The shimmer of my gold spoon flashed in the shallow water like a prized golden nugget. It wiggled and wobbled just beneath the surface as I eased it by the nose of a tailing red. I watched as the hungry fish quivered and jolted. In an instant the fish turned, inhaled my bait, and proceeded to race down the grassy shoreline. I was tight again.
The highly revered gold spoon is one of my favorite offerings to toss when fishing murky waters, and it should come as no surprise that to a hungry redfish it’s pretty much irresistible. However, make no mistake.While a trusty gold spoon will point you in the right direction it certainly isn’t the only effective offering when scouting Florida’s backwater bayous.
While tackle is among one of the most important aspects when it comes to sight fishing the flats of Northwest Florida, to master any area you must learn the patterns of the fish.
While anglers along the Panhandle have a plethora of worthy venues and species to target on any given day, there are some areas that receive significantly less pressure than others. For Emerald Coast anglers a majority of the most consistent inshore action takes place along the southern stretches of the ICW and in Pensacola Bay. Very few anglers venture north into the upper estuaries, but don’t fall into this crowd as the fertile brackish backwaters are highly capable of producing exceptional action with healthy redfish.
While chasing bull reds along the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico is indeed hair-raising, situated along the northern stretches of Pensacola Bay are the estuarine systems of Escambia Bay and Blackwater Bay. Fed by the Escambia River and Blackwater River, these unique venues offer what local Panhandlers refer to as backwater fishing. Most of the banks are lined with tall grass and you’ll usually find the water is a little muddy, offering the ideal opportunity to toss a flashy spoon, succulent spinnerbait or scented soft plastic.
Whether you’re targeting the northern ends of these brackish basins or the southern stretches where the water has a higher salinity, both areas can produce incredible action. Blackwater Bay’s south end has some great fishing near Garcon Point Bridge, with both deep potholes and shallow flats worthy of exploration. Just like the marshy areas of Escambia Bay near Jim’s Fish Camp, to master this fishery you must venture out and put your time in. There are many well-known spots like X’s in Escambia Bay, but if you want honey holes all to yourself then you must do some exploration and find them on your own.
I distinctly remember my most recent visit into the solidarity of Blackwater Bay. It was a chamber of commerce spring day and I was targeting the eastern shoreline with tailing reds in my crosshairs. I shut down my Yamaha in about two feet of water, dropped the Power-Pole, and surveyed the scene for signs of life. I noticed a small push not far off the shallow bank and grabbed a rod rigged with a ½ oz. jighead and Bass Assassin Blurp. The great thing about these baits is that the impregnated scent helps attract fish in murky water. I made a cast and slowly bounced the jighead along the muddy bottom. I didn’t have to wait long before it was inhaled by a chunky slot red capable of making any tournament angler drool.
While tackle is among one of the most important aspects when it comes to sight fishing the flats of northwest Florida, to master any area you must learn the patterns of the fish. Depending on the tides, season and prevalent weather patterns, your approach will vary greatly. Let’s first look at the tides.
When targeting skinny water during an incoming tide, fish generally move out of the channels and onto the flats as they root for crabs, worms and baitfish. When the tide starts to fall, fish will slowly move back toward the channels and stage along deeper flats edges. Learning how tidal flow influences your favorite fishing holes will put you ahead of the game.
Proper boat positioning in conjunction with tidal movement is also key to a successful day on the water. When fishing a falling tide you’ll want to position your boat in a little deeper water, casting your offering of choice near the edge of the bank or flat. When fishing an incoming tide, position your boat in the middle of the flat and fan cast both shallow and deeper waters to see where the fish are holding. As the tide continues to flood, redfish will face into the current. Here, you’ll want to toss a soft plastic and let it naturally flutter with the incoming tide or slowly bounce along the bottom. Other areas not to overlook are points, which offer perfect ambush areas for game fish to conserve energy and wait for an easy meal to come their way.
When approaching a flat with signs of life it is very important you’re as quiet as possible. A few things come to mind that will help anglers silently stalk their quarry when sneaking into these skinny arenas. Stealthy flats fishing requires a shallow water anchoring system as well as a trolling motor or push pole. A four-stroke outboard motor and low profile boat will help you creep onto the flats without any hull slap. While it wont help you become a stealthier angler, a casting platform will give you a higher vantage point and help you spot the fish that are camouflaged so well in their natural surroundings. The next must-have piece of equipment is a pair of polarized sunglasses with amber lenses. Don’t skimp here, as quality counts.
Reading the water is key to becoming a flats master, so long before you make your first cast it’s important you get a good read of the environment. Under cloudy water conditions I often choose lures with distinct colors like chartreuse or black/purple. With clearer water you’ll want to throw lures with more natural patterns such as silver or blue to get that realistic flash. It will also be in your best interest to adapt to the prevailing conditions. Is it calm or is there a slight chop on the surface? Understanding your surroundings and how your actions equate to strikes will make you a more successful angler. After each catch spend a moment thinking about what you just did to entice a strike. By replicating your actions in conjunction with the conditions you experienced you’ll become a more educated angler.
Although I’ve hooked hundreds of redfish over my career as a tournament angler and professional guide, I still get an adrenaline rush from sight fishing. Redfish can sneak up on you at any given moment, although if you have a game plan in place you can turn the tables on them. But make no mistake, this is their territory and if you give them any hint that you are around you’ll come home with a big fat zero instead of being a hero. I’ve gone hours scanning the water looking for pushes, tails or any signs of life giving away their position. Point is, patience is key and persistence will pay off. Hopefully you will venture north to Escambia Bay or Blackwater Bay for a Panhandle experience like no other. With only a bit of practice you’ll be sight fishing with the best.
When fishing shallow water conditions can change in a hurry, so always come well prepared with a variety of offerings to capitalize on any opportunity. Gold spoons, plugs, soft plastics and jigheads in various color patterns and weights will keep you connected.
The Smell of Success
If you aren’t a believer, get with it. Scented soft plastics are continuing to increase in popularity amongst the inshore angling community and for good reason—they work! Natural shrimp, menhaden and other saltwater scents are impregnated in baits during the manufacturing process and can also be added to hardbaits afterwards with gels and oils. The strike-triggering odor adds another dimension to an already effective presentation and really shines in murky conditions.