Fly-fishing for Tailing Reds on the Flats

You don't have to visit the Florida Keys to stalk trophy fish. This month Scott Owens hunts Georgia's coastal reds with a fly rod.

For the avid angler, the idea of sight fishing for big fish in shallow water brings up the heart rate and raises a few goose pimples on the flesh. Watching a fish approach and inhale a well-placed bait will weaken the knees of even the most experienced of us. Saltwater fly fishermen travel the world over to try their luck at stalking and hooking trophy fish in these most demanding of fishing conditions. The pursuit of bonefish and permit in the Bahamas or Florida Keys has long been a tradition among those who have the know-how and financial ability to participate.

If you would like to try your hand at some excellent fly and spin fishing in demanding shallow-water conditions, we have some good news for you. There is a great shallow saltwater fishery right here in Georgia, and the action in October is arguably as good as you will find anywhere along the east coast. We’re talking about casting the flats for big redfish around the barrier islands along the southeastern portion of the state.

We were fortunate to be able to hook-up with Capt. Scott Owens of Brunswick and learn about this great fishery and experience it first hand. Scott has been fishing the salt marshes around the barrier islands for more than 15 years and has been a professional guide in the area for the last six years. He is on the water as many as 200 days per year and is well versed in the habits of the fish in the area as well as being an accomplished fly fisherman.

I met Scott at the Golden Isles Marina at 7 a.m. on September 18 and loaded my gear aboard his 18-foot Gordon flats boat.

“This boat is specifically designed for this type of fishing,” said Scott. “It is long and narrow with a very shallow draft. Fully loaded the boat will float in five inches of water.”

As I would find out later, without that shallow draft we wouldn’t be able to get to a lot of the fish we would see.

Scott explained that we would be fishing flats near grass and oyster beds where redfish school up and feed on the crustaceans and small baitfish as the dropping tide pulls them out of the protective cover of the grass.

“At low tide these shallow flats are alive with bait,” said Scott. “We will be able to see the big reds tailing and making wakes as they cruise over the flats in packs feasting on the bait.”

As we headed away from the marina into St. Simons Sound, Scott explained that the prime time for fishing the flats would be the last two to three hours before the low tide and the slack water before the tide started to come back in. Since low tide was going to be at about noon, we had a couple of hours to get ourselves in position and do a little spin casting for trout before the conditions were right.

We pulled up along a grassbed and began casting right up against the grass with topwater baits.

“The trout will hit poppers and chuggers fished near the grass and over the oyster beds,” said Scott.

He was throwing a surface bait on a casting outfit while I was trying to get used to casting an eight-weight fly rod with a heavy saltwater fly. Even though I have done a good bit of freshwater fly fishing, Scott warned me that the big saltwater fly tackle would take some getting used to. He was right, and I quickly learned that it wasn’t nearly as easy as it looked.

Scott said that one of the most common problems he encounters with clients is that while they are experienced with light fly-fishing gear, they have trouble casting the heavier stuff — particularly in a stiff wind.

“That is one reason that I try to get on the water an hour or two before the prime fishing time. I like to give clients a while to get in some practice before the action begins.”

I found Scott to be a patient and experienced teacher, and before long I was casting the big fly proficiently enough to catch fish when the time came.

Before you get too worried, you don’t have to make long casts, 30 to 40 feet is more than sufficient but accuracy is of prime importance.

“You must get the fly in front of the fish or he won’t see it,” said Scott. “Practice casting to a precise spot so you can place the fly effectively when you see a fish moving along the flat.”

By about 10:30 a.m. Scott had been successful at some topwater trout action, and I felt practiced enough to give the big fly rod a try, so we headed to a flat to look for some reds.

“The water level is getting right when you can see the oysters sticking up above the surface,” said Scott.

He shut down the outboard and climbed up on a poling platform at the stern hefting his 21-foot pushpole.

“The pushpole is one of the most important pieces of gear aboard,” said Scott. “We will be fishing in extremely shallow water, and it is virtually impossible to move the boat around any other way. Even if you could get a trolling motor to grab enough water to move the boat along, the noise would spook the fish in the shallows before you could get close enough to make a cast.”

As Scott poled us along he explained that we were looking for “tailing fish,” wakes, and “muds” caused by the reds plowing up mud and silt from the bottom. The water was moving out rapidly and Scott began to point out places in front of us where the fish were stirring up mud. There were plenty of fish in the area, but the water was still a bit high to be able to spot them effectively. I made a few cast to some of the “muds” with no luck.

After a few minutes of poling over the flat with no action, Scott decided to relocate us to another flat about 500 yards across the sound. As we approached slowly on the outboard we could see gulls diving into the water in a small cove just out from the grassline and oyster beds.

“There are likely fish feeding under those birds,” said Scott. “Actively working gulls are a good indicator of reds feeding on the flat.”

