mangrove covered areas in Florida. Much of these Mangrove areas are in Southwest Florida, from Tampa Bay and south into the Everglades. The largest area of natural Mangroves close to me in Bradenton Florida is in South Tampa Bay, and only a half hour drive. I have been fishing this area and finding some success in catching Snook and Baby Tarpon. There are some similarities between a Mangrove stream and a Western Trout Stream and some astounding differences.
Similarities in Mangrove streams and Western Trout streams include:
Both types of streams have lots of brush on one or both sides. In the case of Mangrove streams the limbs hang down into the water and may extend several feet out into the channel. On Western Trout Streams it’s usually Willows. Many fish like to hide under over hanging branches and undercut banks. You have to get your fly very close or down under them if you want a hook up. You can often hear Snook and Baby Tarpon smacking bait back under the Mangroves, which is exciting to hear, but you may not be able to get your fly to them. Mangroves can actually reach out and grab your fly, or so it seems, and they don’t want to let go. To get your line untangled you often have to pull your kayak over to the Mangrove where you are stuck and untangle the mess, this will definitely spook the fish in the area.
Both streams have current, but the Mangrove streams are much slower than most Western Trout Streams. Both have deep holes, slots, and pools where fish may be concentrated.
In both types of streams, fish will be facing into the direction of the current waiting for food to be washed into their feeding zone. In the case of Mangrove streams it is baitfish, crabs or shrimp. In the case of a Western Trout Stream the food items are nymphs, aquatic worms, terrestrials, emerging and adult Caddisflies, Mayflies, Stoneflies, and different types of baitfish such as Sculpins, Trout and Sucker minnows.
Differenced in Mangrove streams and Western Trout streams include.
Trout streams usually have rock bottoms. Mangrove streams have muddy or sandy bottoms.
Trout streams flow the same direction every day, and all day long and don’t vary as much in the amount of water in the flow. Mangrove streams are really two streams in one and they get larger or smaller depending on the tide. In a Mangrove stream, the water will go out, slow down, stop and then reverse and flow the opposite way. This is the most astounding difference between the streams. Fish hold in different places depending on which way the tide is going. Where fish locate on an incoming tide may be completely different on an outgoing tide. In a Mangrove stream at high tide predator fish leave their ambush points and may cruise under the Mangroves looking for an easy meal.
Western Trout streams are freshwater while Mangrove streams are brackish with a mixture of fresh water and salt water.
Recently I found some nice Snook and juvenile Tarpon in a couple of narrow, deep pools and drop offs in a small tidal stream. It was a mile and a half paddle to get to this stream and it is one of the more remote areas in south Tampa Bay. I had been looking at this area for a couple years on Google Earth and was excited to finally get to explore it. As I arrived at the mouth of the stream the sun was just peeping over the Mangroves.
I tied on a small, white popper and fished a shady area along the outer Mangrove bank. Within a few casts I connected with a small Snook. I was amazed at the fight the small Snook put on, jumping and running under the Mangroves and putting a bend in my 6 weight rod. What a joy to catch a Snook, at any size. The water was brackish and stained. I was fishing an outgoing tide. The next spot I stopped to fish was a deep hole that is formed where the water enters into the bay. I quietly navigated along the edge of the hole to where the water came into a quick drop off. I dropped the anchor up-stream from the upper end of the hole and then slowly let out rope, letting the current position my kayak within casting distance of the upper end of the far bank. I had a feeling the fish would be holding on the drop off as the water comes into the pool, and I was right. Armed with a 9 foot, 6 weight rod with an intermediate, full sink fly line, I cast the fly, a #4 bait fish pattern as close as possible to the mangroves and allowed the fly to sink down and sweep under the mangroves. PaPow, PaPow, PaPow, PaPow, PaPow. One after another when the fly got sucked under the mangroves, a hungry Snook pounced on the fly. I ended up catching 5 Snook, the largest was 26″, without moving from that spot. Hooking a 26″ Snook in the outgoing current and under Mangroves is a tremendous fight. Once hooked you have to try and pull the fish out and away from the many Mangrove roots into more open water. I continues working my fly down the pool but had no other hookups. The fish were obviously concentrated at the upper end of the pool where the current was the greatest, and tiny crabs, shrimp and bait fish were being washed into the pool by the outgoing tide.
Moving on up the stream I came to a long, narrow, deep slot that opened up into a larger open pool. I moved to the upper end of the pool and again dropped anchor. I sat watching the pool for a few minutes, looking it over for fish activity. After 10 minutes or so I saw several large fish moving up the pool, their fins coming out of the water. Immediately I thought, “those are rolling Tarpon”. Quickly, perhaps too quickly, I made a short 25 foot cast that spooked them and they disappeared. After several more casts into the area where I last saw them, and with no response, I paddled on up the stream. I marked the spot and vowed to come back. I proceeded up the river to a bend where the stream narrowed into a deep slot. I got out of the kayak in order to walk closer to an area where the water was deep, dark and came out of a Mangrove tunnel. I heard a large splash and saw where a big fish had busted some bait against the opposite bank. Tiny glass minnows scattered in the air as the fished attacked them. I carefully cast into the narrow pool, close to where the violent splash had taken place. The hole was laden with Mangroves on both sides, and contained numerous dead falls and sticks coming out of the water. “What a tough pace to fish”, I said to myself. I got two hard strikes but didn’t hook up. On the third strike I actually made a strip set with my line hand and the fly connected. A 10 pound Tarpon came 3 feet out of the water, flipping and tumbling in the air and coming down with a splash. What a shock! I quickly stripped in line as it swam towards me and I could see the fly stuck in its upper lip. My 6 weight rod was straining to control the fish from running under logs and brush. It jumped several more times and actually jumped up into the mangrove canopy where my line got caught in the brush. I forcefully jerked the line and it came out of the Mangrove leaves. That was a rare time that a Mangrove ever let go of my line. As the Tarpon ran under a log I put too much pressure on the fish and the fly broke off, parting the 20 lb fluorocarbon . This all happened in a minute or so and left me shaking, but exuberant from a fight like I have never experienced. I sat down in my kayak, took a couple deep breaths, and with my trembling fingers re-rigged, adding 10” of 40 lb shock tippet to my 20 lb tippet. I hoped this would give me a better chance at actually landing a baby Tarpon in such a tight and brushy area. Several casts back into the pool connected on two smaller Snook that jumped several times and put up a nice fight. After numerous casts with no strikes, I headed back downstream to the pool where I saw the rolling Tarpon. As I approached in my kayak, I heard several loud splashes from predator fish, Snook or Tarpon, that were back under the Mangroves. Coming upon the pool I again quietly dropped my anchor and slowly allowed the current to position the kayak at the front of the pool, and in an area where I could make a back cast. While at the head of the pool, I cast across and upstream to the opposite mangrove bank and let the fly sink and swing under the Mangroves. After a dozen casts and 3 strikes, but no hookups, I checked the fly, thinking I needed to sharpen it. To my surprise the hook had broken off at the bend. Grrr! Grrr! Grrr!
