Fly Fishing for Redfish Logo

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Shallow Water Reds





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Louisiana Fly Fishing For Redfish - Smiling Danny

Fly Fishing Louisiana Redfish.



As dawn broke on a May morning I poled the flat bottomed skiff across the still surface of Haymark Marsh.  The water was low and backs were high.  Danny Williams stood on the front of the boat watching as dozens of redfish "showed their cleavage"; working their way into water so shallow their backs were exposed high above the surface.  We tracked one, stalking it after spotting it from over a hundred yards away.  Finally we were within casting range Danny made a good presentation and the fish ate the fly.  Both of our pulses raced as the redfish tore across the open flat, then well into Danny's backing, the fish found a log covered with barnacles.  A sharp turn around the log, a sharp edge against the leader and the fish was gone.  Fortunately there were many more willing targets that morning, and before our day was done we had both boated good numbers of nice fish, another great morning of Louisiana Fly Fishing.  


This kind of action repeats itself in shallow water estuaries all along the North American coast line.  From high on the Eastern seaboard, around Florida and across and down the gulf coast to South Texas, redfish range.  Once looked upon almost with disdain the "Blackened Redfish" craze of the early to mid 80's tossed redfish out of the proverbial frying pan, and into the fire.  Under tremendous commercial fishing pressure to fill restaurant frying pans with fillets, and a renewed recreational interest redfish numbers dwindled to the brink.  Fortunately state and federal agencies as well as sportsmen recognized the crisis and moved into action.  Organizations were formed, regulations and limits were enacted and the redfish responded.  States such as Louisiana, Texas, and Florida have seen the return of the reds.  Redfish stocks in most Southern states have rebounded dramatically, and anglers have taken notice.  Redfish are now prized by anglers, both as table fare, and as an unparalleled sports fish.  When targeted in shallow water, redfish provide fast, powerful runs on light tackle, and present one of the most visual targets in all of fishing.


Fly fishermen who want to target redfish in shallow water should equip themselves with a 9Louisiana Fly Fishing For Redfish Print foot 7 to  9 weight rod, weight forward floating line, and a reel with a smooth drag that can handle 100 yards of backing.  Some effective flies for redfish include the Clouser Minnow, Seaducer, Ron's Redchaser , epoxy spoons, Dorsy's Kwan Fly, Danny's Shwimp,and even poppers.  How you need to get to the redfish will depend on where you are.  In some areas of South Texas and Florida, redfish inhabit sandy, hard bottomed flats that you can walk out onto from your car.  In some South Louisiana marshes the bottom is so soft that you would sink waste deep in mud if you tried to wade, but the water is so shallow that the only way to access it is in a flat bottomed skiff, canoe, kayak, or one of the new generation of super shallow skiffs.  A simple john boat and a push pole can often times provide the perfect solution.


It has been my experience that the factors that most effect redfish movement are availability of food, water temperature, and salinity.  I always look for areas that will hold food.  Marshes with a lot of oysters are a 24 hour buffet for redfish.  Grass can be a major factor in holding bait as well.  While juvenile redfish can survive in water down to near freezing, their larger sibling prefer temperatures over 50 and are happiest in water between 60 and 80 degrees.  Juvenile redfish are also more tolerant of lower salinity and can often be caught on alternating cast with species like largemouth bass.  When I find an area of marsh with oysters, in a part of the estuary that holds its salinity level, and nearby deep water that lets the fish escape extreme temperatures, I know I am looking at a spot that will hold good numbers of big redfish through most of the year.  That is not to say that areas farther up into the fresher part an estuary system wont be a redfish bonanza at times when salinity levels rise.


Redfish are aggressive feeders that at times will eat almost anything they can fit into their mouths.  At other times however they can be as picky and selective as spring creek trout.  Redfish often visibly display feeding behaviors that can tip you off to what they are feeding on.  First make note of where the redfish's mouth is.  The redfish's mouth is on the bottom of its head, making it most adept at feeding down.  That is not to say that a redfish won't pursue prey on the surface or can't be taken on top water flies, but simply to illustrate where a redfish is most likely to spend the bulk of its time feeding.  Redfish often gorge themselves on forage found on the marsh bottom and at the base of marsh vegetation, including crabs, and shrimp, as well as mud minnows, mullet and other baitfish.  Redfish readily eat crabs from about the size of a quarter to half the size of a dinner plate.  One redfish that I had the pleasure of catching had recently been dining on both.

Recent studies show that in the early spring months, the diet of redfish in shallow water is made up in large part (80%) of finfish, the majority of which are shad, with the remainder of their diet being decapods like crabs and shrimp.  In the fall the converse is true, with redfish in the marsh feeding primarily on shrimp and crabs and only about 30% of their diet being made up of fin fish.



Louisiana Fly Fishing For Redfish Crab Dinner

Stomach contents of a 4.5 pound red



Several commonly observed redfish feeding behaviors are tailing while moving, tailing standing on their head, crawling or showing cleavage, cruising, and blowing up.  Each of these behaviors can tell you much about what a fish is feeding on.


