Friday, February 13, 2015

Fly Fishing in The Everglades along Alligator Alley should be on your bucket list

Vinny Caruso battles a feisty oscar on fly in The Everglades along Alligator Alley.
When I have some time off and I really want to catch fish on fly rod, I load the truck, hitch the trailer and head for The Everglades.

A typical Everglades oscar.
I've fished all over the state, country and internationally. Yet, some of my fondest fishing memories have taken place just 2 1/2 hours south of my home in Sarasota, Fla.

I really love fly fishing in The Everglades.

While most people might envision leaping tarpon, feisty snook and perhaps tenacious redfish, I forgo the salt for freshwater fly fishing in The 'Glades.

There, I encounter typical species such as largemouth bass, bluegill, shellcracker, speckled perch and stumpknocker.  But when I'm there, I target exotics species: oscar, Mayan cichlid and peacock bass.

Bass love the Myakka Minnow, too!
Several factors attract me to The 'Glades. I love the beauty and solitude. You can have a great day even when the action's slow. Those days are rare, however. Normally, you'll catch more fish that you could ever envision.  I also like the diversity. On one cast you might hook and fight a hefty largemouth bass. On the next, you  could tangle with a diminutive panfish that will make you think you've hooked a freight train. Oscar are perhaps the strongest freshwater fish I've ever encountered.

This trip is one that should be on your bucket list. However, it's not for those who arise late. We usually hit the road around 4:30 a.m. and fish until we've had our fill. For us, that's usually around 4 p.m.

We fish several areas along Alligator Alley, that portion of Interstate 75 that runs  between Naples and Fort Lauderdale. There are a number of recreation area/launch spots along the way -- and all offer superb action.

Vinny's first peacock bass.
We use 2- to 6-weight fly rods, floating lines and 7 1/2-foot leaders. Most often, we'll tie on a short length of 8-pound fluorocarbon tippet. You might think 8-pound tippet would be a bit too much for bluegill  and other panfish, but it's not.  You've got to remember that a majority of the fish are oscar -- and they're extremely tough.

For those unfamiliar with oscar (astronotus ocellatus), they're tropical fish that you'll typically find in freshwater aquariums. They were introduced to south Florida waters in the early 1950s when it's theorized an aquarium owner dumped their fish into a backyard pond or canal.

The rest is history.

Oscar can be found in most every freshwater body of water in south Florida. The species can't tolerate water temperatures lower than 55, so they are limited to living in south Florida.

The freeze of 2010 severely depleted oscar in south Florida, but they rebounded strongly. The population is up and the fishing is once again superb.

You can use a variety of flies when targeting oscar. They'll hit surface and sinking flies alike. However, I've found none better than my Myakka Minnow, an epoxy-bodied creation that's virtually indestructible. It mimics that tiny minnows that are plentiful in The 'Glades and are the main forage of most fish there.

The key to success in The 'Glades is to figure out the pattern -- which often changes from day to day.
On one trip in early February, I caught plenty of large oscar. But the real treat 15 pretty nice largemouth bass. I caught bass to 4 pounds on Myakka Minnows. Typical Everglades bass go 10 to 14 inches.

On my most recent trip, Vinny Caruso of Bradenton, Fla., and I launched our NuCanoe Frontier 12 kayaks at a recreation area in the Francis S. Taylor Recreation Area. We were just coming off a cold front and the air was brisk and sky blue.

It took us a couple of hours to figure things out. Oscar were sluggish because of the cold. When the air and water warmed in the early afternoon, we started catching fish -- but not in typical fashion.

Usually, we cast Myakka Minnows toward shoreline structure such as lily pads, bulrushes, rocks or trees and retrieve them fairly quickly. This retrieve wasn't producing -- probably because the fish were sluggish because of the cold.

We discovered the key by accident. I asked Vinny a question. When he turned my way to answer, he stopped working his fly and it slowly sank.

A few seconds later, our conversation  was interrupted when Vinny's line straightened and he turned his attention to a tenacious oscar.

Didn't take long for us to change our approach.

"Maybe they're trying to tell us something?" I said.

So, we began casting our Myakka Minnows toward the structure and simply let them fall. You'd notice the end of the fly line twitch or your line would simply straighten.

We caught a pile of fish in this manner, including 20 oscar, hand-sized bluegill, stumpknocker , largemouth bass and shellcracker.

Vinny even caught his first peacock bass, a species that was introduced to south Florida waters in 1984 by the state. It wasn't a large peacock, but it was memorable because it was his first.

I first began fish The 'Glades about 25 years ago. And I can tell you that great trips have outnumbered slow trips around 10 to 1. It's a rare day when the fishing is slow.

On most outings, we'll land more than 100 fish. We landed as many as 300 assorted fish on a number of occasions.

We fish The Everglades beginning in December and continue into May. We quit heading that way once the rainy season begins (usually in June).  When the rains begin, the water level increases and the fish then spread out over millions of acres. Plus, the south Florida heat and mosquitoes are intolerable.

When the rains stop, the water level goes down, concentrating the fish in canals. It's often like catching fish in a bathtub.

The trips rarely/never entail lengthy paddle. Typically, we begin fishing as soon as we launch. We'll drift, fish and concentrate around productive areas.

I've found the NuCanoe Frontier to be the perfect fly-fishing kayak. It's wide open, spacious and drifts nicely. There's nothing for the fly line to tangle on. And the cushioned, 360-degree swivel seat is most comfortable.

Fishing should remain strong over the next few months. If you've never experienced oscar and other exotics on fly, you'll want to do this.

Please give me a call (941-284-3406) if you have any questions or would like to book a trip. Or you can email me at