Fly Fishing for Redfish

Traveling pro angler Pat Ford offers tips on tackle, flies and hot spots.

Fishermen holding redfish caught fly fishing
The author, left, made his first trip to Louisiana waters after bull reds on fly in 2006. The experience left him truly exhilarated.Pat Ford

I had never seen a tail that big or that color. I'd heard stories about redfish in the Biloxi Marsh, but on my first trip to Louisiana for monster drum in 2006, I saw a golden tail the size of a shovel break the surface 50 yards ahead.

My guide, Capt. Gjuro Bruer, maneuvered his skiff into casting range, and I managed to place one of my best redfish flies just a few feet ahead of this thing, which looked like a giant koi.

The fly hit the water and the redfish inhaled it like it was the best meal it had ever seen. I set the hook, and the fish rocketed along the shoreline, throwing mud and water. My hands shook.

I’ve caught a lot of big fish in my day, but nothing like this. My idea of a nice red was a 7-pounder in Florida’s Everglades National Park. This brute weighed more than 30 pounds. What a rush.

Best Fly Rod for Redfish

Redfish caught fly fishing in saltwater
Because reds often cruise in murky water, anglers must throw a big enough fly for them to see. That means using stout tackle for casting: Try a 9-weight for fish to 20 pounds and a 10-weight for heavier bulls.Pat Ford

If I had to guess at the most popular coastal ­saltwater fly-rod fish in the United States, I'd have to pick redfish. They're not as explosive or exciting as tarpon, or as elusive as bonefish and permit, but for East and Gulf coast fly-rod anglers, they're easily accessible and extremely fun to catch.

Redfish range from Virginia (technically Massachusetts) south to the Keys, and then north and west along the entire Gulf Coast. They tolerate a wide range of water temperatures and salinities, and eat everything from crustaceans and mollusks to baitfish. For food and shelter, they seek out sea-grass beds, mangroves, marshes, oyster bars, mud and sand flats and beaches. Each area offers ­something to the fly fisherman.

Redfish weighing less than 15 pounds can be landed using most any fly rod. These fish fight strongly and stubbornly, but they don’t make long runs and they’re usually caught in shallow water. Therefore, tackle choices revolve more around casting and ­presentation ease than on fighting the fish.

Factors that affect casting, such as wind and bushy flies, also affect rod choice. Most guides say the best fly rod for redfish is a 9-foot, 8- or 9-weight rod paired to most any brand of saltwater reel and spooled with a warm-water, weight-forward floating line. Leaders can measure 9 to 12 feet, with a 40-pound butt section tapering to a 15- or 20-pound tippet.

Many anglers prefer an 8-weight fly rod for smaller redfish, but I usually throw big bushy redfish flies. If there’s any wind at all, a 9-weight makes casting easier. For targeting bulls over 20 pounds, a 10-weight works best and handles the bigger flies those fish prefer.

Tackle choices aside, the size of your fly can be the most important factor. Because redfish usually feed in grass and often cruise in murky water, fly anglers must throw something the fish can see.

My favorite redfish fly pattern is a fuzzy variation of Tim Borski’s Chernobyl shrimp. Tie it on a 1/0 hook and use bead eyes, even though it’s a shallow-water fly. Most any color combination will work, but I like brown or white and hardly ever use anything else.

Choosing Redfish Fly Patterns

Redfish caught fly fishing in saltwater over grass
The grass beds of South Florida waters (above) attract school-size reds in great numbers. The author says many fly patterns tempt red drum, but he usually keeps a selection of bead-eye and lead-eye flies on hand.Pat Ford

Truthfully, there are a lot of different redfish fly patterns that all work well. Most come with bead eyes, are weedless and measure about 3 inches long. Don’t try to feed a redfish a bonefish-size “gotcha.” This fish is looking for a meal, and it will eat just about anything it thinks it can fit in its mouth.

