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October 25, 2001

Flamingo Fantasy

Fan out in all directions for spectacular light-tackle action at the bottom of Florida's mainland.

Capt. Skip Souli looked like a bird dog in a quail field as he crouched on the skiff's poling platform, his eyes lasered to a spot on the mirrored flats, his body frozen like a statue. "Don't move, just look at about 10 o'clock, 50 feet out," he whispered. Sure enough, Lynn Souli and I quickly saw the object of his desire: a spotted tail jutting above the surface and forming a small triangle.
"Big red," Souli said. "He's moving right. Let me pole up just a bit more, then get ready." Lynn, Skip's daughter-in-law, glanced down at her reel to double-check that the line wasn't fouled with the open bail, then she refocused on that tantalizing redfish tail. A 10-knot breeze, quartering right to left, would be mostly at her back. To compensate, she'd have to cast a little more than usual to the right for the spoon to land in the path of Mr. Red.
"OK, just nip him, just nip him, not too hard," exclaimed Skip as Lynn's line tightened. She made a couple of short sets with the rod tip and the deed was done -- a solid hookup, nearly completing the picture-perfect scenario of spotting the fish, moving into position, making a proper cast and getting a take. Lynn put a happy ending to the story after fighting the bruiser for nearly 10 minutes, until Skip grabbed the short leader and quickly weighed the fish: 12 pounds, 10 ounces. A nice one!
Our day had only begun. We missed shots at several more tailing reds -- angler errors, not Skip's -- but just before lunch he found a big school of dumb redfish. After we'd catch and release doubleheaders, he'd get ahead of the school again and again, resulting in six releases each before getting our fill in the hot Florida sunshine. We later added to our trip's tally with two keeper-size trout, a small black drum and the memory of a 40- to 50-pound tarpon that made two jumps before spitting the spoon.

Tackle and Conditions
Eight- to 12-pound spin tackle is most popular, with shrimp at the top of the baiters' list and flathead jigs and spoons the preference for lure casters. Fly anglers do well with Muddler and Bendback patterns for reds, although Clousers get the nod for snook and small tarpon while Deceivers often prove to be the ticket for big silver kings.
Lynn and I used Skip's 8-pound-test spin rods with a foot of double line tied to 15-pound leader and connected to Johnson weedless gold spoons with a uni knot. Skip likes to add a 3-inch olive-green piece of plastic worm to the hook for a bit more visual appeal.
"One person at a time should cast to a target," says Souli. "If no take occurs, then the other angler can cast. Keep the rod tip low and wind steadily; the spoon imparts its own action." He doesn't recommend blind casting unless throwing into potholes.
Souli, who's fished Flamingo for over 35 years, likes to fish the lower phases of the incoming tide closer to Flamingo and then move out farther to the east, where tidal stages occur later. "I pretty much follow the rising tide, no matter the time of year," he says. "However, some flats are better on the incoming and others on the outgoing," he says.
"The farther south you go from Flamingo, the better the conditions for reds with a high outgoing tide, especially early in the day. And when the tide's high, a good bet is to move close to some of the islands with deeper moats around them to see if tarpon or snook might be present."
Wind direction makes a huge difference when fishing in Florida Bay near Flamingo. "A northeast wind is best, but it lowers the water level when it's blowing strong, so you fish more in the potholes," says Souli. "The worst wind comes from the southwest. It sweeps right into the bay from the Gulf, making it more difficult to see fish because the water's rippled, and it's tougher to cast, too."

Out Front
Of the many choices available, most of the favorite fishing haunts are within just a couple of miles of Flamingo. Fishing "out front" or "outside" usually involves poling a shallow-draft boat in the area between Clive Key and Palm, Frank, Catfish and Murray keys. The drill is for one or two anglers to stand on the bow while someone at the stern uses a push pole, preferably from an elevated poling platform above the engine. The poler and anglers scan the flats for "tailers" (tails of game fish), "muds" (stirred-up sediment caused by fish rooting for forage) or "pushes" (wakes behind fish cruising the shallow water), then move into casting position.
Farther out into the bay, sandy holes amid the turtle grass -- known as white holes or potholes -- make for convenient resting or ambush points for redfish and occasionally snook and mangrove snapper. Cast up-current of the hole and bring your offering into it and let it drop. If using a lure, work it slowly through the hole; if bait fishing, let it lie for a moment and see if anybody's home. "The flats directly south of Flamingo during the last couple of hours of the outgoing tide are very good for reds and snook in potholes," says Souli.
Conchie Channel, a deep cut between two shallow flats located southwest of Murray Key, often produces redfish, trout or tarpon, particularly when fishing the edges of the channel on an outgoing tide.
To the east of Flamingo lies Snake Bight, a popular hot spot, especially in cooler months. You can either pole the entire bight on higher stages of the tide or go all the way to the end of Snake Bight Channel and, on an outgoing tide, pole the run-offs for snook, reds and tarpon. Another good strategy: When the tide's extremely low and running out, stake out near the down-current edge of the channel and cast past the channel on the up-current side. Let your lure drop into the channel like natural bait being moved by the current. Any game fish looking into the current for a morsel will usually oblige with a strike.
A good early-morning place to be at high tide is the western portion of Snake Bight. At the last of the incoming or start of the outgoing tide, a nicely presented shrimp might draw some tarpon attention.
Bradley Key, just west of the Flamingo channel, got its name from a man murdered around the turn of the century because he tried to halt the slaughter of birds by poachers. (Ladies' hats with long, elegant plumes were the rage of that era.) Cast the western shoreline of Bradley, and at a dead-low tide, check out the small ditch just north of the island; it might hold a few reds waiting for the tide to rise.

