Story originally published in Tideline magazine in March 2012
By Matt Winter
Capt. Tucker Blythe stands on the bow casting an E.P. Everglades Special. The bright fly line loops back and forth under a brilliant, late-winter sun. Watching closely, you can just see the orange and chartreuse fly whizzing past.
Capt. John Irwin has taken his turn up on the poling platform at the stern of the flats boat. From atop his perch, Irwin’s got a better vantage point. He sees the school up ahead, and gently pushes the boat forward while giving Blythe target updates. “Eleven o’clock.” “Yeah, right by that clump of grass.” “See ’em?” “They’re moving down.”
Up ahead, redfish swirl in the flooded spartina. A broad tail breaks the surface as a big fish cruises the grass line.
Tucker lands a fly amid them. One turns on it but misses. The school moves on, and so do we, meandering along the edge of a vast flooded marsh.
Irwin and Blythe have done this a thousand times, helping countless charter fishing clients fulfill their own angling dreams of landing a redfish on the fly. Irwin teaches fly fishing classes at the Charleston Angler, and both he and Tucker travel extensively chasing tarpon, bonefish, cobia, snook and other fly-fishing targets.
Back home in Charleston, both captains spend unbelievable hours on the water, following schools of reds through tidal cycles and changing seasons.
They know that catching a redfish on the fly ranks as one of the most challenging and fulfilling experiences available to Lowcountry anglers. But they’re also quick to point out that it doesn’t require magical abilities, extraordinary skill or a million bucks. Just a few hundred dollars can get you started, and with just a little casting practice, just about anyone can get in range of a red.
Techniques, timing and tides
Redfish often feed in relatively shallow water. Big schools of resident reds set up shop on mud flats throughout the Lowcountry all year. They follow the rising tide up into the marsh, where they feed on small fish and crustaceans, including blue crabs and fiddler crabs. When reds feed aggressively in these shallow areas, they’re often nosing down into the mud, and their famous “spot-tails” break the water’s surface.
Few things get an angler’s heart racing like the site of a “tailing” redfish. It’s the ultimate casting target.
The most popular method for fly fishing for reds involves poling a flats boat through the marsh at high tides (astronomically high tides are called “tailing tides”) or across mud flats at lower tides, looking for feeding fish. “You don’t always have to see them to catch them, but it helps,” Irwin says.
Fishing usually picks up right after the tide starts moving, or right before it starts. The redfish bite also tends to turn on “right when the water hits the bottom edge of the grass,” Irwin says. “If there’s still plenty of water, the fish don’t feel pinched, like they do when they’re in an area that’s about to go dry.”
“Dead low can be bad,” Blythe says. “Especially negative tides. On dead low they get spooky, nervous and hard to catch.”
Since reds are such shallow-water feeders, fly fishermen don’t need a fancy motorboat to get in on the action. Many anglers wade into flooded marshes or use kayaks or canoes to locate the schools.
“A lot of guys really focus on tailing tides and wading spots,” Blythe says. “There are a ton of areas, but you should focus on areas with shorter, stubbier grass. That indicates a harder bottom. Definitely avoid channels and spots with the longer spartina grass.” The longer grass indicate the presence of pluff mud, the soft stuff that anglers can sink into and become trapped.
Irwin also recommends that anglers think twice about wearing sandals or loose-fitting shoes. The flooded marsh is filled with small snails, which can get wedged in between the footwear and foot. “You’ll be gimped up by the time you get back to the boat,” Irwin says. Tightly laced boots or old tennis shoes are a better bet.
Though few anglers will willingly give up the locations of prime wading spots, both Irwin and Blythe hint that newbies can find likely stretches of flats and marshes by using Google Earth or other online satellite imagery software.
Fly fishing for reds is a year-round pursuit. In the winter and early spring, reds gang up in shallow areas to soak up the sun and escape marauding bottlenose dolphins. Clear water makes the schools easier to spot. It works out well for the angler, too, Blythe points out. There’s no need to hit the water in pre-dawn cold. Just wait until the sun gets up, warming both angler and fish and making it easier to spot the schools.
This all changes once the weather and water heat up. By summer, the early-morning bite is killer. “Go super early when it’s hot,” Irwin says. “They’re going to be crushing shrimp and mullet. When the sun gets up, it’s over.
“In the summer, a lot of fly fishermen also really like fishing for those tailing fish. It’s super effective, because flies are super light and you can work them through the grass.”
Fall fishing, Blythe say, is unbelievable. The best time for catching a red on the fly, he says, would be a good clear fall day with lots of sun, lots of clear water and falling water at the lower end of the tidal cycle.
Fly fishing gear
Irwin and Blythe say a novice fly fisherman can buy what he or she needs to get started for a few hundred bucks. Entry-level saltwater combos can be found at local tackle shops and online.
As with most fishing categories, the sky’s the limit when it comes to expensive gear.