I tied on another fly with a loop knot. It was a fluffy, white rabbit strip streamer with a bead chain eye. After several more casts into the upper part of the pool with no success, I got out of the kayak and sneakily walked along a sand bar to the lower end of the pool. I noticed another splash of a feeding fish. Again I cast across stream, let the fly sink and drift under a mangrove out cropping. After several casts, I got a hard strike. I remembered to strip strike with my line hand and up and out of the water, doing flips, was another Tarpon. The fish ran up and then down the pool, jumping several more times. I applied sideways pressure on the fish hoping to keep it out of the Mangroves, not wanting to repeat the last event upstream. Finally the Tarpon exhausted itself and turned over sideways. I got the Fish Gripper tool on its lip. While holding it in the water and waiting for it to revive, I admired its large silver scales and huge mouth. Wow, I finally hooked and landed a Tarpon, not a big one, but a fish that fought harder, and jumped more and higher, than any fish I have caught. No wonder they are called the “Silver King”.After an awkward picture, and a prayer of thanks, the Tarpon was released. It slowly swam around, gulped air several times, and then disappeared back into the pool. Now I have Tarpon fever! I can only imagine what an adult Tarpon in open water would fight like. I hooked three larger Tarpon while in the Keys fishing with my good friend and Orvis Endorsed fly fishing guide Matt Thomas of Riplips.com. Matt guides on the Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers in Colorado, in Louisianna for Redfish, and in the Keys for Tarpon. He is the fishiest guy I know. The Tarpon I hooked were only on for a jump or two and then the hook pulled out. Matt put me on 15-20 shots each day. My problem in hooking them was the “trout set”. A “Trout set” is where you lift the rod tip to set the hook. After 60 years of trout fishing this habit is hard for me to break. The “Trout set” usually pulls the fly out of the mouth without it getting hooked. The much more effective way to set the hook in salt water fishing is to keep the rod pointing at the fish while making a sharp pull of the fly line with the line hand, called a “strip set”. With Tarpon, because of their bony mouth, it is best to set the hook several times, and when the fish takes off make sure the line does not get caught around the reel. Perhaps I will catch a mature Tarpon in the spring. For now I am very satisfied with landing a baby Tarpon in a small Mangrove stream. I hear there can be Tarpon in the tidal streams all fall and into the winter. I will certainly be back!
A week later I returned to the mouth of the little stream. The tide was reversed, and now there was an incoming tide that caused some confusion in my mind. I was not used to tide changes that totally reverse the water flow. A change of tide is a true act of nature that still amazes me. I pulled up to the opposite end of the pool where I had caught Snook on the outgoing tide. I again positioned my kayak close to the mangroves and at the head of the pool, which in an outgoing tide was at the opposite end of where I was positioned during the incoming tide. Casting as close as possible to the mangroves, I let the fly get swept by the current down and underneath them. PaPow, PaPow, PaPow, PaPow, one after another, four nice Snook took the fly, straining the rod and jumping. I so love Snook! They like to jump, put up a tremendous fight, and love to eat streamers. Even small ones put up an amazing fight. I continued up the Mangrove stream to where I caught the Tarpon a week earlier. The water felt devoid of predator fish. There were not any fish popping bait fish under the mangroves. I saw schools of Mullet and lots of small bait fish but no predator fish attacking them. I only caught one small Snook in the areas that was loaded with Snook and Tarpon the week before. Perhaps the fish were there but just not eating. One thing I have learned in salt water fishing is that there are many more variables to take into account, such as the moon, the tide, the water temperature, the wind, and if there is bait fish, crabs or shrimp drifting in the current. In salt water fishing, the fish are where you find them, they move around a lot and have distinct feeding times. It has been said, “the salt water has no fences”. In fishing Western Trout streams you can be sure that there will be trout in similar places that you found them yesterday. In salt water fishing the fish move around more frequently and have more definite times when they are on “a bite”. IN SALTWATER FISHING, THE FISH ARE WHERE YOU FIND THEM! SO GO FISHING! OR IS IT HUNTING? OR I GUESS IT’S HUNTING FISH.
After living in Florida for over a year now, I have come to love Snook. They are by far my favorite fish to catch. They are an inshore species whose young are spawned on the beaches and grow up around the Mangroves. They are available to be caught by the angler in every season. In the summer you can find them just off the Florida beaches where they spawn, in the fall they move into the passes and inshore bays, and they spend the winter in the tidal creeks. As far as their power, they have been called “a cross between a Trout and a Bass on steroids”. Even a small one, under 20″, will give a great fight and usually jump several times. They love to ambush minnows, and also feed on drifting crabs and shrimp. They feed primarily at night or in low light conditions but can be caught in full sunlight on the beaches. They are also very moody in their feeding habits and seem to be where you find them. One day you might find a bunch of them only to come back the next day and they are all gone. Saltwater has no fences! Because they feed primarily on bait fish and shrimp, they are vulnerable to the fly angler armed with small minnow and shrimp patterns.
I have heard about fishing for Snook under the dock light for years and several of the guides here offer night trips to catch them. Last year I decided to go out and find some lights, hoping there were Snook around them. My first Kayak outing under the lights was a total bust. Using Google Earth I found a “put in” on the nearby Manatee River. I paddled a couple of miles but even though there were some docks, there were no underwater lights around them. The lights I am referring to are the green ones that are lowered into the water. These lights attract all kinds of bait fish that in turn attract predator fish, of which the Snook is #1. The second time I went out was on a small creek that enters into Sarasota Bay. By creek I mean it is a brackish canal. It is lined with houses, boats and docks, and in places still lined with mangroves. I went with my good friend Peter, a fly fishing guide with the Blue Quill Angler in Evergreen CO. He was really wanting to catch a Snook so we went out hunting. We found a half-dozen lights and there were certainly some Snook around them, but they didn’t want to eat our flies. I managed to catch one small Snook. It was a little disappointing as I had heard catching Snook at night under the dock lights was almost cheating. Well Peter and I got cheated alright. We could see the Snook gathered around the lights but they were very inactive. There was little to no current in the canal, which I later learned was not ideal, and they just weren’t interested in our offerings, although we tried a host of small, glass minnow patterns.
Since I really needed some help in fishing around the lights, I decided to go on an outing sponsored by the Mangrove Coast Flyfishers, an International Federation of Flyfishers Charter club based in Sarasota of which I am now a member. They are a well established club with many experienced anglers willing to share their knowledge. We met at 7:30 pm and paddled out to a canal coming out of a small creek. We fished the area where the canal entered the bay for a while until it got dark. I caught a Mackerel and had a couple other strikes. As darkness approached, we ventured up into the canal where we could see an occasional submerged green light. Gathered around each light were numerous Snook and also a few baby Tarpon. Some of the lights had been placed way back in the dock where it was impossible to get a cast under the dock. Of course these lights were packed with Snook. At other docks the lights were submerged in front of the dock or to the side, and easy to cast around and into the lighted area and suspended Snook. I had put two seats in my Frontier12 NuCanoe. My grandson Gabriel, age 13 was in the front and I was paddling. I would paddle him up to a dock and then hold the boat within his casting range of 30-40 feet.
At the first submerged light we saw a dozen or more Snook lounging around the perimeter. Gabriel made a dozen or more casts. He got several follows but no takes. The fish were beginning to get wary and fade into the darkness when he got a strike and a hook up. After a couple of minute fight with several jumps he landed the Snook. It was a little bigger than his smile! Size certainly didn’t matter! The first one is always the hardest to get. The “skunk” had been broken and the anticipation level of hooking another fish was raised to a much higher level. After releasing the Snook our attention focused back to the dock lights. All the Snook had vanished so we set off into the dark in search for another light.
We continued up the canal to a dividing point where another smaller canal emptied into the one we were paddling. There was a dock light close to the shore and we could make out a kayak positioned in front of it. I heard Ken Babineau’s voice come out of the darkness, “I have on a Tarpon!” Then there was a couple loud splashes. (Ken is president of the Mangrove Coast Fly Fishers and donates much of his time taking out members of the MCFF fishing.) After a 5 minute battle, Ken boated the fish for a picture and it was quickly released, a 10 lb baby Tarpon. That night Gabe and I continued fishing until 3:00 am. He landed another small Snook and hooked three baby Tarpon that broke off or tossed the fly after jumping. A very successful night, especially for a 13-year-old and his grandpa.
We have been out many more times since that memorable night. The best night Gabe landed 17 Snook and lost several others. We also found two lights that were loaded with Sea Trout. He also caught a really nice Mangrove Snapper. His personal best was a 31 inch Snook that he landed on a six weight rod.
At times the Snook were very active chasing one another around and popping the surface eating glass minnows, floating crabs, and small shrimp. We found small poppers are often effective if you see and hear fish popping bait in the surface film. Small glass minnow patterns and Shrimp are also effective.
Tips on fishing under dock lights: Please note I am just a beginner at fishing dock lights but have learned a few things that might be helpful.
The best docks to fish are those that have lights that are bright green and have been lowered down into the water in an area that you can cast into. Docks that have a white light suspended above the water may also have bait around them and Snook, Tarpon, and Sea Trout nearby and are worth casting around. The best time to fish is usually when there is a current flowing around the lights.
