Paradise Exposed

The sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon and the air was already a sultry 88°. Despite an early morning awakening, a 38-mile drive from the entrance of Everglades National Park to the launch ramp at Flamingo and several encounters with prehistoric-sized horse flies, I still had a smile on my face. It was shaping up to be another great day sight-fishing Florida Bay, and I couldn’t dream of being anywhere else.


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Photo: Steve Dougherty

When it comes to shallow water game fish, Florida Bay has a lot to offer. As a subtropical marine lagoon that encompasses both Everglades National Park and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, this vital ecosystem harbors a treasure trove of ecological diversity. With relatively close proximity to the Miami metropolitan area, Florida Bay offers a vast expanse of angling opportunities. While easily accessible from the Keys, Flamingo is the starting point for many anglers offering direct access to miles of shallow grass and mud flats, channels, creeks, and mangrove islands.

…navigating the shallows requires a great deal of knowledge and care. If you are unfamiliar you must proceed with extreme caution…

From the time you make your way out of the basin and into the heart of Florida Bay the amount of wildlife you will see is incredible. Rare and exotic wading birds, porpoises, sharks, alligators and crocodiles, manatees, and sea turtles are only some of the species you can expect to encounter. You’ll also come across shoals of mullet leaping to evade predatorial pursuits. If you’re lucky you may stumble upon schools of tailing redfish as they dig their noses in the shallow grass flats. Not only is Florida Bay one of the state’s greatest inshore arenas with vital habitat for a variety of world-renowned shallow water game fish, it’s also a critical safe haven for a large population of juvenile species that eventually make their way out to the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.

This wide expanse of open water may seem a bit overwhelming at times, and rightfully so. Averaging 3-feet or less in many areas, navigating the shallows requires a great deal of knowledge and care. Technical poling skiffs that draw 12-inches or less are absolutely necessary to fully take advantage of the available opportunities. If you are unfamiliar you must proceed with extreme caution, as inexperienced and careless boaters can easily and unknowingly damage critical habitat for a myriad of marine animals including several federally threatened and endangered species.

While there are numerous ways to get connected, sight fishing is my absolute favorite approach and there are a few things you can do to increase your odds when dealing with such a broad expanse where nearly every stretch of water looks promising. When picking your target destination you must consider the prevailing tides/velocity in addition to the current wind speed/direction. When you first approach a flat start looking for signs of life. Baitfish dimpling on the surface is a good indication, and one that’s easy to distinguish. Wading birds are also good indicators. The birds are looking for small finfish, crabs and shrimp which is a dead giveaway there’s food for fish to feed on.

While wakes, tailing fish and exposed backs are what sight fishing dreams are made of, anglers must also look for less noticeable indicators including changes in bottom color, shadows and flashes. Reading the water is key to successful sight fishing and quality polarized sunglasses are essential. Sharks, rays, mullet, and even wind can stir up the shallows, effectively kicking up all kinds of shrimp, crabs and nutrients. Although you may not see individual fish to cast to due to the murky state, put in the time fan casting the area without neglecting to work the edges of the mud.

If you pole across a flat and find tailing reds, you must provide an accurate and soft presentation to keep them from blowing off the flat. You might only see a slight shadow or finlet, but you must be able to discern the subtle clues that indicate redfish are lurking below. Stealth is paramount because shallow water conducts vibrations and noise very easily. Slamming a deck hatch, heavy footsteps, and even dropping a split shot may send nearby game fish hightailing in the opposite direction. Keep in mind that the calmer it is the more sensitive the fish will be. A little breeze is actually in your favor. It not only helps keep pesky biting insects at bay, but it puts a slight ripple on the surface and helps disguise your offering.

Light tackle outfits also play in your favor. I like to match my light to medium-action spinning rods with 10 or 15lb. braided line, which offers plenty of line capacity and excellent sensitivity, with enough backbone to subdue just about every game fish that calls Florida Bay home. For fly-fishing I have two preferred setups. My Loop 8/9 weight is excellent when it’s slick calm and a delicate presentation is essential, and when the wind kicks up my Loop 10/12 helps toss larger flies to bigger fish. With the key being a natural presentation, a fly is hard to beat under ideal conditions.

Stalking game fish in only inches of water is super exciting, but even for experienced anglers there can be a bit of nervousness. A delicate presentation is so critical that many often buckle under the pressure. If you come across a school of tailing redfish, you must have patience and wait for the opportune moment to present your offering. A low cast that lands softly is key for most sight fishing situations and putting your enticement in front of the fish is just another part of the fooling factor. Most baitfish will not swim into the gaping jaws of a mature redfish, so in order for your presentation to appear as natural as possible you must work the offering away from your target.

While live baits do indeed have their time and place I truly enjoy the satisfaction of fooling brilliant fish on artificial offerings. I often utilize natural patterns but I also like to use colors that stand out from the crowd and make it easier for the fish to see. Like any other inshore arena, the time of year plays a huge role in your success. Summer and fall are without a doubt my favorite times to sight fish Florida Bay, with big reds a common occurrence. This time of the year getting out early is key, with calm mornings offering light winds and clear skies—excellent conditions for shallow water sight casting. There’s nothing like silently stalking game fish and watching the action unfold right in front of your eyes.

Sight fishing is an exhilarating challenge and Florida Bay offers what no other place can when it comes to possible target species for the flats enthusiast including redfish, tailing bonefish, permit, snook, trout and tarpon. Here, multiple grand slams are always a possibility. Florida Bay is very large and there is plenty to learn and take in. Hiring a professional guide is a great way to learn the basics in navigating your way, as even the most experienced guides learn something new every time they’re on the water. It takes time to learn the bay, which is something you will clearly learn on your very first outing. While it seems like a shallow water angler’s playground with a seemingly endless amount of channels, flats, banks and mangrove islands that are teeming with life, it’s also extremely important to learn the area well, handle the fish with care, and protect the fragile and unique ecosystem that shallow water anglers call, “Paradise.”