Contributing writer Dustin Schouest shares with us a tale of introduction into fly fishing for redfish in Louisiana, and converting one young man that is the passion of fly fishing. Dustin’s tale gives great insight into how to start fly fishing for redfish. Now begins your introduction…
The laughing I heard from the teen before me was one half condescending, one half mad with radical ideas. All that this Cabela’s customer had wanted to know was one simple thing: “Why in the heck do you have fly rods here? Who fly fishes in Louisiana?” I saw in his eyes that he only had a slight bit of malice in his guffaws, but I also could see curiosity into something he didn’t understand. And judging by the flat-bill Saints hat, the Aeropostale shirt tucked into baggy shorts, and the unscratched pair of polarized sunglasses around his neck, the tone and attitude was a defense mechanism against looking like a fool around other like-minded jerk millennials.
“Actually, I do. So do my friends. It is actually quite fun.” I said with a sincere smile on my face, even as my paw reached into my pocket to withdraw my phone. After thumbing thru pictures of my cats, my girlfriend Allison, and Dark Souls memes, I found a picture of my last redfish caught on fly in 2016: a 30 plus inch Louisiana pumpkin with a large green and red popper in its maw. The guy’s attitude immediately changed: it was like the Internet-culture was slapped out of him, and a hunger for knowledge actually crossed his mind. Perhaps replacing the collection of Instagram comebacks he had.
“Dude, I have never even caught a redfish that big before! How do you catch one on a fly?! You gotta walk through this with me brah!” I nodded and walked toward the store’s fly fishing section. As we passed the collection of Sage and Temple Fork Outfitters fly rods, I started my explanation of the process of catching a redfish on fly. “What I am about to tell you is in assumption that you are fishing the flats, or the marsh. This is assuming you have the proper outfit: a 7-9wt rod, weight forward line, and about a six foot leader. This is assuming you can cast 15-30 feet.” After the words left my mouth, I could see I had already lost his short attention span. But, I explained the basics of what I told him: how fly rods are organized by weight, how you cast a weighted line instead of a weighted lure, and how the weightless lure, or fly, is connected to the line via leader. “There are five parts of the process of catching a redfish. You ready to learn podnah?” My accent went thick, as it always does when I start talking fishing. “Teach me.” He was dead serious. It was time to make a new fly angler.
Part 1: Spotting The Game, And Judging The Cast
On the flats, there are a few signs you are looking for when hunting redfish. These are tailing or finning redfish, redfish wakes, giant splashes of feeding redfish, or cruising redfish in flat water. Tailing redfish are the pornography of the flats. The sight of a black and blue tail is enough to make even the most cold-hearted of anglers drool with anticipation. These redfish are head down tails up, trying to eat something. Most times redfish are rooting in the mud for small crabs, shrimp, or other goodies that they love to eat. For these fish, I usually like to use flies that resemble crabs, or I’ll even throw a popper at them. Finning redfish are reds in such shallow water, or swimming so close to the surface that their backs are out of the water. Again, crab or popper flies are my go-to. For splashing or cruising reds, I enjoy poppers again, because the sound of stripping the fly will drive these redfish insane. So you see the fish either tailing, finning, etc. The question is where do I put the fly. The easiest answer is right in front of the fish. Depending on how fast the red is moving, this can either be a foot or three in front of its head. A good rule of thumb is to assume that every tailing redfish you see is about three feet long, minimum. This will let you get the fly in the right spot so that it will see the fly, and come to eat. Which brings us to the next part….
Part 2: The Eat
So you have the fly right where it needs to be. The redfish is gonna do one of three things. If you casted too close or the redfish just plain feels spooked, he is going to run away like that Flock of Seagulls song. If the fly is not deep enough or if the redfish is uninterested, he will swim past the fly. But if the fly is at the proper depth or catches the fish’s attention, he is going to chomp on it. With a popper fly, the eat is the most exciting part next to the fight. A redfish’s mouth is not designed to eat things off the top of the water: it is under the fish’s head, and it can be awkward for the fish to eat anything on top. But if you piss that fish off enough with a popper, he is going to do all he can to destroy it. First you will see a giant V-shaped wake moving toward the fly. Next, the water will rise in a wall of copper or gold behind the fly. Sometimes you will even see the fish open its mouth before crashing on the fly. About half the time, as the mouth closes, it will be as you strip the fly, and it will be pulled out of the fish’s mouth. That is ok: just keep stripping, because this fish most likely will continue to chase. When you see the fly disappear in the black hole of a red’s mouth, you know he has eaten your fly.
