Spending a day fly fishing for redfish is likely to be one of the most fun days of saltwater fly fishing you can experience.
The reason catching redfish on a fly rod is so much fun is mainly because they love eating flies. They’re not fussy or spooky like other species such as tarpon or bonefish as you can land a fly right on a tailing fish and it’s not going to spook, it’s going to eat.
This makes redfish the perfect species for trout anglers to start their saltwater fly fishing careers with. Instead of coming up skunked flats fishing for tarpon before you’re ready, you can get used to saltwater fishing with a fly rod with a smile on your face having caught some redfish.
Join me as I run through everything you need to know about fly fishing for redfish from the gear to the locations and the tactics.
What are redfish and where do they live?
Redfish (aka red drum) are a saltwater fish species that are found exclusively around the coast of the USA. They are a red coppery color on the top half with a white under section and two black spots, one of the tail and one near to the tail.
You can find them from Massachusetts on the northeast coast of the US all the way down to east-central Florida, around the corner to the southern tip of South Florida, and into the Gulf of Mexico all the way to South Texas.
Redfish can handle a wide range of water temperatures, and they need to in order to live in both Massachusetts and Florida. They can also handle differing salinities too meaning you’ll often find them in marshes around deltas.
Redfish spend most of their time around mud-flats, sand flats, seagrass beds, and oyster beds. They stick to shallow water of around 1-3 feet most of the time and their feeding patterns coincide with the tides, meaning you’re sight fishing to moving fish.
The largest redfish, known as big bulls, spend most of their time in deeper water just outside of the saltwater flats and come into the shallows at certain times of the year. By a big redfish, I mean over the 20 lbs mark.
What do redfish eat?
Redfish are not fussy and will eat anything that crosses their path from shrimp to small baitfish, mollusks, other crustaceans, and of course, flies. Basically, if it looks tasty and fits in their mouths, they’re going to try and inhale it.
What fly fishing gear do I need for redfish?
The best fly fishing rod for redfish will be a fast action 8 – 10 weight rod depending on the size of the fish you’re catching.
For standard reds of up to 20lbs, an 8-9 weight rod will do the job just fine but, when you start going for reds of 20lbs and over, you’re going to need a 10 wt rod to be able to lift them.
The reason I recommend fast action rods is because you’re going to need a rod that will help you cut through the wind and make quick casts easily.
Check out our breakdown of the Best 8 Weight Fly Rod here.
A Saltwater Reel
When a redfish takes your fly it’s going to pull about 100 times harder than any trout you have ever hooked. This means anglers are going to need a good reel with a solid drag that they can play the fish with.
You should have a reel that is made for saltwater so the reel doesn’t rust. I’d recommend a large arbor reel made by either Nautilus, Shilton, Mako, Abel Reels, or Hatch.
99% of the time you will need a weight-forward floating line for redfish as you’re fishing in shallow water but if you go offshore, then a fly fishing sinking line will also be useful.
Make sure it’s a saltwater line that is made for warm water and that it matches or is one line weight above your fly rod weight.
By using a heavier line you can make quick short casts a lot more easily as the line loads your rod without the need for many false casts.
You should be using a 25 lb fluorocarbon tippet most of the time while fishing for reds. This might sound quite heavy to those of you who fish 8lb leaders for spooking bones but reds aren’t leader shy and when you see a 30lb fish, you’re going to be happy you have a 25lb tippet on the end.
It’s also useful to taper your leaders from a 40lb butt section down to the 25 lb tippet as this will help you turn your fly over more easily and it makes changing tippet sections easier too.
You want quite a few of the redfish flies in larger sizes of around 3 inches for your standard reds and 6 inches for the bigger fish. Shrimp and baitfish imitations work best and make sure the flies come with dumb-bell eyes as reds feed off the bottom and will be looking down most of the time.
You’ll want a range of dark colors to choose from for murky water days plus some white, tan, and chartreuse flies for clearer waters.
Ask a local fly shop where you’re fishing to find out what works best in that area as patterns differ depending on location.
Saltwater Fly Fishing Tactics For Redfish
While redfish are one of the easiest saltwater fish to target with a fly rod, if you have never fished saltwater before, it’s still going to be a challenge. Here is what you need to be prepared for and a few tips too.
Setting The Scene
When fishing for reds you are either going to be wading or standing on the front of a boat being polled around by your guide. The key is to be ready to cast at a moment’s notice as these fish can sometimes appear from nowhere.
You’ll want a roid length of line out of the tip, to be holding your fly in your hand, and about 50 ft of fly line stripped out either sitting on the deck of the boat or being dragged behind you as you wade.