Approach the light quietly and anchor up current from the light. Since you will usually be within 50 feet of the light try not to rock the boat sending out shock waves or create any noise. Start on the outside of the light and work towards the fish you can see in the middle. If fish are very active chasing each other or popping bait, cast your fly quickly at those fish. Vary the strip until you find the speed that triggers the strike.
It’s been just over a year since Martha and I moved to Florida. It took us a few months to get settled in the house before I could get out and fish. Then hurricane Irma showed up. So its was a rather interesting first year in Florida, with a couple of set backs. But I did get out and walk the beach for Snook, kayak fish the grass flats in the many local bays, fish for Pompeno with kayak guide Neil Taylor, chase Albies in the Gulf of Mexico with Captain Rick Grasset, fish mangrove Islands around Chokilosky in the Everglades, fish the freshwater canals in the Everglades with my new friends in the Mangrove Coast Fly Fishers, kayak fish the Falka Union river with Chris Duerksen, and travel down to the keys to fish for Tarpon with Captain Matt Thomas. I did more fishing in the past year than any time in my life. Although I spent years teaching fly fishing and fly tying classes in Colorado, it is like I am learning to fish all over again. For me fishing Colorado was trout, trout, and more trout. Now I love trout fishing, and I long for the cool, clean, mountain streams, high mountain lakes, and the whole mountain environment. I miss the hatches of Blue Wing Olives, Caddis Flies, PMD’s, Green Drakes, Tricos and Midges. I can’t wait to return to Colorado. I had to leave my 6x tippet in my vest next to my box of #22 midges and move on to a completely new environment filled with many new opportunities. Each day here in Bradenton Florida there are literally dozens of options of where to go and what to fish for. I could kayak fish a freshwater lake, fish the gulf of Mexico, walk the beach, float a tidal mangrove stream, explore a hidden mangrove lake, or fish one of the many local bays. There are a variety of factors to take into account such as the tides, the wind, the moon phase, wave height, and water temperature. You never know what you are going to catch. Here is a list of the different kinds of fish I caught this past year: Trout, Snook, Spanish Mackerel, Blue Fish, Jacks, Pompeno, Whiting, Lady Fish, Permit, Bonito, Black Drum, Red Fish, Pinfish, Hound Fish, Lizard Fish, Puffer Fish, Grunts, Sea Bass, Mangrove Snapper, Gag Grouper, Largemouth Bass, Stumpknockers, Blue Gills, three kinds of Catfish, Bowfins, Myan Ciclids, Oscars, Crappies, and Gars. There were also a few fish that I caught that I couldn’t figure out what they were. In Tampa Bay alone there are over 240 different species. While fishing in the keys with my friend and professional guide Matt Thomas, I jumped 3 Tarpon but did not land one. The “trout set” kicked in and I have realized how much I have to learn in order to land one of the “Silver Giants”. Fish that are still on my bucked list are Tarpon, Barracuda, Peacock Bass, Snakeheads, a large Black Drum, a big Gar, and a small Sharks or two. Instead of the list growing smaller, it is expanding. Hope you will stick around for the adventure.
This bowfin clamped its mouth shut and I never could get the fly out. Luckily my fingers were not in there too.
Since the Florida environment is so very different from Colorado and most of the USA, it necessitates living in it for a while before being able to understand it’s seasons and fit into the environment safely. After a year of living full-time in Florida, I have found out by experience that there are some things out there that you should watch out for. Things that can bother you and hurt you while fishing. I am not talking so much about the more obvious enemies like sharks and alligators, although they need to be understood and respected. I am talking about some of the more common things you will almost surely run into on a daily basis when fishing. Things like the heat, sun, rain, hot sand, bugs, fish with teeth and spines, lightning, oyster beds, sting rays, jellyfish and even cold weather.
PROTECT YOURSELF FROM THE SUN, HEAT, LIGHTNING, AND THE COLD.
The first time I went out in my kayak fishing this past summer it was for around 6 hours in June and under direct sun. I have never been one who gets sunburned easily. I have dark eyes and am dark complected. I put on sunscreen in the morning and figured that would be enough. I wanted to get a tan so I didn’t wear a shirt and I had on shorts. I got consumed in the fishing and didn’t reapply the sun screen until the afternoon. By then it was too late. My back, shoulders, and thighs got cooked and I was in pain for several days. It was hard to sleep at night and every tiny movement rolling over in bed was painful, even the weight of sheets on my burned skin caused pain. Eventually much of the burned skin peeled off. It’s been 50 years since I had such a burn. You’d think I would have learned about the sun by now, but I underestimated its danger. In Colorado I never wore shorts while fishing and always had on a long sleeve, sun protective shirt. In Florida it was a temptation to take off my sun protective clothing and I fell for it.When fishing out of a kayak, which is how I fish the most, your legs are horizontal, so the angle of the sun’s rays hit the top of your knees and thighs, tops of the feet, shoulders, ears, and back of the neck. It is easy to get a burn in a short time.
In July one of my friends came from Colorado and we went out on the beach fishing for Snook. We walked about 4 miles. I told him of my experience in getting burned. He put on sun screen but by the end of the day he was also burned, only worse. The sand working in between his sandals and his skin rubbed him raw, plus the sun burned the tops of his feet, shoulders, arms and legs. Walking in the hot sand from the water’s edge to the parking lot also burned the bottom of his feet. He was pretty miserable for almost two weeks. Needless to say, the sun is of major concern, so is walking on the hot sand. In the afternoon during the hottest time of the day, the hot sand or even worse, the hot pavement, may burn the bottoms of your feet. You may have to wear some type of beach shoe when walking the beach. If you are going to be out in the sun in Florida in the summer you are going to sweat. I sweat so much, I actually sweat off the sunscreen. I am covering up a lot more now with quick dry, long sleeve shirts, pants and a wide-brimmed hat, and of course drinking lots of water and reapplying sunscreen. Without water you are flirting with dehydration and heat stroke. When choosing a sunscreen I would suggest you get one that is friendly to the salt water environment. One example is Stream2Sea. Chemicals such as oxybenzone in many sunscreens have been proven to destroy coral reefs.
If you are coming to Florida in the winter you should bring your waders, a breathable rain coat and a good sweater. This past winter in Florida was cool at times. I saw temperatures in Bradenton Florida reach into the 30’s. Early one morning I actually saw ice on the grass. It was refreshing! Northern Florida received some snow this past winter. When it gets below 50 here, with high humidity and wind, you can get chilled very quickly. If you are going to get out and wade fish in the winter, you will find waders are necessary or you will get very cold. If you are fishing out of a boat or kayak and getting wet, I would suggest you wear a slip over breathable pant that will keep you dry. Many years ago I bought an Orvis breathable, pullover wind shirt. All it does is hold in body heat. It has proved to be the most valuable garment I have to keep me warm. It is light weight and packable. I take it everywhere I go. WHEN YOU GET COLD IN FLORIDA, YOU ARE REALLY COLD, AND IT CAN HAPPEN QUICKLY.
Florida is the #1 state in the USA for lightning strikes with around 1.5 million strikes per year. Most of these are in the wet season which begins in the spring and lasts into the late summer. In the winter there is little rain or lightning, at least in Bradenton where I live. Once the rainy season arrives in the spring, rain and lightning will be a daily afternoon experience. When it rains here in Florida it really comes down. A breathable raincoat is a necessity to bring on all outings, walking or boating. The Weather Channel on your phone should be your best friend before and during your fishing trip. It will alert you to upcoming storms and lightning. Storms in Florida come in fast and move out fast. I thought Colorado’s South Park and Cheesman Canyon were bad for lightning, but Florida is worse with around 25 lightning strikes per square mile per year. In the summertime wet season, most anglers will fish early in the am and be off the water as the thunder storms come in during the afternoon and evening.