East Environs
Porpoise Point, Shark Point and Mosquito Point just east of Snake Bight can be dynamite if you're the first boat to quietly ease up for a few casts. Between those points are Garfield and Rankin bights, both of which are at times spectacular redfish spots when enough water permits access near the shoreline. The shoreline west of Crocodile Point can be hot, too, as well as the three "hidden" lakes up McCormick and Oyster creeks (non-motorized access only).
Moving farther east, Little Madeira Bay has been the scene of many trout bonanzas during the cooler months from December through February. Schools of mullet seem to congregate here and stir up the soft bottom as they feed, attracting trout that enter the morass to grab bay shrimp and crustaceans kicked up by the turmoil. Locate a mullet mud, get upwind or up-current, and quietly drift near it while casting plugs, jigs or a popping cork. Sometimes nobody's home; at other times you get hits on every cast.
As redfish populations continue to surge, they're pushing farther into Florida Bay. In particular, working the shorelines around the Samphire and Black Betsy keys has been fruitful in the past few years.
Not many boats run to Crocodile Dragover from Flamingo, but those that do may see plenty of action at snook and trout hot spots such as Dynamite Pass near Eagle Key Pass, Mud Creek in Alligator Bay and Trout Cove just beyond Stump Pass. I once fished Trout Cove with my father-in-law, and we released six snook between 7 and 15 pounds, then found ourselves amidst a university -- not a mere school -- of small, hungry trout.

Western World
While most Flamingo-based anglers seldom run more than a few miles east, the same can't be said for westward-ho fishermen. Between Flamingo and the East Cape Canal, the mouths of Slagle Ditch and House Ditch open from the mainland and should be investigated, particularly when the tide's flowing out. While fishing with Bill Lindsay and Rick Berry at the mouth of Slagle Ditch about 10 years ago, a massive linesider attacked my Johnny Rattler lure and sent it sputtering skyward. When I retrieved it, the trebles looked as gnarled as an arthritic spider.
The mouth of East Cape Canal is legendary for skirmishes with tarpon and trout. A pinfish dropped near the bottom on an outgoing tide will likely yield a bent rod. Nooks and crannies along the canal at times produce good catches of linesiders, black drum, redfish and trout. Moving outside the mouth again and westward, casting the beach shoreline of East Cape can be excellent for reds, snook, trout, tarpon and big jack crevalle; the same goes for the stretch to Middle Cape and on up to Northwest Cape.
Lake Ingraham between East and Middle capes is an enigma. Its intricate system of run-offs from the well-marked, shallow boat channel is often muy bueno for redfish action, and the shorelines -- at times inaccessible due to ultra-skinny water -- seldom get much attention except from experienced anglers. Needless to say, you'd better know your way around here or you'll likely end up high and dry, with few volunteers willing or able to lend assistance.
On your way back to Flamingo, pole First National Bank for redfish, then swing a bit southeast and enter Sandy Key Basin to scout for air-gulping tarpon. Another place to hit en route is Dildo Bank, which, on a rising tide, is often the hottest place in town for redfish.

Whitewater Bay
Head north from Flamingo into Whitewater Bay for a very different choice. You could spend a lifetime fishing "inside" and never master its intricacies, but it'd be fun trying. The myriad cuts, channels, points, rivers and bays between Flamingo and Shark River can be daunting even to the initiated. I've fished totally isolated areas such as Hell's Bay and plugged narrow creeks until my arm dropped, at times leaving me with memorable fishing days and just as often with nothing to show for it except a sore shoulder and a lighter tackle box.
Even so, in cooler months when mosquitoes and deer flies are absent (or at least tolerable) and southwest winds play havoc to Florida Bay fishing, Whitewater Bay becomes a nice alternative. A few recommendations: Try the small islands east of marker 32; cast the snaggy shoreline on either side of mark 10; drift Tarpon Bay; fish the mouth of Watson River; or cast into eddies at the island points in Joe River and throughout the bay.
Whether they fish east, west, south or north of Flamingo, many anglers fall in love with the place. "If I could fish only one area of the world, it would be Flamingo," says Souli. Considering its remote beauty, all the nearby choices of places to fish and the opportunity to catch a huge variety of light-tackle game fish, Flamingo just might become your idea of heaven, too.