By Captain John Mauser
I’ve Been Lucky Enough to Target Redfish on the Fly in North Carolina for Over Ten Years. Through a lot of trial and error, I’ve picked up on a few things that I’d love to pass on to you.
Throughout the South you can target redfish year-round. Each season is different, so you need to switch up your tactics to stay successful.
When most fly anglers think of summer redfish, they envision flood tides and copper tails waving in the green Spartina grass. Me too. Tailing reds are a definite favorite of mine.
Unfortunately, the reality is that you only get a handful of tailing tides that fall during daylight hours each month.
Low tides, on the other hand, are available on a daily basis and can provide for some great fly fishing opportunities.
Why Target Redfish During the Low Tide?
It’s a big wide world out there. The marsh is expansive and there are enough high tide hiding spots for redfish to stay out of sight without much of a problem. There are enough creeks and bays throughout the marshes that you could continually explore them every day for months and still not see all of it.
Go set up in the marsh at high tide and wait six hours. Over those six hours, you could see anywhere from two to 6 feet of tidal drop by the time you reach low tide.
No matter what the tidal change is, one thing you’ll notice is that by the time you hit low tide the redfish have lost at least half of their hiding spots.
Flats that held several feet of water now hold a foot or less in some places, with some stretches left completely dry.
Hit a series of creeks and bays at high tide, and notice how many signs of fish you see. Most of what you see, will be mullet cruising along the water’s surface. Signs of redfish will be noticeably absent.
Reds can and will float high near the surface, but most of the time during the summer they will be found near the bottom resting or looking for a meal. Due to this, you will rarely see any signs of a resting or swimming redfish when they have a few feet of water over their back.
If you can’t see a them, your only option is to blind cast along likely spots and hope for the best. Blind casting with conventional tackle, or the Fish-Skull Pop-N-Fly, during high tide can be very effective. Top water plugs, spinnerbaits, spoons and scented plastics do an excellent job of getting noticed. They all send out good vibrations, plenty of flash, sound cues and enticing smells to call in redfish from a distance.
Not so with most flies. To be really effective with a small scentless fly, you have to know where your target is. In most redfish locales, summertime means muddy or stained water, so a fly more than a few feet away from your target could easily go unnoticed.
Low tide does two things for the fly fisherman.
A. It Takes Away a Lot of Redfish Hiding Places
Most of the small creeks and bays that feed into larger areas end up dry or just too shallow for the reds to continue to hide there. These fish are forced to concentrate together in the remaining areas that hold enough water for them to feel safe while waiting out the tide. Summer time redfish aren’t found in big schools like they are known for in the winter, but low tides can help bring them back together for a few hours each day.
B. As the Tide Drops Out of the Marsh, It Leaves the Redfish Exposed to Anglers in Search of Their Target
It’s amazing to see how alive the creeks and bays become when you only have 6” of water for the fish to hide in.
Everything that moves puts on a show for the angler.
When To Fish the Low Tide
Let’s break this section into two parts. First we’ll discuss tide heights and second we’ll talk about time of day.
Tides can vary quite a bit depending on location. In some spots in North Carolina and Florida, there may only be a difference of one foot between high and low tide.
At a location a few hours away, in the same state, anglers may see a tidal difference of three to four feet.
Some of the most extreme tides in the Southeast can be found in South Carolina and Georgia, with some spots receiving as much as eight to nine feet of tidal flux in a six-hour period.
Within each of these locations, the tides will vary to a small degree each day, depending on gravitational forces caused by the moon and sun. The most extreme tidal fluctuations of each month will be found on days around the new and full moon.
I find www.tides.net to be a great site for tide predictions. You can view it in table or graph format and they include times, heights, and the time the sun and moon rises and sets. There is also a plethora of phone apps available for tidal predictions.
Time of Day
Here along the Southeast Coast, we get two high tides and two low tides per day. Each high and low tide are usually just over six hours apart.
For low tide sight-fishing, I generally like to fish the last couple hours of outgoing tide and the first few hours of incoming.
If I plan to fish for around four hours, I’ll start at my first location two hours before low tide and I’ll fish the two hours of falling and then the two hours of rising.
If I want to fish for around six hours, then I’ll start about three hours before low tide, basically mid tide. If the water is too high to effectively sight-fish redfish, I have the options to blind cast flies or throw a top water plug or spinnerbait on a spinning rod until the water drops out some.
In the winter and early spring, I’m a huge fan of fishing low tides in the middle of the day. I usually wait until mid-morning to launch the boat, when the Sun has gotten higher in the sky and heated the water.