PROTECT YOURSELF FROM MOSQUITOS, NO-SEE-UMS, AND FIRE ANTS
There are places and times in Florida where the mosquitos and tiny no-see-um will drive you crazy. So far in Florida I have not seen the huge numbers of mosquitos that I have heard about. I have been bothered by the no-see-ums occasionally. Bugs are more of a problem as you move south in Florida down by the Everglades. In the summer months the bugs and heat in southern Florida are almost unbearable. I spent four days fishing around Chokolosky on the edge of the Everglades in mid December but found only a few mosquitos. I fished along Alligator Alley in the Everglades in February but didn’t even see one mosquito. I spent two days in the Keys and two days in Chokolosky in April and was not bothered by bugs. My wife Martha finds a dozen mosquito’s every time she walks the dog. Some people are just bug magnets. It is a good idea to always have insect repellant. Eventually you will need it.
I remember vividly my first and hopefully my last experience with the Florida fire ants. They are very tiny and not an insect that you would think could cause burning and itching that can go on for a couple of weeks. I was bass fishing by one of the many canals on the east side of Florida. As I was walking along the rim of the canal and casting into the far side, I felt a sting on my right leg and looked down to see hundreds of ants, each about the size of a pepper grain, crawling up my pants. I shook them off quickly but it was too late and I received two dozen bites. They made little red welts that lasted for two weeks, often burning and itching like crazy. Not fun! Stay away from tiny ants! The main way to keep them off you is to be observant of your surroundings. They don’t make huge mounds like the red ants in Colorado and they are often hard to spot until it is too late.
Florida also has a host of other insects that could cause irritation and pain such as bees, wasps, and poisonous caterpillars. For the most part if you are in a boat you won’t come into contact with these creatures. Of course if you are allergic to bee stings you should always carry your epi pen. I have seen several paper style wasp nests in the mangroves so it’s best to look out for them if you are very close to mangroves.
PROTECT YOURSELF FROM THE RAZOR SHARP TEETH AND NEEDLE LIKE FINS PRESENT ON MANY SALT WATER AND FRESHWATER FLORIDA FISH.
I have caught thousands of Rainbow Trout, Brown Trout and Brookies in the West. I rarely got a nick from their teeth or fins. I have been cut a few times by the teeth of a trout while removing the fly with my fingers. The cuts were easily avoided if I would have used a hemostat to remove the fly instead of my fingers. The teeth of fresh water trout are small in relation to most salt water fish, and the fins of trout are harmless. Not so with many salt water fish.
Generally speaking, salt water fish have more teeth, larger teeth and stronger jaws that like to “chomp”. There is a reason a Snapper is called a Snapper. Once that jaw snaps shut it is hard to get it open, even with a pliers. If your finger is in the mouth those teeth will cut you badly. I caught my first Blue Fish in Sarasota Bay few years ago. I didn’t know a Blue fish from a Sucker. Blue fish have a row of small, shark like teeth on the top and bottom of their very strong jaws. They have lips that cover over the teeth. You might not realize they have teeth until too late. My fly was engulfed deeply in the Bluefish mouth. Like an inexperienced Colorado Trout fisherman, I reached my thumb and index finger into its mouth to get the fly. Chomp, chomp goes the Bluefish and there was sharp pain in my thumb. By the time I got my fingers out, I was cut pretty bad and blood was running down my thumb and wrist. There was enough blood in my kayak, most of it mine, to attract sharks! My only revenge was that I ate him for dinner. A general rule in saltwater fishing is never put your fingers in a fishes mouth, no matter how big or small. Even little fish can do immediate and severe damage. A pair of saltwater pliers is a necessary investment. Not only will the pliers help remove the hook without putting your finger onto the fishes mouth, most pliers will have a cutter necessary to cut the larger tippet diameters uses in Saltwater fishing. Make sure the pliers you get are aluminum and not stainless steel as they will rust.
I am tying most of my flies on 4x long hooks that are easier to grab onto with the pliers without ruining the fly. Sometimes if your fly is hooked deeply into the fishes throat, the best thing to do may be to just cut the line.
When fishing an Everglades canal I caught a Bowfin. It is an indigenous fish to Florida. It is on top of the food chain. It is very strong, will jump and has the strongest jaws I have ever seen. My fly was deep in its mouth and I couldn’t get the mouth open. I used two pair of pliers but couldn’t open its mouth. I ended up just cutting the line. Later I was cautioned to be very careful with this fish. Once it clamps on to you it may not let go and can cause extreme injury, having rows of tiny teeth and very powerful jaws that clamp shut.
The fins on many Salt water fish are like needles. The saltwater catfish is the most dangerous, as it’s spines have a poison on them that can be very painful and could get infected. This catfish (left) caught me good on my right index finger. I was in pain for several hours and almost quit fishing. He stuck me while I was trying to remove the hook. From now on I will use a FishGripper in one hand and saltwater pliers in the other. I am not touching another one of these critters. Catfish are powerful fighters for their size and fun to catch, but the risk of getting stuck is high. The barb on the dorsal fin is serrated and won’t come out easily once it penetrates your body. Make sure to wear the Catfish out in the water before netting it or bringing it into the boat as they like to flip around uncontrollably. As you begin catching and releasing salt water fish just assume that the fins will stick you and the teeth will cut you. You will soon learn the species that are ok to handle but they are few. Pinching down the barbs of your hook will really help in getting the fly out of the fish and out of your body. Because you will be casting in windy conditions, often with force, it is only a matter of time before you will hook yourself. You will not be using a #18 trout fly with a small barb! Even a small fly can be hard to get out of your skin. You will probably be using at least a #6 salt water hook which has a much larger barb. Best to pinch the barb down. Just remember, “I told you so”.
PROTECT YOURSELF FROM OYSTER BEDS AND BARNACLES:
Oyster beds create homes for billions of small fish, crabs and other sea life and are fish magnet areas for Red fish, Snook, and Sea Trout. Eventually, when an oyster bed gets large enough, a mangrove seed will drift in and get planted among the oysters. Over time, an oyster bed can become a mangrove island, an interesting development to watch over the years. Oyster beds are great to fish around but never get out and walk on one. Oyster shells are like thousands of knife blades and because they are very uneven, can cause you to lose your balance and fall down. You could get seriously injured if you trip and fall down on them. Oyster shells can also cut up your flats boots. If you are fishing around oyster beds make sure your fly line, leader and tippet does not get caught on them, as they can quickly cut though your terminal tackle. If you hook a fish around an oyster bed, be sure to raise your rod up high and try to keep your fly line from touching the shells. Walk around Oyster beds just like you would walk around the spawning beds of trout in a stream. Oyster beds are the homes for billions of sea creatures and they filter and clean the water.
PROTECT YOURSELF FROM STINGRAYS AND JELLYFISH:
I see lots of Stingrays especially if I am wading on the beach or sandbar. Around 1,500 people a year are stung by a Stingray in the USA and many of these accounts are in Florida. Stingrays may lay on the bottom and get covered over by sand. They may also have camouflaged coloring and be very hard to see. If you step on one you can receive a very painful, debilitating injury. You may have to go to the doctor to get the barb out and you will be in great pain. There are many different kinds of rays. The ones you will encounter are usually small but have a very bony, sharp, striated spine that can penetrate deeply into your muscles causing extreme pain and infection. The best way to avoid getting stung is to look ahead in the water as you walk, slide your feet across the bottom, and do not lift your feet so you step down on one. Stingrays can bury themselves in the sand where they are not visible. More on the Stingray shuffle.
There are many types of Jellyfish in the ocean. Some of them can sting you. Some are translucent and very hard to see. The main thing is to just stay away from them. If you wear long pants while wading you have less possibility of contact with a jellyfish.
PROTECT YOURSELF FROM ALLIGATORS, SHARKS, AND SNAKES.
