Fishing in tidal rivers for winter redfish in shallow water might be one of the best kept secrets in southwest Florida. Sarasota, FL is a prime location to target winter redfish. The Manatee River is just north of the city, while the Myakka and Peace Rivers are a short drive to the south.  All three tidal rivers offer some of the best fishing opportunities for winter redfish in shallow water.

Winter redfish are the target of many shallow water enthusiasts. Florida’s winter, if you want to call it that, brings about changes that allow redfish to flourish in tidal rivers. December through February are the main months to target winter redfish in tidal rivers. Cooler inshore water temperatures invite redfish into areas they abandoned during the warmer months. This gives anglers the opportunity to fish for redfish in shallow water of the wild back country.

Redfish Winter Wonderland

Tidal rivers and creeks offer some of the most scenic views and skinniest water around to hunt winter redfish. Sinuous feeder creeks, shallow bays, and remote coves offer us a quiet place to search out redfish. On the shoreline horizon, oaks tinseled with spanish moss and giant pines tower over cabbage palms. Dense clusters of mangroves and intermittent marsh grasses hug the water’s edge.

Bottom substrate varies depending on where in the river we are.  Larger bays often have an earthy mustard colored bottom made of coarse sediment and sand. The presence of aquatic worms, a delicacy for redfish, is obvious by the countless holes drilled through the bottom. Smaller and shallower coves show a dark bottom, closely resembling coffee grounds. These are the mud flats.

Dark mud flats collect heat from the sun and offer warmer water temperatures on the coldest of mornings for life in the river. Mullet and other baitfish love these muddy flats.  If there are mullet and other bait on a mud flat, then redfish will be nearby.

It’s rare to find other anglers fishing here. Most boats just can’t make it into the skinny water. Instead of anglers, we share these winter waters with Roseatte spoonbills, tricolored herons, and little blue herons. They wade through the tannin stained waters, hunting for invertebrates and baitfish. They are good redfish omens.

Winter Redfish Tides

Winter redfish use the tides probably better than any other fish in brackish rivers. Tides sweep water around points and through hidden mangrove tunnels. The tidal push of water creates funnels and zones for hungry redfish. Positioning a skiff into these zones is a sneaky way for anglers to ambush winter redfish. An Incoming tide brings a push of new water and replenishes the shallowest areas. Redfish scramble to get into the newly available real estate where they prospect for food.

An outgoing tide tugs water out of feeder creeks, and spills bait, crustaceans, and worms down current. At creek mouths, redfish will position themselves to pounce on any life that flushes their way. More aggressive redfish surge into shallow creeks to destroy small fish. They push some serious surface wakes in this skinny water. Outgoing tides aren’t much different from pulling the plug on a bath tub. Less and less water is available as the tide drains out. Redfish feel this and are compelled to feed and retreat to deeper water. At low tide, we’ll often find redfish still feeding in the deeper coves further up river.

Tides have a major impact on anglers fishing for winter redfish in shallow water. At least they should! I’ve had a few close calls, but one experience of barely escaping a shallow cove as it drained into the main river grabs your attention and makes you rethink your approach. Learning the water and understanding what coves, bays or runs have suitable depth during any given tide is a requirement. Nobody wants to waste hours in a tidal river stuck in a back bay, far from fishable water.

Winter Redfish Feeding Attitude

Crustaceans, mullet, and other forage fish are on the menu for redfish. On a rising tide, reds want to be the first ones to that shallow cove, bay, or sandbar to find food. The quantity of food available directly impacts the attitude of a redfish. The more food available in one area for redfish, the better it is for the angler.

In my experience, when redfish are surrounded by food, they go into a trance. With food at every turn, winter redfish become hyper-focused on eating whatever moves. Redfish in a feeding trance can become so careless that they eat flies or lures at your feet. When this happens, enjoy it because occasions like this are rare. The fishing can be so good that it will ruin an undisciplined angler.

Other days (most days) we’ll need to work much harder to catch these shallow water winter reds.  When food is scarcer, redfish cover more ground for their meals. Traveling redfish are sensitive. Noises, vibrations, and sudden movements will send these fish in the opposite direction of a skiff.  They’re on alert and in tune to their surroundings. Shallow water redfish on the move rattle easily and become the target of disparaging remarks from frustrated anglers and guides.

