If northwest Florida isn’t forgotten by many fly fishers, you could make a strong argument that it is certainly overlooked…
The Everglades, the Keys, Mosquito Lagoon… These places always seem to come up in any Florida fishing discussion. Jacksonville and St. Augustine rarely get mentioned. Nevertheless, at the end of March, I experienced the flyfishing these northwest Forida locations have to offer. It was definitely well worth the visit.
I must admit that the primary purpose of the trip wasn’t fishing – it was a vacation with my eighteen year-old daughter, Kerri. She heard about the great beach and historic sites in St. Augustine and suggested it as a possible destination. Naturally, the first thing I did was Google the fishing possibilities. Eureka! Bingo! There were definitely redfish to be caught and saltwater marshes to be explored.
We actually stayed in St. Augustine Beach, which is just outside of St. Augustine proper and about an hour south of Jacksonville. There are lots of reasonably-priced beach side restaurants and reasonably-priced beach side accommodations. It’s nice because in so places today, the words “reasonably-priced” and “beach side” just don’t seem to go together. Nevertheless, the beach is gorgeous and it stretches for miles.
We got up early on our first morning and made the 1 hour drive to Jacksonville. Jacksonville doesn’t conjure up wilderness images like the Everglades, but its satellite view on Google maps reveals a lot of uninhabited coastal backcountry. We met our guide, Rich Santos, on the edge of the Timucuan Nature Preserve, which is actually within city limits. A front had moved through a couple days before and it was downright cold – even through several layers – as his skiff sped us up a creek into the saltwater marsh.
He stopped at a little hole just downstream of a bridge. My daughter was rigged up with a spinning rod and a jig. Rich had me using a floating line with a 15 foot intermediate tip. He tied on a black over white Clouser with a good amount of gold flash and big red eyes. It was the first Clouser I’d ever seen with a spiky hairdo, since the deer hair butts just behind the hook eye were left sticking up. Instead of the typical slender profile, the fly took on the more tubular shape of a mullet. The idea was to cast upstream and scratch the fly along the bottom back to the boat.
Given the post-front temperatures and bright skies, I truthfully wasn’t expecting much. Nevertheless, within an hour, both Kerri and I had connected with a couple of redfish and a couple of seatrout. One trout measured 15 inches; the reds were about 18 inches each. The remaining trout was pushing gator status and stretched out to 21 inches. All of them hit hard and fought strong and deep. I was actually surprised at how hard the big trout pulled. I didn’t think they were noted for their fighting ability but this one pulled off a fair bit of line against the drag.
As the action slowed, Rich had the skiff nosing up the creek, deeper into the marsh. Beyond the creek, there were expanses of marsh grass. Beyond the vast expanses of marsh grass, there were big beautiful trees. Jacksonville had seemingly vanished behind us. Our next stop was where the creek widened out into a shallow flat about the size of football field. The wind was really starting to pick up and the water was quite discoloured; nevertheless, Rich hoped we might see some reds pushing water. He had me change my line to a full floater.
There were definitely a school or two of redfish working that flat. Every 10 minutes or so, they’d create a good bow wave and show themselves. If a school of bonefish makes nervous water, a school of redfish makes terrified water! The water surface doesn’t merely dance around a little bit, it looks like a motorboat wake. Sometimes, I got off an intercepting cast and sometimes we just watched them in the distance. My daughter even threw a live shrimp at them but none wanted to eat at all.
Eventually, Rich piloted the skiff down the creek and we tried another couple flats. The word creek is a bit deceiving because it was more like a maze of channels surrounded by marsh grass. We also worked a couple of juicy looking outside bends. No matter where we stopped, fish activity had apparently ceased and desisted. With whitecaps starting to form on the bigger flats, we called it a day. Although not stellar, it had definitely been fun.
The next day saw us poking around the historic sites of St. Augustine. The temperatures were starting to climb and even though St. Augustine has the charm of old world Europe, all I could think about was redfish getting active in skinny water.
The next morning was pleasantly warm and I woke up early. Kerri, as teenagers are prone to do, was going to sleep in and hit the beach. I met guide Tommy Derringer at a local marina for a half day fishing. We started with his skiff idling through the picturesque St. Augustine harbor past sailboats and sportfishers. Soon, he opened the throttle and we roared north down the Intracoastal Waterway, leaving civilization behind us. Once more, there was nothing to see but marsh grass, the odd boat, and big trees.
After a 20 minute run, he eased the boat onto a flat covered with clumps of marsh grass. He took the poling platform and I was on the bow. The water was still discolored but Tommy was quite sure we’d see some tails. Eventually, Tommy poled us up a narrow creek that fed the flat as the tide fell. It reminded me of a Montana spring creek. There were slight riffles on the surface and banks of marsh grass instead of pasture. On Tommy’s advice, I cast my fly upstream and let it drift down through some of the more prominent riffles.
“There’s an oyster bar up ahead,” said Tommy. “There’s always a fish or two on top of it. Right where the creek widens.” When we got to the broad spot – it was like a big pool – Tommy staked out the boat. I could see the oyster bar underneath about 6 inches of water about 50 feet away on the far side of the pool. And I could see 3 or 4 redfish patrolling the bar. They were a good size – maybe 6 pounds or so. Unfortunately, the geometry of the situation forced me to throw backhanded. And the wind from a couple days ago was still persisting slightly. So my casting wasn’t up to snuff and I didn’t draw any interest.
I only had about 3 shots before it was time to go. The water was draining out of the creek pretty quickly and we didn’t want to be stranded. The rest of the day saw us poling along oyster bars that lined the Intracoastal Waterway and also plumbing the deep water rocks along the inlet to the St. Augustine harbor. Other than a very small, very enthusiastic bluefish, my daydreams from the day before didn’t come to fruition. Nevertheless, the sight of those redfish picking their way across the oyster bar made the day worthwhile.
Before I said good-bye to Tommy, he pointed out a couple of nearby opportunities for some DIY wading. He said if he wanted to get me into a fish somehow, if not in person. I appreciate that kind of enthusiasm in a guide and promised to give it a shot.
The next day was a non-fishing day. Kerri and I drove out to Okefenokee Swamp for some guided kayaking. It was spectacular. We got some close-up views of alligators – sometimes maybe even too close-up – and watched the sunset from the heart of the swamp. It made for a late night.
The late night was OK by me since Kerri was looking to sleep in again the next day. I made a beeline for a spot Tommy told me about. It was almost like a roadside version of where the redfish were on the oyster bar. There was lots of marsh grass and even a little creek flowing through it. Regardless, I did connect with a redfish – only about 15 inches long – but, for some reason, very satisfying… And just in time to meet Kerri for an afternoon at the local outlet mall.
There are definitely some good flyfishing opportunities in northwest Florida. It might not be the place for a hard-core fishing trip, but if you are looking to combine fly fishing with a family vacation, it really fits the bill.