Fly fishing Sarasota rivers

Fly fishing Sarasota rivers

Sarasota offers visitors a unique angling opportunity; fly fishing Sarasota rivers.  While the saltwater fishing gets the attention, Sarasota has some greeat river fly fishing.

The Manatee River and Myakka River lie 30 minutes from Sarasota beaches.  Fly fishing Sarasota rivers gives anglers the chance to catch trophy snook on fly.  This occurs in a very interesting and relaxing setting.  Other species such as bass, redfish, jacks, gar and more are also available.  This happens in the cooler months, usually from mid October to early April.

“Oooh, I like the looks of that one!” I said as Ben opened up his fly box for me to inspect. I could tell by the look on his face that he did not share my enthusiasm. It was a white and olive Clouser pattern with a lot of gold flash. Gold is always a good choice when fly fishing Sarasota rivers in the tannin-stained water.

“Let’s just give it a half hour or so, and we can change it if it is not producing”.

Ben’s opinion of the fly changed shortly as he fooled a feisty little snook in just a few casts and over the next hour landed several more to 27”.  The Myakka River holds a lot of snook in the cooler months and it a fairly reliable fishery for anglers taking out a river fishing charter.

fly fishing Sarasota rivers

The Myakka River flows through Sarasota County 10 miles east of Sarasota and Venice, an hour south of Tampa on the west coast of Florida. It eventually flows south and along with the Peace River.  They create a renowned saltwater fishery; Charlotte Harbor. In the summer the water is high and fast from all of the rain, but in the cooler months it settles into a nice tidal river. As the water in the Harbor cools down, snook migrate up into the river to seek sanctuary in the warmer, deeper water. There is also a lot of food (bluegill, tilapia, mullet, fry, and crabs) for them to feed on.

Easy fly fishing, short casts

For the most part, this is fairly easy fly fishing. Short casts are the norm when fly fishing Sarasota rivers.  Managing the back cast is the primary challenge. An 8wt or 9wt outfit with an intermediate sink tip line is a good choice for the river. The leader is simple; just attach a 6’ section of 30 lb fluorocarbon and then tie on a fly. Fly selection is also pretty basic with Clouser patters in darker colors with some gold or rootbeer, along with a “firetiger” fly work well. Tie the fly on a #1 hook using large weighted eyes to get the fly down a few feet. Broad patterns such as Puglisi flies will also fool the wily snook, but are a bit harder to cast and will hang up more often.

fly fishing Sarasota rivers

Floating down the river with the current and casting towards likely fish-holding structure along the shoreline is the most productive technique. Shallow draft boats such as jon boats, canoes, and kayaks perform best, the water can get very shallow in spots. Make a cast, allow a few seconds to sink, then retrieve the fly back in using one foot strips. When a take occurs, use the “strip set” method to hook the fish. Pull sharply with the stripping hand and then raise the rod tip. Jerking the tip up as you might in trout fishing will result in fewer hook-ups.

As in all fishing, vary the retrieve until a productive pattern emerges. Again, this is pretty straight-forward fishing and it is mostly a matter of covering the water until a hungry fish is located. Though snook is the primary target, largemouth bass, juvenile tarpon, gar, jack crevelle, tilapia, and other species are frequently landed as well.

Fly fishing the Myakka River

The Myakka is one of two rivers designated a “Wild and scenic river” in the state of Florida. This means limited access and development resulting in a relaxed and serene experience. The entire river is also a “No-wake” zone. Fly fishing for snook on the Myakka is a unique experience that is a half hour drive from the resort town of Sarasota, but a world away in terms of environment.  Access to the Myakka River is limited, this is partly why it remains so remote feeling.  Snook Haven in Venice, Fl offers the bast spot to launch boats to fish the river.  It is also a cool little park with a restaurant.  Visitors can enjoy lunch after a morning fishing trip.  It is also a good place to rent canoes or launch a kayak.  Visiting anglers should give fly fishing Sarasota rivers a try!

fly fishing Sarasota rivers

Fly fishing the Manatee River

The Manatee River runs forty five minutes north east of Sarasota.  It begins at Lake Manatee and the river flows west from the dam.  Much of the river is very shallow and suited only from kayaks ans canoes.  The stretch of the Manatee River from Rye Rd to Ft. Hamer is the most productive for fly fishing.  Anglers can access the river from a very nice ramp and park at Ft. Hamer.  Another more primitive ramp can be used at Ray’s Canoe Hideaway.  Ray’s offers canoe rentals along with bait for fishing.