If you are fishing in fresh or brackish water in Florida you will come in contact with alligators. There are over a million of them in Florida, however officials put the odds of someone being seriously injured by an unprovoked alligator in Florida at roughly one in 2.4 million. You are many more times likely to get bitten by a dog than an alligator. There are 8-12 unprovoked alligator attacks a year in Florida. Common sense is the best protection from alligators which means don’t feed them, don’t swim in areas where they are present, don’t drag fish behind your kayak on a stringer, don’t wade fish in areas where there are alligators, don’t bother their nests, pull your fly away from an alligator if it is following your retrieve, and remove yourself from areas where you see babies or an alligator nest. If you want to have an incident with an alligator you can probably create one. If you leave them alone, they will leave you alone. The alligator I met on the Myaka river in the video below just sat there as I paddled by. I didn’t bother him and he didn’t bother me, except for a minute or too when I held my breath!
Sharks are common on Florida beaches, intercostal bays and brackish streams. Sharks that eat your fish once hooked has become a problem in some locations, especially when fishing for Tarpon or Bonito. I have had a shark eat my Sea Trout as I was reeling it in. There was a quick tug, I saw the shark, only a 3 footer, and all that was left on my line was the Seatrout head. I often see sharks when out around sandbars and grass flats in my kayak. Common sense prevails in dealing with sharks. Personally I don’t swim far out on the beaches or wade much past my knees. I don’t have a stringer of fish trailing behind my kayak or with me if I am wading. Sharks can easily be chummed up if you want to fish for them, and they can be caught on a fly. Leave them alone and they will leave you alone.
PROTECT YOURSELF FROM SNAKES
Florida is the home for 45 different snake species of which only 6 are poisonous. My general rule is be on the outlook for them and leave them alone. I have only seen couple of snakes on Florida but I am always on the lookout for them. More on Florida Snakes.
Fly fishing necessitates casting a fly that has a hook and probably a barb on it. Everyone who fly fishes will eventually encounter the hook getting caught in one’s skin. If the barb has been pinched down, the hook can easily be removed. Casting, especially in the wind, requires some type of eye protection to be safe. All anglers should wear a shatterproof sun glass. Because of the power of many salt water fish, I do not advocate using two flies while saltwater fishing. One hook can be in the fish and the free fly could easily get caught in the angler. More on removing a hook
ITEMS HELPFUL WHEN FISHING IN FLORIDA
Salt Water Plier. Used for pinching down barbs, removing hooks from fishes mouth, tightening knots, and cutting tippet and wire. A necessity for Salt Water fishing. Stay away from Stainless steel as it will rust.
A Fish Gripper. It holds a fish by the lip so you do not have to hold it in your hand. It keeps you from rubbing of the protective slime of the fishes skin and keeps your hands from getting pricked by the sharp fins.
A DeHooker. This is a tool that slides down your tippet to the hook and then with a quick snap will remove the hook from the fish, some of the time. It really helps to pinch down your barbs. The hook comes out of the fish much easier and out of your body too when it has no barb.
Hook sharpener and a good snip. Your hooks may get dull by hitting barnacles or bony mouths. Keeping them sharp will insure more hook ups. Most salt water fish have very bony mouths and can dull your point. Best not to use your teeth to cut 20 lb fluorocarbon but I still do it when i can’t find my nipper. Use a nipper and save your front teeth.
Hard bottom wading shoes. Flats booties or salt water wading shoes that will protect feet from barnacles and other salt water hazards are necessary. There can be glass and even used hypodermic needles on the beaches. I don’t go barefooted but may be a little paranoid. Flats booties do not give much arch support so you may want to pay the extra money and get a salt water wading shoe with better support and a firmer sole. If you are going to wade around in a soft, muddy bottom you will want to have a wading shoe that you can lace up tight and not one that zips up the side. It is easy to lose a zippered shoe in a soft, sticky bottom. If you walk the beach fishing your zippered booties will get filled with sand and you may have trouble using the zipper. Best to have a salt water shoe that laces up.
Protective Clothing. A wide-brimmed sun shield hat, long sleeve sunshield shirts and pants, sunshield gloves and face shields help to protect from the sun. A Buff turns your cap into a sun protected garment. Always have a breathable, light weight raincoat nearby. Storms come in fast and leave fast in Florida. In the winter, while kayaking I have on a breathable rain pant the keeps my legs dry from paddle drips.
First aid kit. Just like when you go camping, a first aid kit is a necessity. Bandaids and disinfectant pads are necessary in case of minor cuts. It is possible, and I have done it several times, to cut yourself with the fly line, backing or leader. I carry waterproof first aid tape to protect my fingers if they get cut. Fishing in saltwater with cuts in your fingers can be “a pain.” You can get cut from teeth, fins, spines and may need immediate first aid to guard against infection.
Polarized Sun Glasses are a must. Many prices, styles and types available.
Cell Phone. Almost all of Florida has cell phone access. Everyone I know who carries a cell phone while fishing, including me, has destroyed a phone or two by getting it wet. Just go ahead and invest in a good waterproof phone case. I also cary a small recharger and cord. I use 5 apps on my phone. They are the Weather Channel, Navionics, Google Maps, Windfinder and Tides. The Weather Channel gives daily weather estimates, send out alerts to dangerous conditions, coming storms and lightning. Google Maps is great for road information and driving directions to the fishing location. When in my kayak fishing I turn on Navionics which shows me where I am located in relationship to mangrove islands, grass flats, cuts and streams and keeps me from getting lost when in my kayak. It can map your route and save it so you have a history of the trip. It can give a good estimate on how deep the water is and where access points are located. Many of the fishing spots I go to have been found by using Navionics or Google Maps. Windfinder is an app that shows current and coming wind conditions in relationship to where I am fishing. The wind speed and direction will help tell you which spots you should fish. Tides gives me an idea of incoming tides which is crucial information for Salt Water fishing.
Stripping basket. Striping baskets are not used much in Western trout fishing but I find them very useful in Florida. I use one when wade fishing or walking the beach. You can strip your line in so that it falls into the basket. The basket keeps your line out of the water and keeps the line from getting tangled in weeds and waves. If you want easier casting with less tangles a stripping basket is very helpful.
Sunscreen and insect repellants are a must. Best to use sunscreens that are not harmful to the environment. Some sunscreens actually are harmful to Coral Reefs and fish. Really? If you go to a popular Florida beach you will easily smell the sunscreen. Gallons of it enter the environment every day. Insect repellant are necessary at certain places and times of the year.
Drinking Water. Justlike in Colorado fishing and hiking you will need water. This can not be over emphasized. I take water with me when fishing and have back up water on my kayak and in my truck at all times.
Just like in Colorado where we have powerful sun, a high altitude, lightning, fires, snakes, mosquitos, bears, mountain lions, elk and deer, poison ivy, bees and wasps, Florida has many harmful things you might encounter. I find the Boy Scout motto, “be prepared” is a valuable attitude to have when going outdoors. Nothing is more important than knowing the environment you will be fishing in and having the right gear, so you can go out there and confidently “rip some lips”.
I have heard about the possibility of catching Snook in the summer on the beaches in Florida for years. Now that I am a full-time Florida resident I will have the opportunity to fish for them allot, especially in the summer when they are cruising the beaches. In the past I have only been in Florida in the winter or spring when my wife Martha and I could vacation here and visit family. Snook are definitely my favorite salt water fish to catch because they are very strong, make several runs once hooked, they usually make several jumps, are unpredictable in their feeding habits, and they really like to eat streamers, especially minnow patterns. A 16 incher can put on a great fight and there is always the possibility of hooking a 20-30 pounder. Snook are beautiful fish with a huge mouth that opens up like a scoop, perfectly suited for catching bait fish. They have a lower jaw that is longer than the top jaw, sort of like a male Brown Trout kype. Their pectoral and anal fins have a yellowish cast. Their body is mostly silver in color and darker on top, with a black lateral line that begins behind their large and sharp gill plate and extends back to a large, darker tail. When they first leave the darker, stained, brackish water in the spring their body is darker, but turns lighter as they stay on the beach. I have seen several Snook that look almost black on top as they cruise through the mangroves searching for food. They have eyes positioned not on the side, but forward and upward, making them able to ambush their prey from below and in front. They are designed to be the perfect predator for eating minnows, but they will also eat shrimp and crabs. They feed mostly by sight, primarily at night, and early and late in the day.
