Guest Blogger: Mike Cline, Bozeman, Montana

1As the weather cooled in SW Montana, we headed south to Tampa, Florida to visit relatives (Apollo Beach to be exact) for Thanksgiving. Of course, I wasn’t going to travel that far south to one of the most varied Gulf Coast fishing destinations without a flyrod. November in the Tampa Bay region is a time of transition and finding fish can sometimes be a challenge. I had heard good reports of Pompano along the beaches, so that’s what I really prepared for, but the opportunity to fish with a friend for a couple of days found me in Tampa Bay’s backwaters as well.

Coming from sparsely populated Montana I am used to lonely fishing. Difficult task in the Tampa Bay region as no matter where you go, there’s always somebody else there. Usually when there isn’t, it’s for good reason, the fish aren’t there either. Tampa Bay at 2200 square miles is one of the largest shallow water estuaries in the United States. Combined with the barrier islands just west of the bay and at the mouth of the bay, there is such vastness of water and shoreline that it’s difficult to get to know the bay quickly. Even the depth, which averages not more than 12 feet makes finding fish difficult. About 10 years ago, I had the opportunity to spend a few weeks fishing the region and got to know some of its secrets, but none of those secrets proved useful this trip. My first day out was planned for Honeymoon Island, a barrier island state park just west of the bay. Unfortunately, the first real winter front was blowing through and temperatures dropped 20 degrees overnight into the 40s and a stiff northwest wind had the beaches and shallow flats pretty roiled up. Day 2 and 3 found me on a flats boat with a friend, but all we could find were small fish—trout, snook, ladyfish, a few grouper and jacks. Fun to catch, but it was overkill with the 6-weight. The wind and cold air forced us into the backcountry and residential canals, but there were enough fish to keep the days interesting. On my last day of fishing the weather had settled. Wind had abated and daytime temps were back into the high 70s. Floridians who were bundling up and complaining about the cold just days before were now back sunbathing on the beaches. Unfortunately, the warmer weather wasn’t accompanied by favorable tides, but warmer weather promised (maybe) better fishing.

I still wanted to give the white sand beaches a try so I headed southwest to Fort DeSoto County Park. This extensive and picturesque park lies at the mouth of the bay on Mullet Key. At 1136 acres, the park has miles of shoreline access to white sand beaches facing the Gulf of Mexico and extensive grass flats and backcountry waters. Years ago, I kayaked the flats and backcountry, doing well on trout and redfish. Today’s trip however would be on foot to North Beach. Arriving around 9:30AM, I was about halfway through the falling tide. It’s a short walk to the beach from the parking area and the crystal-clear water looked inviting with a good trench around 50 yards off the beach. I was geared up with my 6-weight and the 200-grain sink tip and flies I especially tied for the trip. Two flies in particular worked extremely well. So well that I’ll call them Slimy Ladies going forward. One was pink, the other was primarily white—so Slimy Pink Lady and Slimy White Lady. As I waded out into waist deep water just off the trench, I spotted a small school of large fish—most likely small tarpon or large snook–slowly cruising the edge of the trench. My flies didn’t interest them but it did raise my hopes and my fears.

2I would enjoy catching one of those large beasts but feared losing a whole fly line in the process. The 6-weight is more than enough for 2 to 10-pound fish, but it generally takes a bit more backbone to stop larger specimens. As I extended my casts out into the trench the Slimy Ladies began coming to hand. They were all about the same size—16 to 18 inches—very feisty and they put up a good fight and aerial show once hooked. The Ladyfish is one of those saltwater species you can love or hate. It is often called the Poor man’s Tarpon. As a schooling fish, when you find one there are generally a lot more around. Four and five pounders when you get into them are a bunch of fun on light tackle. However, there is an annoying downside to Ladyfish. They are, as the title above suggest, the slimiest of fishes. You cannot hold one without getting their sticky slime on your hands. I was wearing gloves and after two or three fish, the slime had built up on my palms almost obscuring the material. But, despite that annoying trait, Ladyfish are indeed fun to catch. They hit hard, swim fast and almost immediately go airborne. I caught several dozen along a 50 yard stretch of beach in under two hours. Because they are toothless, the flies and leader stood up well to the onslaught.

3About 30 minutes into the fishing, more of those large shadows showed up within casting range. This time one of the brutes took a Slimy Pink Lady and was off to the races. I never got it close enough to identify, but the deeply forked tail meant small tarpon or large snook. After several leaps and well into the backing, the hook came free. Whatever it was, it was last seen heading south to the Keys. As the tide moved toward ebb and my section of the beach got more and more crowded with sunbathers and sightseers, I moved up the beach to the point at Bunce’s Pass hoping to find some fish in the deep hole at the point. It was encouraging to see the “Dangerous Currents—No Swimming” sign as that generally portends decent fishing. A small redfish was the reward.

The “Slimy Lady” flies are essentially shrimp or crab patterns. And in all honesty, they are merely my personal adaptations of traditional “Gotcha”, “Crazy Charlie” and “Foxy” bonefish flies. I just let various materials come together to contrive fishable patterns. More than likely, no two flies are ever the same. They are tied on light Gamakatsu #6 saltwater hooks (SP11), but any standard saltwater hook would suffice. It is a very generalized pattern that works well in both bright and subdued colors. Bright colors (pink, chartreuse, blues) work well on the flats and beaches, while subdued colors (tans, browns and golds) work better in the backcountry and along mangroves.

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 33 Left to Right: Slimy Ladies: Pink with polar chenille, White with cactus chenille and rubber legs, Gold with medium catus chenille.

 

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