Reds on Top"
by Capt. Scott Sparrow
An article that appeared
in the next Sept./Oct. 1003 issue of
Saltwater Fly Fishing
time I casted a fly rod, it was on a small pond fed by an artesian well
in the semi-desert brush country of south Texas. With great
I carried my brand new $2.95 Herter's reel on my brand new Garcia rod
the edge of the water and began casting panfish poppers to the
bass that were cruising in the shallow, clear water. I was
by considerable luck that day, and I caught one bass after another. The
sound and sight of those fish hitting my flies affected me deeply;
fly fishing became, whenever possible, a topwater affair. And so it was
natural for me to take deer hair poppers onto the Lower Laguna Madre
morning in 1978 when the idea struck me that redfish would surely take
flies. As fate or luck would have it again, I caught the two reds
that exploded on my crude popper, and my fascination with catching fish
on top moved to a new setting.
four years later, on a windless morning in late October, my wife Kathy
and I left our dock and headed for a remote lagoon on the Lower Laguna
Madre. The lagoon is usually too shallow to hold fish, but during the
tides of spring and autumn, it attracts impressive schools of redfish
on shrimp. Depending on the tidal flow, the schools may break up into
and roaming pods, or they may congregate in groups of 50 or more fish
sweep slowly around like folk dancers with arms entwined.
When we entered the lagoon,
the mirror-like surface telegraphed the movement of every fish in the
Deep retreating wakes told us that the area was full of reds, and that
to go any further would risk offending our hosts. So I cut the motor,
poled the Curlew quietly toward the middle of the small bay, while
opened her fly box and contemplated her choices.
are you going to use?" I asked.
don't you think?" she replied. I wasn't surprised to see her reach for
an orange, weedless VIP popper that I'd tied for her the night
the boat, slipped on my booties, and tied on a VIP, too. The size
4 popper -- comprised of a foam head and a spun deerhair body -- was
refined than the crude deerhair popper that I'd used to take those
two reds 24 years before. But I'm not sure the fish could tell
In a few
minutes we were wading in a foot of water.
was intense. Casting to swirls, wakes and tails, we drew explosive
from fish that often missed the first time, but came back again and
until hooked. I wish I could say that we did everything right
that first moment, but in our haste to be on the water, we had not
the time to replace old leaders and knotted tippets. Not surprisingly,
Kathy and I managed to hook three reds apiece -- only to break off on
one of them within the first few seconds! To be fair, the fish
it more difficult than usual by dragging our leaders through algae that
clung to the bottom, but regardless, we weren't feeling very good about
our angling skills up to that point.
finally broke the spell. Perhaps it was the 16-pound tippet that we
on to combat the algae. Or maybe it was the baby alligator that sent
scurrying back to the boat with visions of its mother lurking
But soon afterward, my leader held up under the thrashing fight of a
red that took the VIP on the first strike, and then proceeded to drag
several pounds of algae before I managed to grab the fish by the tail.
Freeing the red from the green mass, I lifted the fish out of the water
for Kathy to see, and then yelled, "Your turn."
on to catch and release seven reds that morning in conditions that
have defeated us if we'd been using subsurface patterns of any
description. But even if the water had been clear of algae, Kathy and I
would have used our topwaters, anyway. For, after years of
redfish in shallow, clear water, we have found that a properly designed
topwater fly can double your strikes, and greatly increase your
of the fly definitely matters, but there's more to catching redfish on
top than simply tying on the right fly. Several problems have to be
-- and solutions adopted -- before placing the remaining burden on the
fly's design. These problems are: the redfish's mouth and his style of
attack, the method of stripping the fly, and the influence of the
redfish's mouth and style of attack. Like his cousin the croaker
the black drum, the redfish has a small, "inferior" mouth. That is,
positioned on the underside of his head. When feeding on crabs, worms
shrimp, the redfish's mouth is well-designed to root out and to seize
prey where it normally resides -- in the sand and in the seagrass. But
redfish are aggressive gamefish that drive baitfish and shrimp to the
too. In these conditions, when the reds finally strike, their heads
come completely out of the water as they lunge forward with their
mouths. This movement frequently causes them temporarily to lose sight
of the target, and to miss the mark. But they make up for their
by striking repeatedly until the prize is won.
stripping method. Given the possibility that a redfish will miss a
topwater fly on the first strike, the fly fisher must observe a
approach to retrieving the fly if he has any hopes of succeeding.
