Redfish are the perfect species to target when flats fishing in Sarasota, Florida. Anglers that understand the skills and techniques that work best, will put more redfish in the boat. Catching redfish in shallow water on the Sarasota flats is a pursuit that is perfectly suited for most flats fishing anglers. Sarasota is home to a unique redfish fishery that provides the perfect challenge for anglers focused on hunting redfish in shallow water with artificial lures.
Redfish are musclebound brutes. They bully their way around the shallow flats of Sarasota where they will hunt or scavenge for their food. Reds are opportunistic feeders, rarely turning down an easy meal. Over grass on the shallow flats, redfish live up to their name and appear as reddish silhouettes as they cruise through skinny water. Their mood seems to dictate how they feed, how readily they pursue artificial lures, and how willing they are to be captured.
Shallow Water Redfish are Memorable
In West Central Florida, a hooked redfish is a hard pulling and wild sportfish. When they aren’t trying to pull the rod out of an angler’s hand, they’re twisting, shaking, and summersaulting in an effort to get unhooked. They litter the surface with impressive explosions of water and boils as they desperately try to come unpinned. For flats anglers fishing in Sarasota, fighting a healthy redfish will provide memories that last a lifetime.
Unlocking Sarasota’s Shallow Water Redfish
The clear and shallow water on the flats of Sarasota, FL presents some awesome challenges for anglers. Sarasota is not Louisiana and these are not Louisiana redfish. You can’t just plop something large and pink next to one of our redfish and expect the fish to attack the lure. Fishing for redfish on the Gulf coast of West Central Florida is different. it requires more skill and tactfulness than is required in other redfish fisheries around the country.
Fishing successfully for redfish on the flats is about understanding current trends. Redfish are largely movers and route runners. Some redfish trends last long periods of time, while other trends may only hold true for a day or two. Flats anglers that make the best redfish anglers understand that trends are always changing. Good anglers will do their best to adjust their fishing to those trends.
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The more frequently an angler targets redfish with artificial lures, the more they appreciate each fish that comes to hand. Targeting reds on the flats with artificial baits on light tackle requires a thoughtful approach. Important factors to consider are: inshore features that attract reds, locating their routes, lure selection, lure presentation, and redfish preferences. Other keys outlined in this post are redfish patterns and developing an efficient approach to targeting redfish.
Locating Redfish on the Shallow Flats
Sarasota has expansive flats, so the importance of spending time fishing the most productive areas is rule number one. Redfish certainly have areas of the flats that they prefer to be. In the Sarasota area, redfish are notorious for being movers. They are a fish that, in general, likes to cover some ground. Their movements are tied to things like tides, water temperatures, available food, and seasons.
Redfish in the waters around West Central Florida are suited for cruising over shallow flats. They are known for their noses. They follow their nose which is why using stinky cut bait to target redfish will always be a successful technique. Their eye sight is a topic often debated by redfish anglers. This is mainly because of how drastically their reactions to potential threats change every day. One day they will obliviously eat lures right next to the boat and the following day it can be a challenge to sneak within casting distance of the same fish without sending them into panic mode.
Finding redfish is as much about knowing the areas that they like to be in as it is about understanding what routes they may take to get there. Anglers that know that redfish may want to advance into shallower water during a certain part of the tide may be able to intercept these fish by planning their potential course. Some areas are so attractive to redfish that anglers can almost always scrounge up a redfish in that spot. Following is a list of areas on the Sarasota flats that redfish find to their liking.
The open flats sounds like a vague way to describe a place where redfish like to be. A better description would be roaming the open flats. Redfish roaming the open flats are accomplishing a couple of things. First, they are traveling from one point to another. Secondly, they are actively looking for food. If they’re over grass, they may be looking for a shrimp that kicked out, a pinfish that became too brave, or a completely oblivious crab. Redfish that are captivated by the potential for food are highly distracted and very catchable fish.
These are the areas behind sand bars. The best way to locate a good trough is to find a sandbar. Sandbars that are located close to the shorelines should have a nice trough on the back side of them. The troughs are often darker bottomed and hold good redfish forage in them. Reds love these troughs and sometimes love them too much. On very low tides, redfish can become trapped in these troughs. As long as the fish remain happy in the trough, they are ideal redfish for flats anglers to target.
Potholes are sandy depressions mixed into otherwise grassy areas. Some Tournament redfish angler focus the majority of their attention on these sandy areas. These are areas that redfish frequent throughout the year. They do this because there is constantly a food source available. The key with fishing potholes is finding the productive ones.