The Manatee River offer anglers the chance to catch the most variety of species.  Snook, redfish, jack crevelle, juvenile tarpon, and ladyfish are saltwater species landed.  Freshwater species include largemouth bass, catfish, bream, gar, and sunshine bass.  The shorter length of the river, freshwater fish washing over the dam, and proximity to Tampa Bay all are factors for contributing to this unique fishery.

Fly fishing the Braden River

The Braden river is quite short and is a tributary of the Manatee River.  It is purely saltwater and offers anglers the opportunity to catch snook, redfish, and other species.  However, the highlight of the Braden River is the consistent fly fishing for large jack crevelle.  Jacks put up a tremendous battle on fly tackle!  They use their broad sides to pull very hard.  Often times, jacks can be seen  working on the surface.  Snook fishing can be very good, and redfish are caught with regularity.

The Braden River is more developed than the Manatee and Myakka.  It has a lot of houses and road noise can be heard.  The Braden River is also shorter, which can tend to concentrate fish in the deeper areas.  It is also the most convenient, being a short drive from Sarasota beaches.  There is a ramp with parking and facilities on SR 64 where it crosses the river.

fly fishing Sarasota rivers

Shallow water

It sounds like a contradiction, but often times the largest fish are found in the shallowest of water. While the deeper grass flats hold schools of fish and is a better option for action and numbers. Fly anglers seeking a trophy will do well focusing on shallow grass flats, oyster bars, and mangrove shorelines. Redfish and jack crevelle school up in shallow water, the largest trout are loners and will set up in potholes in shallow flats, and snook will feed on bait in the skinny water as well.

This type of fishing has exploded in popularity in recent years. Flats and bay boats abound and kayak fishing is very popular. The result is that these fish receive a LOT of pressure, especially in the popular Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor areas. Fish in these shallow areas are spooky and require different tactics in order to be successful.

Tackle requirements are similar to other inshore fishing applications, a 7wt or 8wt outfit is fine. Floating lines are used as the water fished is seldom more that 3 feet deep.  Longer leaders with a 20lb bite tippet will increase the chances of fooling fish. But, the biggest change in tactics is the need for patience and stealth.

Fish in water this shallow are extremely spooky and the slightest noise or shadow can send them running for cover. The most popular fly patterns are Clouser Minnow, Lefty Deceiver, and Crystal MInnow patterns in white or bait fish colors.

Fly tactics

The approach when attacking a flat or shoreline is similar to that of the deep flats in that the wind and tide are factors that need to be taken into account. Whenever possible, choosing an area where the wind and tide will move the boat in the same direction. Obviously, a shallow draft boat will be required to access these areas. The classic situation is a flats skiff with the angler positioned on the bow and the guide or other angler poling the boat from the stern or poling platform.

Many anglers prefer the low, incoming tide when working the shallows. Fish will stage on the edges where the flat drops off, waiting for the water to come up. Fish will then get up on the flat, scatter out, and search for food. Along the same lines, fish will gang up in “potholes”. These are depressions in the flats that can range in size from a foot to to over 20 feet and larger. In both instances, the low water concentrates the fish, making them easier to locate. The more water that there is on a flat the more places the fish can be.

Tide strength and heights are crucial elements when fly fishing in the shallows. Anglers need to study the tide charts, it is much more complex than just the times of the high and low tides. The tide height and speed at which it is moving are very important to know so that anglers can understand fish movements. Wind is also a factor; a northeast wind will empty a flat of water while a south wind will flood it.

