Fly-fishermen penetrating further up secluded creeks than ever before are finding success on a consistent basis. With a little ingenuity and sense of adventure, you, too, can get in on this exciting ultra-skinny water fishery.
From an angler’s perspective, the old adage of, “Up a creek without a paddle” is not necessarily a bad thing. Reason being, Southwest Florida’s coastal terrain features countless rivers and creeks that lead deep into the remote Everglades backcountry. These arteries and capillaries contain sharp edges, pools, and deep holes where fish like to live, stage for feeding, or ride out bad weather. Watch out though; some of these remote creeks are so shallow and so obstructed with overgrown trees, they’re only accessible by canoe or kayak. However, many can be accessed by small, conventional flats skiffs. It is deep in the heart of these nearly inaccessible places where fly-fishermen are finding themselves connected to an array of shallow water species. Fortunately, for all of us, with the trusted guidance of GPS and accurate tide tables, exploring these intimidating backcountry creeks has become much more realistic and safer then ever before.
Every angler who has spent a lot of time in the backcountry has experienced days when even the most reliable ‘honey holes’ seem to be void of life. Many times, there appears to be no clear explanation as to why. The areas are just empty. It’s during these occasions when embarking on a little exploratory trip may pay off big time!
How many times have you studied a chart and thought to yourself, “I wonder where this meandering creek or tiny river actually ends up?” Often, the chart doesn’t clearly reveal the thin waterway in sharp enough detail, so out of intimidation, you completely bypass it. Well, wintertime provides the ideal opportunity to explore these remote backwoods creeks, which often lead to pools and small bays that are loaded with fish- a perfect salvation when a worthwhile bite in other, more accessible areas is nowhere to be found.
Fly fishing specialists who have been exploring Southwest Florida for most of their careers know that even the smallest creeks and rivers hold fish year-round. Snook, redfish, trout, ladyfish, and jacks all patrol the shorelines of even the tiniest creeks and rivers during every season. Grouper and tarpon are also notorious for hanging out in deep holes along bends in rivers and creeks. There is really no limit to the number of species that prowl these ultra-skinny tributaries. In fact, remote backcountry creeks actually provide perfect nursery grounds for juvenile game fish. For example, we all know that grouper and mangrove snapper will remain in the backcountry until they’ve grown large enough to safely move offshore.
On occasion, winter wind and foul weather kicks up a notch and forces us into protected areas to finish off the day, which is precisely how I found out that many fish hold up in remote creeks during even the chilliest of cold fronts. I also learned that a couple of days after a front would pass, fish would pop out and cruise the small adjoining flats and edges of the creeks in search of warmth and forage. I found that deep holes in creeks and rivers provide a life-saving environment a couple of degrees warmer than the open bodies of unprotected water. After stumbling across so many fish in these out-of-the-way saltwater streams, I decided to start fly-fishing these remote destinations year-round. It is hardly a new concept. Old timers have been doing this for years.
Many of us have spent time in remote creeks armed with nothing more than conventional gear, and while jigs, lures, and live bait all have their shining moments, remote creeks are areas where fly rods really shine. The appropriate fly gear can range from the standard to custom tools of necessity.
If I know that I am going to wind up fly-fishing in a creek, I will bring along several rods for the task. For starters, I’ll never leave home without my favorite nine-foot rod loaded with floating line. Many creeks are, in fact, plenty wide enough to execute standard casts. This especially holds true if you are letting your back cast unfurl slightly to one side behind the stern of the boat.
Many of the most productive creeks are extremely tight. Eight and a half foot rods are an option and will provide you with a bit more elbow room. This length of fly rod is designed for a powerful forty to sixty foot cast and is really a good choice anywhere in the Everglades. But even eight and a half feet can be too long, which is exactly why I own two seven foot fly rods that I made years ago. Because you are forced to make shorter casts than normal in tight creeks, you have to learn how to finesse short fly rods rather than rely on physics and geometry which are the basic foundation of a standard cast. The seven-foot rod was strange at first, but I quickly became accustomed to it and quickly learned that I had to use larger line to get the rod to load for a short cast.