I bump up to a 5- to 6-inch mostly synthetic yet very puffy white fly for the big bull reds. I know it works because the guides keep all my leftovers. The fly doesn’t really resemble anything specific, but it catches fish.

Try white, chartreuse or black colors on a 2/0 Gamakatsu stinger hook. I use large, black bead eyes most of the time, but always tie some flies with lead eyes for deeper water. Use a 9- to 10-foot leader with a 50-pound butt section tapered to a 20-pound class tippet and add a foot of 30-pound fluorocarbon as shock tippet for insurance.

Flats Fights

Red drum tailing in saltwater
Tailing fish set any angler’s heart aflutter. These Texas reds demonstrate typical shallow-water feeding behavior. These omnivores, with their underslung mouths, scour the grass and mud for prey.Scott Sommerlatte

In the southern parts of Florida and Texas, redfish generally run smaller than their cousins in other regions, and they spend most of their time on the flats. Unless you know the area and own a flats boat, you'll need a guide.

To find the best guides, contact a local fly shop. A local captain knows where the fish were yesterday and runs a proper skiff designed to navigate the target waters. That expert also comes with a trained pair of eyes to help spot the fish before they spot you. However, once the guide finds fish, the rest is up to you.

Flats-fishing equals sight-fishing, which is what makes it fun. Normally, you’ll scout reds in less than 2 feet of water by looking for wakes, tails and bodies.

Of course, flats-fishing requires some level of experience and the ability to cast 50 feet accurately — regardless of weather conditions. If you can’t get the fly to the fish, you won’t catch any, period.

What’s interesting about Texas is its variety of venues. On the northern coast, the greenish, dark marsh waters of Sabine Pass gradually give way to the tinted shallow oceanfront bays and lagoons filled with oyster beds and a variety of marsh grasses. Those regions abut the narrow, winding canals of the back marshes and ponds near Galveston and Freeport.

The central-coast redfish waters include the jetties of Port O’Connor and the grass flats of Rockport, all with shorelines similar to those in Louisiana. The main exception exists in the rugged beauty of the south Texas, Port Mansfield and South Padre areas. Imagine the crystal-clear waters of Mexico and the Caribbean, and then add in the bright copper of redfish cruising the white-sand flats and ­brilliant‑yellow grass beds.

Shrimp Fest

Chernobyl fly tied for red drum fishing
Tie on a bushy fly in either white or brown with bead or lead eyes, such as this Chernobyl shrimp.Pat Ford

Traveling angler and world-record holder Meredith McCord lives in Texas and fishes its flats for redfish every chance she gets.

The flats-fishing techniques and tackle for Texas mimic those elsewhere. But the visual ­experience can be breathtaking.

McCord says there’s nothing like the sight of redfish cruising a skinny shoreline with their backs fully out of the water, waving electric-turquoise spotted tails that can be seen from a hundred yards away. Anywhere you can flats-fish for Texas reds, you’ll find that sensory overload.

But beyond that ­quintessential visual, if you’re targeting reds in Texas, you might also hear “the sound.” The sound of a single red popping, gulping and smacking on shrimp. Often this sound carries across the marsh from two or three coves over.

Magnify that sound and it results in a musical “popcorn” symphony performed by an entire school of reds feeding on fleeing white shrimp.

Bayou Blessings

Anglers poling fishing boat skiff for bull redfish in Louisiana channel
When poling in the marsh, anglers look for wakes, tails and bodies near oyster bars and mud flats. In fall and winter, the Biloxi Marsh comes alive for fly anglers targeting big bull reds that cruise the ponds and channels.Pat Ford

My own personal favorite stomping grounds for redfish include South Florida and Louisiana. Everglades National Park offers prime redfish habitat with miles of flats. As you work up either Florida coast, the flats-fishing remains similar from a technical point of view. Most of the fish weigh less than 15 pounds, but every so often you’ll find a school of 20-pounders.

