Fishing South Florida’s Mangrove Morass. “Trees that walk”

IMG_8535You’ll find mangrove ecosystems lining all warm oceans. They’re characterized by tangles of foliage that sit atop an intricate series of exposed roots, or that send out protuberances known as pneumatophores. Prime examples of mangrove habitat can be found in Everglades National Park and the Ten Thousand Islands, where these “trees that walk” play an important role in the lives of game fish. Meanwhile, to fish them effectively, anglers need to understand a few basic principles.

For starters, “mangrove” is really a catch-all term that describes several salt-tolerant plants that flourish in the tannic waters of bays and estuaries, or along low-energy beaches. Most share a common characteristic: the ability to send-out specialized roots that filter particulate matter while hosting a myriad of forage organisms. The latter includes various baitfish species, as well as worms, mollusks and crustaceans, which, viewed together, serve as the inspiration for a number of successful fly patterns. Forage attracts predators. There’s also the shelter factor, along with all-pervasive shade. It’s this combination that not only attracts adult game fish, but that provides a nursery for juveniles.

So much for biology, but what about the fish? Well, they work in and out of mangroves with the tide – something that’s more evident wherever a creek enters a larger body of water. The first rule of fishing a mangrove shoreline states that species like snook and redfish push toward the root matrix from deeper water on a rising tide and retreat as it falls. But like most rules, it’s made to be broken:

IMG_8615Snook, for example, may remain hidden just inside the labyrinth of roots while waiting for the falling tide to sweep baitfish from creeks or run-outs into a larger body of water. The line-siders prefer to hide among, or behind the roots and launch ambushes that run parallel to, or directly towards the actual shoreline. These fish seldom leave their mangrove cover, choosing instead to make occasional forays up and down the shoreline while searching for additional prey. To fish them effectively, casts must be “dead-on” to the areas where “pops” are erupting, or ahead of skittering baitfish.

Tarpon – especially the juveniles – are another “regular” hereabouts. Unlike snook, they prefer the deeper water that lies just outside the sunken roots. Whenever they decide to feed, tarpon approach the roots in single file and begin flashing through any baitfish that might be present. They’ll keep circling back into deeper water, where they often pause to roll.

It’s a classic situation, where anglers need only land their flies close to the roots before beginning a slow-strip retrieve. It pays to keep stripping for at least 10 feet. And strip-strike whenever you fell a hit–to keep from pulling your fly away from a possible “chain” of followers.    

Rule Number Two states that anglers deliver their offerings with minimal commotion. A caveat says “strip them faster than any current you encounter”. Meanwhile, if hyou look at any mangrove shoreline, you’ll notice how close the branches hang to the water. That’s why the way to get your fly in front of the maximum number of fish is by getting it beneath the green.

Delivering a fly on target in two-dimensional space places special demands on any angler: Foremost among them is the requirement that he (or she) perfect a side-arm delivery that keeps the fly line loop unrolling parallel to the water. Tiborwith-RivetIt’s also helpful if that loop is narrow, so it can pass through any gaps in the foliage, but it’s practically impossible to keep from snagging flies, so I rely on heavy tippets that allow me to retrieve them by straightening-out the hooks. But more on that later. 

There’s a lot of skill involved in effectively fishing a mangrove shoreline: For example, expert casters, and those are the ones who can really concentrate, learn how to literally “skip” their flies into those dimly-lit redoubts that lie deep within the roots. Exactly how they do this is by turning-over their leaders so close to the surface that their flies “bounce” into position. That being said, the entire scenario depends entirely on how they control their loops, and how they construct their leaders.

A right-handed caster simply makes an exaggerated curve to the left while aiming the fly at a point on the surface that’s slightly short of his actual target. A left-handed caster does the same thing in the opposite direction. Both are careful to avoid making too loud a splash, but if done correctly, this maneuver straightens-out the leader, while keeping both fly and leader as close to the surface as possible and away from any overhangs.

As far as the actual leader, I prefer one of moderate length –say, six or seven feet – that tapers quickly from a long, fairly-heavy butt section (40-pound) to a short, proportionally-heavy tippet of from 12 to 20-pound test. The mangrove jungle is no place for flimsy tippets, and with the increased pressure of having to “horse” fish away from barnacle-encrusted roots, full-contact fly fishing happens to be the name of the game. And speaking of “horsing,” I once asked Lefty Kreh what he thought was the toughest fish he ever encountered on fly tackle. His answer? The New Guinea bass, which is a snapper on steroids that inhabits estuaries adjacent to the tropical Indian Ocean. Lefty said that he’d tie his fly directly to the 40-pound butt section and whenever a bass hit it, he’d hold on for dear life while his guide put the outboard in reverse.

          There are plenty of other tips, too, like how anglers who fish after a cold snap should look for mangrove IMG_8532shorelines that receive the maximum exposure from the sun, and seek-out those “lakes” where cloudy water or a dark bottom are clearly evident.

In summary, mangrove environments offer fly fishermen extraordinary opportunities, as well as daunting challenges. Yet they also provide us with one of the few remaining refuges of solitude and quiet. Viewed historically, mangroves factor heavily into the history of our sport, while at the same time, and hopefully with all the pressure being exerted by various conservation groups, they’ll play an integral role in our future.