Drifting and sight casting

Anglers can choose to either blind cast likely looking areas or sight cast to specific fish or small bunches of fish. As the boat eases down the shoreline or across the flat, the fly is cast towards the shoreline or potholes and grass edges.  The fly is allowed to sink a moment, and retrieved back in. Unlike the deep grass flats, the fish will normally be found in small areas and bunched up. It will take time, effort, and patience to eliminate unproductive water.

Blind casting will normally produce more fish, but sight casting is very exciting! This is exactly what it sounds like, an angler either readies on the bow while boat fishing or stealthily wades a flat, visually searching for fish. Once sighted, the fly is cast out, taking into account the position of the fish and direction it is moving, and hopefully a take ensues.

It can be a bit overwhelming at first, but there are some things that anglers should key on to help locate fish. Edges are always worth investigating, whether it is a weed bad, oyster bar, or drop off. Current edges can also be used as ambush points by predators. Mangrove shorelines are very enticing, but there are miles and miles of them and fish will only be in short sections.

Searching out spots

The key is to find something different such as cuts, oyster bars, and especially holes and deeper water, fish will definitely hold there. Also, anglers will want to see signs of life; there is nothing worse than a “dead” flat. Areas that show glass minnows and other baitfish, mullet schools, birds, are promising.  The best of all flats with fish tailing, waking, or working bait are prime spots.

Anglers that are serious about mastering this technique will need to put in their time. Choosing a small area and learning it well is a good investment and will serve the angler well. It is amazing how different these types of spots are with just a little change in tide height. Learning the tides, bottom, and local fish migrations in one small area will help them catch fish in other locations.

Wading can be an extremely effective strategy when targeting fish in shallow water, especially once a productive area is located. Some experienced guides will pole an area and not even fish, just look for signs and fish. Once a likely area is identified, they get out of the boat and walk. With the pressure that fish get these days, being able to eliminate boat noises. This will allow fly casters to get much closer to their quarry and have more time to react.

Kayaks have become popular are are great tools to use to fish shallow flats. They give anglers access to waters that power boats can’t launch. Kayaks float very shallow and are virtually silent. Anglers can fish from the kayak or use it to get to productive areas where they can get out and wade. They are low-maintenance and effective platforms from which to fish.

Sarasota Trolling Techniques

Sarasota Trolling Techniques

Trolling on Sarasota Fishing Charters

There are many productive methods of catching fish.  Sarasota trolling is a technique that every angler should add to his or her arsenal.  Sarasota trolling techniques will help put more fish in the boat.

Trolling is a technique that has proven to be extremely effective in saltwater fishing for a very long time.  Most anglers envision a large sport fishing boat out on the open ocean, trolling for tuna and marlin.  But trolling can also be deadly using fairly light tackle on inland waters, too.  I am a fishing guide and troll on fishing charters in Sarasota Bay, the Myakka River, and Lake Manatee.  During the cooler months, rivers, creeks, and residential canals offer anglers the chance to catch snook, jack crevelle, tarpon, and other species.  Flats and passes can be productive all year long.  Trolling produces in the Inshore Gulf of Mexico in the spring and fall.  Crappie, bream, and bass will hit trolled lures in freshwater lakes and rivers.  Trolling is a great technique to both locate and catch quality fish. 

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Trolling in creeks and rivers

Rivers, creeks, and residential canals abound all throughout the state of Florida and provide good fishing at one time or another.  As the flats cool off, fish will migrate into these areas as they offer protection from the elements.  The best rivers and canals will provide fish the sanctuary of deep water as well as abundant structure.  The entire coastline of Florida offers these opportunities for anglers.

Snook took a big hit in the winter of 2010 as a prolonged cold snap dropped the water temperature into the upper forties.  I believe that if it wasn’t for the deep holes in the rivers where snook spend their winters, the damage would have been MUCH worse.  Numbers of smaller snook are on the increase while larger fish are regularly landed.  These are great signs and while snook were opened to a limited harvest, I still release all of them, even if a slot fish is landed in season.  Snook are magnificent gamefish, it would break my heart to kill one.  There are plenty of other good-eating fish to target, let those big girls go!

