With the steamy months of summer behind us, anglers in northeast Florida are gearing up for some of the best inshore opportunities of the entire year. From Amelia Island to Matanzas Inlet, backwater estuaries come alive as extreme high tides flood marshy spartina flats. With acres of fiddler crabs not normally accessible, redfish and sheepshead are eager to investigate the fresh real estate. Highly regarded among a select few and a mysterious phenomenon to others, First Coast flood tides offer the ultimate in shallow water sight fishing.
Flooded flats present ideal conditions for stalking fish on foot.
Unlike other areas where tailing game fish are common occurrences, along the northeast coast of Florida inshore anglers are faced with challenging conditions. Fortunately, seasoned salts know exactly when and where to look. And if you put in your time you, too, will be able to capitalize on the incredible opportunities.
A west wind will force water off the flats, and winds out of the north or east will be much more conducive to flooding normally dry flats.
While we know flood tides occur during full and new moon periods, it’s the combination of lunar phase and fiddler crab availability that makes this event so sensational. Most anglers focus their efforts around tides that are predicted to flood normally dry spartina flats, but without the presence of crunchy crustaceans even the most perfect conditions won’t yield the treasure you seek. Because of these prerequisites, this unique fishery only extends through the fall season. Once Thanksgiving comes around and water temperatures start to drop, fiddler crabs burrow for the winter. By December it’s all over. To ensure you cash in when you can, it’s extremely important you have a firm grasp on the tides and factors that influence tidal fluctuations.
In North Florida tides typically range from 5 to 7 feet, and it’s essential you realize the difference between predicted tides and observed tides. One man who certainly does was born and raised along the St. Johns River. Captain Russell Tharin (flyfishingameliaisland.com) has years experience fishing First Coast flood tides and tells us there are many influential factors that determine your success on the water.
“I use Nobletec Tides & Currents that offers 100 years of tide datum, but it’s important to note that locations and fluctuations will vary greatly depending on the prevalent weather conditions. A west wind will force water off the flats, and winds out of the north or east will be much more conducive to flooding normally dry flats. In addition, I know that if the winds blow 20 mph or greater for more than 12 hours, it is going to add about a foot to the predicted tide. Most of the flats in Amelia flood over 6.5 feet and spartina flats in the St. Augustine area flood at around 5.5 feet. If there’s a predicted tide of 6.5 feet I know it will barely flood the flats of Amelia, but if a NE wind has been blowing for three days or we’ve had a ton of rain then the tide will be closer to 7.5 feet. This results in too much water on the flats and you won’t even be able to see fish,” noted Tharin. Be sure to view online data of the observed tide from a local NOAA gaging station and add or subtract the observed tide from the predicted tide.
While understanding the tide is crucial to your success, it will also keep you from being stranded. During flood tide conditions the water drops at about 2.5 inches every 15 minutes, so if you’re poling a shallow flat you better know where the nearest feeder creek is so you can find deeper water quick. Because of the strong tides and shallow waters, many anglers choose to wade fish. Although wade fishing can be very effective, it’s not a good idea to commit to one spot. Because you are fishing in a small window of opportunity, if you strikeout it’s all over. Poling a shallow drafting skiff is the best approach.
With fiddler crabs the appetizer, entrée and dessert, conventional wisdom tells you that a crab pattern would be the ultimate offering. However, this is not the case. “Crab flies will do nothing but get hung up in the grass. These fish aren’t that concerned about detail. Your goal is to trigger a reactionary strike. The Dupre Spoon Fly is the best fly for fishing flood tides. Black is great during mid-day sunny condtions, with gold working better in the evenings,” continued Tharin.
While you can certainly score on conventional tackle, with fly-fishing you don’t have to retrieve all of your line to make a cast. All you need to do is make a quick roll cast and your fly will be back in the strike zone. If you prefer to fish conventional gear a weedless jerkbait will do. Casting angles are very important so be sure you offer a natural presentation that will trigger a strike.
While redfish are the main targets, sheepshead provide added excitement. Held on a high pedestal with permit and other finicky game fish, you aren’t going to catch sheepshead by stripping your fly across their nose like you would a redfish.
“With sheepshead you just about have to hit them on the head and let the fly fall. It’s important you minimize the slack in your line because you will never feel them pick it up and spit it out. Short strips bring in slack so when a sheepshead does strike you are ready to set the hook,” Tharin added.
When it’s time for release it’s important you take the time to find deeper water. You don’t want to release fish in flooded grass since waters recede fast. Combine an exhausted fish and dropping tide and you have a recipe for disaster.
For a truly unique inshore experience you need to fish flooded spartina grass at least once in your lifetime. Study the tide charts and relate external factors such as wind and waves with predicted and observed tides. With practice you’ll be scouring flooded flats with the best of them. Until then Captain Russell Tharin will put you on the bite.