Line management is key while you’re waiting for some fish as if you’re in a tangle when they come, you have missed your chance.
It’s easier to manage your line when wading as it naturally sits behind you. When on boats, the wind can blow your line around or you can step on it, so be sure to keep a close eye that it’s always ready to go.
Making The Cast
Once you or your guide sees some reds coming up the flat it’s time to make your cast. If the fish are too far away for your casting abilities, wait for them to come a bit closer.
Most of the time you will be casting around 30-40 ft but occasionally a 50 ft cast is needed and often a 15-20 ft cast is needed. Listen to your guide, as they might need to reposition the boat before you make your cast.
You want your fly to land around 3-5 feet in front of the fish. Remember, reds will always be moving so you need to think about the direction they are moving in and lay the fly up in front of them.
Once your fly lands, wait a few seconds for it to sink as reds feed off the bottom most of the time. When the fish are around 2 feet from your fly, strip. Your strip should be around 3 feet in length and smooth, pausing between each one.
Remember – always listen to your guide if you have one as they will be telling you exactly what to do.
Setting The Hook
Something every freshwater fly fisherman struggles with is forgetting the trout set, ie lifting your rod to hook a fish. This doesn’t work in saltwater and if you do it, you will lose the fish.
When in saltwater you need to strip set which means keeping your rod down and stripping your fly line to set the hook. Once you feel tension, let the fish run and start fighting it.
-I think I have said it twice already but I will say it again. Always listen to your guide and a good way of thinking of it is fishing with your ears. They fish for reds every day and know exactly what you need to do and when.
-Keeping calm in the moment is one thing your guide can’t help you with. If you get over-excited, chances are you’ll duff the shot.
-Think about the wind and always keep it behind you or coming over the should of your non-casting arm.
-Fish with the tide. Reds follow a tide out and back in again, so make sure to plan any DIY fishing around it.
-Practise your casting both short and long casts, especially if you’re new to saltwater fly fishing. You should also learn the double haul cast if you don’t know it already.
You can see our post here if you want to know the world record redfish to date!
What time of year is best to catch redfish?
You can fly fish for reds all year round although most places will have you fishing during the fall and into the early winter months as this is when the big fish, the bulls, will have come onto the flats.
But, it actually depends on exactly where you are fishing. You will always find redfish up from 5-15 lbs on the flats and it’s only when water temperatures hit close to 60 degrees that the big bulls start moving in, and this happens at different times of the year depending on whether you’re in Florida or Texas.
One thing to keep in mind about when to fish for reds is the weather conditions. Over winter you are likely to experience more storms and heavy wind which will make sight casting from a flats boat or while you wade fish a nightmare, especially for fly fishermen who are new to saltwater.
Now, as a fly fisherman, I’m sure you know that one can’t predict what the wind is going to do, and I’m sure you always have a rain jacket in your fishing bag. But, you can try a fish during times of the year when it should be at a cool 5 knots.
Another consideration is water clarity as strong winds and heavy rain can lead to murky water making redfish harder to see. By fishing during times of calm weather, you’ll have clear water and be able to see every redfish that pass you by.
Where are the best places for fly fishing reds?
The one place in the world with more redfish than any other is the Biloxi Marsh area around the estuary of the Mississippi River just near New Orleans in Louisiana.
The Biloxi Marsh spans some 210,000 acres of coastal wetlands that are teeming with reds just waiting to take your fly. In the winter and all months, huge redfish up to 50lbs go into the Biloxi Marsh, and seeing one of those in a few feet of saltwater and watching it take your fly is another thing altogether.
Another famous spot that has excellent red fishing is Mosquito Lagoon in central Florida which is a 21,000-acre area of shallow crystal waters with just a 1ft tide change. The small tide change makes it easy to find the fish and its southerly location means it’s one of the best places to catch a trophy redfish all year round.
Another great place to target reds in Florida is in the everglades national park which has miles of empty flats with reds up to 20lbs waiting to eat your fly.
The most beautiful areas to go after redfish in are Port Mansfield and South Padre in southern Texas. These areas are some of the few where you can find reds in crystal clear water and on white sand flats. It’s some of the most visual redfish fishing you can find on the earth.
You can also visit our post here on fly fishing texas for a full guide when you’re planning on visiting Texas.
If you want to catch the biggest redfish of your life then going offshore in North Carolina and casting at some bait balls of reds pushing up to 80 lbs might be what you’re looking for. This isn’t flats fishing though, it’s using a sinking line and dropping big flies deep into the water column at a moment’s notice with the hope of catching a 30lb plus red. For a full guide, we have a post here on fishing in North Carolina.