Fly on Foot: Boatless Fly Fishing Secrets (Part 2 - Backwaters on Fly)

Trey Dyer

Trey Dyer

In this second post of the three part series, Fly on Foot, we examine the “how to” of backwater and brackish water fly fishing from foot.

Trey Dyer Fishing the Backwaters of Florida

Florida is home to amazing saltwater and brackish water opportunities for fly fisherman. Just like fly fishing for bass in the lakes of Central Florida, the backwater creeks, bays, rivers and ponds of Florida offer great opportunities for the shore-bound fly fisherman. While your best chance to catch saltwater sport fish is on a boat, shore fishing for species like snook, juvenile tarpon, redfish, jack crevalle, ladyfish and trout can be very productive.

Related: Prefer a boat and a professional guide?  Book a Fly Fishing Charter

What are the “backwaters”?

In order to understand the type of fishing I am referring to in this post, you must first understand what the term “backwater” means. On Florida’s coasts, brackish water rivers and lagoons are connected to the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico by inlets. These inlets create a highway between the river and the ocean, allowing tides and saltwater to mix and influence the freshwater river, creating an inshore brackish water ecosystem that serves as a playground to boaters and water lovers and is home to hundreds of gamefish species.

With inlets and passes serving as the main source of saltwater in the intracoastal waterways, mainland rivers and creeks serve as the freshwater sources for these same waters. Brackish sections of these freshwater sources are often unaffected or minimally affected by tides and current, creating calm and quiet sanctuaries for saltwater fish to grow and live. Often these areas are up small creeks or canals that open into larger bays or ponds and are “hard to get to” spots. This is what we refer to as the “backwaters.”

Where are the backwaters and what do they hold?

Backwaters is a general term, and can refer to anything from marshlands directly next to the saltwater to freshwater rivers connecting to the intracoastal to landlocked ponds and ditches that connect to the brackish water sources through underground pipes and culverts. Spots like these hold the two most sought out game fish in Florida, tarpon and snook.

Backwater spots offer protection to young and juvenile snook and tarpon until they reach sizes large enough to venture out into the saltwater. In the winter, backwaters offer fish protection from the cold waters in the main channels and refuge from bigger predators in the warmer months. Do note, although the backwaters may hold mostly juvenile fish, big fish can almost always be found in these spots as well and often times some of your biggest catches will come out of the same water as the smallest.  

Trey Dyer Hooked up in the backwaters of Florida

Get Your Spot

The most important part of backwater fishing from shore is finding spots that hold fish. You can have the perfect fly, technique, weather and tide, but if you are fishing in a spot with where fish do not congregate, you are wasting your time. Finding spots to catch fish from shore is a lengthy process that cannot be accomplished without firsthand experience. Get out and fish; any body of water that connects to a brackish water source is likely to hold fish.

My favorite way to find new fishing spots is Google maps. Using Google maps allows you to view which waterways connect to the larger saltwater sources. Look for creeks, canals, bays, ponds, marshes and freshwater rivers that connect to saltwater; these are the perfect spots to start. Remember, some of the most stagnant and deserted looking water can hold monster fish.

Finding good fishing spots that are accessible by foot takes time and a lot of fishing. The more you explore, the more spots you will find, so get out and fish as much as you can.

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Get Your Flies

When fishing the backcountry, there are dozens of different flies I like to throw. I usually first try to identify what kind of bait the fish are feeding on first and then “match the hatch,” but sometimes that is not so easy.  To give yourself an advantage, you have to know what the bait of choice is during the different seasons.

In the colder months, usually late November - early March, shrimp and crab patterns are more effective, however mud minnows and glass minnow patterns will also work. Work them slower than you normally would in the warmer months. This gives the cold fish a little bit more time to decide whether they want to demolish the fly or not.
 
In the warmer months, from about late March to early November, mullet and other baitfish patterns are my go to flies. During these months, faster strips, especially for fish like juvenile tarpon, are key when fishing backwater spots. When the fish are warm and active, a little speed may be the key to getting that explosive strike you have been waiting for.

The kinds of flies I throw also vary depending on the type of fish I’m targeting. One of my favorite fly companies is Shrimp Mofo owned and operated by Ray Altman in New Smyrna Beach.  Altman ties some of the best flies in Florida and specializes in some of the best shrimp flies in the world.