Anglers looking to drop more coin can find plenty of rods in the $800 range, with some hand-made bamboo rods hitting $3,000 or more. “It’s a different feel, completely different,” Irwin says of bamboo. “It’s really, really slow. It feels good, but it’s crazy.”
Irwin uses a 9-foot, 8-weight Sage fly rod fitted with a Tibor Back Country Wide. Blythe also prefers a Sage rod, but with a Nautilus reel.
Blythe recommends using weight-forward, floating fly line, with 12-pound-test fluorocarbon leader or tippet (or both).
Irwin and Blythe use varieties of mostly loop knots, which make line-to-line connections easier and, at the terminal end, give a fly the freedom to move more naturally. “Most of the lines and leaders are pre-looped, which saves a lot of time,” Blythe says.
Both anglers recommend the “Canoe Man Knot,” which was popularized in Florida and has been featured in a number of Charleston fishing seminars given by Mark Nichols, founder of D.O.A Fishing Lures.
This knot is easy to tie, strong and gives the lure freedom of movement. It also leaves the tag end facing toward the fly, which helps keep the knot from hanging up in grass or snagging debris. A quick search online for “Canoe Man Knot” yields a number of how-to videos.
There’s a simple way to determine which fly to use at which time of year: Walk into a local tackle shop and ask. Anglers will find a good selection of flies at all locations of The Charleston Angler and Haddrell’s Point Tackle and Supply. There are a few specialty fly shops, as well, including the new Lowcountry Fly Shop in Mount Pleasant.
Irwin says flies typically fall into two categories: realistic or impressionist. Realistic flies fool fish into attacking what they visually identify as a food item.
Impressionistic flies tend to draw so-called “reaction strikes” from fish. “They could look like anything,” Irwin says. “They’re often poofy flies, so they make vibrations as they move the water. Fish can feel that. Redfish are smell-and-feel feeders, and they pick up on any little vibration.”
Blythe is fond of EP Everglades Special, a popular pattern developed by expert flytier Enrico Puglisi. This impressionistic fly looks a bit like a mud minnow, but it’s the performance of its fibers that most impresses expert fly fisherman.
“It soaks up water, so it sinks, but it sheds water quickly, too, so it’s light to cast,” Irwin says. “EPs are killer when the water’s low and the fish are spooky. They don’t make a lot of racket when they hit the water.”
But Irwin’s all-time favorite redfish fly pattern is the black Clouser. He’s caught countless redfish on that pattern, along with tarpon and snook in waters to the south. This simple, understated fly is great for wintertime fishing.
“When the water is really, really clear, you don’t want a lot of flashy, crazy stuff,” Irwin says, adding with a laugh: “All the colors work good, as long as they’re black.”
Presenting and working flies
Fly fishermen don’t use a reel to work a fly through the water. After casting, anglers “strip” the line, pulling a few feet at a time through the rod’s eyelets and letting excess line gather at their feet. This stripping action moves the fly through the water, just as a spinning reel would.
When a fish hits, fly fishermen use their fingers to apply drag as the fish takes out the line. When the line comes tight, they use the reel to fight the fish.
The art to fly fishing lies not just with casting, but also with how flies are presented to fish.
“When you present to a fish, you don’t want to strip a fly right to it,” Blythe says. It’s better to start with an angle that makes it seem as though the fly is trying to escape.
“All fish like something trying to get away from them,” Irwin says.
For this reason, it’s important that the person poling a boat keep wind, sun and current in mind when approaching a school of fish. The boat should be positioned so that the caster isn’t back-casting directly over the vessel, but rather just off their casting side. Ideally, the sun should be at the caster’s back and the wind off their noncasting shoulder.
If you have trouble maneuvering into a good position near a school of fish, “it’s better to back off and let them go, then try again,” Irwin says.
And what do you do when you manage to cast a fly right in the middle of a school of hungry redfish? Strip like crazy? Barely move it?
“On different days they’re going to like different things,” Irwin says. Anglers should be prepared to strip fast one day and employ slower, subtle twitches on others. You’ve got to learn to read the fish.
Both Irwin and Blythe say that in general, rookie fly fishermen make one common mistake.
“People often fish too slow,” Blythe says. “They’re afraid they’ll spook the fish.”
Irwin’s had anglers onboard who “rip” flies all day long and overwhelmingly out-fish someone else who’s working flies more gently. “They can feel that thing in the water, and they want it,” he says.
How to learn
Novice fly fishermen who want to sharpen their skills have plenty of options.
There are plenty of how-to videos online, covering everything from casting techniques to knot and fly tying.
For less experienced anglers, Irwin recommends his class at the Charleston Angler.
“It’s 101, so we do it from the ground up: tippets, leader, knots, flies, all of it,” Irwin says. “That’s the thing about classes at the shop: If you already kind of know what you’re doing, individual lessons are the better choice.”
One-on-one instruction helps anglers hone in on how to land a fly right on target.
“Fifty feet with good accuracy is what you want,” Irwin say. “If you can cast 50 feet and turn your leader over well, you can catch any fish you want.”