Sarasota trolling techniques

Anglers have been catching snook by trolling for many years.  Back in the 50s the Spoonplug was the hot bait, and it still produces to this day.  I enjoy trolling shallow diving plugs and Rapalas are my personal favorite.  Rapala X-Rap Slashbaits in sizes #8 and #10 in, depending on the depth of the water and the size of the available forage, and Jointed BX Minnows work very well trolled as well as cast.  Firetiger, Gold Shiner, and gold are proven colors.  These lures have a great built-in action and strong, sharp hooks.  Most fish caught trolling will be hooked in the mouth, resulting in most being released unharmed.  Another advantage with these plugs is that they float, therefore when the boat is stopped they rise to the surface instead of sinking and getting hung up on the bottom.

Tackle and rigging for trolling is pretty straightforward.  I use the same rods and rigging for trolling as I do when casting the same baits.  A 7’ spinning or baitcasting rod and reel with 40 lb braid and 30” of 40 lb fluorocarbon leader is all that is required.  Then it is simply a matter of letting back a hundred feet of line and driving up the river or canal at idle speed or a touch above.  Florida rivers tend to undulate; the depth will change quite often.  Many times the fish will lie on these breaks or edges, waiting to ambush bait; fish-holding structure is not always visible.  It is surprising how many big fish will bust a plug right out in the middle, giving the angler a good chance to land it.

I have my clients on a Sarasota fishing charter hold the rod when trolling, for several reasons.  First off and most important, it is more enjoyable as they get to feel the strike.  Also, the lures I use don’t dive very deep, so having the client keep the rod near the surface maximizes the depth that the plug will run.  These plugs “vibrate” and if a piece of debris is picked up the angler can usually feel it and then clear the bait.  And finally, it can be a bit tricky removing a rod from the holder when the boat is moving and the rod is bent double!

Trolling inshore

Trolling with light tackle also produces very well inshore.  I do a lot of drifting on my Sarasota fishing charters, both in the passes and over deep expanses of grass.  There are usually other anglers fishing, so courtesy dictates a slow idle back around to make another drift.  Since we will just be easing along, why not drag a bait behind?  My go-to lure is a #8 X-Rap in olive or glass ghost (white), it has been very productive as it matches the bait we have in our area.  Once the treble hooks get beat up, I remove them and add a single 1/0 hook on the rear.  The hook-up ratio remains good and it makes releasing fish MUCH easier.  In fact, some plugs now come with a strong single hook for just this reason.

Again, just let out about half the spool and move at idle speed or just above.  Many times clients catch more fish doing this than they do when drifting and casting.  Spanish mackerel in particular find it difficult to resist a fast moving plug, but bluefish, ladyfish, jacks, trout, and other species will also fall prey to this method.  One technique that often pays off is the twitch the rod tip sharply while trolling along.  This will often times elicit a violent strike!  Fish find the little pause where the plug drops back to be irresistible at times.

Trolling is also a good technique to employ when fish are scattered about over a large area.  The best approach is to move into the tide or wind and when a fish is hooked the boat is stopped.  Anglers can then cast jigs, plugs, or spoons as the boat drifts back over the school.  As action drops off, resume trolling again until another bunch of fish is found.  One benefit to this is that the same lures that are great trolling baits are also equally effective cast out and retrieved back in; there is no need to have separate trolling and casting outfits.

Trolling will produce at the same spots inshore as other methods.  Grass flats in four feet to ten feet of water will hold speckled trout, mackerel, bluefish, ladyfish, and other species.  Edges of drop offs are good spots to try as well.  Both Big Sarasota Pass and New Pass are terrific spots to troll for Spanish mackerel and bluefish.  These open sandy areas are large and trolling is a great way to locate fish.