Get Your Fish

Trey Dyer with a Central Florida juvenile tarpon

Tarpon

Possibly the most fun a person can have with a fly rod, juvenile tarpon are the reason people like me fish the backwaters. The thought of walking down the shore of a backwater pond, calm protected water that looks like glass, the sight of a silver back rolling and diving off the surface of the water like some sort of miniature dragon.; fishing for tarpon is what Florida fly fisherman live for.

Juvenile tarpon spend their adolescence in low oxygen backwaters, often further back than you would expect. Look for them in ponds next to the saltwater, coves, residential canals, marshlands and even ditches. Look for spots that are out of the way and have quiet water. Tarpon love smoothed out water unaffected by wind, so try and fish on days with low wind. Also remember that catching tarpon in the wintertime can be tricky and the peak months to catch these fish in Central Florida are from March-November.

For juvenile tarpon, I almost always throw baitfish patterns over shrimp and crab patterns. That does not necessarily mean that shrimp or crab patterns will not work, it is just my personal preference.

The Shrimp Mofo Tarpon Bunny is a great choice for juvenile tarpon

I start by throwing topwater flies. Gurglers in black and purple or white are my go to topwater flies, but I’ve also caught tarpon on popper flies similar to ones that you use to catch bass. If the topwater bite is not on, I will switch to some sort of streamer as subsurface bait. Streamers offer incredibly natural presentations in the water, but do not solicit the heart stopping explosions that topwater flies do. Keep in mind, although these are my favorite flies to throw at tarpon, many different patterns will work and it is hard to choose which one will work best on a given day. If something is not working, switch flies, switch colors; this could be the key to hooking up.

Shrimp Mofo offers a great selection of flies to throw at tarpon. The Shrimp Mofo Tarpon Bunny and Gurgler are great flies for tarpon fishing. The floating Tarpon Toad is another great option, and the Shrimp Mofo Poof Minnows have been know to garner strikes as well.

Snook

A nice little Florida snook caught by Trey Dyer using a shrimp pattern fly

A nice little Florida snook caught by Trey Dyer using a shrimp pattern fly

Probably the most coveted gamefish in Florida, the snook is a smart, strong and explosive fish that is unpredictable, known for fights that include violent thrashing, jumps and long blistering runs. Maybe it’s the fact snook look cool with a solid black line down their silvery body or that they ferociously hit the fly almost immediately after seeing it, but catching snook on the fly is my favorite way to fish.

Use Mofo Straw Shrimp Flies for Florida Snook

Use Mofo Straw Shrimp Flies for Florida Snook

For much of the wintertime, snook will migrate up freshwater sources to backwaters to escape the cold and unpredictable weather patterns that affect the intracostal waters. Snook love structure, so fishing around downed trees, docks, mangrove trees, oysterbeds, marsh grass and seawalls offer a good chance for you to catch snook. In the wintertime, structures like these hold more heat than open water and snook congregate toward that structure to stay warm and provide a point to ambush unsuspecting prey.  Places with moving water or current are also great places to fish. Look for culverts with water pushing through, storm pipes or tide movement near structure and there is a good chance you will find snook and most likely other species waiting on an easy meal.

Snook, like juvenile tarpon, will not hesitate to smash a variety of flies. Shrimp patterns and baitfish patterns are my preferred flies to throw when snook fishing. Saltwater popper flies, gurglers and sliders are a great way to entice some explosive strikes. Streamers like the Shrimp Mofo Poof Minnow are also a great choice when working mangrove shorelines. The Shrimp Mofo Straw Shrimp Fly is another great choice and will catch not only snook, but redfish and tarpon as well.

Where To Fish 

Places like the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge and the Ulumay Wildlife Sanctuary offer miles of trails through backwater areas and are great places to catch tarpon. Wading shallow shorelines near mangrove trees and flats are a great way to come across snook. The Tomoka River and Bulow Creek near Ormond Beach are also great backwater spots that offer plenty of shorelines that can be fished by foot. Just park along High Bridge road and fish the creek mouths and marsh grass shorelines for redfish, trout, snook and possibly tarpon.

Get Out and Fish

Fishing the backwaters of Central Florida by foot is not always easy and can be very frustrating. Remember to keep a positive attitude and have patience, you never know when the seemingly dead pond you are fishing is going to turn on and net you a monster fish.