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Winter is Prime Time for Redfish

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.

Sleep In

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.

Tidal Tips

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 the Lefty Kreh’s TiCR 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 AII with a Power Reel and you have a quality saltwater setup that will handle just about any fish on the flats.

For standard gear, TFO’s GIS 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.

Five Ways to Catch More Fish in the Winter

Most fishermen hate winter fishing. But I love winter fishing. Full disclosure: I live in Florida. It’s warm pretty much year round. But even when I lived in Virginia, I liked winter fishing. Not many people fish in January and February, so chances are you will get your favorite spots all to yourself.

Here are few tips to make the best of those colder days on the water.

Safety

Wear neoprene waders. Gloves and a good thermal cap are essential. Layer up, if possible. It’s better to feel like the Michelin man than to freeze. Use a wading staff, if needed. No one wants to fall in the water. It’s uncomfortable in the summer; it’s potentially life-threatening in the winter.

Stay upright. Stay safe.

And even if you stay dry, make sure to take breaks to stay warm. Drink a cup of coffee or crank up the heat in your vehicle.

Pick the Right Water

Tailwaters are the obvious option in the winter simply because of the constant water temperature. Trout, for instance, like water temperatures in the 50s. You won’t find that water that warm in the winter — unless it’s a tailwater fishery.

My two favorites are the Nantahala in Bryson City, N.C.; the Jackson River in Hot Springs, Va.; the South Holston in Bristol, Tenn.; and the White River in Lakeview Ark. All are worth fishing, even when it’s not bone-chilling cold.

Sleep In

There’s no need to get up at the crack of dawn. I fish late morning until late afternoon. Sometimes, I go after lunch, when sun is up high enough to warm the water. This schedule applies to freshwater and salt.

For redfish on the Florida marsh, I wait until ankle-deep water covers the dark mud on the flats and in the creeks when the fish try to get warm off the heat from skinny water and dark bottom, always a good combination for winter fishing.

Slow Down

I typically fish too fast. My personality dictates more is better, particularly if the fishing is slow. This is the wrong approach in winter fishing. You need to slow down. Slow movements. Slow casts. Slow strips. Slow retrieves.

As the winter water temperature increases, a fish’s metabolism increases. Decreasing water temperature makes fish lethargic. To compensate, make accurate casts and slow down.

Use a Thermometer

The air temperature is important for personal safety. The water temperature dictates whether the fish will feed. Trout generally like temperatures in the 50s. Largemouth bass, on the other hand, prefer temperatures in the mid-60s and 70s.

I used to get wed to these guidelines, but don’t make the same mistake. Instead pay attention to whether the water temperature is moving. If you’re winter fishing, you want temperatures to rise. In the summer, you generally want temperatures to drop, preferably into each species’ feeding zone.

Temperature, of course, is only one factor in winter fishing success. But the important thing is to get out and enjoy winter fishing. Trust me, it’s worth braving the cold.

Any other tips you’d like to share, let us know with a comment or one of our social media pages.

Five Tips for Fly Fishing Big Water

Fly fishing is an endless series of learning curves. As soon as I mastered one concept, another emerged. So it was nearly 30 years ago for me in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. I cracked the code of small streams and spring creeks. At the wise old age of 28, I thought I had it all figured out.

Then one spring day, I fished the Jackson River with a friend of mine and long-rod mentor, Billy Kingsley. I remember staring at the rush of water for a good 10 minutes and wondering one single thing:

Where the hell are the fish? As it turned out, Billy caught dozens of fish; I never felt a single tug.

Needless to say, big water can be intimidating. With so much to cover, where do you start?

Decades later, I’m still no expert on fly fishing rivers, but here are a few tips to focus on:

Safety First

You need good boots. Don’t go cheap. Find a comfortable pair that fit with good traction and support. Your ankles and knees will thank you.

Good footwear is a start, but it never hurts to have a wading staff. Depending on the size of the river, the force of the current can be deceivingly strong. I got bowled over the first time I fished out West when I was in charge of cleaning the camp dishes after dinner. All it took was one ill-advised step toward the middle and down I went.

Moral of the story: Go slow and be careful.

Think Small

When many newcomers first fish bigger water, it all looks the same, but it’s not. Rivers are merely a bigger version of small streams with a series of pools, riffles and runs. Identify one of those sections of water, preferably one that you’re comfortable with, and fish it.

Make sure to slow down. Fish each piece of water thoroughly. With small streams, you can cherry pick quickly. Rivers, because of their sheer scope, take more of a commitment. Imagine you’re working on a puzzle. Probe each section of water one by one each trip. After a few outings, you’ll have a much better clearer roadmap to the productive water.

Use a Drift Boat

When I learned to fish in the Southeast in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, drift boats weren’t in vogue. Almost everyone waded. It wasn’t until I spent a summer out West that I learned how to fish out of — and row — a Clackacraft.

I wished I had had one sooner.

Drifting a river allows you to evaluate water from a macro perspective – from start to finish — depending on how much river you cover. And let’s not forget the obvious: You can cover a lot more potential spots drifting than you can on foot.

Expand Your Skills

When I first started on small streams, I was a lousy caster. Of course, I thought I was good. I caught a ton fish with two basic presentations — high-stick nymphing along with a puddle cast. That’s it.

Bigger water demands more. If there’s wind, you might need to double haul. A serviceable reach cast over multiple current seams and a curve cast to get under trees are also beneficial. Obviously, you can catch fish with limited skills, but you won’t catch as many fish. Bigger water offers bigger rewards, but those fish demand more versatility.

The Equipment

You will generally need a bigger trout rod. I used a 3 and 4-weight on mountain streams, but stepped up to a 6-weight on rivers. Why? The fish are bigger. And the flies can be, but certainly that’s not always the case. But the potential for bigger fish means you need a higher quality reel. TFO’s Power series offers a variety of options. And if you catch the fish, you don’t want to lose it because you’re under gunned. As far as tippet, I don’t hesitate to go up a size, unless the fish are feeding in calm, slow-moving water. In that scenario, I downsize accordingly.

Big water is challenging at first, but it doesn’t have to be.  Patience and perseverance will pay off as you ease out of your comfort level.