He must strip consistently so the redfish can keep track of the fly,
he must avoid reacting to the sight of the fish following and striking
the fly. In essence, he must learn to respond to feel rather than to
Regardless of how much I emphasize this fact, a fly fisher will almost
always do what comes naturally when a redfish strikes his fly for the
time -- lift the rod and pull the fly away.
a fly fisher makes this mistake when he sees the redfish rising to take
the fly. Because the redfish must lift his head to seize the fly with
inferior mouth, the strike is preceded by a pronounced bulge behind the
fly. There is a tendency to mistake the bulge for a strike, and to pull
the fly away from the redfish just before his can seize it. Capt.
Gene Zamba of Tarpon Springs, Florida, tells his clients, "Feel the
don't read the fish." In order to help them resist the impulse to pull
the fly away, Zamba will often distract them by talking to them just as
the redfish's wake appears: "When I see the red turn and start to
make its move, I distract the client by asking him some question, like
'Is your line wrapped around your reel?'. Of course, the client
stop to inspect his gear, thus giving the charging redfish time to take
fly fisher succeeds in not reacting to the sight of the wake, he may
jump the gun by trying to set the hook after the fish has struck for
first time. Since a redfish often misses the fly, it's likely
the angler will pull the fly away from the fish before he's mouthed it,
either by stripping too hard, or lifting the rod. Not to be
of dinner, the redfish will frequently speed up and search
for the fleeing fly, but having lost sight of it, he will often
the mark and swim underneath the fly. Meanwhile, the angler is forced
strip desperately to catch up with the red, or to reposition the fly
a sloppy roll cast, both of which are usually doomed to fail.
this scenario, it's always best to strip slowly and consistently until
you can feel the fish on the end of your line. Or, as an
to continued stripping, Larry Haines -- owner of The Fly Shop in Port
Texas -- recommends letting the fly sit in the water after the fish has
missed. "He'll usually come back and hit it again if you just let the
sit there," Larry says.
the erroneous belief in all of this is that we have to do something
to hook the fish. Fortunately, it's just not true. If the angler
will simply keep the fly positioned just ahead of the attacking fish,
redfish will usually keep hitting it until he takes it. And then, by
only to the feel of the fish on the line, the fly fisher can be
assured of a hook up.
angler's profile. Using this disciplined stripping method will
hook-ups in situations where the fish is more than 30 feet away. But if
a redfish comes much closer, he is likely to catch sight of the
profile as he rises to take the fly. Fly fishers often mistake a
abrupt departure for a rejection of the fly, but a true rejection is
more by a fish's disinterest than by its flight.
for the tendency for redfish to spot the angler, it's important to
as low as possible as soon as the wake appears behind the fly. There's
no need to watch what happens next, because as we’ve already
the sight of the redfish striking can be more of a distraction than an
reasons, casting topwaters from a poled or drifting skiff can result in
a lot of spooked fish, especially in close quarters. The last
you want a cruising or tailing redfish to do is to look up and see the
boat, so this is one context in which subsurface flies excel over
However, for fly fishers who prefer wading, topwaters can be more
than subsurface patterns when the fish aren't showing on the surface,
when they're tailing with their heads in the grass. Indeed, a noisy
will attract redfish's attention from as far away as 10 feet.
other day, I was guiding two seasoned fly fishers -- Don Massey from
and his brother Cal from Utah. When we came upon several tailing
pods of redfish, Cal tied on my favorite shrimp pattern -- a Mother's
Fly -- and began wading toward the first pod. Meanwhile Don, who was
an orange VIP popper, spotted a second pod and set off in hot pursuit.
came within casting distance of his first pod, he placed his fly just a
bit short of the tails, and the reds showed no reaction. As Cal kept
Don hooked his first red on the popper. After about a dozen
the reds finally saw Cal's fly and promptly fought over it. But by the
time his landed his fish, his brother had already hooked his second red
on the popper. Needless to say, Cal gladly consented to a change of
and minutes later, he handily hooked a red on his first cast to a
of rain in late October turned the Arroyo into a muddy, swollen river
swept toward the Lower Laguna, five miles to the east of our lodge. I
to think of the impact it was all have on the shallow estuary. So when
the sun finally broke through the clouds, I had to go look. I was
pretty sure that the reds would have fled from the runoff, but when I
the lagoon where Kathy and I had fished only a few weeks earlier, I was
surprised to find the water clearer than I’d expected it to be.
down, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the sunset. Ten days of rain
had turned the sky a bright turquoise, and the Spanish daggers on the
gave a serrated edge to the diminishing light. Looking toward the
of the lagoon, I was surprised to see a black seam on the calm surface
that announced the presence of a school of feeding redfish.
one fish, and then I'll go home," I said to myself. I tied on a VIP,
set off on foot for the school. It began to get dark, and the
fish seemed to stay just out of range. But as I was considering
around, the school turned slowly toward me. I stood there and waited,
the sounds of feeding fish grew louder. Finally, I cast my fly about 10
feet ahead of the line of backs and tails, and stripped twice. An
fish hit the fly so loudly that it startled me. I stripped again,
and I could feel that the fish was on. Instead of putting pressure on
I let him stay with the school, and watched to see what they would to.
