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Outdoor Adventure: Snowbirds, Pack Your Fly Rods

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By Indrek Kongats

As our thermometer plummets, you have to be dreaming of sunny skies and warmer temperatures, maybe even walking barefoot on a sandy beach, the salty surf touching your toes. If you are an adventurous outdoor type of person, you might wish to make the most of your trip south by planning a little fly fishing on the side.

Here are some suggestions for fly fishing in Florida— just pack a fly rod, some all- important sunscreen and a pair of water sandals, no experience necessary!

Let’s start with one of my favorite spots at the bottom of the state, a likely spot that offers some excellent fly fishing action for a most unlikely species— barracuda. Stalking barracuda on the bayside flats off Bahia Honda Key is exceptional.  Bahia Honda Key hosts the Bahia Honda State Park, located at mile marker 37 in the middle of the Florida Key chain. The park is very popular, almost impossible to get a reservation; in fact, it is so popular that you will need to book almost a year in advance to reserve a week of camping at one of their beautiful ocean-front campsites.

To help with your hunt for the toothy barracuda, the park offers sit-on-top kayak rentals for just $12 per hour or $36 for half a day. The concession shop also sells saltwater fishing licenses that are required in Florida.

Although Bahia Honda is famous for tarpon, especially around the disused Bahia Honda Bridge that used to connect Bahia Honda Key with Spanish Harbor. These waters surrounding the bridge are full of tarpon, but they are best fished with a guide or charter boat.

Barracuda, on the other hand, are just as plentiful, offer spectacular action and are easily accessible from your rented kayak. Start by paddling around the bayside flats and find areas where you can actually get out of your kayak and wade across shallow sandy flats. With polarized glasses, you’ll be able to spot packs of barracuda in the deeper depressions. Although most fish in the shallows are small, it still is possible to connect with a 15- or 20-pounder.

Flies for barracuda can be made from braided Mylar tubing, make a fly about 6-8 inches long in a chartreuse or florescent green color. You’ll need an 8 or 9 wt rod with a steel leader between your 12 pound tippet and fly and a good amount of backing. Once hooked, the fight is hard and spectacular.

My second favorite area is further up the coast on the gulf side of Florida, just an hour north of Tampa. The Crystal River area of central Florida is an excellent fly fishing destination at any time of year. Crystal River is spring fed and its consistently warm water brings in schools of fish from the gulf, including spotted sea trout, cobia and red drum, more commonly known simply as redfish.

It’s the redfish that I target, as it’s one of the best eating saltwater fish that you’ll ever taste. A slot size prohibits keeping fish under 18 inches and over 27 inches, so anything kept for table fare must fall into the slot.

Fly fishing for redfish is best from a rented boat or kayak, which are both available for the Plantation Inn Marina. Redfish are bottom feeders and fishing for them with a fly rod is very similar to fishing for bonefish. Sight fishing is possible if the redfish are tailing but anticipate some blind casting on the grassy flats along the shoreline of King’s Bay. Shiny, gold-bodied olive Zonker minnows work extremely well, especially on a sunny day; switch to a silver-bodied black Zonker on overcast days. Weight the Zonker with dumbbell eyes, but tie them on so that the hook is riding up and bounce the fly across the bottom. The Plantation Inn offers great accommodations, especially in their condos overlooking their world–class golf course.

Finally, if you are more into freshwater fishing, Florida’s world-class largemouth are plentiful in many of the lakes located throughout the state; you’ll need a fresh water fishing license for them.

One of the best bass waters is the Withlacoochee River draining the Green Swamp of central Florida into the Gulf of Mexico. There are two excellent areas in this river system that offer some of the best bass fishing in the state and hold potential world record fish. The Rainbow River empties into the Withlacoochee just east of Dunnellon, FL; while the main river is dark, the Rainbow is a crystal clear tributary that offers a constant water temperature of 73 degrees that large bass flourish in year-round. It’s where the two rivers meet that you’ll want to explore. Casting black wooly buggers, Zonkers or other live bait imitation flies work well but because the water is so clear; fluorocarbon tippets are essential, as are delicately placed casts. The bass hold up under mangrove roots along the banks, so precise casts are a must.

The other area of the Withlacoochee system that offers exceptional bass fishing is Lake Rousseau, a man-made impoundment approximately 35 miles west of Ocala and within 10 miles of the Gulf coast. Unlike the Rainbow River area, this section of the Withlacoochee is very dark and full of water hyacinth, a free-floating perennial plant that provides the perfect bass cover.

The best approach to tackle these bass is to cast surface flies like the mouse or Dahlberg diver early in the morning or late in the day. A kayak is the perfect fishing vessel for floating down all sections of the Withlacoochee River system, but a rented Jon boat allows travel in both river directions. For all species of inshore and freshwater fish, a fly rod in the 8-9 wt range is best loaded with a weight forward floating fly line, plenty of backing, fluorocarbon leaders and tippets—and don’t forget your sunscreen!

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