I abandon that rule when it comes to summer and early fall. My best days are the ones where I can line up a low tide during the early to mid-morning or late afternoon to evening hours. The shallows can be uncomfortably hot for the redfish in the mid-summer’s heat, and therefore you will usually find less fish in the extreme shallows mid-day.
The bigger reason to stick with early and late hours is that the sun is a little lower on the horizon and the fish seem less wary of predators and more in the mood to eat in the skinny water.
Plus, let’s be honest – the mid-day heat can be brutal on us too.
What To Look For To Identify Productive Locations for Low Tide Redfish Fishing
Fly over the marsh, send a drone up, or just jump on Google Earth and you will see how vast and never-ending our mazes of creeks and bays are.
Our estuaries are made up of a network of spartina grass islands, oyster bars, muddy creeks, sandy shoals and constantly moving tides. Basically, lots of places for redfish to hide.
When I search out new locations, I’ll jump on the satellite version of Google Maps and start searching for the key elements that make up good redfish habitat.
I am a huge fan of winding creeks that have small to large bays that drain out into the main creek on a dropping tide. These bays and smaller creeks will usually drain out so shallow on a low tide that the redfish have no choice but to follow the currents until they reach slightly deeper water.
Most of these creeks will have at least a few deeper holes and possibly a deeper winding channel in the main creek. Deep is a relative term and most of my clients chuckle when I tell them that we are going to fish a deeper area of one to two feet of water.
The deeper areas can be the only refuge for redfish on a dead low tide. When you look at a shallow creek on a satellite map, you can usually pick out the deeper areas and channels by the darker colored water in the image.
Pick a few creeks to try out and study the satellite image to get a feel for where the sandbars and mudflats are, where the oyster bars and points are, and where the deeper water is.
Redfish move with the tide and will spread out and search the bays and the headwaters of the creeks on a high tide. When the tide starts to drop, they will eventually have to seek refuge by coming off those flats and working back down the creek.
Use the map to get a feel for where you think the fish will be coming from as the tide drops out. Try to imagine where the reds will first run into deeper water and settle in for security.
With a little bit of pre-planning, you’ve got the odds in your favor to find some sight-casting redfish opportunities. There’s no replacement for time spent on the water, so head on out to those spots on a low tide and go find some fish!
How To Fish the Low Tide
We should probably start this section off with a warning: Low tide redfishing is fun!
Getting stuck in the mud for four hours on an outgoing tide is not fun! My recommendation is to check out a new spot on a dead low tide that’s starting to come in. That way, you will get a feel for exactly how shallow that area can get. And since the tide will be coming in, if you get yourself stuck, you just have to wait a short while for the tide to come in some.
If you work your way back into a new spot on an outgoing tide and get stuck, you better hope there’s some fish around, because you could be there a few hours until the tide starts coming back in.
Once you get a feel for the area and how the tides affect it, you’ll feel much better about fishing on a dropping tide and knowing exactly how long before you need to make an exit.
You have a couple of options for fishing these low tide spots. Since we are talking about water getting really skinny, trolling motors become less of an option as the tide drops. A lot of the areas I find redfish in wouldn’t hold enough water to cover a trolling motor prop.
Better options are pushing your skiff along with a push pole, anchoring up in a likely spot and waiting for the tide to drop out, or taking a kayak or canoe into these low tide spots. Wading can be an option, but check out the bottom before jumping over, a lot of the spots I fish will sink you to your knees in black mud.
As the tide is dropping out, move your way up the creek watching for any signs of redfish.
In less than a foot of water reds will push wake, bust bait, stir the water up, and sometimes break the surface with their dorsal and tail fin.
Reds aren’t the only fish who push wakes in the shallow water. Mullet will also push wakes and the big ones can easily fool an angler into thinking they are a redfish.
After some time on the water, you will be able to start to see the differences in the way these two different fish move. Mullet, whether small or large usually push a V-shaped wake. If you see a school of small mullet pushing a wake, at first it may look like a large redfish, but when you look closely you’ll see that it’s not one individual wake but many small V-wakes together.
A redfish will push a much straighter wake as it moves along. Imagine standing in a swimming pool and taking your outstretched arm and moving it forward just under the surface and imagine how the water would roll over your arm. That’s what a redfish wake looks like.
If you see what looks like a tiny wind driven wave pushing across the water surface, and there is no wind pushing it, then that’s most likely a redfish making that wake. It’s hard to explain on paper, but once you start to notice the difference, it will save you a lot of time casting to mullet.
