by Mike Thomas
The wind was howling already as we stepped from the truck into the chilly morning air. The coffee had gone cold, our noses were running and we hadn't even left the protection of the boat ramp. We were determined to throw comfort to the wind (literally), brave the arctic air and catch some redfish.
We began the slow idle out the Salt River on the south side of the widely recognized Crystal River area. Once past the idle zone, we quickly jumped on a plane a picked our way through numerous oyster bars and mud shoals. At times, it felt like a carnival ride in a wind tunnel. The boat would slide left and catch, slide right and catch, then hunker down and skate gracefully over the bottom scarcely a foot below. One thing was for sure; the guy at the helm had better know where he was going...he did.
Capt. Greg Martin has nearly 15 years experience fishing the badlands of the Nature Coast. So much experience in fact he thought it against his better judgment to even bother sight fishing on a cold blustery morning. However, my persistence is legendary.
Once out in the bay, we cut south across the chop and shot into a one of thousands of creeks that wind their way through the salt marsh. Our only chance was to get back out of the wind on the leeward side of anything! As he came off of a plane and cut the engine we started spotting redfish. They were schooled up in less than a foot of water making them quite sensitive of our approach. The northwest wind was easily 20-25 knots and we drifted on them too quickly for a cast. Greg spun the boat around and poled back upwind several hundred feet and staked out. "We'll wait a few minutes for them to calm back down," he said with confidence.
Fifteen minutes later, we eased the pole out of the bottom and positioned ourselves for a drift just off the shallow area where the reds were sunning. Fifty feet passed, a hundred feet passed...no reds? They had moved off, our tactic had failed. "This won't be easy," Greg commented dryly as our first opportunity was lost. We started the motor and ran deeper into the heart of the sawgrass.
We ran through a small cut between the sawgrass islands towards a junction of creeks. Greg killed the engine and hopped to the platform. "From here on in we pole," he said. "You could get lost out here." I said, mostly to myself. Greg answered quickly, "yes."
Putting thoughts of impending doom from my mind, I focused on the shoreline as we slid in a creek closest to our right. Instantly I began to see lines of redfish sliding down the shoreline towards the creek mouth we just entered. With my spinning gear, I had difficulty placing a cast sideways into the 20-knot wind. After several failed attempts, Greg said "I'll pole us up and we'll fish back out, you'll be casting a little more with the wind." As if I had a choice, I obliged.
After a few minutes of poling, we reached the head of the creek. It narrowed into a thin finger that wound deeper into the sawgrass. Crystal clear water was pushing out, and schools of pinfish darted in and out of the mouth. Suddenly, Greg spun the boat and stopped. "Break out that fly rod, quick!" he ordered. I removed the fly rod from its holder and stripped out a few yards. Knowing that I couldn't possibly pull of a cast in the wind, I salvaged my pride by handing the rod to Greg.
As I held the boat in place with the pole, he hopped up front and began making false casts toward the shore (nearly upwind). I struggled to see what he was targeting but could not. Then, as the fly landed softly, inches from the bank, I saw it! A nice redfish was moving slowly towards the mouth nearly hidden in the grass. The fly landed just in front of his nose. The fish never changed pace; it simply slid over and engulfed the fly. Ten minutes later, we photographed and release a 26" redfish.
The drift down the creek proved equally eventful. We landed two more in the 26" range before relocating to another creek. At the head of the second creek, we were treated to a slalom of sorts. The creek wound its way in a series of 'S' shapes and narrowed to slightly wider than our skiff. At one point, the creek made a 180-degree turn and then opened into a pool. Greg let me climb on the platform to take a look. On the other side of the strip of land was a school of 4 redfish!
Stupidly, I whipped out a cast with my 8lb. Spinning rig. Almost as the jerk bait hit the water the reds pushed towards it. One twitch and it was engulfed! Now attached to a hefty redfish, I began to wonder how I was going to land it. The redfish took agonizing minutes to tire, as the small pool only allowed restricted runs. Nearly 15 minutes later, he began to tire. I moved towards the bow and prayed I could coax him down the creek run towards the boat. With almost no pressure on the line, I led him like a horse on a lead. Moments later I photographed and released the 33" red.
The rest of the redfish in the pool had vanished into the muddy depths after my extended battle stirred up the bottom. We let ourselves drift back out the creek. The redfish we spotted on the drift out were quite skittish. "This creek is a lot smaller, they can feel us in it due to the pressure change," Greg commented. They did seem more nervous.
Having caught more redfish in one morning than most of my days on the water, I was pleased. The wind had picked up, which made the temperature feel like it had dropped. At my request, Greg poled out and headed towards home. Our total for a blustery morning was four reds, 5 cups of coffee, and two runny noses.