In Florida Snook start leaving the mangrove laden, brackish tidal streams in the spring and head for the beaches in April as the water warms up. They spend the summer cruising the beaches looking for food, primarily bait fish. They spawn close to the beach by broadcast spawning. The females spew their eggs and the males dart in and fertilize them in the water. They don’t create spawning redds like trout. Usually a larger female will be accompanied by several smaller males. They start returning to the brackish, tidal streams in the fall when the water on the beaches begins to cool, and they will stay in this area until the spring. Currently I am enrolled in Snook Beach Fishing School. It is a course I have designed by myself and for myself. The professor is Dr. Snook and the classroom is the beach.
Obtain local fishing knowledge. I have joined the local chapter of Federation of Fly Fishers called Mangrove Coast Fly Fishers a very active fly fishing club founded in 1992. Interestingly I reconnected with John, a Blue Quill Angler customer that I have known over the years in Evergreen CO. Recently I attended a presentation hosted by the club and presented by Steve Gibson of Southern Drawl Kayak fishing on fishing for Snook on the beach. Steve has been beach fishing for Snook for over 30 years and has a wealth of knowledge, experience, skill in fly fishing, fly tying, and confidence in finding Snook on the beach. He seldom casts unless he sees the Snook first and uses a white fly called Gibby’s DT Variation almost exclusively. I recently visited CB’s Salt Water Outfitter on Siesta Key and talked to an employee named Timothy who was very helpful and passionate about catching Snook on the beach. He recommended flies, and showed me an access point where I could get on the beach. Whenever I meet another fly fisherman on the beach, (I have only met a couple) I try to share info with them, give a fly or try to make a friend.
Tie up a fly box of Snook beach flies. Including, Gibbys DT Variation, Norms Scminnow, my Holy Mackerel Ultra Hair Clouser, and several other patterns with my own added adaptations. The Clouser is weighted and I use it in heavy waves so it will sink down below the wave and not get carried onto shore. The other patterns are white and sink slowly so you can see the fly in relation to the fish, if sight fishing.
Walking the beach and fishing. I am getting an A+ in this part of the course! By using Google Earth I am selecting local beaches within an hour and a half from my home and going out and exploring. Google Earth is especially great at finding access points to the beaches and finding those beaches that may have some type of structure on them. I have walked over 70 miles of beaches so far. I am keeping note of where I see Snook, where fish are caught, effective flies, and especially recording places on beaches that have some type of structure that I will want to return and fish. So far I have explored sections of Longboat Key, Bradenton Beach, Anna Maria, Fort Desoto Park, Lido Key, Turtle Beach, Nokomis Beach, Venice Beach, Casperson Beach, Blind Pass Beach, Englewood Beach, and Stump Pass Beach. This is just the beginning. There are many more miles out there to explore.
The beaches in Florida belong to the people and just like fishing Montana streams, legally you can walk the beach, swim and fish as long as you stay below the high wave mark. There are some areas around the access points that have designated swim areas and several beaches where you can bring your dog, let them off the leash and have them swim with you. Legal rules ensure that the Florida coastline surrounded by public land can still be accessed by every American. At the beach access points there is usually lots of sun bathers and swimmers but if I walk for a half mile or so, there is usually only a few people. It is important to watch your back cast so as not to hook someone walking on the beach. This is often hard to do once you spot a Snook coming your way. Probably the most important part to “Snooking” on the beach is finding the fish. Not all beaches have Snook on them all the time. The fish move up and down a lot. Some of the beaches have recently been reclaimed. This is when they pump in sand from out in the gulf to restore the eroding beach. Millions of people come to Florida each year to experience the white sandy beaches. The beaches that have recently been reclaimed often have milky water churned up by the waves and not as much available natural food like mole crabs. Anglers I have talked with have complained that the fishing for all species has been dramatically decreased on beaches that have been reclaimed. Reclamation is a necessary evil to keep the Florida beaches from eroding but it may take a few years for the beach to come back to its natural state. My goal this summer is to walk and locate as many prime beach areas as possible. A prime area would be a beach that not only has a trough along it, or a sand bar, but also some other structure where Snook and other fish would likely locate themselves.
I would rather see a Snook and cast to it, than blind cast, just like I would rather see a rising trout, make the cast and hook him on a dry-fly. But for me and my Snook hunting, I have only seen optimal conditions for sight fishing a few times. Optimal conditions are low waves, one foot or less, little wind, clear water, full sun, and Snook. At this point in my Snook hunting, I am not going to wait around for a clear, cloudless day, with low waves, little wind, and clear water to go after them. I have been on the beach 25 or more times. Much of the time there have been waves a little too high to see clearly in the water, overcast conditions, wind, or milky water close to shore. Several times I got to the beach and didn’t fish because of the high wave action. I have since heard that there is a web cam available where I can see wave height before going. Oh don’t get me wrong, I have seen some Snook. I have had some sunny, quiet times and I have seen single Snook, doubles, and triples swimming down the trough. I have seen groups of a half-dozen Snook attacking a bait fish school and running them right up on the beach. I have seen groups of 30-50 Snook swim by me quietly in single file. I have seen some really huge Snook, 20 – 30 pounders, in deeper water that wouldn’t look at my fly. I have seen skittish Snook that quickly sped away when I raised my arm to cast, and I have seen docile Snook that were cooperative in eating my fly. I caught one by making a 6 foot cast as it came by in a foot of water close to the shore , and I caught one on an 80 foot blind cast out into the open water. I targeted one Snook out of a string of fish as they came by. It left the squad to take my white streamer. But most of the Snook I have caught so far have been blind casting down the trough, casting next to some type of structure, or out in deeper water. I have caught Snook on the first cast of the day, and on successive casts. Two casts caught two Snook. Too easy! Four times I have had two Snook on at a time. I started fishing two flies but after losing three flies and three fish to break-offs, I am back to only using one fly at a time. It is almost impossible to land two Snook with a double fly hook up, but I did hook and landed two small Snook on the same cast. Three times I have fished the whole day and caught no Snook. I have also caught Sea Trout, Jacks, Whiting, Lizard Fish, Mackerel, Hound Fish, Pinfish, Puffer Fish, Cat Fish, and something else that I am not sure what it was.
I have seen huge schools of minnows, a variety of Crabs, Dolphins, Manatees, Giant Rays, Turtles, Tarpon and Cobia.The beach is alive with wildlife, especially the birds, and its all new to me. It is so very exciting to experience the joy of the hunt. I am getting very tan! I have caught over 70 Snook, the biggest was around 12 pounds and when I went to unhook the fly, my whole hand disappeared into her mouth! A strange feeling after using a hemostat for decades to remove a fly from a trouts mouth. Several fish have broken off 25 lb fluorocarbon.
One of the greatest things about fly fishing is there is no right or wrong. There are some flies, techniques, and places on the beach that seem to work better than others in catching Snook.. Right now I am just filling up my data base with as much info as possible. If I want to go out and just look for Snook and only cast to those I can see, I can do this just like in Colorado I can go out and wait for the Trout to rise before I make a cast. At this point I am most comfortable with a combination of walking slowly down the beach sight fishing, with the sun at my back, in ankle-deep water. I will stop and fish structure which can be almost anything, a group of rocks, a depression in the ocean floor, the trough next to the beach, a patch of sea grass, a sand bar, or sea wall. If there is a large pod of minnows that comes by I often cast into it or behind it, especially if they are moving fast pursued by predator fish like Mackerel, Jacks or Snook. I have caught several Mackerel behind bait balls and several Snook as they explode on bait fish.One day I was on the beach at 6:15 before the sun came up. My first cast was sloppy and got tangled. When I got the line straightened and tried to make another cast. there was a Snook on the end. I caught 4 more in the next 45 minutes. Once the sun came up the “bite” was over. I fished the next two and a half hours with not a strike. I didn’t even see a fish when the sun was on the water. It was a high tide with big waves, the sun was perfect with no clouds but the Snook had vanished. At least I couldn’t see them. That’s why I love Snook fishing, it is unpredictable, sometimes it is very easy and sometimes you can’t buy a fish. There are so many variables in salt water fishing, like the tides, the moon, the waves, the wind, the clarity of the water, drifting sea grass, the water temperature and available bait fish. At times the Snook turn on and eat your fly, at other times they spook at the cast or even the lifting of your arm to make the cast. For decades I have taught anglers to cast using their arm and keeping their wrist straight. When there is a Snook coming close I often find myself casting by just using my wrist to reduce any unneeded arm motion that might “spook the Snook”. Sometimes a Snook may “spook” when the fly hits the water and sometimes the plop excites them into a strike.
