As a primarily freshwater angler I could not help but feel intimidated by the salt.
A world known only to me by images. Some printed others in my mind.
For me it was the mangroves. Poling down that ragged edge, hunting. I poured over charts, read and reached out to anglers with experience. I was building a starting point as the place had already found me.
A brackish system containing miles of creeks, mangrove shorelines and open flats – all perfectly representing what the Florida backcountry is.These fisheries are massive and several could be fished for a lifetime and In that time you would only have a brief view of what it truly is. That view, is a privilege and the vastness is just more room for opportunity.
I started close and worked outward. You learn what areas need to have to hold fish.
These fish know exactly where they are and why they are there at any time .This world lives and dies on the tides. It dictates everything and knowing how these fish move at certain times is key. The day’s low tides would give me a glimpse of what was there and with enough time, why.Each spot had to be checked time and again.A education that takes time and that information is currency. Even on the worst day I came back with something.
Although the majority of the fish you’ll encounter are not 9wt fish a few are and that’s what I throw.My Mangrove Coast rod matched with a longer tapered bonefish line has done an incredible job of hitting fish and keeping them out of the trees.The leader is simple, #50 tapered down to #30 fluorocarbon.I will build that out to #25 when targeting crawling fish although it makes landing bigger snook very difficult.If big snook and smaller tarpon are around I’ll run a #40 or #50 bite guard.Sight fishing the flats I’ve had to drop all the way down to #15 fluorocarbon to get the take.
My two tarpon rods are both 11wts in the Mangrove Coast and the Axiom ll-X. One rigged with a match floating line and the other a match intermediate line.My leader is a straight section of #80 with a #100 bite guard. Tarpon leaning in on that 200 mark are a real opportunity and I rig to go toe to toe with that fish.If big North American GTs (Giant Trevally) are busting bait, I will run a section of #80 hard mono to a popper on the floating line rod.
I rig as heavy as I can to beat fish quickly. I believe the longer the fight lasts, the less likely the fish will survive.
Once in this world you’ll have stepped into story with no ending and that story is just now being told. Many of the anglers who made possible what we can do today are still with us. It’s that new. The innovations continue with every single push toward the edge of what can be done. That cost is so high because the reward is so great.
Once paid for it has to be respected.
Blog written by TFO Ambassador Jon Lee (@kalamazoo_river_guide). Jon spends half his year fishing and guiding in Michigan for smallmouth, carp and pike, and the other part of the year you can find him in Florida putting clients on tarpon, redfish, and snook.
It’s an exciting time for Captain Gary Dubiel and other east coastal and guides and anglers. As we say goodbye to July and turn the page to August, water temperatures are increasing, more baitfish are moving towards estuaries, and the summer crowds are slowly going back to their homes. Bull redfish season is here.
I was fortunate enough to catch Gary on a rare day off, as for the next 2-3 months, he’ll be on the water with clients pursing large adult redfish – or bull reds – that make their way into his fisheries. Gary breaks down the annual migration of bull reds to coastal North Carolina and how he finds and catches these fish.
Sounds and looks like the bull redfish are on the move in your area in coastal North Carolina. For those new to targeting or interested in targeting bull reds, can you talk about what it is these fish are doing? Are they spawning? What drives them in (temperature, water levels) to your area in coastal North Carolina?
The bull reds here are very migratory. They’ll be in the ocean most of the year. They’re in the process now in late July where the vast majority of them are shifting from the ocean into the estuary into the Pamlico Sound primarily for the purpose of spawning.
The spawning rituals itself which usually occur on the full and new moon phases are very brief, and the rest of the time the fish take full advantage of the food sources so they are perpetually feeding.
Every year is a little bit different and it can be hard to predict on how quickly they move in. Some years you’ll see fish in abundance by early/mid July, some years you’ll see fish a little bit later, but usually once you get into the first part of August, you’re going to see an increasing number of fish pushing into the river and that will continue into a few weeks to follow and stay peaked usually until the end of September. As the temperatures drop, the bull reds will move back out into the ocean.
Does water temperature have any effect for these migratory patterns?
There is some temperature orientation. During summer, the water temperature is obviously going to be very hot, so there’s not a lot of fluctuation, but your fall temperature, depending when your cold fronts come in, has a tendency to push the bait out, thus the volume of fish. Usually when you see the water temperature drop down into the mid 60s is when you see that migration move back out.
When the bull reds are in your area spawning/foraging, how do you look for them? Is it similar to looking for normal redfish looking for crabs in the flood tides, etc. in that there are more visual signs to look for like tailing, grass movement, etc?
No; totally different ballgame. Normal redfish and adult redfish have nothing to do with each other as far as their habits go – especially here in coastal North Carolina. Once adult redfish come into that migratory adult population, they become much more of a pelagic fish than a normal redfish that is more estuary oriented – very short distances.
