When summertime comes around, every fly fisherman from Florida to North Carolina starts dreaming about one thing: flood tides. A few times a month the moon coordinates with the sun and the wind to generate conditions that are perfect.
In places where fly fishing is difficult because the water is darkened by mud and guarded by oyster beds, flood tides provide the angler some relief from their tribulation. The flood brings redfish into a foot of water where the angler can stand on a firm bottom.
And if that isn’t enough, the flood makes redfish stick their noses down looking for fiddler crabs which causes their tail to stick up out of the water like a flag of surrender.
What constitutes a flood tide is different in every area. In Charleston where I am from, anything over 6.2-feet causes flooding on the spartina grass flats. But just a few miles south of here in Hilton Head, the tides are much larger, from 7 to 9 feet. So, if you are interested in fishing a flood tide, make sure that you are familiar with the area so you aren’t out waiting for water that will never come.
For me, flood tides are not about catching, they are about the experience. The catching is just a happy byproduct. Few experiences in fly fishing can compare to walking out on a dry flat with a rod in hand and waiting for life to begin, picking a spot that looks fruitful for no other reason than instinct, and then waiting as the water slowly creeps in.
Then, you hear the grass begin to pop and flip with creatures excited by the change and the cool relief that the water brings. And finally, seeing the grass bend and water tremble as a tail with a spot on it emerges from the water and seems to glide free from the body you know it’s attached to. Then the dance can begin.
Flood Tide Fishing Equipment
Flood tide fly fishing does not require anything special in terms of equipment, except for maybe a skiff or a canoe that can float through skinny water. But even that isn’t necessary as I know of some flats in my area that you can drive to, park, and walk out on from the road.
As tempting as it is to want to fish barefooted, I would advise against that. Snails and oysters and crabs are all things that you do not want to step on while wading across a mudflat. I would suggest buying a nice pair of sandals or wading boots.
Next, you’ll need a fly rod light enough to enjoy the battle but strong enough to cut through the wind that is always blowing in the marsh. An 8-weight rod on the stiffer side should do the trick. Nothing is more frustrating than seeing the tail and firing off a perfect cast only to have a slight breeze blow the fly off course.
The leader you will want to use is a 20-lb test fluorocarbon, tapered leader. That is a little heavy for the fish you will be targeting, but the grass flats offer lots of things to get snagged on and the higher test will allow you to free your fly without breaking the line.
Finally, the flies! Here is where I am supposed to tell you about all the great patterns that you will need to invest in to be successful on the flood tide flats. Honestly, though, these fish are so turned on in eating mode that any old crab pattern will do. Or shrimp, or spoon, or Clauser.
The key to flies in this situation is they must have a weed guard and weighted eyes. The weed guard is most important because there will be grass everywhere. The weighted eyes will allow the fly to break through the surface tension quickly and get down to where the fish can see it.
Sometimes you will find a perfect sandy hole on a grass flat where there are no snags and fish seem to cruise through it, unencumbered. Here, you can try a topwater fly like a Gurgler and have some real fun.
You will also want a good pair of polarized sunglasses and a hat so you can see through the glare of the setting sun. Vision is key in these situations because the window of success is small and it is made even smaller if you can’t see what you are casting to.
Tips and Tricks for Tailing Reds
The best advice I can offer to a novice flood tide fisherman is to be patient. If you are in a good spot on a good flat, you will see fish everywhere. You will be tempted to go chasing them like a rodeo clown chases after calves.
Stay where you are! While these fish are not terribly spooky, every step you take on these flats will kick up mud and smaller creatures that could spook fish. And there could be fish around you that you haven’t seen yet. So it is best to remain calm and wait for the fish to come to you.
The first time I ever fished a flood tide, I thought you had to treat the fish like delicate freshwater trout by moving quietly and presenting flies as softly as possible. What I have learned is that these redfish are “turned on” and are in hyper eating mode. They are less worried about predators because dolphins and sharks can’t reach them in the shallow water.
So really the best technique for enticing a strike is to bonk them right on the head with your fly. The pop will get their attention and then the shape of something to eat will cause an instinct strike. It may take a few strips to get the fly into position but, usually, there won’t be a lot of room for stripping.
So you have to plop your fly right on the fish’s nose and then let it sit. And if you miss, forget stripping, pick it up and try again. And even though the grass is low, pay attention to your backcast because lazy loops will get caught in the grass behind you and we all know how disappointing that walk of shame is when there is a fish in front of you.
Finally, you must get to the flat early. Usually, an hour before high tide is best. That allows you to survey the area, pick out the best spot, and be ready when the action begins. You do not want to be traipsing through a water-filled flat trying to get to the right spot.
It is hard to tell when the fish will get to a flat and when they will leave, so get there early so you can be ready to see that first tail gliding through the grass.
The best thing about flood tides is that they do not require much preparation or expensive equipment. All a fisherman needs to do to be successful is to be in the right place at the right time.
Smell the mud and the salt. Witness the elegant ecology of a water-filled grass flat. Watch the sun go down and the full moon come up as night falls around you. And if you get to cast to a tail and feel a strike and land a glistening redfish in the moonlight, well, then, that is just a bonus.
Special thanks to Capt. Jordan Pate of the Carolina Guide Service, South Carolina Lowcountry light tackle and fly fishing specialists, for the beautiful tailing redfish photos you see here.
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