Here are My rules for Snook fishing. Rules are merely patterns that are formulated from experience fishing. If you can find an experienced angler or a good guide, then you can use his rules and have a jump in your success rate. The thing to remember is these are my rules and they will change as I get more experience and my database enlarges.
1. Snook are where you find them so go hunting. There is nothing more important then getting out there and fishing and there is not a better teacher.
2. You won’t catch Snook if your fly isn’t in the water. If I come to a place on the beach that looks “fishy”, and feels “fishy”, then I stop and take a few casts whether I see a Snook or not. I realize some veteran Snook anglers only cast to fish they can see. I am not there yet, perhaps I will never be. I am catching too many Snook and other species fishing around structure, sandbars, depressions and troughs, besides I love to cast. I have spent all day casting in drizzle, sleet, snow and wind, floating on a high Wyoming lake hoping for that moment when a huge rainbow takes the streamer. I have fished the North Platte River in a February with its unmerciful howling wind, sleet and snow only to get broken off from a wild brown trout because my reel was frozen. I surely can beat the sun, heat, and wind that often comes when fishing a Florida beach! Besides if it gets too hot I can just go for a swim. The only thing I can’t deal with is the lightning accompanying the afternoon storms. When the lightning starts I find shelter quickly. Fortunately the weather app on my phone gives accurate storm information and warns of lightning strikes. Most of the Snook fishing is in the AM and done by noon when afternoon thunder storms begin to build. Summer is the rainy season in Florida. When it rains here it is like taking a shower. Inches of rain can come down in a short time and the rain is warm!
3. There are some places on the beach that have Snook on them most of the time when you go there in the summer. Those place have some type of structure. Structure is considered rocks, points, depressions, sand bars, troughs, docks, bridges, sea walls, and sea grass. A beach that has no structure doesn’t seem to be as good a spot to consistently find Snook, although you might find them migrating from place to place down the trough anywhere and at any time. Just because you found Snook at one place doesn’t mean they will be there next time. Snook move up and down the beach for reasons we try to understand but may never.
4. Snook have times when they feed and times when they don’t. If you can find a group of Snook actively chasing minnows, cast your fly in the midst of the feeding flurry you will get a hook up for sure. These aggressively feeding Snook will eat your fly with abandon. Other times they just don’t seem interested in feeding at all and don’t want to be coaxed into feeding. They spook at the cast or sight of the fly.
5. Use an Intermediate Salt Water Fly Line unless you are fishing a popper. An Intermediate Salt Water fly line is a clear line that sinks slowly, 1.25 to 2 inches per second. It is invisible to the fish and your eyes also. This line will sink slowly and get below the waves. It also help you keep in contact with your fly as there is not as much slack in the line. Use 4-5 feet of 25 to 30 lb fluorocarbon tippet on the end of the fly line as a leader.
7. Local knowledge is the best information you can get. If you can find a Snook fisherman that will share with you some local knowledge, it may save you hours of walking, searching, and experimenting. Even though the beaches here are a vast resource, I have found that most anglers, guides and even fishing shops in Florida are not as open with their information as I am used to in Colorado. It is an unwritten rule in Florida that you do not ask “where were you fishing” or “what did you catch them on”. It seems much more secretive here. At the Blue Quill Angler in Evergreen CO if someone comes in looking for info we pull out the maps and go over access points, flies to use, when to be there and what technique would be most productive.
8. Setting the hook. If possible, point your rod streight down the line keeping the rod tip close to or in the water and set the hook with a “strip-strike” and not by raising the rod tip. Setting the hook by raising the rod tip is a hard habit me to break, as I am used to lifting the rod tip quickly to set the hook in trout fishing. A strip set is where you make a long pull with the line-hand to set the hook. This is often done several times to assure the hook penetrates a bony mouth, especially in Tarpon Fishing.
9. Be thankful if you get hooked up to a Snook, even if it’s a little one. There are no bad fish! Even a sixteen incher will give a great fight, usually jump several times, and can break 25 lb tippet if your line gets caught in its gill plates.
10. Use at least 25 lb Fluorocarbon tippet. Use 3-5 feet of streight tippet on the end of your intermediate line and a foot of fluorocarbon shock tippet on the end of your leader if you are using a tapered leader.
10. Move slowly and carry a big stick. A 6 weight fly rod is on the low-end. I suggest a 7-9 weight. A 6 weight will handle most Snook hooked on the beach but when you hook the trophy you are looking for, you will want a larger rod. If you hook a huge female you should have at least 150 yards of backing and a reel that has a good drag. You still might have to run up the beach or out into the water. Wear light-colored clothing that will help to camouflage your position. Walk slowly and keep sudden movements to a minimum.
11. A stripping basket is very helpful if the waves are high, but unnecessary and can seem cumbersome when the waves are low. For the most part you can stay in ankle deep water or on the beach while casting.
Of the 25 times I have been on the beach, I have only seen six other fly fishermen, and only two of them had caught a Snook. I am sure there are some areas that get more pressure from anglers but at this point I am not aware of them. The population of Snook is coming back from a fish kill in 2010. Up to a million Snook may have been killed due to cold water. There is a slot limit in Florida where you can harvest one Snook a day not less than 28″ and more than 33″ inches. Most guides and conservation minded anglers are against this harvest and would rather the State of Florida go back to a “no kill” on Snook. A special Snook permit is required to harvest one and there is a set season depending where you live. personally I am not going to kill a Snook. It is important to make sure barbs on hooks are pinched down. Snook can inhale the fly deeply and the fly can lodge in the gills. When you hold a Snook in the water they feel very slimy with a thick mucus layer covering their body. If possible do not drag them onto the beach where the sand can take off this protective layer of slime. I like to wade into the water which will put me at waist deep, there I can cradle the fish, remove the fly, revive it and let it swim away. Also for picture-taking it is best not to hold the fish vertically from its gill plate or lips. One fun thing to do when you catch a Snook is to put your thumb in the its mouth. It will clamp down on your thumb until it is ready to swim off.
I know that lots of anglers don’t want to come to Florida and fish in the summer because of the heat. I have found it bearable, especially by fishing in the morning and the evening hours. There are hundreds of miles of beaches in Florida with little pressure from fly anglers. Because of the Snooks beauty, strength and ability to jump, it is, and always will be on the top of my list of Florida game fish. But I haven’t caught a Florida Tarpon, yet. Several of my friends have said that once I catch a Tarpon on a fly, everything else will seem minor. We will see. For now Snook is number one.
The next time I got out on the beach the waves were back up and so was the wind which was coming from the south west. It was overcast and stayed that way most of the day with periodic times when it would clear up with momentary sun. It was actually a dreary day, if it is possible to have one on a Florida beach. The water was grey and dirty next to the shore where the waves crashed in churning up the sand and shells. Then going out a few feet the water turned to a sandy, milky green color and out 20 feet or so the water cleared up. There was an obvious current moving from south to north.
The waves were coming in every 3-8 seconds, were 2-3 feet high and big enough to put you off-balance or knock you down if not careful. On a big wave I would stand sideways to lessen the force. Even though it was impossible to spot any fish, I wasn’t about to go home without trying to catch a snook. There were areas on the beach where the bottom was flat and shallower, and areas where there was a several foot drop off into a trough running along the beach.