One of my seven-foot fly rods is always loaded with 300-grain sink-tip line. During the winter, fish will often drop into deeper holes. I prefer to anchor the boat next to these spots. Through experimentation, I found that I could roll cast a sink tip line up current and allow the fly to sink to the level of the fish. This is where the Clouser minnow really shines. My anglers have hooked just about every fish that swims in the shallows using this method. On one memorable occasion in the middle of January, we had a hundred pound tarpon come blasting out of a deep hole. The fight was short lived. Sure, while a purist might argue that a seven-foot fly rod loaded with 300-grain line is not fly-fishing, I say, it surely is fishing, and there are no rules other than the ones imposed by the state and federal government. Don’t be intimidated by self-appointed local gurus. Remember to experiment and most importantly, have fun.
Most creeks and rivers will have a shallow side and a deep side around each bend. Both can be very productive. There are shallow creeks which feature skinny water banks and flats as well. You can often sight-cast to snook and juvenile tarpon roaming these edges. For this particular application, I would recommend throwing streamers. If I am primarily seeing redfish in the chilly water, I switch to a small brown crab pattern tied no larger than my thumbnail.
As a rule, it’s always a good idea to keep your options open. In the winter, backcountry fish are often keyed-in on tiny glass-minnows. This is when a Schminnow or DT Special is extremely effective. By paying close attention to what food source is readily available, you’ll be able to do a good job at matching the prevalent forage in the area.
When it comes to leader length, I would recommend a standard nine-foot leader, though a number of professionals use shorter leaders when focusing on the deeper holes. In the creeks, I almost always use sinking flies, keeping in mind that I can add weight to just about any fly pattern in advance by tying on weighted eyes. I also have the option at the vise of incorporating lead fuse wire into the fly for that bit of extra weight.
It is not uncommon to discover that a small creek opens to reveal a small bay or wide pool. Most of these hidden jewels contain deeper sloughs, shallow flats, and small oyster bars. These sorts of places hold fish! You can strategically anchor in such a place and catch fish throughout the entire phase of an incoming tide. Streamers and gurglers will almost always produce strikes with any baby tarpon and juvenile redfish which may be prowling around.
If you are using a flats skiff to access remote pockets that are reached only via a creek or small river, make sure that you carefully study the tides. An outgoing tide can leave you stranded in a hurry. This is especially true if you are fishing a spring tide (tides associated with a new or full moon). It may be a very long, lonely wait deep in the backcountry until the skiff has enough water under it to float again.
Now that you’re convinced that small creeks and rivers offer an added dimension to your overall fly-fishing game, if you don’t already own a canoe or kayak, it might be worth looking into purchasing one. There are acres of fertile fishing grounds that are only accessible by such shallow draft vessels. Different approaches include paddling directly to the area you intend on fishing. You can also strap the kayak on your skiff and run to your starting point, and then anchor the boat and launch the yak from there. I have done this on many occasions with a top loader kayak. It was always well worth the effort. If you choose this approach, make sure that you pick a model of canoe or kayak that you can effectively transport with your powerboat.
Another option is to start your trip at the head of your destination. For example, here on the west coast of Florida, many of the creeks and little rivers just off SR 41 eventually lead to the Ten Thousand Islands. You can start your day by trucking your canoe or kayak to your launch point. Finally, there are manufacturers that make canoes and kayaks that will accommodate small outboard motors. This type of setup eliminates the need for any extraneous effort.
The skinny on the skinniest creeks:
Heading deep under cover means that you will generally be fishing water that is relatively virgin. While someone has gone before you, for obvious reasons, there is significantly less fishing pressure. You will find ultra-shallow areas where fish literally swim with their backs exposed. I am sure that some of these fish held up in the pools and flats that tiny creeks lead to, and never leave the area- as long as there is a constant food source that is. These fish are no less spooky than tailing bonefish. A slow, stealthy approach is a must.
When all else fails, try an extra long leader of up to twelve feet for presenting a fly in water this shallow. Remember that your fly should be small and capable of a gentle landing. Keep in mind that weighted flies are necessary when fishing deep troughs and sloughs. When embarking on exploratory trips up remote creeks, it is not a bad idea to plan on returning to your starting point with the tide. After fishing all day, you will appreciate the assistance from nature’s forces when it is time to paddle out.
Exploring creeks in an attempt to discover remote places is a unique style and fishery unto itself. This type of fishing requires the angler be a bit more self-reliant than most. Very little has been written about these remote meandering waterways, and there are no detailed charts of these little jewels. That is what makes creek fishing so much fun. You have to explore this kind of real estate for yourself. Your discovery of a remote pool is a special kind of reward for those willing to invest the effort. There are many creeks with lots of fish just waiting for you to find them, that is, if I don’t find them first.