Many potholes will look the same, yet they do not fish the same. Finding groups of larger sandy potholes with some tidal current is a good place to start looking. Probably the most effective way to fish potholes is bouncing jigs through them. It’s a method that will be just as effective in one hundred years as it is today – it’s the bread and butter technique for fishing redfish in potholes.
Since we’ve established that redfish are fish on the move, it helps to understand how they are traveling and the areas that an angler may be able to intercept their movements. In some areas of the country, redfish are affectionately known as channel bass. This is due to their affinity to using channels as a way to travel. Redfish use the additional water depth found in channels to mask some of their movements when engaged in longer routes of travel. This makes some areas of the flats very likely to have traveling redfish during different parts of the day.
Flats that have channels cut through them are always a good place to spend time looking for redfish. Reds also appreciate channels that cut between mangrove islands. The shallow flats that surround the islands are a good place to find a curious redfish. The Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) is one giant channel and there are many flats that the channel comes into contact with. Shallow water flats near the ICW are a good place for flats anglers to find redfish.
Veteran flats anglers in West Central Florida are well aware that creek mouths can be an outstanding place to find redfish. Creeks are regularly dumping food onto the flats and in the winter time, the water inside of creeks can often be a few degrees warmer. This in turn can make a creek mouth a winter sanctuary for forage fish. Redfish will take full advantage of this situation. They will time their creek visits according to the tide and ruthlessly terrorize any food in the area.
Creek mouths are normally lined with oyster bars. Oyster bars are redfish magnets. The crabs that collect around oyster bars are a favorite food of redfish. Deeper sandy cuts near the creek mouths are ideal locations to bounce a soft plastic jig through.
Mullet Schools & Crooked Edges
Mullet are an odd fish that flats anglers have learned to love. Schooling mullet on the shallow flats give away their presence readily. Some mullet will be launching themselves out of the water while others will be nervously scurrying about below the surface. The shadow of a bird flying overhead can cause mass panic in a school of mullet. Redfish enjoy mixing it up with large schools of mullet. Active mullet schools will kick the bottom up so well that redfish can slide in and pick through the remnants of whatever they kick up. Savvy redfish anglers won’t pass up the opportunity to scoot a lure through a large school of active mullet.
When given the choice, a serious redfish angler should always choose the less straight shoreline. A long straight shoreline is not normally a place worth spending too much time looking for redfish (though there are some exceptions). Curved shorelines, with points and coves littered throughout, are the type of shoreline that reds generally prefer.
Situational Redfish Lure & Equipment Selection
Fishing for redfish in Sarasota with artificial lures requires the correct gear. Rods of varying action will work the same bait very differently. Another consideration that serious redfish anglers must take into account when targeting reds is their very leathery mouths. The rod and line must be stout enough to punch a fairly large hook through that leathery mouth. Once the hook is seated through, it is very unlikely to come out, but getting it through is the key.
Ideally, redfish anglers will carry multiple rod combos. Each rod combo should be matched to a particular artificial bait and presentation style. For instance, in situations where an angler is trying to cover water to find fish, it’s advantageous to have a rod that can make long casts and a reel that is geared to retrieve that lure in an efficient manner. However, if an angler finds themselves in a sight fishing situation, an accurate rod and more subtle presentation will be desired.
Choose Confidence Redfish Lures
Choosing a lure for targeting redfish on the shallow flats shouldn’t be a complex process. Anglers will be best served by keeping the process simple and implementing baits and presentations that play to their particular strengths. Individual flats anglers will have lures that they’re very comfortable using and will fish them confidently. They will also have lures that feel somewhat foreign to them or just don’t give them much confidence when using. Confidence and comfort should be high on the list of variables that lead an angler to choosing what artificial lures to use when targeting redfish.
Situational Shallow Water Redfish Behaviors
A successful approach to flats fishing for redfish in Sarasota involves establishing effective methods to target redfish in a variety of situations and water depths. It’s imperative that anglers understand how redfish eat their prey. The downward facing mouth on a redfish means that they must be above their prey to eat it. Redfish spend a fair amount of time scanning the bottom below them for food sources. So it only makes sense that redfish anglers should spend a large percentage of their time presenting offerings very low in the water column.
It would be foolish to define redfish as strictly bottom feeding fish because they’re not. Redfish love chasing baitfish through the water column just as much as snook or speckled seatrout do. In fact, redfish can become hyper-focused on baitfish and other large forage – making them vulnerable to a properly presented artificial lure.
Aggressive redfish that are actively engaged in the water column are racehorses at the starting gate. They are energy ready to break out. Once a redfish locks on to a fleeing baitfish, the starting gate swings open and out they burst.