There was actually a radio tracking study here years back. On average, an adult redfish swim 25 miles a day. That 25 miles doesn’t necessarily have to be a straight line, but they are perpetually in motion just like a school of tuna would be. They are much more in motion, and that motion basically continues until they locate food, and then they eat, and then they’ll move until they find more food, and so on. They are perpetually moving day and night and anytime they intersect food, they eat.
So not really much sight fishing opportunities?
Our waters are very tan and bottoms are very dark, so it would be very rare if you ever looked in the water and saw one. What we’ve been able to do here is basically develop the ability to look for those fish by looking for the food source.
Bull redfish will eat pretty much anything. They aren’t like the typical Carolina redfish that is tailing and looking for a crab. Bull reds are primarily going to be fin fish feeders, but they will also eat crab, shrimp, and anything that’s basically 18” and smaller than they are.
Because of the way the food reacts when being chased by these big fish can help you locate those fish and catch them. For example, if they find a mullet, mullet move in a straight line and they move very fast, and its usually in much shallower water – which makes for some really cool signs to look for because its very explosive – there’s a lot of splashing, a lot going on. But the issue then becomes – How do you get to these fish? They’re moving so fast you can get in front of them it doesn’t make any difference.
The one thing that is very helpful in all that is menhaden – Because when they get chased they form a big bait ball and they don’t go anywhere. Looking at big schools – literally acres of menhaden on top of the water – that bait ball is very tight. The spinning/splashing on top of the water gives you an indication that there’s fish there. You can also look for things like flicks, you can smell the oil from the fish being eaten, etc. Big redfish can feed anywhere from two feet of water to twenty feet of water which is as deep as the rivers in this area. So subsequently, they can be anywhere and everywhere. They can be very difficult to see feeding but if you see that bait ball on the surface, that bait can be your best indicator of where those fish are.
Let’s say you’ve located some bull reds, what set ups, both fly and conventional are using to go after these guys?
For conventional tackle – I’m using the Inshore Series. Medium-Heavy and Heavy action rods. So the 705-706 models. Mostly what we’re going to be using to catch those fish are pop-n-corks and soft plastics. The reason we use those (pop-n-corks) is that it makes noise and it draws the fish to the bait just like the fish that are constantly moving and feeding.
Very different from a juvenile redfish where they might be tight at to the bottom, bull reds can be at mid-water column, they can be on top of the water, or they can be all the way on the bottom. We want to try and pull the fish to that bait so we’ll use very large pop-n-corks and large 5-6 inch long soft plastics that catches their attention. It’s the most effective way to catch those fish when we’re fishing tackle.
I’ll match those rods with 4000-5000 series reels with 30lb braid goes on those rods nicely and the rods have the backbone it takes to fish those well.
We do throw some topwater baits. The Medium Heavy does really well there. We’ll also do some swim baits using the Heavy action Inshores. Large 6-8 inch swim baits on a jighead will occasionally produce as well.
For Fly – Axiom ll-X 10wt. You need that extra backbone compared to the popular 8wt because 1) You’ll never throw the set up and 2) You’ll never land the fish. I match it with the TFO Power Reel.
How big do the bull reds get?
A lot of places will say a bull redfish is 36-38 inches. That’s not a big fish here. That’s a little fish. Our fish average 43-45 inches. They’re typically a pound an inch. We’ll catch fish in excess of 50 inches – So you’re looking at 50-60 lb. fish.
So in other words, you’ll have all you need on the end of a 10wt Axiom ll-X.
What about fly lines, leaders, tippet?
You’ll want an aggressive front taper floating line. I use the Scientific Anglers Titan Taper Line WF10F. For leaders, I go straight 20 lb. fluorocarbon for about 6 feet to the popping fly, then about 20-24 inches of 30lb fluoro off of that to the fly.
You’ll want to do the same thing that you were doing with the spinning rod as you would on the fly rod – so that’s where my pop-n-fly comes in. You’re basically fishing a pop-n-cork and then 20-24 inches below that you’re fishing a large minnow style fly. Something oval that breaths well. I have my own menhaden style fly that I tie which is a slightly less weight, large oval baitfish pattern.
Any particular tips, tactics, or strategies for fighting bull reds and increasing the chances of getting the fish to the boat and not breaking off?
Don’t be shy of putting pressure on them. They’ll never surrender. You need to work the fish back to the boat (another reason why the 10wt comes in handy here). Typically, the fish will normally have a long run first, then you usually have 1-2 shorter runs, then the fish will bulldog you at the boat. Once you apply pressure to that fish’s head, keep that pressure on! A lot of my clients will yank up real hard, then drop the rod tip real fast, then if the fish is even able to drop his head and turn away from you, he’ll take right off again.