Assuming that most winter redfish we target are not in a trance, using a tactful approach is necessary. A trolling motor is not recommended unless you’re able to deliver long casts with spinning gear. For fly fishing charters, I jettison the trolling motor and batteries and control the skiff with a push pole. Removing that weight gives me an extra inch or so of draft back and that helps float my Maverick Mirage in the skinniest of waters.

Spin Fishing for Winter Redfish with Artificial Lures

Note: Since we’re all grownups here, we’ll skip right past the section on live and cut bait techniques.

Anglers using artificial lures with spinning tackle have a huge advantage when targeting shallow water winter redfish. The ability to deliver long casts keeps the skiff farther away from the redfish. We use a variety of baits to trick redfish into making a mistake. Soft plastics on jig heads allow the angler the ability to work an area slowly and thoroughly. The Mirrolure lil john in dark or earthy colors is a good bet for the tidal rivers in our area. Pairing them with a jig head between an eighth ounce & quarter ounce is a good choice. Redfish have tough leathery mouths, so don’t skimp on jigheads. Use a jighead with a hook sharp enough to pierce through their mouths and strong enough not to bend straight.

Spoons work just as well on winter redfish in tidal rivers as they do on the inshore flats. The Aqua Dream ADL series spoon works well and is the most aesthetically pleasing spoon on the market. Using a spoon to target winter redfish gives the angler the ability to cover large swaths of shallow water rapidly. A straight steady retrieve works best. If a redfish is waking behind the spoon, then moderately increasing the retrieval speed usually seals the deal.

Plugs are awesome baits for winter redfish. Topwater plugs that ‘walk the dog’ don’t produce as many fish as other plugs. But when a redfish decides to eat a topwater plug, it’s an incredible visual experience. We use them sparingly on tidal river charters. Suspending subsurface plugs are a more consistent option. The Catch 2000 and the Mirrodine XL are two great plugs for shallow water fishing.

Fly Fishing for Winter Redfish

This is about as challenging as it gets with a fly rod. Sight fishing for redfish in skinny water is not an easy proposition. The skiff needs to be moved and positioned with stealth. The fly angler delivering the fly needs to be able to shoot line, drop back casts, and land the line softly. A good strip set is critical on redfish. Anglers with limited fly fishing experience may find this trip to be too much for them and would be wise to choose a charter that better matched their skill level.

Normally, an eight weight is the ideal size rod for redfish. But in clear shallow water, going down to a 7 or even 6 weight is much less intrusive and spooks far fewer fish. If played correctly, a large redfish can be tamed by a 6 weight.  Fluorocarbon leaders as light as 15 pound test are necessary on wary redfish.

Flies should be presented in close proximity to the fish. For moving redfish, anticipate their path and lead them with your cast. Slide the fly into position before they intersect its path. Impart the least amount of action into the fly necessary to grab their attention. We want to make it their idea.  

When redfish appear randomly, a fly angler needs to be able to adjust. The fly may need to be delivered on strange casting angles. A redfish might do something maddening like appear directly behind where the angler is facing. These improvisational situations require a fly to be dropped accurately and softly on the back cast.

For fly selection I use mostly unweighted flies with natural materials. Seaducers and similar flies provide the soft landing required for close range combat with redfish. A gurgler works in coves that redfish and nervous mullet have mudded up. Weighted flies can be too much for nervous redfish at times. Extra small size clouser eyes is about as heavy as I go, but bead chain eyes are preferable. Weed guards are a must in the back country. Stay away from single post weed guards in tidal creeks. Single post weed guards are not nearly as effective as the v-shaped dual post guards. V-shaped guards are as much tree guards as they are weed guards. They allow anglers to quickly shake a fly out of an overhanging mangrove and redeliver it towards a redfish.

The Rub

Shallow water winter redfish in a tidal river setting is not necessarily an easy endeavor, especially for fly anglers. Of course there are days when redfish make one bad decision after another and make it entirely too easy on us. But on other days, redfish are wary and the game becomes more challenging. These are large fish in very clear shallow water and they are sensitive to their surroundings. This is not a trip for the novice angler. This is a charter for experienced anglers craving a challenge or new experience. These anglers embrace the wild beauty we find in the waters of the back country and are singularly focused on hunting redfish with a fly rod or artificial baits.

If you’re up for the awesome experience of fishing for winter redfish in the shallow waters of tidal rivers, then give me a call or shoot me an email (information below). If you’re looking for a different charter that more suits your interests or skill-level, then let’s talk about some incredible alternatives.

See you on the water soon!

Captain Brian Boehm
Sarasota, FL