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Tailing Redfish: Florida’s Skinny Water Superstar

Capt. Willy Le March 26, 2013

Periodically piercing the water’s surface with their distinct tails, redfish can be seen from a distance as they root the bottom for crabs, shrimp, worms and whatever else they may find hiding in the shallows. Proliferate targets that occupy state waters in great numbers, the most popular member of the drum family can be found tailing along wide ranging habitats in water barely knee deep. Fortunately, my home waters of the Mosquito Lagoon provide some of the greatest opportunities in the state, although the same scenario regularly unfolds along shallow estuarine habitats from coast to coast.

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Photo: Captain Willy Le

When searching for tailing redfish I like to investigate shallow grass flats in the vicinity of deeper water. Once on scene, I generally scan the surroundings for signs of life before I hop up on the poling platform. Stingrays, flickering baitfish, and wading birds are all positive signs that indicate the desired species might be close by. Redfish will tail during all hours of the day, especially during overcast conditions, but since redfish and other species alike are focused on feeding early and late in the day this is when you will likely encounter cooperative tailers.

Like most sight fishing scenarios you want to approach the fish from the upwind side while keeping the sun at your back.

Once you locate a single, pair, or pod of tailing fish, be patient and observe their actions before firing off a cast. It can be tough to keep your cool when fish are tailing within casting range, but you want to make certain you present your bait in the perfect spot. These fish don’t eat with their tails, so aiming directly at them will generally do you no good.

Like most sight fishing scenarios you want to approach the fish from the upwind side while keeping the sun at your back. This isn’t always possible, so make do with the conditions that are present. No matter what, it’s critical you place your offering where it can be seen. The benefit of casting to tailing fish over cruising fish is that they are actively feeding and likely not as spooky. Take your time and enjoy the spectacle unfolding before you prior to casting. Most of the time redfish will tail while slowly moving in one direction, and if that’s the case you want to try and lead the fish so they cross paths with your tempting offering.

On other occasions you will encounter redfish that aren’t moving at all. These fish will be doing headstands right in front of you, completely oblivious to everything around them. Here, the best approach is to cast about 10 feet past the fish and quickly retrieve the lure on the surface. When your bait is right on top of the action let it sink to the bottom and give it a subtle twitch. If lady luck is on your side, you will likely witness a violent explosion as your line simultaneously comes tight.

While finding tailing fish is half the battle, you also need to present offerings that match the natural forage in your particular estuarine system. Small, weedless soft plastics are a favorite and work well throughout most inshore estuaries. When searching the Mosquito Lagoon and Banana River, I’ve had great success with 3″ soft plastic paddletail and curly tail grubs rigged on 3/0 Owner TwistLOCK hooks. These offerings don’t make a loud splash and easily shed grass when worked across the bottom.

While a host of soft plastics will do, D.O.A. Lures are some of my favorites, with their Shrimp and Softshell Crab imitations extremely effective along lush grass flats. Color selection depends on water clarity, with clean and clear water requiring a more natural pattern like tan, brown or olive. You don’t want something that’s overly flashy. If the water is murky, you’ll have greater success with colors that offer more visibility so the fish can see it better. If you prefer natural baits, you can’t go wrong with live shrimp, finger mullet, mud minnows and juvenile crabs.

Redfish are favorite targets amongst fly casters, with anglers traveling far and wide for the chance to encounter tailing fish. Many are visiting Florida from the Midwest where they are used to small stream fishing and tight corners where long casts aren’t necessary. Out here in the open saltwater shallows some have a hard time adjusting to the challenging conditions. While punching a fly through the wind isn’t terribly difficult, knowing how to double haul is a must.

Setting the hook here is much different than what is common when fishing streams and rivers, where fly anglers lift up on the rod as soon as they see a fish rise on the fly. Here, that will not work very well. Most shallow water predators chase their prey until they get it in their mouth. If you try to set the hook on the first strike, this will often result in the fly rocketing right back at you. Instead, make a long strip while pointing the rod tip directly toward the fish. This will keep the fly in the strike zone in the event you don’t get a solid connection on the initial take. If the fish misses but continues following, keep stripping until you come tight. If your fly is too far out of the zone, simply pick up and make another cast.

A 7 or 8 weight outfit is all you need for the average slot size redfish, but a 9 weight is a good choice for over slot fish and also beneficial in breezy conditions. Effective flies imitate small crustaceans or baitfish and should be outfitted with a weed guard. The weight of the fly will be determined by the depth of water and how thick the grass is, and it’s best to use the lightest weight possible so the fly doesn’t make a loud splash when it lands. I prefer bead chain eyes for a soft presentation and decent sink rate. However, sometimes the fish will be tailing in super thick grass and a bead chain weighted fly will not punch through. This is when a fly with heavier lead eyes is the way to go since it can pierce through the thick vegetation. Color selection is based on the same principle as artificial lure selection, with clear water requiring natural patterns and dirty water requiring more visible imitations.

Targeting tailing redfish requires patience and persistence. You will not encounter tailing fish on every outing, but when you finally see those golden tails waving in the air you need to stay calm and ease into position. Remember to watch for a while and figure out what direction the fish are heading in before picking a target. Tailing reds are mesmerizing and when I’m scouting areas for upcoming charters and come across a pod of happily tailing fish, I often sit and watch for as long as I can. Sometimes it’s best to simply enjoy the show.

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