It was January 22, not a time of year you usually associate with redfishing on the flats. One of my oldest clients, and long time friend, Lee Dugger had come over from Kissimmee for a weekend of fishing. He wanted to take his six year old son, Matthew, and three year old daughter, Amanda, out for a day of fun on the water that Saturday. Sunday was to be reserved for Lee, redfishing on the flats.
We were blessed with reasonably good weather that weekend. We took the kids fishing, according to plans. Amanda, too young to have much hang time, was ready to go home after a few hours. Matthew, though, was having fun. I was hooking the fish, then letting him reel them in. Two four-pound sheephead, and six or seven training-size snook were quite a day for him. He did so well that Lee took him out that night and bought him a real rod and reel.
That changed Lee's plans for his own fishing, Sunday. He wanted to give Matthew a couple of hours on the water with his new Quantum Snapshot. So my assignment was to take Matthew fishing from 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM, then take Lee to the flats for some redfishing. Problem was, Lee wanted to be off the water by 2:00 PM, which only gave me two hours to put him on fish. I figured we had a good shot at some good skinny water redfishing because the winds had laid down, and the sun had been out for a couple of days.
We got to one of my favorite parts of north Sarasota Bay at about 12:15, and I ran the BarHopp'R along the edge of the flat in eight inches of water looking to flush some redfish. They flushed early, on the south end of the flat, lots of them. I circled around and anchored my flats skiff in two feet of water. The water is Silver Springs clear, like good gin. It's been so clear for the last four months, the only way to catch a redfish is to get out of the boat and wade. You're invisible when you're in the water. So, wade we did!
It took us about twenty minutes to get our waders and gear on. As we slipped quietly into the water and started casting our spoons, I spotted a school of reds. They were "happy-fish", tailing, chasing bait, and generally playing on top, about a hundred yards in front of us. I was eager to get within the long distance casting range of my Shimano Bantam Chronarch, but Lee and I were both hooked up on the second cast. I was able to subdue my first red relatively quickly with my 12 pound Silver Thread, but Lee, fishing 6 pound on a Shimano Symetre, was a bit more preoccupied.
I moved as quickly and quietly as I could toward the schooling reds, hoping with each step they didn't scatter before I could get close enough to cast into them. I kept hollering back to Lee to come quickly, but quietly. Finally, I launched my Johnson Silver Minnow with all the authority and hang-time of an NFL kickoff. There were no fair catch signals from the schooling reds. A large redfish hit the spoon at full stride as it hit the water, seemingly intent on running the spoon to the other end of the flat for a touchdown. I stuck him hard, three times. I fish barbless. I knew I was taking a chance of losing the fish, but I retrieved the second of three rods I carry when wading, and planted the bent rod in the rod holder on my left hip. I backed the drag way down so the fish wouldn't tire too much while I cast my second rig, a Bantam Citica, to the school. You see, I've honed this wade-fishing game to a fine science. I converted a back brace belt into a wading belt. It allows me to carry three rods, two on my hips, one in my hand, plus extra baits, leader line, stringers, tools, etc. I've been told I look like a walking antennae field. But, you only have to walk a mile back to the boat once or twice before you figure out how to take what you need with you.
The second spoon was caught at full gallop by a special teams redfish heading for a goal line in the opposite direction. And, there I was with two big reds pulling in opposite directions, trying to figure out how I could get the third rod out and make a cast. I settled for fighting the second fish, all the while taunting Lee to come and get the other rod from my hip. He finally got his first fish stringered and took my other rod. A thirty-five minute battle ensued, during which his fish made no less than eight long runs. As I fought my fish closer to me, we were treated to the most beautiful spectacle I've ever witnessed on the flats. The whole school, which turned out to be several hundred redfish ranging up close to probably near forty inches, came with my fish. Now, I've parked on the flats many times and had the bottom raise up under the boat and turn bronze with redfish. There's no denying, that's a beautiful sight. But, Lee and I wound up standing knee deep in hundreds of redfish! They were all over the place.....all around us. It was like we didn't exist. They even swam between our legs. And these were big fish. It was the most incredible experience of my guiding career, and for Lee, as well. Plus, the red he was battling turned out to be the largest fish he had ever caught inshore -- 33 inches, 12 3/4 pounds.
That school, rose and dispersed three times, each time just a short distance away. In an hour and a half we caught eight or nine beautiful reds, and stringered and revived them for pictures. I am very concerned with releasing my redfish in healthy condition. I've found that the best way to insure that is to stinger each fish after the initial resuscitation, and pull it around with you. That way you can monitor the condition of the fish. It's amazing how many fish wind up belly-up behind you after you think you've got them adequately revived. But, when they're on the stringer it's a simple matter to resume resuscitation efforts. I instruct my clients to stringer and monitor each fish. When the stringers are full, or we are done with fishing for the day, everyone returns to the boat with his fish. Usually by that time the fish have become pet-like. They follow as you move about on the flats, and snuggle up at your feet while you are stopped to fish. At the boat we take group pictures, measure and weigh the fish, and release everyone healthy and fit for another battle, another day. It's a system that works well. I know that when we release the fish, they are fully recovered, and maybe even a slight bit domesticated.
That was a day that Lee and I will always remember. I think it's also a barometer of redfishing to come this year. It's unusual to find big redfish schooled up on the flats in January, but I later learned that another of my regular clients had an almost identical experience at Mosquito Lagoon on the east coast the very same day. Coincidence, or a sign of times to come?
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