As you approach the Mississippi and Louisiana Gulf coasts, all that changes. This is where the big boys live.

In fall and winter months, the Biloxi Marsh and the coast of Louisiana can properly boast the best redfishing in the world. Boats leave from dozens of ports, and the runs to the flats can take anywhere from a few minutes to over an hour.

The marsh features a series of shallow ponds connected by channels, all of which come lined with even shallower oyster bars and mud flats. Anglers who don’t know the areas can find a lot of trouble very quickly, but the fishing is amazing.

Most times, anglers fish shallow water that’s clear enough to spot a 30-pound red, but it can quickly become quite murky after a cold front.

As with all flats-fishing, you look for wakes, tails and bodies. The only difference between here and southern Florida and Texas: These reds range from 15 pounds up to almost 50. You still must put the fly in the right place, but you definitely need a 10-weight rod and a really big fly.

As you move south and west to the Venice and Grand Isle areas of Louisiana, the fishing changes a bit. The lakes, ponds and coves in these areas prove deeper, so you won’t see too many tailing fish. Look for big redfish laid up at the surface like tarpon. You might see individual fish or, in certain areas, schools of a dozen or more.

Most reds top 20 pounds, and again, if they see your fly, they’ll eat it. They’ll even attack poppers with gusto, at times.

Options: Northeast Florida

Lady angler holding bull redfish caught fly fishing
When handling and releasing any fish, particularly the larger bull reds, remember to hold them horizontally to support their internal organs.Pat Ford

Virtually every region of salt or brackish water in the greater Jacksonville area holds reds, according to local anglers. During the winter months, the water on the flats clears. Plan a winter fly-fishing trip around an afternoon rising tide. If you’re fortunate enough to hit a warm day, you’ll find hordes of reds rushing up on the flats to feed over the warm, dark mud left exposed by an earlier low tide.

In spring, the reds work the edges of bars and creek mouths. You’ll find good numbers of 18- to 27-inch fish. Bushy shrimp patterns and white or chartreuse Clousers work best, depending on how deep the fish hold. They can be in water from 6 inches to 3 feet, based on varying conditions of tide and temperature. Keep flies with bead eyes and lead eyes available.

On warmer days, work a surface-popper or gurgler pattern in white or in dark colors such as black and purple. Watching a redfish try to suck a surface fly or popper into its underslung bottom-feeding mouth can be hilarious. The fish looks unnatural and uncoordinated, but it’s the most exciting surface-lure strike you’ll see.

In the summer, mullet start to move through the surf, and that signals “game on” for fly fishermen. Wading the surf with a fly rod ranks right near the top of most people’s list of favorite things to do, and the only guidance you’ll need can come from a quick visit to a local fly shop.

Find an area near any of the local inlets with clear water. Let a good cast’s worth of line drag behind you and start wading in about a foot of water.

Watch the waves roll close to the beach, and look for a red as breaking water crests. Quickly toss the fly in front of the fish before it heads back out to sea. The best fly choice: a good-size shrimp that sinks quickly. Locals like the Surfin’ Wooly.

Out in the St. Johns River channel, the bull reds congregate. During the full-moon periods both months, anglers anchor along the edges of the channel between Blount Island and Mayport. The bull reds, on average, top the 20-pound mark, and they seem to number in the thousands. You’ll definitely need 10-weight rods and 400-plus-grain sink-tip lines with big lead-eye flies. Try a white or chartreuse pattern, and if that doesn’t work, switch to something dark in black or purple.

Carolina Bulls

Birds and redfish at the surface of the ocean off North Carolina's coast
In the coastal waters off North Carolina, captains have found enormous schools of redfish in 20 to 60 feet of water. Anglers watch for birds wheeling around bait in open water.Brian Horsley

Chasing schools of bull reds offshore is an entirely different operation than flats-, channel and surf fishing, but that spectacular scene happens from North Carolina through northeast Florida and in the Gulf from Florida’s panhandle past Louisiana. Anglers can accidently bump into these schools, but many guides, such as Capt. Sarah Gardner, out of Nags Head on the Outer Banks, actually target them.