Mullet will also spin around, zig zag, and switch directions when swimming. Redfish will almost always move in a straight direction when going from place to place. They will sometimes literally run into the side of your boat before they decide to switch directions.
When reds spook, they will pull the mud up off the bottom as they take off. I usually refer to these as redfish “muds.” It looks like when you pour creamer into your coffee. Once you see it for the first time, you’ll know exactly what it is.
These muds are not always accompanied by a wake, sometimes all you will see is the puff in front of your boat. Flounder and stingrays will also make muds, but they usually leave a straight line of mud puffs across the bottom when they shoot off. A redfish mud is usually one big puff. If you see multiple scattered puffs, it can mean that several redfish spooked at the same time. Give these fish a few minutes and they will settle down a few boat lengths up ahead of you. If you continue to chase them, they will continue to run from you.
I will generally pole my skiff up the creek searching for these signs of fish, and make stops at each of the deeper areas along the way. Stop just short of the deeper channels and holes and make several casts through those areas before moving forward. I’ve blown enough fish out of holes by not fishing them thoroughly before pushing across them.
As you push up the creek that has fish on a dropping tide, you will eventually come face to face with those fish as they move down the creek with the tide. If you can spot these fish before they get to you, you have a good chance at getting them to eat.
Another option that works well is to anchor or stake out just outside of these deeper areas and wait for the fish to come down stream and settle right in front of you.
Your chance of getting an eat will increase greatly if you let the fish settle into the deeper section where they feel they are safe from predators like raccoons and ospreys.
Once they let their guard down, they will focus on munching on any baitfish or crustaceans in the area until the tide floods back in.
Getting Geared Up
I am usually fishing 7 and 8-wt. fly rods for these fish. I love a 7-wt. on reds, but if it’s windy or if I’m throwing bulky flies, I’ll stick to the 8-wt.
Most any floating line will do, but with big redfish flies and the need to load short casts, I prefer lines that are slightly over-weighted. Any of the “redfish lines” from your favorite company will work well, and I also really like the Grand Slam lines by Scientific Anglers.
In the summer and fall, you can get away with a standard 9’ tapered leader and not worry about having extremely long leaders.
I like something that can turn over big flies in a breeze so I usually leave the pre-made knotless leaders at home.
My standard redfish leader is tied with Hard Mono and is made with equal lengths of 30lb, 25lb, 20lb and 16lb connected with blood knots.
My fly selection for low tide redfish is pretty basic.
I generally throw weighted baitfish patterns when searching any water that is more than 18” deep. Clouser-style patterns are hard to beat and I keep a box full of them in black over orange, solid white, and pink over chartreuse.
In water 18” or less, I am a big fan of lightly weighted Game Changers in white or chartreuse. I’ll add just enough lead wire to the hook shank to make the fly neutrally buoyant. The Game Changers push a lot of water and are a great representation of the small mullet that the redfish prey on.
In the shallowest areas, my go to fly is a seaducer, because it basically makes no sound when it lands next to a spooky redfish. I tie both toned-down natural seaducers, along with wild synthetic patterns. I tie my seaducers in a myriad of colors but my go to fly color is a root beer body with a chartreuse tail.
If the fish are milling around in the shallows feeding on crabs and shrimp, I will use the same shrimp/crab patterns that I use for tailing redfish. My favorite crustacean pattern is tied with barred saddle hackles for both the claws and body, finished off with a Fish-Skull Shrimp & Cray Tail, which allows the fly to sink quickly and land in a fighting position.
Get In the Action!
That’s summer and fall low tide redfish in a nutshell.
Nothing you read can replace dedicated time on the water, but hopefully this information can point you in the right direction to get a jump on catching some skinny water spot tails.
About John Mauser:
Captain John Mauser owns and operates Tailing Tide Guide Service, a fly fishing and light tackle guide service out of Swansboro, North Carolina. He has been fishing the waters of North Carolina for thirty years. John graduated from UNC Wilmington with a degree in Marine Biology and soon started working for the North Carolina Aquariums. John is the program lead for the local Project Healing Waters Program, which rehabilitates disabled military veterans through fly tying and fly fishing activities. Most of the time, John can be found poling his skiff along the inshore waters of the Crystal Coast. His favorite targets are redfish and false albacore…but he also spends time chasing spanish mackerel, bluefish, speckled trout, sharks, and countless other species. During the Spring spawning run, John fishes for shad, striped bass and other species that are found in North Carolina’s Coastal Rivers. John looks forward to sharing his love of the waters along the Carolina Coast with everyone he meets.
—This article was reprinted with the permission of the author