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Finally, there will be potentially frustrating situations that every serious redfish angler in our area will encounter. If you fish for redfish long enough with artificial lures, you will run into highly finicky, tentative, or nervous redfish. It’s difficult to know what puts redfish in these moods, but it is certainly a thing. Fishing pressure and weather systems are commonly blamed culprits. Other anglers point to the dreaded full moon theory.
The cause isn’t nearly as important as the effect. The effect, is some seriously sketched out redfish. What a difference just one day can make in the mood of redfish. Last spring we found a pile of reds camping out in a large shallow back water cove. The anglers on the boat that day had an incredible day sight fishing them. They hooked fish so close to the boat that we joked about them being domesticated redfish.
Just one day later, the very same redfish that had masqueraded around the muddy flat as overly friendly squirrels at a picnic, had now taken on the personality of a sly fox that sensed our presence a mile away. It was a small miracle to get within casting range of these fish. In the end, we had to leave the shallow backwater cove to find less sensative redfish.
This is a behavior that redfish occasionally exhibit. When it happens, the angler is faced with a decision. They can wait the fish out and try to figure out a way to feed them, or an angler can break the cardinal rule of fishing and ‘leave fish to find fish’. Every situation is different and sometimes a small adjustment or a tweak to your presentation can open the redfish floodgates. Anglers should make adjustments and tweaks to their approach before throwing in the towel on a pile of redfish.
Redfish Baits & Presentations
Presenting lures to redfish in shallow water requires that the angler understands which lure or bait type is best suited for the situation at hand. Each lure type will require its own presentation style and many lures have multiple presentation techniques. Anglers that are new to targeting redfish will be best served by initially limiting themselves to using only a few lure types. They will become masters with these lures through repetition. Below are some excellent redfish lures and the techniques to implement while using them:
Jigging for Redfish
It’s been said that if you master jig fishing, then you can catch fish anywhere. Jig fishing is one of the most effective methods for targeting redfish. A number of successful tournament redfish anglers spend the majority of their time on the water bouncing jigs across the bottom of potholes. They fish this way because it consistently puts fish in the boat and money in their pockets. There may not be a more effective way to cover water for redfish than a ¼ ounce jig tipped with a soft plastic.
The components involved in jig fishing are simple. Anglers only need to decide how heavy of a jig head the situation calls for and what type of soft plastic bait to pair with it. It’s really that simple. Anglers shouldn’t get bogged down in styles of jigheads. They should find one they like and stick with it. It should be a quality jighead with a strong corrosion resistant hook. Zman’s redfish eye jig head is ideal. It’s sold in ¼ ounce, 3/16th ounce and 1/8th ounce. For deeper potholes use the ¼ ounce head. In shallower water consider changing out to a lighter head.
The soft plastic market is flooded with soft plastic manufacturers. Find a brand or two that you like and stick with them. Soft plastics come in all shapes and sizes and there are hundreds of body shapes and tail styles to choose from. For the purpose of simplicity, the majority of anglers will benefit by limiting themselves to 3-4 different soft plastic styles to pair with their jig head.
1) Paddle Tails
A good place to start for redfish soft plastic baits is with the paddle tail. DOA is a reliable soft plastic brand and produces fine paddle tails that are available in almost every store that has a fishing department in Florida. They are not a perfect 10, but they are a solid 7. Compared to other brands, DOA won’t have the best action or be the most durable, but they are effective, priced appropriately, and their widespread availability makes them a must in every redfish angler’s box.
Z-man makes a fantastic paddle tail for redfish. They construct their soft plastics from a material they developed on their own (10X Tough ElaZtech). These paddle tails wiggle, can be stretched out, and withstand unsolicited attacks from toothy critters. They probably have the best combination of durability and action of any paddle tail on the market.
Z-man paddle tails don’t come without a few drawbacks. Because the plastic material is so durable and stretchy, they can be a little trickier to work with. Anglers will find that Z-man’s redfish eye jig heads work well with these paddle tails. A widely-known issue with Z-man soft plastics is their susceptibility to melting and becoming deformed when not stored correctly between uses. The key is to store them correctly. Store Z-man soft plastics in their own box (not mixed in with other brands) and keep them out of situations where they may have prolonged exposure to intense heat. Z-man sells cases to store their products in.
Redfish anglers have been using grubs for decades. The segmented cylindrical body of a grub will remain appealing to redfish indefinitely. What differentiates one grub from another is usually the length of the body and the tail type. The Gulp Swimming Mullet, essentially a modified grub, is a solid choice to pair with a ¼ ounce jighead. It can be bounced over the bottom or it can be retrieved in a swimming motion. Sometimes a mixture of the two (swim jigging) can be the most effective.