Trolling the inshore Gulf of Mexico

Sarasota trolling techniques

Sarasota trolling has been a staple of anglers fishing the inshore Gulf of Mexico for many years.  Pelagic species such as king mackerel, Spanish mackerel, false albacore, and cobia migrate along the west coast of Florida.  These game fish follow behind the huge schools of bait fish.  This is their primary forage.   A fast moving plug or spoon mimics the prey.  This is a very easy technique than any angler can employ to catch a big fish!

Plugs are a great choice when Sarasota trolling.  The larger the lip on the plug, the deeper it will dive.  Fairly stout tackle will be required when trolling a large plug.  Conventional tackle in the 30 pound class is perfect.  Heavy spinning tackle will work as well.  A plug that dives down fifteen feet or so is perfect to target a large king mackerel.  I prefer to use a 5′ piece of 80 pound flourocarbon leader instead of wire.  Wire will prevent cut-offs but will limit strikes.

Game fish will hold over hard bottom, ledges, and artificial reefs.  Sarasota County has an extensive artificial reef program.  Several are close to shore for anglers with a small boat.  Ledges and good bottom can only be located by spending time out on the water.  Once located, these spots will produce year after year.  Bait schools milling on the surface can be an indication of structure below.

Small plugs can also be extremely effective in the Gulf of Mexico off of Siesta Key beaches.  Often times the bait is very small.  A #8 Rapala X-Rap is a prefect match for the smaller forage.  White is a very productive color.  Surface activity will alert anglers to the presence of game fish.  Mackerel and false albacore can be seen terrorizing helpless baitfish on the surface.  The best approach is to skirt the edge of the feeding fish.  Do not drive the boat right through the action.  They will go down and may not resurface.

Trolling lures

Spoons also produce a lot of fish.  Clark Spoons and other manufacturers make special spoons designed for trolling.  Spoons can be used when trolling in a couple of different ways.  Due to boat speeds, some type of device is needed to get the spoon down in the water column.  The easiest method is to tie a trolling sinker to the end of the line.  These are torpedo shaped and come in a variety of weights.  A ten foot long leader is tied to the sinker and then a trolling spoon is tied to the tag end.  This is really quite simple and deadly on Spanish mackerel.

Planers are another device used to get spoons down deeper.  They are effective but are a bit more complicated.  The planer is tied onto the running line.  A twenty foot leader is attached to the planer, followed by the spoon on the tag end.  Planers come in several sizes, but #1 and #2 planers are the ones used in shallow Gulf of Mexico water.  A #1 planer will dive five to seven feet.  A #2 planer will dive down around fifteen feet.

The planer must be “set”.  This is done by slowly lowering the planer into the water after the spoon is let out.  With the ring up, water pressure will pull the planer down.  The planer is then let out behind the boat to the desired length.  The rod is then placed in a holder.  When a fish hits, the planer will “trip”, allowing the angler to fight the fish without the drag of the planer.  Plugs can be used with planers, but they must have a small lip.  Large lips will trip the planer.

Trolling in freshwater

Speckled perch (crappie, to our northern friends) are a favorite of Florida anglers and trolling for them has become a very popular.  The basics are the same, but the technique is a bit different.  As in other applications, trolling allows an angler to cover a lot of water in a short amount of time.  Jigs are most often used, but Beetlespins are also effective.  The Blakemore Roadrunner is a very productive bait that combines both a spinner and a jig in one lure.  Some anglers use spider rigs and other elaborate set-ups to get as many lines in the water as possible.  I prefer to keep it simple; once again having my client hold the road and enjoy feeling the strike.

Sarasota trolling techniques

On deeper lakes with distinct contour changes, the best approach is to very slowly troll back and forth over edges where the bottom changes depth, crappie will often hold in these locations.  Changing speeds on the turns will cause the lures to rise and fall, triggering strikes.  On shallower lakes, just drive around, skirting the edges of weedlines or over submerged vegetation until the fish are located.  On the flat, shallow Florida lakes, even the slightest depth change can make a huge difference.  Locating a trough or hole in a featureless lake will result in a reliable fishing spot.

So, the next time you are idling along on your favorite lake, river, or inland bay, try dragging a lure out behind the boat.  You never know what might eat it!