First tailing while moving.  This is a behavior where a fish or often group of fish are moving, swimming at a slow to moderate speed with their heads down and their tails above the water.  Any behavior where the fish is head down and tail up signifies that the fish is either eating or looking for food on the bottom.  Foods often found on the bottom include many types or life stages of shrimp, as well as all crabs.  My experience has been however that when the fish are tailing, but continuing to make forward progress, they are most likely feeding on small shrimp.  These fish are very catch-able particularly if they are traveling in a group.  Cast a small to mid sized fly ahead of and slightly past the fish or group, let it settle to the bottom, and when the fish approach  the fly give it a small relatively slow strip so that it crosses right in front of the fish's nose. 


You will often see single redfish tailing in a fashion of standing on their head.  That is to say, tailing in one spot, often assuming an almost totally vertical position.  If you repeatedly see a tail pop up in one spot without moving off it is an indication that the fish is trying to root a specific prey out of a specific spot.  It is a good bet that the fish is trying to root out a crab, or possibly a burrowing type shrimp such as a mantis, or snapping shrimp.  While these fish are definitely in a mood to eat, they can often be hard to catch because it is difficult to get their attention short of spooking them.  The water in their immediate surrounding also has a tendency to be muddied from their rooting activity.  In this situation I like to throw a fairly bulky fly, either a Redchaser or a large crab pattern near the fish.  When the fly hits the water I give it one good strip, then let it settle to the bottom.  Hopefully the size and bulk of the fly will cause enough disturbance to get the fish's attention.  Wait and see if the fish moves to your fly and tips down.  If I can't get his attention that way, it is often helpful to go to the other extreme, throwing a popper or Dahlburg Diver just past the fish and stripping it by him.  Sometimes the noise and disturbance of a top water offering will draw their attention away from the buried prey long enough to get a bite.


Louisiana Fly Fishing For Redfish - Backing

Redfish Cleavage!



Redfish that are crawling or showing cleavage are fish that are in extremely shallow water, either on a flat or up near the bank, that are wallowing around with their back exposed out of the water.  These fish are on the feed, often exploiting areas of the bottom that have just been covered by the tide.  When fish are crawling, they are again seeking morsels on the bottom.  Fiddler crabs are often the intended meal of crawling redfish, however shrimp and larger crabs can work into the equation too.  To target these fish, cast ahead of and barely past the fish, wait until the fish is almost on top of the fly, then give the fly a VERY slow strip so that it just crawls along the bottom.  Your cast must be accurate, and presentation good, because redfish that are in water this shallow tend to be very spooky.

Cruising is a behavior exhibited by redfish where they are not exposing any part of themselves above the water, but you can track their movement by the wake they push.  First be aware that cruising is defined as a fish pushing a wake at a slow to moderate speed in a deliberate manner.  If a redfish is pushing a wake away from your boat at full speed, you've spooked him and he probably won't eat.  You will often see the wakes of cruising fish working a grass line, bumping the grass, most likely to dislodge juvenile shrimp.  Cruising fish will however sometimes be on the prowl for finger mullet or mud minnows.  Here is what one cruising fish had been eating.



Louisiana Fly Fishing For Redfish - Shrimp Dinner

This fish filled himself with over 40 shrimp cruising a grass line.



Cruising fish will readily take a fly, and will often aggressively attack almost any pattern you present them.  When you cast to a cruising fish, remember that the wake is coming off of the back end of the fish, so figure the fish's head is a foot or so  in front of the wake, then lead that appropriately.  When trying to catch a cruising fish I usually try to use a retrieve that will keep the fly up off of the bottom.


The final redfish feeding behavior I will address here is Blowing Up.  When you see redfish blowing up in shallow water, you will probably recognize it immediately because it is dramatic.  As my friend Roger Cormier puts it, when redfish are blowing up, you get the impression that someone is lobbing grenades into the marsh.  The behavior of blowing up is when redfish charge bait, often streaking across the top of the water, then causing a loud and large explosion of water as they turn on, open their mouth and snap it shut on the bait.  When redfish are blowing up it has been my experience that they are probably feeding on schools finfish such as mullet or shad, or larger shrimp.  Out of these however I have most often witnessed this behavior when redfish are feeding on finfish, and even more specifically, shad.  Streamer fly's like Lefty's Deceiver, and Seaducers are effective in this situation however this could be your best opportunity to experience the excitement of catching redfish on a topwater fly.  If you see redfish blowing up on schools of bait toss a popper or Dahlburg diver out, make a lot of racket with the fly, then hang on.  It's almost chilling the way redfish approach a top water offering.  First you see the wake, then the top of their head and eye, and then they launch themselves upward so that they can come down on your fly (remember their mouth is on the bottom of their head so they have to be above what they are eating).  Often times they charge so aggressively that the wake they push will push the fly away from their mouth, but keep stripping it because as likely as not, they'll make a second pass.


Take the opportunity to get out and pursue a remarkable game fish.  Challenge yourself with redfish in a shallow water environment on fly or light tackle.  Because once you catch them, you'll be the one to get hooked.


For more information on learning to spot redfish in shallow water.  See the article Subtleties.

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