The Cotee chubby grub with its triangulated flat tail offers a different action than the more traditional curly tailed grubs. The tail shape causes the jig to fall much slower than a curly tail jig. Its jigging action is very similar to how a shrimp kicks out of grass and then slowly descends back down. Redfish love the action and anglers enjoy how much longer the cotee chubby grub stays in the strike zone. A major drawback of the Cotee chubby grub is its availability. They can be difficult to get your hands on at times.
3) Modified Jig Heads
At times redfish anglers find it preferable to have additional action in their soft plastics. One situation where this would be desired is when dropping baits in front of sight fished redfish to pick up off the bottom. This is the moment of truth when an angler has teased a red into action and then dropped the bait on the bottom in hopes that it will be vacuumed up by the following redfish.
Most soft plastics sitting on the bottom will not have any action other than what is added to them by the angler. But anglers who have used flies for redfish, understand the benefits of materials that undulate and pulse with just the slightest of water movement. Redfish anglers can achieve the same benefits in their jig presentation by using a modified jighead and then pairing it with a soft plastic.
There are companies that sell modified jig heads. Z-man has a very simple modified jig head that is ideal for targeting redfish on the flats. Anglers can find success using deer hair jigs designed for freshwater bass. There are more color options available in freshwater deer hair jigs, but the majority of these jigheads and hooks have a very short salt water life.
Redfish anglers familiar with fly tying methods can modify their own jigs. There are a number of materials that can be tied on jig heads that enhance the jig’s action even when it is not being actively fished by the angler. EP brushes or cross cut zonker strips make an ideal collar on a jig head, Deer hair and crazy legs are excellent materials for jig bodies.
Redfish Lures for Covering Water
Covering water for redfish is a method to use when fishing in new areas or trying to locate fish. The ability to quickly probe a school of mullet, a trough, or a shallow point is a technique that all redfish anglers should implement into their fishing game plan.
Covering water is an ideal method for redfish anglers that are unable to get on the water as frequently as they would like. Reds are movers and their locations can vary greatly over time. Trends and patterns are in constant flux which can make fishing more challenging for anglers that are not on the water consistently. Anglers that start their day by covering water will find fish and pick up on patterns quickly.
Tournament redfish anglers are regularly fishing new water. Aside from local knowledge, covering water will be the most efficient way to learn the fishery and discover patterns. They’ll use the method to eliminate large swaths of the fishery and then key in on the most productive areas. There are many lures designed to target redfish when covering water. Here are three good ones:
1) Weedless Spoons
Most redfish anglers have seen how entranced reds become with spoons. At times, it’s almost unbelievable how gullible redfish seem to become in the presence of a weedless spoon. The Aquadream ADL series spoon is a great spoon. There are two sizes – the ¼ ounce spoon or the 3/8 ounce size. The 3/8 ounce is a solid choice as it casts farther, provides a larger target, and can be fished in the same depths as the ¼ ounce sizes.
Black, white, and green are great spoon colors for redfish. Aquadream does not currently carry a black spoon, but they do sell pink spoons. Since the pink spoons are worthless in the clear waters of Sarasota, they can easily be made effective with a couple of coats of black rustoleum paint.
A straight retrieve is the most effective way to work a spoon for redfish. The speed of the retrieve should vary based on the reaction of the redfish in the area. If the spoon can’t maintain its line of retrieval and cartwheels out of the water, then the retrieval needs to be slowed down. Some anglers like a slow retrieve that tickles the tips of turtle grass, while others swear by a speedy retrieval. Anglers should find a retrieve that they have confidence in and then tailor alternative retrieval speeds to what the redfish want that day.
There is one spoon technique that every redfish angler should know. Dropping the spoon is surprisingly effective on redfish that have been tracking and following the spoon all the way to the boat. Stopping the spoon and letting it drop to the bottom can seal the deal on an indecisive redfish. To the red, it appears that the thing that they have been chasing has decided to elude them by going to the bottom. When a red falls for this maneuver, they quickly grab the spoon off the bottom. This must be a scenario that happens quite frequently when redfish are chasing real bait in the wild. The reaction seems primal.
2) Paddle Tails
Soft plastic paddle tails on jig heads may be the most effective bait for all inshore sportfish. They work well on redfish and are extremely versatile. Notice that they showed up in both the jigging and covering water portion of this article. To cover water with a paddle tail, an angler should use a straight retrieval method. The depth in the water column at which the paddle tail runs is directly related to the weight of the jighead and the speed of the retrieve.