Underwater flies can be a little harder to detect a strike on. Ideally, you are in clear, flat water. With a good pair of polarized sunglasses (I favor the Zeiss lenses on Salt Life Optics, as the lenses are crafted for use on the water, and offer many different lens colors for varied water conditions), you can usually see the redfish tip down and eat your fly. But maybe the water is less than ideally colored or you don’t have polarized sunglasses yet. If you don’t, you should buy a pair ASAP. Salt Life Optics offers a ton of frames for any style, and the price won’t insult your intelligence. In low-visibility conditions, your fly line will be your biggest indicator. Any movement in your fly line, be it a tick or steady movement, means the fish has the fly in its mouth. That is when…
Part 3: Setting The Hook, AKA The Strip Strike
When you see that the fish has taken your imitation, it is time to make sure he doesn’t throw the hook. The easiest way to do this is what is called the strip strike. Forget all about setting the hook like you do with a traditional rod and reel. If you try to lift the rod to get the hook in his flesh, you run the risk of breaking the rod tip. And with the price of fly rods, this is not a good idea. Strip striking is the safest way to get the action going without hurting your fly rod or yourself. To strip strike, pull down on the fly line, much harder than your average strip. As you do this, lift the rod just a little bit. An easier thing to do is to pull the rod to the side a tad as you pull down on the fly line, as this will put less stress on the rod. Strip line a few times as you keep tension on the line. Doing it two or three times will firmly plant the hook in the fishes mouth. Now for the fun part…
Part 4: The Fight
With big redfish, all hell breaks loose the second the redfish realizes he is hooked. That brute is going to begin running. And he will not stop until he tires out. As he begins to peel away line, keep your fingers on the fly line, letting it slip out between your fingers. Keep pressure on the fish by letting him run as far as he wants and pull in fly line as he allows. If he doesn’t stop running, just keep letting the fly line run out until it hits the reel. Do not put your hand anywhere near the reel yet. If the line runs fully out and the reel starts to turn, and your hand or knuckle is by the handle on the reel, you are going to have a bad time. That handle will turn, bust your hand, and it is going to hurt. A lot. Once you have the fish on the reel, you will begin the most traditional part of this whole fly fishing thing: actually reeling the fish in. Most fly rods have a drag system, which is usually a small dial. This increases tension on the spool of the fly rod, and operates on the same principle as the drag on a conventional reel. However, if the redfish is bigger than you think and you have no harpoon or barrels to slow that porker down, you can do what is known as palming the spool: putting your paw on the spool itself to increase the amount of drag. As you get the redfish closer, he is going to make a few more runs. Redfish are known for running away from a boat as soon as they see it. Let the fish run: if he is still green, or not too tired, and tries to run under the boat, he can quickly take off fast and break your rod. The best thing to do is to let the redfish run, reel him back, let him run again, then reel him back. In a kayak, you have the option of letting the fish drag you and the boat around until he gets too tired. Once the redfish comes up boat side and doesn’t appear to be running anymore, it’s time for the last step…
Part 5: The End
This is the end, beautiful friend. You have the fish right beside the boat, and it’s time to claim your prize! Most anglers opt for using a net, and leading the fish into it with the rod. But because most fly rods are longer than the average 7ft rod (usually 8-9ft), the act of leading the fish into the net via the rod is a quick way to snap the rod. I opt to grab the leader, bring the fish up, and grab it by the tail. Now it is time to get the hook out of the fish’s mouth. Anyone who has tied their own flies and had a few get into a finger will tell you that a fly fishing hook is (or at least feels like it is due to the pain) sharper than any conventional hook. And as such, they are usually more firmly implanted in the fish’s face. To help get hook out, I use a pair of medical hemostats. Not only can I clamp on an artery in case I get a deep deep cut, but I can reach deep into the red’s maw if he inhaled the fly super deep. Lastly, we have a choice to make. Either you can release the fish back into his briny home, or, you can put it in the cooler to bring home for supper. Depending on your local laws, regulations, and your own feelings/hunger, the redfish in your hands may have to be released. The easiest thing to do is to put the red in the water, move the fish in the water to get flow over his gills, and wait for the fish to kick out of your hands.
It had been thirty minutes since my spiel started. The kid looked like he had been hit in the face with reality, almost like he had an epiphany. “You make it sound like it’s a hell of an experience.” All traces of snobby Millennial were out of his voice, and instead I could hear a tone of understanding. I nodded, smiling for the first time in this conversation. “I’ve caught hundreds of reds on conventional tackle. I’ve landed rats, bulls, and won rodeos with bull reds that were as long as I was. None of those fights compares to the uncontrolled chaos you will experience in fly fishing. For some people, it is a religious experience. For me? It is a more primitive and traditional connection to my favorite hobby.” I pointed to the Heathen pendant I wore around my throat. “I try to stay connected to a more simple and traditional time of man. And fly fishing is my way of doing that.”
Over the next few minutes, I hooked this guy up with a starting 9wt outfit, a few flies, and some pointers. When we parted, I had a feeling that perhaps I had created a new fly fisherman. A few weeks would go by, and I would forget about this young man, or so I thought.I had just come into work on a slow, cold Saturday. Winter had decided to visit Louisiana for a quick 48 hour vacation, and the only warm place around was the inside of Cabela’s. As I got behind the reel bar, I heard a “Yo Dustin!” from behind me, and I saw that same kid. But he was different. The flat bill Saints hat was still there, but a sun-bleached Clouser minnow had been hooked into the bill. Instead of an Aeropostale shirt, he was wearing a button down Columbia shirt. Scratches and salt splashes adorned the Costa’s around his neck this time. But coolest of all, was the pale skin around his eyes, surrounded by browning skin.
“Yo dude,” he began in an excited voice, “I took out that fly rod, I went to a spot my pops and I used to fish when I was a kid, and dude, I killed ’em!” The kid then presented his phone to me, and the background that I could see between apps was of a smiling fisherman with a large redfish in his hands. I had to grin myself: I had created a convert. “Congrats mon amie. You are going to enjoy this sport for the rest of your life.” We shook hands like friends. He could look at me and appreciate my bearded fish-bum look, and I could see that his attitude had changed into one of humbleness and enjoyment.
“Now, I heard about tying flies. What do you know about that?” This time my grin turned downright evil. He was hooked on fly fishing now hook, line, and sinker. “You ready to go down the rabbit hole? Let me tell you ’bout fly tying!”