The way these fish fight, they want to get their head down and away from you. So a much steadier, constant pressure on that fish will beat that fish quicker. On a 10wt, you’re looking at 7-9 minute fight time on average.
Any other tips/suggestions you’d like to leave with our readers?
One thing I’d like to mention. We have a lot of folks that come from other places to fish here for bull reds that make the biggest mistake when fishing for these fish. Even if they’re in deeper water, they are extremely motor shy! So outboard motors can be horribly detrimental to catching those fish.
If you see those big schools of bait, approach those schools of fish with stealth. Stuff like coming downwind, using the trolling motor, using the trolling motor at lower speeds if you can get away with it makes a huge difference. Also, giving yourself a few hundred yards to start, then working in on those fish as low noise rather than rushing on top. If you’re treating it like albacore fishing where you see those bait balls and you rush in there with the boat, they’ll go to another zip code.
Gary Dubiel has been a TFO National Advisor since 2002. He currently lives in guides in the coastal North Carolina Outer Banks area through his guiding business Spec Fever Guide Service. You can find out more about Gary here.
I started my saltwater fly-fishing quest nearly eight years ago when I lived in Tampa, Fla. Having spent most of my life inland, I had visions of daily tailing redfish.
Reality quick set in that spring. I saw a handful of fish my first few months, and that learning curve didn’t happen by accident.
Fly fishing for reds is largely a winter pursuit. Sure, there are exceptions. Tailing reds in the grass are summer and early-fall affairs on the Northeast Florida, Georgia and South Carolina coasts, but generally speaking winter beats summer almost every time for quality reds with a fly rod or light spinning gear.
Here are a few tips I learned along the way to this realization. A few of these nuggets of info may help you if you have time to fish the flats before spring and summer arrive.
You want to fish late in the day, if possible. Pick a later tide and get out when the sun has had a chance to warm the water. Can you get out early? Yes, but early birds will often be disappointed by sluggish, lethargic fish.
If the stars align and you find a strong afternoon tide, mud flats produce the best results. Reds often use the heat of the dark bottom to warm up. A word of caution: Do not get out and wade. Muddy flats rarely yield secure footing.
Fish when you have time, but if you can, schedule your outings around a strong incoming tide. Reds often feed on moving water and the less water you have to deal with means two important things: The fish have fewer places to go; and equally important, they’re easier to see in skinny water.
A negative low afternoon tide is ideal, but it’s not crucial. You can live with an extra inch or two of water, so don’t stay home because you don’t get the perfect tide.
As far as depth, I like shin to knee deep height, which amounts to about a foot or so. It’s enough water that the fish feel relatively secure, and you should be able to notice a few wakes and maybe a tail or two.
The Wind Is Not Your Friend
Wind is a reality of saltwater fishing. A breeze of 10 miles an hour or less works for me. If the wind picks up, I generally try to find a leeward shoreline. Many anglers only take wind into account as it relates to casting, but even more important is the wind’s effect on tidal flow.
In Tampa Bay, for instance, a south wind pushes water into the Bay; a north wind, by contrast, pushes water out of the Bay. Generally, you want a north wind, at least in Tampa Bay. The goal, of course, is to fish a flat with as little water as possible.
Wind can also delay the tide. True story: I went out with a guide near Fort Desoto in St. Petersburg, Fla. Tails were everywhere. The next day, I went out solo and didn’t see a single tail on the same flat on the same tide. The reason: A steady breeze held up the tide. There wasn’t enough water for the reds to come up on the flat, and unfortunately I didn’t push out a bit farther towards slightly deeper water where the fish were holding. It was a matter of wading out a few hundred yards, but I wasn’t confident enough to adjust.
Flies and Equipment
You can’t go wrong with an EP Crab (size 4) in brown or tan. I tie them toad style, but I’m not sure the shape really matters. A mylar spoon fly is my go-to for a searching pattern. A dark Clouser is always a good stand-by for just about any species, saltwater of fresh.
As far as conventional lures, a Gulp shrimp or gold spoon are good go-to options and should be in anyone’s saltwater tackle box.
My go-to fly rods are the TFO’s Axiom II. Before that, I was smitten with theLefty Kreh’sTiCR X. The AII adapts to your stroke. I’m a fast-action caster and it loads quickly with enough juice to pierce a formidable breeze. Pair the AIIwith a Power Reeland you have a quality saltwater setup that will handle just about any fish on the flats.
For standard gear, TFO’sGIS inshore series offers an array of sticks to match your saltwater needs, durable enough to handle just about any situation, sensitive enough to provide just the right feel and good-looking enough to impress your buddies back at the dock.
Try these tips with your favorite TFO gear. Let us know how you fare.