There are probably too many companies out there making paddle tails. There is an abundance of options to choose from. Unfortunately, not all paddle tails are the same. Some brands are too stiff and rigid, requiring the angler to increase the retrieval speed to activate the paddling tail. Others require a much slower speed to get the tail moving. Anglers should pay attention to the action their bait is imparting.
DOA paddle tails are a little stiffer than the Z-man paddle tails, but both are effective redfish baits. For extremely shallow water (2 feet or less) a 1/8-3/16 ounce jighead should suffice. For deeper water, go to a 1/4 ounce jig head.
Visually oriented anglers love throwing topwater lures for redfish – it’s a rush. Reds can certainly be caught on topwater baits, but if anglers were honest, they would admit that they lose more reds than they catch when using topwater baits. That doesn’t mean that using topwaters to target redfish doesn’t have a place in an angler’s repertoire.
The issue with hooking a redfish on topwater goes back to where their mouth is located on their head. Earlier we discussed how it is necessary for the redfish to be above the bait in order to eat the bait. For a redfish to eat a topwater bait, they need to surge much of their body out of the water. This makes them less accurate and makes it more likely that the hooks from the lure won’t find the right places on a redfish to take hold.
There are positives to using a topwater bait on redfish. Topwater baits can be casted possibly farther than any other redfish lure. This helps an angler present their lure to less nervous fish. The lure is ideal for low light situations in shallow water when it may be difficult to target reds with traditional methods. The Heddon super spook jr. in the color ‘bone’ is a great choice for redfish.
The other benefit of using a topwater is that even if the redfish don’t square up the bait and get hooked, it still shows the angler where the fish are. Throwing a soft plastic immediately following a missed topwater opportunity is a great way to hook up with a reds.
Sight Fishing for Redfish
Making a redfish believe that your artificial bait is worth eating is a great feeling. It’s an extremely visual experience that even the most veteran redfish anglers find satisfaction in. The clear waters of Sarasota, Florida provide ideal conditions for sight fishing.
Many of the baits that have already been discussed in this post will be highly effective in sight fishing applications. The key with sight fishing any fish is to follow the number one principle of sight fishing:. Make the fish believe the whole interaction is their idea. Anglers guided by this principle during sight fishing situations will find that it has multiple applications. The principle should impact where the lure is delivered, how the redfish finds the lure, and what actions an angler imparts into the lure to seal the deal.
Sight fishing for redfish is something an angler gets better at over time. Anglers should be making mental notes after every sight fishing experience. Take account of what went well and what did not. Over time an angler will learn more and more ways to feed redfish. More importantly, the angler will understand what redfish really don’t like and what sends them running for the hills.
Sight fishing requires an angler to be versatile and to adjust to the behavior of the fish. A redfish may find one presentation more than acceptable on a Monday, but on Tuesday the same presentation makes them uncomfortable. And then there will be times when the same pattern and presentation will work day after day.
Soft plastics on jig heads can be excellent in sight fishing applications. The cottee chubby grub offers a great target for redfish and they have an action that reds don’t see too frequently. Modified jigs with crazy legs or natural materials have a lot of movement that intrigue a curious redfish.
Another style bait that all sight fishing anglers should carry is a fluke style minnow rigged on a 1/8th ounce weighted soft plastic hook in size 3/0-4/0. Zoom’s super fluke series offers a time tested target to present to shallow water redfish.
The Mirrolure lil john is not traditionally considered a fluke style bait, but when rigged on an Owner twistlock hook, its action can be irresistible to redfish. It has a very defined side to side action and a buoyancy that allows the angler to work the bait quickly without the bait moving a great distance through the water column. When redfish eat this bait they will often pin it to the bottom as they pounce on it.
Time on the Water
It’s been said by many fine anglers that there is no substitute for time on the water. It’s one of the truest sayings in fishing. Unfortunately, some anglers do not have the ability to be on the water enough to have an understanding of where the redfish will be on any given day. One way to overcome this, is to establish a network of like minded anglers that collectively are on the water more frequently. Sharing information with other trust worthy anglers will help the group to stay in more regular contact with redfish.
Developing a systematic approach to fishing is necessary for anglers that don’t have a network or the ability to be on the water regularly. The approach should be designed to eliminate bad water quickly and to discover patterns as rapidly as possible. This will necessarily involve an approach that has the angler mapping out their trip at least a day in advance. Covering water quickly will be necessary until fish are located and a pattern can be developed.
Implementing the techniques and tools discussed in this post will put redfish in the boat. But each angler will benefit if they adjust these strategies to their strengths. Anglers that fish to their strengths are confident anglers and confident anglers catch more fish.
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We’ll see you on the water!
Captain Brian Boehm
Quiet Waters Fishing
Guide at CB’s Saltwater Outfitters