American Fly Fishing

Graduate School Redfish on the Space Coast
By E. Donnall Thomas, Jr.

It may have been springtime on Florida’s Atlantic coast, but I was freezing my butt off.
   A sad fact but true: the months when visiting anglers from the north need a break from winter most desperately don’t always translate into tropical weather and optimal fishing conditions farther south. Over the years, I’ve been pounded by gales in the Keys, drenched by thunderstorms in the Bahamas, driven off the flats by cold fronts in Belize, snowed on in Africa, and flooded out in Costa Rica, all because I planned trips according to my need for sunshine rather than prime times to fish at my intended destination. Nonetheless, I always survived and usually caught fish, as I hoped to once again on Mosquito Lagoon.
   At least Lori and I were in good hands. While I’ve always been a diehard DIY outdoorsman, I also recognize venues that cry out for the benefit of local knowledge. Mosquito Lagoon is one of them, for reasons we’ll soon explore. Young Captain Willy Le became a Florida fly-fishing guide because my old friend Flip Pallot told him he was too talented not to, and, as usual, Flip was right. Before I even had a chance to get a line in the water, Le had quietly convinced me that he was personable, knowledgeable, and capable. And when he identified the nervous water on top of a moving school of redfish against the complex visual background of breeze-driven wavelets and mullet chatter while we were still hundreds of yards away, I realized that he could spot fish, too.
   The fish weren’t making it easy for us. They were moving quickly across the vast grass flat, and the telltale surface disturbance that allowed us to track their position appeared and disappeared constantly as they changed direction. Our first approach came to naught as they showed up 50 yards upwind of where we thought they’d be, but Le backed off patiently rather than running the risk of spooking the school by trying something rash. Ten minutes later, he had poled us into position for another intercept, and finally I could spot the copper color of individual redfish heading our way. Big individual redfish.
   Unfortunately, fly-rod opportunities in Montana are limited from November to March, and I hadn’t cast a line in months. As usual, I’d told myself to go out in the snow and brush up my double-haul before heading south, and—also as usual—I’d neglected my own sound advice. I still didn’t anticipate any trouble reaching the lead fish—until the school made a 45-degree turn to my left. At that point, I decided I needed one more false cast to ensure that my first crucial shot didn’t fall short. But as my line cut through the air, the entire school of a dozen 20-pound redfish exploded, leaving little puffs of mud above the turtle grass and a broad wake headed toward Cape Canaveral at rocket-launch speed.
   “What was that?” I asked aloud. “Those were the spookiest redfish I’ve seen in my life!”
   “Welcome to the Mosquito Lagoon,” Le observed dryly from the poling platform. “Now let’s go see what we can do with these fish off to our right.”
   “You’re up,” I said to Lori as I hopped off the bow and handed her the fly rod. “Good luck.” I had the feeling we were going to need some.


Lagoon Habitat
Stretching for more than 150 miles along Florida’s eastern coast, the Indian River Lagoon (IRL) system between the Atlantic’s barrier islands and the mainland represents the country’s largest and most complex inshore marine ecosystem. Because of the variety of the terrain and the diversity of its biological resources, an ambitious angler could spend a lifetime learning its fisheries. The system consists of three major bodies of water: the Indian River, the Banana River, and Mosquito Lagoon. While all share certain characteristics from an angler’s perspective, each has its individual personality, none more so
than Mosquito Lagoon.
   The lagoon lies at the northern end of the system, running south from Ponce Inlet near Smyrna Beach toward the head of the Banana River, Cape Canaveral, and the Kennedy Space Center. Because of its limited connection to the open ocean, tidal fluctuations are negligible below Ponce Inlet. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge forms the western shore, while a thin strip of Canaveral National Seashore separates the lagoon from the Atlantic. 
   The upper end of the lagoon consists of a complex maze of mangrove islands and creeks where boating and fishing are difficult until summer rains raise the water level. The lower half of the lagoon contains more open water covering large grass flats and sandbars, interspersed with some deeper channels that provide a refuge for game fish during winter cold snaps. Access is restricted in parts of the lower lagoon within the Cape Canaveral security area.
   Water clarity in the lagoon is generally excellent, especially in winter and spring, before summer rains arrive. This attribute represents a double-edged sword: while it is easier for you to see fish, it is also easier for fish to see you. While the lagoon’s bottom is too soft to allow extensive wading, there are sandy bars that allow at least limited opportunities to pursue fish on foot.
   One of the most striking and enjoyable aspects of the lagoon’s ambience—especially for IRL veterans—is the nearly complete lack of shoreline development. Elsewhere in the IRL one is seldom out of sight of waterfront housing, and traffic noise is ubiquitous. In Mosquito Lagoon, however, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, lies to the west, while Canaveral National Seashore fronts the lagoon to the east. Save for the outline of NASA’s massive Vehicle Assembly Building on the southern horizon, it’s almost possible for visiting anglers to imagine the lagoon as Ponce de Leon saw it in 1513.


