Photo by William J. Bohica.
Stretching from Ponce Inlet, south past Sebastian Inlet, and on down to St. Lucie Inlet, the waters composing the Mosquito, Banana River and the Indian River lagoon system offer some of the more unique and productive fisheries in the Southeast.
The vast acreage comprising the lagoon system presents many facets to anglers. Many areas see virtually no tidal movement, while others do have water moving with the tide. Grassy, sandflats dominate, but oyster-bearing tidal creeks, sharply dredged channels, mangrove-lined shores and shallow back bays are also fish-holding habitat. And, hold fish they do!
The lagoons have a reputation for producing numbers of hefty fish. In fact, the current world-record spotted seatrout was corralled here. But for many anglers, it’s the redfish that capture the headlines.
“There are very few places in the world where you can ease up on a 2-foot-deep grassflat and sight-cast to redfish that can top 40 pounds,” said Capt. Scott Tripp. “And over the last decade, our population of those big bull reds has increased noticeably.”
Capt. Tripp should certainly know. As one of the area’s top guides over the last couple of decades, he’s put anglers on plenty of them. As the owner of New Smyrna Outfitters, he has the opportunity to swap fish stories with the top local anglers, when he’s not out on the water collecting those fish stories himself.
The fact that big bull reds remain in these shallow lagoons is unusual. Along Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf coasts, the reverse is normally the rule. Reds generally inhabit shallow bays and estuaries during their early life stages, but once they become mature at above the 12- to 15-pound range, they spend the warmer months in the offshore or nearshore waters.
Cooler temperatures during the fall bring them into the major inlets and passes, and winter temperatures may hold many of them in those areas until warming temperatures in the spring send them back to deeper water.
Just why these reds choose to remain in the lagoons may be partly because, while the waters stretch for almost 140 miles along Florida’s east coast, there are only three inlets that allow access to the Atlantic. Given the million-plus acres of fertile environment at fishes’ disposal, the abundant food sources may outweigh their need to become ocean runners.
That doesn’t, however, mean that they ignore those inlets.
“There is a definite seasonal movement pattern to these reds,” noted Tripp. “During warmer weather, the reds fan out over the shallow flats throughout the lagoons, using the channels and troughs as travel routes. They travel from flat to flat and spend the late spring and summer feeding on the flats. When winter arrives, a lot — but not all — of those reds begin to migrate toward the inlet mouths for the winter. The water temperatures in the tidal areas of the inlets are more stable than the real shallow flats, and that brings a lot of forage into those areas. The reds just follow the forage and the stable water.
“There are distinct seasonal patterns,” he continued, “and the fish migrate a long way between them. October is the key transition month between summer and winter patterns. It all depends on temperature, and it can fluctuate this month. You can have one day that’s nice, warm, calm, and a day or two later, the temperature can drop 15 degrees. You can’t predict what the temperatures will be, but the fish move a long way in response to those temperature changes.”
Transitional periods always keep anglers on their toes. But if the temperatures are still in the “summer” range, Tripp has a pattern ready.
Probing The Flats
During September and at least through early to mid-October, temperatures are normally warm enough to hold fish in their summer flats patterns. Regardless of what lagoon on which you’re probing flats, you need to be aware of outboard motor restrictions. A number of areas, marked with floating yellow buoys, are designated as “Pole/Troll.” That means you may only operate within their boundaries with push pole or trolling motor power. Between these areas are “running corridors” marked with standing channel markers, where you may proceed on plane with the main engine.
“This whole area is a big flat bisected by troughs and a few channels and running corridors,” Tripp described. “The reds use the channels and troughs to move between them. The key, for me, as to which flat I want to check out is the bait.
“When I’m running between the flats via the channels and troughs,” he continued, “I’m always watching the edge where it drops off into the channel, and actually as far up on the flat as I can see. If I see a good concentration of bait, I’ll move to the upwind side of the flat and get the wind at my back where it’s my friend, and then cut the engine, get onto the poling platform, and start slowly and methodically picking that flat apart. If the bait is there, chances are good there are some reds.”
The poling platform provides a bigger field of view than operating the trolling motor from the bow deck, and it allows a stealthier approach. That can be important, because you don’t want to drift right on top of a school of reds. At this time of year, those schools can be larger than the smaller pods often encountered during the early summer months. With a quality set of polarized eyeglasses, Tripp can easily spot the bronze flash of big reds, especially when they cross one of the numerous white sand holes. Once he visually acquires the fish, the next decision is bait or lures.
“If I find some reds in dim light periods, early in the morning or on a cloudy day,” Tripp stated, “I’m going to start with a topwater plug like the Rapala Skitter Walk. Even if I can’t really see the fish but suspect they’re there, this is my first choice in dim light. Big reds crush a noisy surface bait and watching a red in the 20- to 40-pound range blast one is awesome!”
One advantage to topwater baits is that in addition to reds, you’re very likely to pick up some quality seatrout in the process. When conditions are right with calm water and dimmer light, these lures can be deadly. Under bright light, or if the wind kicks up, Tripp shifts to sub-surface baits.
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