Gulf coastal Florida's warm rivers, secluded coastal bays, and sheltered estuaries provide ideal conditions for fly fishing inshore salt species. These vast areas rich in forage support fast growth of red drum, Sciaenops ocellatus, or redfish, so fat "reds" are readily available to fly fishers.

HISTORY

Although fishing pressure resulted in major depletion of red drum populations by the mid 1980s, aggressive action by fisheries managers at the Florida state and US federal levels created conservation laws which allowed the red drum to thrive again. Three measures: Being granted gamefish status, the one fish limit, and the 18 to 27 inch slot limit, have rebuilt a thriving Florida redfish fishery. Though most fish are released immediately, one 18 to 27 inch red may be kept by each fisher per day. Red drum outside that slot may be caught but must be released. Because of their fast growth rate, the slot protects many reds from being caught and removed from the population, and helps increase the size, quality, and numbers of available red fish. Although reds are still highly sought, responsible anglers carefully release non-slot fish to ensure the red fish resource for the future, and quickly report violators to proper authorities. Now redfish in the St. George's Island and Dog Island waters weighing 7 to 10 pounds are common. The Florida state record for red drum is 51 pounds, 8 ounces!

An hour and a half south of Tallahassee, you'll find Dog Island and St. George's Island. These quiet barrier islands are known for beautiful fall and winter weather and fat red drum. In addition the natural beauty of the area will provide your entire family experiences to enjoy. Seaside camping, state protected natural parks, accomodations of every type and style are available, along with delightful seafood and rich history nearby.

EQUIPMENT

Captain Gene Strickland specializes in light tackle and fly fishing Apalachee Bay and St. George's Sound year 'round for red drum, tarpon, and spotted seatrout. As compared to summer weather patterns, during winters on the gulf front after front passes through the area. The wind and unpredictable conditions can make fly fishing a challenge. Captain Strickland recommends "the minimum rod for red drum is an eight weight, because you are always dealing with wind, and you're casting large fly patterns." Strickland's personal preference is a 9 foot nine weight medium/fast action rod, because it has the power to deliver large flies into the wind. Rods with fighting butts are a plus. Good news: You don't have to be a Lefty Kreh quality caster to fish for reds. Captain Strickland says "as a rule if you can accurately cast 40 to 50 feet, you can do very well here."

Bring a reel spooled with weight forward floating line, and a spool of intermediate sinking line, both with at least 200 yards of 30 pound backing. Your reel should have a strong, smooth, readily adjustable drag for fighting these strong fish.

Strickland recommends nine to twelve foot leaders with a minimum 15 pound abrasion resistant tippet. If you are lucky enough to lip hook a redfish, lighter tippet will do, but normally a red will bite right through a 12 pound tippet, so 15 pound or stronger tippet is recommended. If you want to use a lighter 9 foot 12 pound big game leader, for added protection, tie on an 12 to 18 inch, 15 pound shock tippet. Your flies will still turn over and you'll have the extra abrasion insurance. Use a loop knot to tie your fly to the tippet. As compared to an improved clinch knot, the loop will not impede your fly's natural action.

Strickland prefers "fly patterns that will sink down in the water column, down to the redfish's level." He recommends number-2 to 2/0 sized Clouser minnows in orange over white, chartreuse over white, and burnt orange, bendback patterns, and streamers, imitating pilchards, shrimp, and small crabs. When conditions allow, he prefers to cast a popper and watch the reds take on the surface.

FINDING RED DRUM/PRESENTATION

Although Captain Strickland fishes year 'round, September and October are normally the best fishing months for red drum, but according to Strickland "reds are very temperature tolerant. I've found that red drum remain active until the water temperature gets below 60 degrees, then they tend to slow down." Sight casting for reds is Strickland's preferred method, but blind casting and wading the surf can provide great fly rod action, too.

Reds under spawning size stay inshore holding on oyster beds, channels, tidal creeks, deep passes, coastal rivers, and eel grass flats. Fish the tides. Major tidal action creates the most productive fishing for reds. Strong tidal action on the new and full moon phases pulls reds off the flats, schools them, and makes them easier to locate. Fishing is always better during strong tidal activity, then as tidal action ceases, fishing activity drops off rapidly. First cruise shallow shorelines looking for schools of "tailing" actively feeding redfish (above left). Look for the tell tale "V" wake reds create in the shallows. Cruise the shallow eel grass or sand flats carefully looking for feeding individual fish or schools. Use weight forward floating line for casting weightless or very lightly weighted flies to fish the 6 to 12 inch water on eel grass flats for shallow feeding redfish.

Captain Strickland poles us into position (above right)to work this "funnel" (left).

If you don't find reds feeding shallow, locate sand bars running parallel to shoreline with deeper water between the sand bar and shoreline (left). These areas can create a "funnel" so reds will hold to feed on crustaceans, fish, and mollusks being swept to them in the current. In deeper beach areas with 3 to 4 feet of water, fish intermediate sinking lines and heavier weighted Clousers minnows to get the fly down in front of big red drum like this (below right). Probe underwater structure, points, and shallow reefs. Captain Strickland suggests that the best way to spot a red is to use polarized sunglasses and look for the redfish's shadow on the light colored sand bottom. The movement of the shadow will show you where to cast your fly "five feet in front of his nose." Then a strip, pause, strip, pause, and if the red doesn't hit, strip the line in, note his direction and repeat the process. He'll either hit your fly, continue feeding, or spook out of the area.

Learn to use the wind to help you cast better. Fighting the wind doesn't work. If you are positioned upwind and upcurrent trying to deliver a long cast to a downwind target, drive your forward cast into the wind, then shoot the line downwind on your back cast. The wind will actually help to shoot your line into position.

CHUMMING

In beach fishing situations where natural structure creates a "funnel", position yourself up current and upwind of the deeper channel and chum the area with finely cut shrimp or live pilchards. Captain Strickland says "I prefer to chum with live pilchards. If reds are holding in the area, they'll move in to feed. You can get up to a couple hundred fish right behind the boat chumming live bait." When the reds come into casting range, be prepared for a fight!

PREPARATIONS

Especially on your first trip to the St. George's/Apalachee Bay area, bring your equipment and flies, but hire a top quality guide. It takes a boat designed to run in as little as 6 inches of water with a polling platform and an experienced man to get you in position to fish for reds. Your learning experience will be worth the fee and you will avoid the surprises that coordinating tides in unfamiliar waters brings. You may purchase a 3 day visitor's fishing license, or like Captain Strickland, some guides have a vessel license, so your fishing is covered by his license while on his charter. There are many connecting flights to Tallahassee and rental cars available for the hour and a half drive down Highway 319 to the St. George/Apalachee Bay area. For license and guide service information, contact Captain Gene K. Strickland at 850 697-9523 or email to: Waterhawk1@aol.com.


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