Stalking The “Crawlers”

Palm Valley, Florida

On The Fly Saltwater

December 2022

By Polly Dean

Photos by Jimmy Jacobs

“I look for the crawlers,” Captain Leon Dana said, as he scanned the edges of the dark mud-covered shell beds. The captain is referring to the redfish that slowly ease along shallow grass or oyster shorelines in search of something to eat.

Capt. Leon Dana with a crawler.

We’ve motored to the area where the upper Tolomato River changes over to the canal-straight shores of the Intracoastal Waterway. This region is to the north of where, tempted by gold and a legend of a spring that brings eternal youth, Juan Ponce de Leon first stepped ashore and dubbed this new land “La Florida.” That site then became the nation’s oldest city of St. Augustine.

We are fishing the low tide and happen to be on a full moon. With a nearly 5-foot range in the tidal flow in this north Florida area, the water never seems really at a standstill – this is good for the fishing and the fisherman. Shallow water is best for eyeing a cruising redfish, mainly because the fish – or evidence of fish – is easier to see. Our captain prefers the two hours prior to and following the low tide. With low water, fish retreat to deeper channels giving anglers a more confined area for locating them. In high water, they can be virtually anywhere, including back in the grass making them a more difficult target.

Captain Dana cruises the ICW in his 18-foot Maverick boat looking for the telltale signs of redfish. We have clouds and a chop on the water’s surface from the wind. Seeing the redfish – before it sees us – is nearly impossible in these conditions. But there are plenty of other ways that redfish make their location known. Actually seeing them “tail” – fins or tail breaking the surface as they feed – is one way, and more likely when shrimp are inshore.

The author scanning the Intracoastal Waterway shoreline in the early morning.

Today, we look for the wakes of the redfish as their backs push the water when they move through the shallows. The wakes can be subtle and hard to detect without practice. Distinguishing them from the push of a school of mullet takes even more experience, but our captain’s trained eye helps him to detect one from the other.

Sprays of bait fish as they erupt from the water are another sign that a redfish is on the prowl. Shore birds, especially egrets or great blue herons, can also give away the location of a redfish. The bright white birds are easy to spot from a distance. Captain Dana taught us to watch for them moving along the shore peering intently at the water. He called this “mirroring.” When the egret (sometimes two) seemed focused on something as they moved – they were eyeing a school of bait – that was very likely corralled by a redfish from the other side. The egret and the redfish mirrored each other. Sure enough, when this happened a redfish would show its location by pushing a wake as it moved along or by “crashing” the bait.

Early in the morning when there is virtually no other boat traffic, Captain Dana would slowly ease close to the shoreline of the main ICW when he sighted a fish. A passing boat, though, would likely put the fish down and out of sight. Like much of the ICW near heavily populated areas of Florida, this section north of St. Augustine is host to a great variety of watercraft, from the smallest stand-up paddleboards and fishing boats, to luxury cabincruisers and barges loaded with cargo moving along the water corridor.

Later in the day the action moves to the backwaters off the ICW.

Most angling for redfish during the rest of the day is done on the various tidal creeks and bays that meander off the main ICW, offering an endless supply of habitat and bait for the predatory species. The amount of rainfall in recent weeks or days, determines how brackish. or even fresh, the water becomes as one moves upstream. As Captain Dana points out, the appearance of cattails on the bank means we are in fresh water and hooking a largemouth bass becomes a possibility. Snook and baby tarpon will often bend a rod in these areas, as well.

As we intently watched the water along grass edges and shell mounds, we occasionally lifted our gaze outward across the fields of marsh grass to see in the distance the pitch-black outlines of wild hogs. They were escapees from some of area’s earliest settlers.

Another crawler from the ICW.

Poling the boat in quietly was the best way to approach a sighted fish in these backwaters. Staking out ambush points, such as deeper cuts or channels that the reds used to enter or exit a shallow flat, provided us several opportunities to make casts toward cruising reds. Hitting these spots at just the right moments during the changing tide can be quite exciting. The payoff for these efforts is when a redfish takes the fly to initiate a bulldog-like fight, framed against a back drop of one of the most historic areas in the country!

To book a day of guided fly fishing for redfish in the region just north of St. Augustine, contact Captain Leon Dana at (904) 591-8906 or visit his website at palmvalleycharters. com.