Saint Augustine “Belly Crawlers”

Targeting the Tolamato River

On The Fly Saltwater

November 2023

By Polly Dean

Photos by Jimmy Jacobs.

We met up with Captain Cullen Traverso at Usina Boat Ramp located on the Tolomato River just north of Saint Augustine. The riverine habitat in which we spent the day characterizes much of the area, which is ideal environment for redfish, trout, flounder, and black drum. These marshes consist of oyster-lined shell beds with miles of spartina grass islands. The arrival of flood tides in late spring and fall caters in some of the most exhilarating conditions for stalking redfish, where they may be feeding just feet away from your boat.

The captain was using his 16-foot customized Gheenoe, outfitted with a 20-horse power Suzuki and Micro-power Pole. It handles two anglers in the skinniest of water. Capt. Traverso also outfitted the vessel with a poling platform for himself at the stern. A small, but sturdy casting platform with a padded leaning bar is on the bow. The Gheenoe was quite stealthy as the captain maneuvered it along the narrow and shallow channels.

Capt. Cullen Traverso on the poling platform.

Disturbances on the water’s surface, created by schools of bait were quite evident as we ran through and were poling around the marshes, mud flats and shell beds. It took us a little practice to discern the difference between pushes caused by a school of bait versus that of one created by a redfish as it slowly cruised looking for a bite to eat. The wake caused by the redfish is narrower and more pronounced than that caused by a school of baitfish. Traverso referred to the cruising reds as “belly crawlers.”

The captain prefers targeting those belly crawlers around low tide. He looks for them along edges of shell beds or grass lines. During spring through fall months, Traverso expects the fish to be traveling solo or in doubles. In the winter months, when waters tend to be clearer, the reds may be traveling in schools of up to 100 or so fish.

When a redfish, or wake of one, is sighted, Traverso said to drop your cast about 4 to 5 feet in front of the red in the direction it is heading, keeping your rod tip down and pointed at the fish. The captain instructed us to use short, quick strips to imitate a crab moving away from its predator. When the redfish takes the fly, give the line a couple hard pulls to set the hook.

Capt. Traverso with an average-sized Tolomato red.

Traverso suggested using a 7- or 8-weight rod. We opted for using his rods and reels, which were made by Hardy. The fly we threw was created by the captain. It was black and resembled a cross between a crab and a shrimp, as described by him. Our guide generally starts with this color, but added, if getting refusals by the fish, he will opt for something with some brown or tan to more resemble a shrimp. His fly creation did not have a name, but resembled a small Tarpon Toad.

From his elevated position, the captain generally spotted the redfish before us. Using the face of a clock with distances, he was adept at describing the fish’s location and which way it was moving. We in turn, pointed our rod in the direction he was describing and the Capt. Cullen fine-tuned our aim from there. This was important for knowing where to place our fly, or at least attempt to. The water was very shallow, so giving it time to sink was not a necessity. In fact, the captain wanted us to be moving the fly as soon as practical.

Trying to sight the fish before we navigated too close to it proved futile on a few occasions. We missed sighting a few that lay motionless on the bottom, until we moved in a little too close. We’d spook it and see it dart quickly away, often leaving a tell-tale “mud” of where it was lying.

The author looking for a wake left by a belly crawler.

Following the captain’s lead, I was able to entice a couple of good-sized redfish to take my fly. The first, I managed to have on for a decent amount of time, but it threw the hook after a few moments. I was disappointed, to say the least, since normally if I manage to hook and play a fish for a period of time, I’m generally successful in bringing it to the boat. This was not the case this time. With my second hook-up, I had a little more luck in bringing the hefty redfish to the captain’s net.

The author with her redfish.

All in all, we had a super day and Capt. Cullen Traverso was a real pleasure to spend the day with. He was encouraging in a positive way, as well as knowledgeable. I knew he enjoyed his work and it showed. I was grateful the captain chose to ditch a job in the corporate world in the big city and become a fishing guide in Saint Augustine. He was well suited for the role.