Saltwater Fly Fishing is a rapidly growing sector of the Fly Fishing “industry.” I am unable to put my finger on the specific reasons for this trend, however I assume it has to do with the allure of large fish, warm weather, soothing waves and recovering game fish populations in the southern United States. Fly Fishing the salt water is beyond doubt a unique challenge, certainly more difficult than bait fishing the ocean.
Sanibel Island is a special place for Fly Fishing, a fine vacation spot and a frequent haunt of the Moose Knuckle Fly Fishing team. The island is home to Norm Ziegler who authored the book, “Snook on the Fly.” My last time on the island was in 2014; it had been too long since fishing the beaches last. Owing to my international travel for work I had accumulated miles and was able to snag a free flight and first class upgrade from Delta.
The occasion for this momentous escapade was Mark’s 35th birthday, coincidently, the first time I came to Sanibel was for Mark’s 30th. Time flies when you are Fly Fishing the world and all. Typically the best time to target Snook in Sanibel is June and July, however a good trip for the birthday is always in order.
Arriving at Sanibel Island was a bit worrying with some brisk weather changes occurring which had an adverse impact on fishing. When we got there it was cloudy and a massive storm system had settled in that Mark refers to as an “eastern wave,” as the storm moves across Florida from east to west. Standing on the beach in the rain and fishing yielded one Sea Trout for Mark. The water was far too choppy for effective Fly Fishing.
When we awoke the next morning, the weather front was circling, with thunder boomers all night. It is easy to fish in the rain but not advisable in a thunder storm. The good news was that the rain cleared around 11AM allowing us calm water to fish. As soon as I cast a line in the water, I saw the bait out on the second bar. There appeared to be some mackerel and ladyfish out there. Since it was already past the golden hour for Snook I figured to tie on a glass minnow and give it a shot. Sure enough landed a nice mackerel and had a few bumps until they bit my fly off. The skunk was now off of the trip.
The next day was to be the highlight of my time on this expedition. Mark’s mom had given him a “Benny” for us to rent a canoe and head out on Tarpon Bay to hunt for Gator Trout, Redfish and Snook in the Mangroves. Well she probably just figured to go on a leisurely canoe ride. This boat ride was to be anything but a leisurely three hour cruise…
We were trapped in a weather rut this week with the rain, thunderstorms, wind and rough gulf water. This was forcing a re-thought of the strategy landing us squarely at Tarpon Bay Marina a facility where Randy Wayne White worked until 1987. The marina rents out long canoes with a motor and paddles right on Tarpon Bay. This offers the opportunity to land a Redfish, Sea Trout and a Snook also known as an inshore slam.
Pursuing the Snook with a fly rod requires the correct fly pattern for the environment, which you are seeking a fish in. Typically a saltwater fly pattern’s effectiveness is color driven. This is why Norm’s Crystal Schminnow is the best fly for seeking Snook in the Sanibel Island environs. It mimics common baitfish and shrimp at the same time, exciting the predatory instinct of the Snook.
Heading out at 8AM after a run to Bailey’s for breakfast we were equipped with a Canoe, two paddles and a fully charged battery. The day was forecast to be a little windy though not unfishable. Mark used his shrimp bait and a popping cork to land a nice gator trout (large Sea Trout). I was using a tan shrimp pattern and sort of drifting it with small actions. I had a few little nibbles but no solid connections. The wind kicked up hard forcing us to move to the leeward side of some mangroves.
To pull Snook out of the mangroves with a fly rod you need to do a few things. First rig up on an 8WT rod and at least 30 lb shock tippet, this gives the angler the ability to tractor the fish out before wrapping up in the mangroves. Second, your cast needs to slide in under the mangrove branch or right near it, this takes some practice however it pays off when the Snook are in the nooks and crannies under the mangroves. Third, once you get the hook up, you need to lower your rod tip to the water and retrieve to prevent that Snook from tangling in the mangrove roots.
As we pulled around the leeward side of the mangroves the boat aligned with my typical casting distance and I fired out about 60 feet of line. The schminnow unfurled on the water, sliding right into the mangrove, at a point I worried it would become stuck. I performed two small strip retrieves and the fly just stopped hard, Snook on! Next I moved the pole for the set and lowered the line tip into the water, keeping the tension on at all times. My finger began to burn from the fast stripping and tension, however I did not give up. The Snook had some nice runs in it putting up quite the fight and punishing my hand. Finally the Snook was in the boat and we had success!
We turned deeper into the mangroves and I had a few quick battles with smaller Snook but the wind started to get worse and our electric motor was acting up. Taking the safe decision we set off towards the marina to have the boat fixed before continuing, it was lunchtime after all. As we pushed across Tarpon Bay in the direction from which we came the motor continued to lose thrust. Each section of the journey we backtracked over became increasingly difficult to head against the wind. Not helping the matter is that the wind speed itself was increasing while clouds gathered in the distance.
As the entire situation began to seem hopeless, the marina gave us a ring on Mark’s mobile advising us to return and seek cover. Upon hearing of our predicament the marina sent out a rescue boat, which was very welcome. Thanks to the rescue, we made it back to the marina and did not get blown out to sea!