Capt. Rick De Paiva and I already had spotted a few nice reds that morning, but the persistent 25-knot gusts had made casting a challenge, to say the least. So we picked up and pointed the skiff toward nearby Pine Island Sound, where we hoped to find protection.
Sure enough, we found it in short order. Rick poled me back into a skinny creek that was simply bustling with activity, full of mullet and catfish. The creek was surrounded by a canopy of wind-breaking mangroves, and as we came around a corner, a dark shape suddenly materialized over the orange bottom. No catfish there!
I quickly placed one of Rick's Merkwan flies just in front of the big red drum, and two strips later, the offering was devoured in a puff of sand.
Coming tight to that fish felt wonderful on that blustery morning, and the thick red put up a dogged fight in the close quarters, twice nearly getting me into the mangrove shoots. But finally it came alongside, and as I released it back into the tannin-stained water, I simply had to smile.
There are never any guarantees in this sport, but no matter the weather or time of year, there's usually something good to be found around Fort Myers and Cape Coral. It rarely fails.
Glowing Wintertime Reds
Located south of Tampa and north of Chokoloskee on Florida's Gulf Coast, the Fort Myers region is perhaps most famous for its shelling and bird-watching on nearby Sanibel and Captiva islands. But this area offers fly-anglers terrific year-round opportunities as well.
Fed directly by the Caloosahatchee River and bordered to the north by Charlotte Harbor and the Peace and Myakka rivers, the waterways around Fort Myers are intricate and diverse. San Carlos Bay and Matlacha Pass comprise the inner fishing zones, abutting the Florida mainland, while Pine Island Sound lies just to their west, residing between a group ofbarrier islands, including Captiva and Sanibel. Outside these barrier islands spans the open Gulf of Mexico.
Rich grass flats, deep channels and dense mangrove estuary systems abound inshore here, while the Gulf beaches lie directly in the path of Florida's springtime tarpon migrations. It all adds up to a wonderful mix of ingredients for some of the Sunshine State's favorite fly-rodding species - and while redfish are the primary target, they're certainly not alone. Tarpon, snook, tripletail, sea trout, cobia and various other species are commonly caught here as well. Best of all, because these species' primary seasons are dispersed throughout the year, an angler is usually never lacking for action.
It's no surprise that my recent trip in October revolved primarily around redfish. They flourish in these waters all year long but are particularly active from late October until March. During these colder months, negative tides - or lower-than-average water levels - occur regularly during the daytime hours, exposing large areas of flats that normally might not be fishable. These abnormal tides congregate the reds and also make it much easier to spot them in the shallows.
"As long as the wind is not blowing, those superlow tides are a great time to be sight-casting," says Capt. Paul Hobby, a Fort Myers native and 17-year guide in this area. "It pulls the reds out of the trees, so they can't hide and they're forced to feed in the open. You can spend the whole day in a foot or two feet of water, and if you get sunlight, it can be sight-casting all day long."
Twenty to 30 shots per day at tailing reds are fairly typical under benign conditions this time of year, Hobby says, and they'll readily eat an accurately placed crab fly on an 8- or 9-weight outfit.
There's no mistaking these fish - they vividly appear as bright orange blotches, and De Paiva jokingly refers to several of his favorite flats as "pumpkin patches," with the reds showing like big orange pumpkins over the wavering green grass.
While it certainly helps to have mild winds for the pumpkin-patch reds this time of year, it's imperative when heading offshore. But it's something to consider, as Florida's stone crab season runs from mid-October to mid-May. During this time, hundreds of crab pots are placed just off the beaches in the Gulf, attracting tripletail.
De Paiva has caught them up to 16 pounds on these structures. He generally looks for older pots with vegetation growth and then tosses shrimp or baitfish patterns to the fish on either floating or sink-tip lines. His best day on fly? Twenty-nine fish. "It was just ridiculous," he recalls.