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.
“Weedless soft-plastic jerkbaits, like the 5-inch Exude model or similar baits,” Tripp noted “are probably the bread-and-butter flats lures du
ring the middle of the day. I rig them weedless on a 4/0 Owner J hook, which gives me more than enough weight to make long casts. They can twitch through grass and over sand holes very well.
“Exude has one in a ‘measles’ color that is usually my favorite, but electric chicken, root beer, or salt-and-pepper can sometimes work better in dimmer, windier conditions.”
The measles color scheme is a translucent finish with red flake, while the electric chicken is a red and chartreuse combination.
“What I normally do if I have two anglers in the boat is to have one throw a measles, and one throw a darker color so I can see what is working better at the times.”
While Tripp’s lure selection is limited, when he decides to stake out and lay a spread of bait around the boat he’s an “equal opportunity” angler.
“If the reds aren’t holding well and are just sort of circling around the area, I’ll stake out and use bait,” he explained. “Rather than chase the fish, I’ll just wait for them to come back to me.”
Bait rigs can be as simple as a 1/8- to 1/4-ounce egg sinker slipped onto the line and allowed to sit on top of a 3/0 or 4/0 J hook. You can slip a swivel a foot or so above the hook, and add a sinker above that to make a fish finder rig. Or, just pin the bait of choice to a 1/8-ounce wide gap hook jighead. You don’t have to get fancy with the rig or the bait. A jumbo shrimp is favored, but a live finger mullet works well. Cut mullet is also productive, as is a half a cut blue crab. Bull reds on the flats aren’t finicky about what they eat, although they can be finicky as to when they eat.
“Moon phases play a role in redfish activity on the flats,” Tripp said, “and a full moon makes them finicky. If you have a bright full moon on the flats at night they feed heavily. They won’t leave the flat, but if you find them there in the morning, they are not interested in eating. I’ve watched early-morning full moon reds turn up their nose at a live jumbo shrimp dropped right in front of them. They are full.
“But,” the guide added, “their metabolism is such that by the afternoon, they’re ready to eat again. On a darker moon phase, they don’t seem to eat at night, so they are ready to go first thing in the morning.”
For Tripp, that makes the day fairly simple — hit the flats at first light on a darker moon phase, but wait until the afternoon on a full moon.
Weather also plays a role in flats action. Bright, calm days make it easy to spot fish. Cloudy days make it tougher. However, if you have found a section of flats that has been holding fish, they are likely still there even on a cloudy, windy day. Tripp stakes out in the area he’s recently found fish and spreads baits around the boat.
If you combine that windy, cloudy situation with a sharp temperature drop — as often happens later in October — Tripp is quick to leave the flats. But he does have a nearby backup plan.
Hit the Haulover
“If you get a sharp cold front in October, with wind and clouds, the Haulover Canal is a good bet,” Tripp said. “I’ve had days as a guide where absolutely nothing was working on the flats, but slipping into Haulover and getting some baits on the bottom salvaged the day with some big reds.”
Connecting the Indian River with Mosquito Lagoon, the dredged canal only stretches about 1 1/4 miles. But it’s a key habitat this time of year. It becomes the major migratory route for reds moving toward Ponce Inlet for the winter. They are coming and going, but some hang around for a while. The Haulover Canal offers more current flow than any other waters in the vicinity, and there are some experienced anglers that feel the big reds actually do some spawning in the canal. Regardless of the why, big schools of bull reds frequent the area this month.
“The key areas,” Tripp emphasized, “are the sections at either end. You get fish moving into the canal in cool temperatures and then slipping out onto the adjacent flats when we get an Indian summer day, or just an afternoon warm up. They tend to hold near those entrances and a lot of big reds are caught by anglers who just anchor within a few hundred yards of the mouths and get some shrimp, crab, finger mullet, or just cut mullet chunks on the bottom.”
Another key area is the bridge bunkers where State Route 3 crosses the canal. The bridge bunkers create slight current eddies that tend to hold a lot of bait. The reds won’t be far behind.
While Tripp often uses the canal in poor weather, there is a specific situation where it could be his first choice.
“If you like fishing at night,” he pointed out, “you can expect a major feed from the reds in the canal on a bright full moon night. They can go nuts in there this time of year when the moon is full.”
When temperatures drop farther in the late fall, some reds remain in Haulover. But when the truly cold weather arrives, Tripp again moves on.
Cash In On Creeks
During the later portion of October, daytime temperatures can hover in the upper 60s, while nighttime temperatures drop into the 50s. When that happens, look for a number of reds — both the big bulls and the slot reds — to move closer to Ponce Inlet on the northern end of Mosquito Lagoon Many of them move into shallow tide creeks. They stay there throughout the winter.
“There have been days,” Tripp remembered, “when the air temperature never got above 60 degrees and the nighttime temperatures were in the low 40s. I have sat in those creeks and caught 60 to 80 reds without moving the boat more than a couple of times.”
The tide creek zone begins somewhere around JB’s Fish Camp in New Smyrna, and it’s not hard to determine where the tide starts — when you see exposed oysters, you’re in the tide influenced zone. Within that zone are numerous small creeks with oyster beds. Those are the key areas.
“The tidal movement in these creeks isn’t real big,” explained Tripp. “You might get 5 inches, or maybe more on a moon. But that tidewater is of a more stable temperature than the shallow lagoon, and the reds like it. When they get into these creeks in the colder weather, they behave just like reds in any creek anywhere in the state — they find oysters, and the deeper troughs around it.”
Sight-fishing isn’t an option here, but lures still work. Veteran creek anglers have found that shallow floater-diver, lipped crankbaits in olive and brown color combinations that mimic crabs are very effective around oysters. The bill allows the plug to bounce down and over oyster bars. If the lure should hang up, throwing a bit of slack in the line allows it to float free.
Another option, and one Tripp frequently uses, is a 1/8-ounce Hook Up jighead with a shrimp threaded onto the hook. A number of anglers are also discovering that threading a Fish Bite strip or a small Berkley Gulp! bait onto the hook instead of a shrimp, can be just as
effective. Regardless of whether one opts for shrimp or synthetic bait, a slow retrieve is often best.
While oyster beds on a drop are prime targets, one other creek situation shouldn’t be ignored.
“You have a number of very shallow back bays off these creeks,” Tripp said. “They have dark sand and grass bottoms and warm up quickly in the sun. If the water is high enough to let the fish in, they move there on a bright afternoon, and they can be sight-fished.”