They just kept coming. I crouched low, and watched them wrap around me
as though I was only a heron. And then, they exploded. Some came out of
the water as they fled in all directions, and the hooked fish took off
on a run that I thought would never end. I was afraid he would spool
but he finally turned and gave up 15 minutes later. In the twilight, I
held him against my rod and determined that he was over 30 inches long.
Releasing the big red, I started a long walk toward the boat in the
effectively for redfish proceeds from an understanding of how the
mouth affects his style of attack, and limits his accuracy. It requires
a disciplined approach to stripping the fly and setting the hook while
keeping a low profile. And it takes a fly that casts easily, and speaks
loudly when it needs to. Fortunately, it's a method that works well for
experts and novices alike. As Lower Laguna Madre guide, Capt.
Ray, points out, "The best thing about topwaters is the fact that you
have to be extremely precise with the presentation. The noise will
the fish to the fly."
next time you target redfish, consider making a little noise. It's well
worth the effort, for there's nothing much more exciting than catching
redfish on top.
fly design. Once a fly fisher has adopted an effective
to stripping the fly and keeping a low profile, the right topwater fly
can remove the final obstacles to success.
topwater patterns for redfish in shallow, clear conditions are small
lightweight. They must land quietly, but make enough noise when
to attract fish from several feet away. Ideally, they can be
from the water without a great deal of resistance and noise. And
a wide-gap, chemically sharpened hook like the Gamakatsu B10S or SC15
an additional, significant advantage.
topwater patterns for redfish are the East Cut Popper, the Eddie Wilson
Jumping Grass Shrimp, the Haines Popping Bug, and my own VIP.
East Cut Popper, designed by T.J. Neal and available commercially,
a simple cupped plastic head, and a few short strands of Crystal Flash
tied behind the head. Beautifully finished in various colors, its
durability, lightness and sound-making ability account for it
Grass Shrimp was developed by Eddie Wilson of Rockport. This
high-floating shrimp pattern has received rave reviews from several fly
fishers and guides that I know. Wilson's instructions are as follows:
a size 2 to 6 Tiemco 8089NP, tie in a tail of Artic fox or calf tail.
two strands of black Spirit River's Flex Floss. Attach black nylon
Cut a 3/8" wide piece of closed cell foam, and taper one end to a
Tie the tapered end just behind the eyes, leaving 1/2" extending
and attach a saddle hackle for palmering. Wrap the thread tightly over
the foam forward to the eye. Palmer the hackle forward tightly and tie
off. Trim foam to leave a popping lip of 1/4" long.
glance, the Haines Popping Bug, designed by Larry Haines, does not seem
to offer anything special. However, if you inspect this fly closely,
will see that Haines inserts the hook much lower in the foam head than
the pilot hole made by the manufacturer, Edgewater Foam Products. (You
can make your own hole with a heated bodkin needle.) And second, Haines
uses the Gamakatsu B10S or SC15 exclusively for his poppers. "The wider
gap makes all the difference in the world," says Haines.
is a marriage of closed-cell foam and deer hair. I have come to
a small rectangular head of closed-cell foam mounted in front of a
clump of stacked deer hair. Its angled, uncupped face makes it easy to
lift quietly from the water, and it's wide-gap Gamakatsu hook rarely
if you do your part.
for tying are as follows:
a size 4 or 6 Gamakatsu B10S, tie in six strands of Flex Floss mixed
a few strands of Crystal Flash. Stack one small bunch of spinning dear
hair, and wrap thread through it tightly to flare the hair. Then wrap
thread over the remaining hook shank, and wrap back and forth to
build up a thread base. Cut a foam head from a block of 3/16" or 1/4"
foam, and make sure it’s longer at the top than at the bottom. Melt a
through the extreme bottom of the block from front to back. Put a drop
of superglue on the thread base and slip the head over the shank before
it cures. Trim the deer hair, and attach two doll eyes with superglue.
To install an inline mono weedguard, turn the fly over, and melt a hole
in the foam just behind the eye. Insert a piece of mono and anchor it
a drop of superglue. Trim to where the end of the mono does not extend
above the line of the hook point (to prevent fouling).