When we came around a point in the grass, we could see the top portion of the tails of several big reds sticking up as they moved along in the shallow water. My first cast landed a little too close to the fish, and they spooked and ran to the other side of the cove. Scott spotted another group about 60 feet away and made a long cast with the eight-weight rod to a spot just in front of the feeding fish. With a couple of shorts strips of line the red hit the fly, and the fight was on. Scott put pressure on the fish, and it headed for deeper water and was soon into the backing. After a fight which included several long runs, Scott led a nice redfish of about six pounds to the side of the boat.

“This is an average fish for this time of year,” said Scott. “As we move into October the fish will be in bigger schools and will range from about five to 15 pounds on these inshore flats.”

Scott says that as the water cools in the fall, the fish become more plentiful on the flats and are far more aggressive in the cooler water. A 10-lb. fish can pull 100 yards of backing off the reel in a hurry, according to Scott.

This style of fishing is more like stalking or hunting than fishing. The objective is to move along quietly while looking for the feeding fish. We saw several large pods during the low tide, and the feeling you get when you first see them is about as close to buck fever as anything you will feel in the fishing world.

It is important to be extremely quiet while moving over the flats. Fish can spook easily from a misplaced cast, a stomp of the foot on the deck of the boat, or even loud talking. It is best to be still, quiet, and selective with your casts.

As far as tackle is concerned, Scott recommends a stiff-action, eightweight rod.

“You’ll need a rod with plenty of backbone to get the fish moving away from the oyster beds, or the fight will be a very short one,” says Scott.

The oysters are like razors and cut through a leader easily if a fish pulls the line across them.

Scott uses a weight-forward floating line terminated with a tapered 20-lb. saltwater leader, or he often makes his own leaders in four short sections, (25 pound, 20 pound, 15 pound, 10 pound) or (20 pound, 15 pound, 12 pound, 10 pound), knotted together in lengths of about two feet each.

Favorite flies include crustacean and baitfish imitations like Clouser Minnows, shrimp imitations, spoons, and Wobblers dressed with flashy materials.

“When the fish are feeding heavily, almost anything will work,” said Scott. “But you can always count on a Clouser Minnow to produce. Sizes range from No. 2 to 3/0 and colors will vary in effectiveness with the water color. Bright colors work best if the water is dingy, and with clear water natural color combinations are more productive.”

If you prefer to spin fish or use a casting outfit, Scott says that they work well also. He spools his reels with 20-lb. braided line (Power Pro) and ties on a 20-lb. test fluorocarbon leader. Topwater poppers work well early and late in the day and in cloudy conditions. And lead-head jigs with soft-plastic trailers or spinnerbaits can draw some explosive strikes along the grasslines.

Also in October the really big reds of 30 to 40 pounds come into the ocean-side flats. Conditions have to be just right to be able to go after these fish. A light south to southwest wind will allow access to the flats and give you a chance to catch one of these monsters. Scott tells us that the flats near Wolf Island and St. Andrews Island can be especially good.

A word of caution, fishing in the flats (both inshore and ocean side) can be dangerous for the uninitiated. The tidal flow in the area can be extreme with as much as 10 feet or more of difference between high and low-water levels. This means strong currents as well as the opportunity to become stranded on a shallow flat as the water leaves the area rapidly. Once stranded in the mud you’ll be there for a while until the water comes back up. It is best to go with someone who knows what they are doing the first time or two in order to learn the area and safe boating practices.

There are lots of redfish, trout and other species in the waters along the Georgia coast, but it is still important to use the resource wisely. Scott practices catch-and-release and recommends that you take only a couple of fish home with you to eat. If we are careful with this fishery, it will continue to improve and provide excellent sport-fishing opportunities for Georgia anglers for years to come.

While this type of fishing is both exciting and rewarding, it is technically tough and requires some practice to become proficient. A shallow draft boat is a must as is a good pushpole. But if you get in the right spot, and make that precise cast, you will be rewarded with a bone-jarring strike, line-stripping run and a beautiful bronzed-back fish to hold up for a picture.

Scott Owens is well-equipped to get you started whether you are an experienced saltwater fly fisherman or a novice who would like to give this sensational fishery a try. Visit his website at <www.flyfishgeorgia.com> or give him a call at (912) 270-7300. He will be glad to set you up with a trip and show you how it is done. Scott regularly takes clients out on trips along the coast from Hilton Head down to Jacksonville, and even farther south, but he favors the area around Brunswick and St. Simons.

If you need overnight lodging, there is plenty in the area. We stayed at the Sea Palms Resort on St. Simons Island and found the accommodations to be excellent. If you want to bring the family along there is plenty for them to do while you go out and chase a few “tailing reds” in the flats. For more information visit their website at <www.seapalms.com> or give them a call at (800) 841-6268.

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