Lagoon Game Fish
Variety is indeed the spice of life throughout the IRL, and Mosquito Lagoon is no exception. The area holds plenty of sea trout, including some big ones. The upper IRL has never been a hot spot for tarpon and snook, and both took a big hit during the devastating freeze in the winter of 2010. However, both are coming back, and the “ditch” fishing for baby tarpon around the lagoon can be good. Black drum prowl the flats, although they are notoriously difficult to take on fly tackle.
   But the lagoon is known as the Redfish Capital of the World for a reason, and most visiting anglers concentrate on this species. The lagoon contains vast numbers of redfish, and they’re there—somewhere—year-round. During the winter and spring, fishing is generally best on the large grass flats in the southern half of the lagoon, where there’s more water and channels provide escape habitat during cold weather. Even then, fish move up onto the shallows to feed once radiant heat from the sun starts to raise the water temperature. Encounters with large schools of feeding redfish in knee-deep water are always possible. During the summer, reds move closer to shore and into the upper reaches of the lagoon as water levels and temperatures rise.
   In many redfish destinations, anglers face a tough choice: sight-fish the flats for lots of “puppy drum” in the 4- to 6-pound range or prospect for a few bigger fish in deep water offshore. But the lagoon is essentially a closed system, and in contrast to what they do in most flats destinations, large, sexually mature redfish generally don’t leave its sheltered waters to reproduce offshore. This biological quirk makes the lagoon the best place in the country to stalk the flats hunting big redfish with
your eyes.
   No wonder it’s called the Redfish Capital of the World.


Getting Around
Before you start casting you have to get to the fish, and that can be complicated.
   Shoreline access is limited (by terrain, not regulation), and even though it is possible to wade in some parts of the lagoon you’re never going to get very far on foot. Ergo, this discussion begins and usually ends with a boat. 
   Boating the lagoon is a challenge for a number of reasons. The Intracoastal Waterway enters the lagoon’s midsection from the west by way of the Haulover Canal and runs north through Ponce Inlet. Leave this marked channel and you’re on your own in a minefield of shallow, unmarked flats and bars. Boating restrictions include no-wake manatee protection zones near the shoreline and a large (and most welcome!) “pole or troll” zone on the eastern side of the lower lagoon. In this area, propulsion by internal combustion engines is not allowed, limiting boaters to poles, paddles, or electric trolling motors. Since the intent of this restriction is to prevent powerboats from driving fish off the flats (as well as avoiding prop scars on the lagoon’s fragile bottom), I’m all for it—but whoever is running the boat needs to know the rules and boundaries.
   All this makes a sound argument for an extremely shallow-running flats boat and plenty of local knowledge. No matter how much you enjoy fishing on your own, lagoon newcomers will do well to hire an experienced guide until they’ve learned more about the area.


Challenging Redfish
I’ve enjoyed a fair amount of experience with redfish in various habitats, from the southern end of Laguna Madre in Texas around the Gulf and north to Georgia. I’ve generally found them cooperative, easy to approach, and ready to pounce on almost any fly thrown in their vicinity. Be advised: redfish in Mosquito Lagoon are a different game.
   During the colder months, reds—even big ones—often travel in large, rapidly moving schools. Getting into position to present a fly can require some deft work with the push pole from the stern. The chances of finding solitary, tailing fish improve during the summer.
   As that first cast on a recent trip demonstrated, the fish can be remarkably spooky in comparison to reds elsewhere. I’m not sure I can explain this phenomenon completely, but crystal-clear water and disturbance from boaters who lack the courtesy to shut down their motors once they leave the channels are likely contributing factors. The bottom line is that you should be ready to unfurl long, accurate casts with a minimum of fuss. Think Keys bonefish rather than south Texas reds.
   Accurate presentation is generally more important than fly selection in drawing strikes. Lagoon regulars use a variety of shrimp and crab patterns as well as numerous variations of the Borski Slider. Le’s enthusiasm for black fly patterns initially struck me as odd, but then I remembered that another old friend, Jacksonville-area guide Russell Tharin, shared that opinion, and we’d caught plenty of big redfish on black Clousers while fishing together near Amelia Island. Carrying something in basic black is a wise idea when headed for Mosquito Lagoon. Also, be sure to carry plenty of flies with weed guards. You’ll need them on many of the shallow grass flats.
   The bottom of the lagoon is generally clean, and break-offs are rare. However, the fish aren’t leader-shy even in clear water, so there’s no reason to fish with anything lighter than 15-pound tippet.


Making Memories
Le, Lori, and I played cat and mouse with two more schools of reds right after my ill-advised false cast ended our first encounter, and the mice were winning. But I was learning to respect the lagoon’s redfish, and my casting form was starting to return after the long winter layoff. As we moved into position to intercept another school, I felt myself entering the zone. 
   As the wall of nervous water pushed toward us, I finally saw fish beneath the surface at the edge of casting range. The fish in the last two schools hadn’t been as large as those in the first, and these weren’t either. But they were plenty big enough. My cast unfolded according to script, leaving my fly plainly visible in the ethereal water. Then a pair of fish darted out ahead of the school, the fly disappeared, and the fly line in my hand turned into backing.
   There are lots of places to catch redfish in the southern United States, including destinations that offer wading anglers numerous shots at naive fish. Why head to Mosquito Lagoon?
   Both the water and the shoreline terrain are pristine and beautiful. From much of the lagoon, the only sign of human artifice is the Kennedy Space Center in the distance, and I’m old enough to remember the sense of exhilaration all Americans felt when John Glenn first stuck his toe in the great ocean beyond the ionosphere.
   Sight-casting to redfish is one thing, but sight-casting to big reds is another. An angler may well see more 20-pound reds in one day on the lagoon than in an entire season anywhere else.
   Finally, consider the element of challenge. Mosquito Lagoon redfish are meaningful in the same way big spring creek brown trout are meaningful. In many locations, when I cast to a redfish I expect a strike. In the lagoon, every redfish hooked represents a half-dozen difficult tasks performed well by the angler and a mistake on the part of the fish.
And those are the fish we remember.


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