“It isn’t uncommon for us to find bull reds in 20 to 60 feet of water while we’re chasing schools of busting albies,” Gardner says. “In the beginning, the most incredible, unexplained marks appeared on our bottom machines. When these marks started erupting in huge, gold splashes, we figured out that they were huge schools of redfish and that we had to be ready for them to pop up at any time.”

Big Carolina bull reds can weigh up to 80 pounds (the all-tackle world-record redfish — a 94-plus-pounder — was caught in 1984 out of Avon, North Carolina), so obviously they prefer larger bait, such as smelt, bunker and croaker, which also attract bigger birds. When the pelicans, gannets and larger gull species start wheeling around in open water, don’t hesitate to investigate, Gardner says.

Go Deep

Angler holding big bull red fish caught fly fishing North Carolina
Gear up with giant Clouser flies and sinking lines that range from 450 to 700 grains. Getting the fly to drop deep gains more bites.Brian Horsley

Sharks can also be a drum indicator, she adds, because they like the same foods. On a calm day, you can see spinner sharks launch out of the water from a mile away. “One or two flying sharks is worth a look, but a dozen simultaneous eruptions deserves full throttle and a shout on the radio,” she says.

The carnage happens fast. Anglers must be ready to cast as soon as the boat lines up. “The key is to use a fly-and-line combo that will drop down in the water column. We use giant Clouser flies teamed with super-fast-sinking fly lines that range from 450 to 700 grains. Getting the fly deep gets more bites, even when the reds are busting on top. Getting down quickly also avoids the albies, which grab the lighter offerings,” she says.

Gardner always keeps two rods rigged and ready. That allows her to keep an eye on the fast-moving schools instead of focusing on tying knots and digging for tackle.

She coaches clients in advance of these opportunities: “Drum prep is like a fire drill,” she says. “Everyone has to know where the big rods are on the boat and how to quickly stash albie gear. They also have to know when to cast and how long to let their offerings sink. “If you’re not ready when a school appears, you’re out of luck. If all goes as planned, hooking reds well over 30 pounds is the well‑deserved reward.”

About the Author: Now a retired Miami attorney, Pat Ford spends his time taking photos and writing about fishing destinations around the world. Ford is a founding member of the conservation group Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, has held multiple IGFA world records and published two books on fly-fishing destinations. To see more of his photography go to patford​photos.com.

Records and Trophies

Releasing redfish caught during catch-and-release fly fishing
State regulations throughout the redfish’s range have helped these hardy gamesters to rebound. Before you go, know the rules for reds in your target area.Pat Ford

Men’s and women’s redfish fly records top out with the 43-pounder caught by Greg Braunstein on 16-pound tippet in 1995 out of the Banana River Lagoon in Florida. Ten of the other 14 fly-tippet-class records came from Louisiana. Texas claims two others, and North Carolina one.

Possibly the most unique redfish destination is Mosquito Lagoon in east central Florida. The lagoon runs from the southern tip of New Smyrna Beach to the north end of Merritt Island and encompasses more than 21,000 acres of shallow, clear flats with less than a foot of tidal flow.

Scientists have documented this redfish population as the first ever known to spawn in an estuary (versus offshore). Some even believe that this is an evolved strain of redfish, different from its relatives in the Atlantic and Gulf coastal waters.

The fish reside in the lagoon year-round, making it the best area to target trophy redfish on the flats along Florida’s east coast. However, if you venture out in the summer evenings, you’ll quickly understand how the area acquired its name.

For more about chasing redfish with a fly rod, find Chico Fernandez's book Fly Fishing for Redfish.

(Editor’s note: Wherever you plan to fish, check that state’s redfish regulations for licensing, season and bag-limit information.)