Low-Tide Redfish Ambush at St. Marks Refuge

By Gary Droze

If there’s angling in Heaven, do you catch a stout fish on every cast there? I propose the answer is no, based on a recent fishing expedition on the Saint Marks National Wildlife Refuge in northwest Florida’s Big Bend. Here’s my hypothesis: much of the excitement in angling derives from some element of uncertainty. If every single cast produced a fish without fail, tedium would eventually set in. And Heaven can’t be tedious, right?

I constructed this hypothesis some 45 minutes into a session on one of the ridiculously productive tidal creeks that perfuse the saltwater marsh in the St Marks Refuge. My fourteenth lobbing cast into a sandbar drop-off had instantly yielded a strike from—you guessed it—Redfish Number Fourteen. Like the baker’s dozen of reds that preceded it, this fellow was an ornery copper muscle with fins, right at two feet long. Finally, I had a confirmed response, in case anyone should ever ask “how many upper slot redfish could you catch in a row before getting just a wee bit bored?” Thirteen.

Supposing you’d like to find your own Redfish Boredom Limit (RBL), I highly encourage an outing on the tidal creeks of Apalachee Bay, which includes over 30 miles of St. Marks Refuge coastline, bookended by the Aucilla River to the east and the rustic fishing village of Panacea to the west. In this area, successful creek redfish anglers employ a variety of baits and lures, but their overall game plans typically fit into just two categories: rising tide pursuit or low tide ambush. The majority goes for a high tide approach, as a matter of practicality. Like most finny inshore predators, Apalachee Bay redfish move with the lifting tide. The rising water grants them access to forage like fiddler and blue crabs, as well as pinfish and banded killifish (although inquiring about banded killifish at local bait shops will earn you a quizzical look; ask instead for bull or tiger minnows—same thing). The other practical aspect of fishing high tide involves angler access. The mouths of these creeks are generally so shallow as to prohibit entrance for most boaters—even some kayakers—at low tides near full or new moon phases. Factor in the hull-damaging potential of oyster bars and rock-strewn bottom, and it’s easy to understand why even the veteran boaters here check the tide charts for fat water before cruising to the creeks. Boosting the economy through spending locally is admirable, but wouldn’t you prefer to apply that disposable income towards tackle, bait or ice, rather than by replacing a cracked lower unit?

A small, devoted cadre of St. Marks Refuge wade fishing anglers has developed an altogether different system for hanging redfish. These ground pounders exploit the very same low tides the boaters studiously avoid. Through seasons of trial and error, they’ve discovered that a number of tidal creeks feeding Apalachee Bay will hold reds (as well as spotted seatrout, sheepshead, and southern flounder) on sharply dropping, and even blown-out tides. The heavenly school of 24-inch reds I described earlier was holding a convention in one such creek. Many of these salty streams are too small to merit names, but the fish don’t seem to care. If you can 1) get to the creeks and 2) make an appropriate presentation, you are likely to come away with stories of world-class fishing. Now, let’s address those two “Ifs:”

Getting to the Creeks
This will be a deal-breaker for couch potatoes. The choice low tide sites all require is some mix of slogging through mud and across sand flats. Make no mistake: you will sweat. However, anyone fit enough for a roundtrip hour or so of soggy hiking (while toting a backpack for gear) will be amply rewarded, in terms of frequent rod bending. Arguably the best tidal creeks for Big Bend foot bound fishing are those reached from the levee trail system off Lighthouse Road, which runs south from the St. Marks Refuge Visitor Center. Check www.fws.gov/saintmarks/ or call (850) 925-6121 for more information. The Visitor Center also passes out free maps which clearly show hiking routes to these creeks, all of which drain into the flats surrounding the landmark lighthouse.

Making an Appropriate Presentation
Simplicity and stealth are the rules here, mostly because you’ll be fishing in tight quarters. The only Big Bend seatrout I’ve caught over seven pounds came out of a Refuge creek that was narrower than a basketball court. Audacious popping cork rigs are unnecessary in these waters. Better to creep up, maintain a low profile, and flick a light swimming jig or freelined finger mullet crosscurrent into a gently draining creek bend. And hold on. For more up-to-the-minute reports on inshore tidal conditions, visit www.bigbendfishing.net

Finally, note that the redfish limit hereabouts is two per person, but the Redfish Boredom Limit varies by individual. I can’t think of a better place to measure your RBL!

Check out this killer kayak fishing footage shot at St Marks from a GoPRO!

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