5 Keys to Unlocking Success on the Redfish Flats

Written by: Capt. David Edens, Fly Cast Charters

Orvis’s Tyler Atkins with a fine Low Country redfish.
Photo by Christine Atkins

The redfish–with its bronze flanks, spotted tail, and powerful runs–is a bucket-list species for many saltwater fly anglers. Most saltwater fly rodders target reds that live in the shallow flats and estuaries along the Southeastern and Gulf coasts, which offers an exciting visual challenge. But hooking a redfish requires more than just casting a fly. Success hinges on understanding their behavior, mastering presentation techniques, and adapting your approach to the environment.

Here are some key ingredients to unlocking fly-fishing success for redfish:

1. Understand Your Habitat

Flood tides offer the chance to find redfish in very shallow water among the grasses.

Redfish are territorial, favoring shallow water environments such as coastal flats, lagoons, creeks and inshore bays. They thrive around oyster beds, mangrove shorelines, and areas with grassy or mud bottoms where crabs, shrimp, and baitfish abound. Understanding these preferences is crucial for pinpointing redfish on the water.

The tides will often determine where you will find the fish. Time your trip with the outgoing and incoming tide, as redfish actively feed during moving water, as prey gets flushed out of hiding spots. Along the east coast, during the big tides that flood the high marsh, redfish invade grassy marsh, where they tail aggressively while grubbing for fiddler crabs. 

Look for tailing redfish, with their tails breaking the water’s surface as they dig for crustaceans. Nervous baitfish or jumping shrimp can also indicate the presence of redfish feeding below.

2. Stay Stealthy

Poling a boat in the low light of dawn and dusk allows you to sneak up on feeding fish.

Redfish are easily spooked by noise or sudden movements, so a stealthy approach and presentation are important to success. Forgo the noisy trolling motor, and use a push pole to quietly navigate the flats. If you’re wading, move slowly, which allows you to get closer to the fish without spooking them.

Make long casts that deliver your fly well in front of the redfish, with minimal false casting. Excessive false casting takes too much time and alerts the fish to your presence. Once the fly is in the water, employ a slow, deliberate retrieve that mimics the movement of fleeing baitfish. Remember, redfish don’t have eyes in in their tails.

3. Use the Right Gear

This 9-weight Helios D paired with a Mirage® USA V fly reel will allow you to cast accurately in the wind, and it has the muscle to stop even a bull redfish run.

The right equipment makes all the difference to the success of your fly-fishing trip. You’ll need an 8- or 9-weight rod to handle the bulldog-like runs of redfish. Ensure your reel has a strong drag system and is sealed to withstand the corrosive saltwater environment.

A weight-forward floating fly line with a short head allows for accurate casting and effective presentation in windy conditions. Use a tropical saltwater-specific fly line during the heat of summer and a cold-water line in winter. Use a tapered saltwater leader for smooth turnover and strong connections. Match your tippet size to the flies you’re using and the expected size of the redfish. Typically, a 16 to 20-pound tippet offers a good balance of strength and invisibility. Fluorocarbon is preferable in clear water.

4. Choose the Right Flies

The Red Fish Epoxy Rattle Shrimp is a proven pattern for reds on mud or grass flats.

Redfish are opportunistic feeders, and their fly preferences vary depending on location, water clarity, and what they’re actively targeting. Carry a variety of flies to adapt to changing conditions or target different prey preferences. In clear water, opt for smaller, more natural-looking flies. For murky water, choose larger, brightly colored flies with added flash to attract attention. Purple and black patterns work well in dark water.

Observe what baitfish and other prey items are present in the area and choose flies that resemble their size, shape, and color. Popular choices include shrimp flies, crab flies, and Clouser Minnows. For a list of my favorite patterns, click here.

5. Practice Makes Perfect

Spend some time practicing on the lawn before you head out on the flats.

Before venturing out on the water, hone your casting skills and practice your presentation techniques. Set up a few targets in your backyard and practice both accuracy and line control. Since wind is always a factor in saltwater fly fishing, work on presenting the fly on the back cast. Finally, learn to double-haul: although modern rods and lines easily cast to 50 feet without hauling, the added line speed of a double haul helps you handle the wind.

Fly-fishing for redfish is an ongoing learning experience, and you’ll catch more an more fish as you work on your game. Have fun, enjoy the challenge, and appreciate the beauty of the redfish’s natural environment.

Capt. David Edens of Fly Cast Charters in Saint Simons Island, Georgia, has been an Orvis Endorsed guide for the 15 years. He is also a Federation of Fly Fishers Certified Fly Casting Instructor and a US Coast Guard licensed captain.

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