After rigging up my fly rod with a floating fly line, a 10 foot leader with 3 feet of 25 lb fluorocarbon tippet, I tied on a #2 “Holy Mackrel”, a Clouser style fly tied out of Ultra Hair. At this point in my salt water fishing experience, this is my “go to” fly I have the most confidence in. It is a minnow pattern that I have caught mackerel, , redfish, pompano, sea trout and flounder on in the past. The fly was heavily weighted with large, red, barbel eyes. I felt a heavy fly was needed to get down below the waves. Confidence in the fly has always been important to my fishing. If you believe in the fly, connecting with the fish seems to follow, most of the time. I selected a “fishy looking” spot where the trough faded out into a deeper area. I waded out a few feet into the surf and began casting to my left, parallel to the beach and straight down the trough. I heard that snook travel down the trough close to the beach so that is where I started casting.
The waves were so strong that they would take my floating line and wash it back onto the beach. After several frustrating casts, I realized that I should be using an intermediate sinking line that would sink down into the water below the chop, and not get washed ashore as easily. I changed to a clear, intermediate fly line with 4 feet of 25 lb fluorocarbon tippet to the fly. Because the waves were coming in at an angle from my left or south, and the wind was coming from the south, I couldn’t cast to my left or the waves and wind would push the fly line back into my position and I would have a tangled mess.
I changed direction and facing north I began working the beach from my left to my right. The wind was now at my back, the waves were taking my loose fly line away from my feet, the intermediate fly line was sinking below the waves, and now I just had to time the cast to hit the water right after the wave crashed into the shore and before the next one came in. I was working the water in a systematic way, starting parallel to the shore at the edge of the trough, then casting out to a perpendicular angle straight out in front of me. It was nice to have a long 10 foot rod that could extend out past the incoming waves.
I fished for a half hour until I got my first hard strike. I set the hook and the fish was on. It felt like a good one. I quickly got him on the reel. He made several runs and then several jumps when he got closer, about 20 feet out. Sure enough I could see the black, lateral line stripe and silver body of a 20″ snook. As the fish got closer and I thought I could control him, I made the mistake of reaching down and grabbing the tippet while he was still hooked up. At the same time the snook took off again and the fluorocarbon tippet zoomed through my fingers cutting a small but painful slice in my fingers. A bloody mistake I will remember not to make again. I was learning that salt water fish, especially snook have a lot of power!
I finally got him close, waded out into the surf,cradled him in my hand and arm and removed the barbles hook. Letting him go he disappeared back into the water, like a ghost. By noon I had hooked and landed three more, all about the same size. The wind and waves had increased to an impossible level. making fishing next to impossible. While walking back down the beach to my parking spot with a big smile on my face, I marveled at the power and jumping ability of the snook I had caught. I wondered what fighting a really large one would be like. I was satisfied with my first day of snook fishing on the beach. At least I had begun to “crack the code” of beach fishing for snook, even if I couldn’t see them under the poor conditions. I had waited a long time to spend a day on the beach, now only a few miles from my new home. I’ll certainly be back. In good weather or bad!
There are so many fishing options close to me in Bradenton Florida that I don’t know where to start. Within an hours drive there are five fresh water rivers large enough to explore with a Kayak. There is the Manatee, the Little Manatee, the Braden River, the Myakka River and Phillippi Creek. There are several smaller rivers that I have only heard about that are on my list to visit. These contain bass, blue gills, crappies, catfish, carp, gar, and other fresh water species. In the brackish water of these streams close to the ocean there can be snook, redfish, tarpon, and sea-trout. There are numerous other smaller freshwater rivers and a host of freshwater lakes and hundreds of ponds. Within a two hours drive the options are almost uncountable. No wonder Florida is called the “fisherman’s paradise”.
Within an hours drive along the Gulf Coast includes Tampa Bay to the north and down to Charlotte Harbor in the south. This includes the Gulf Coast beaches, Sarasota Bay, Little Sarasota Bay, and the intercostal waterway. Instead of rainbow trout, brown trout, cutthroat trout and brookies like I fished for in Colorado, there is snook, redfish, sea trout, sharks, and tarpon plus 190 other species of fish in the Tampa Bay area alone. Instead of midges, mayflies, caddis flies, and stoneflies that trout feed on, there is shrimp, crabs, bait fish called “white bait”, and squid, plus many lesser foods that ocean fish eat. In the ocean, everything that can be eaten, will be eaten, all the way up to sharks at the top of the food chain.
For the following reasons I have chosen the beaches as my first area of salt water exploration. #1. The beaches are close to home, only 5 miles to Bradenton Beach, Holmes Beach, Anna Maria Island, Longboat key, and on and on for a thousand miles North and South.. #2. In the summer there are snook on the beach where they spawn, and snook are my number one favorite salt water fish to catch. I might also catch sea-trout, mackerel, sea bass, pompeno, jacks, and even get a shot at a tarpon while fishing for snook. #3. Snook eat primarily bait fish and fishing for snook with a fly rod is very similar to freshwater streamer fishing, which I love to do and am very familiar with. #4. Much of the time you can sight fish for snook in very shallow water close to shore. I love sight fishing and have a lot of experience sight fishing for trout in Colorado. #5. When summer is over the snook will move back to the mangroves and up into the brackish, freshwater streams to spend the winter. Now is the time to target them and I feel like I have looked forward to this opportunity for a long time. #6. Snook fishing is pretty simple. You just need a good pair of polarised sunglasses, 6-9 weight fly rod, a saltwater fly line and leader, 25 lb fluorocarbon tippet and some flies. Fly patterns are simple too, with only a few different baitfish patterns necessary to cover the bases for snook.
The first day I went to the beach was midday and I just walked for a couple of miles observing. I didn’t even take my rod. The ocean was calm with little wind. I didn’t see much as far as fish, just a lot of swimmers and sunbathers. At first the beach looked flat and without variance, but as I walked I began to see sand bars, drop offs, troughs, and other structure.
The next time I went out exploring the beach everythng had changed. I carried my rod but didn’t even string it up. There were 3 foot waves and 15 mile an hour winds coming from the south-west. There had just been a tropical storm out in the Gulf. I noticed currents flowing north along the beach and then south. There were also backwashes and undertows where the water went out perpendicular to the beach shore line. There were even surfers out riding the bigger waves. The waves had churned up a sandy, milky, green color to the water and visibility into the water was impossible out for 20-30 feet . Not the best conditions for seeing snook and sight fishing. I saw no fish.
On my first early morning fishing trip I arrived at sunup and rigged up my 10 ft, 7 weight Sage Method fly rod, set up with a Rio Intermediate salt water line, with 4 feet of 25 lb fluorocarbon tippet on the end. I tied on two streamers. I later learned fishing two flies for saltwater fish was a big mistake. Two snook on at the same time probably means one will break off with the fly in its mouth. My first fly was a pattern I tie called the “Holy Mackrel”. It is an Ultra Hair Clouser style pattern that has caught a wide variety of salt water fish for me in the past. It looks similar to a small bait fish called “white bait”, a local term for small baitfish that are the staple in the diet of many salt water game fish, especially snook on the beach. My second fly was an all white buck-tail Clouser pattern. The water was clear, and the waves had subsided. As I walked along the beach there was some structure, a cement piling that went out into the water. The water at the farthest point out was the deepest and you could not see the bottom there. The water was a greenish color and looked “fishy”. I made several casts out past the outcropping and stripped the flies back in. After several casts I thought I saw a fish trailing behind the fly. It was long and thin like a giant needlefish. I made several more cast and finally hooked up. This fish jumped, did a complete flip in the air, got me to my backing and certainly put a smile on my face. I managed to get the fish in and wow did it have a set of teeth. I pulled out my salt water pliers and removed my fly from its narrow teeth lined jaw. It was released back into the water. I thought maybe it was a barracuda or a giant needlefish. Later I found out it was a Houndfish, or also called a Crocodile Needlefish. I could see a dozen of them laying in the water, stationary, facing out into the ocean. I would cast out and they would follow the fly in. Then they would speed up and attack the fly. After catching several they got wise and disinterested. I was a little disappointed not to find a snook that morning, but had a blast catching a fish I had never caught or heard about. You never know what you might catch in the salt. I know some snook are out there. I hope I can see them. I have been told they are hard to see. One thing for sure, I am going to find out! Hopefully next time out on the beach.