Huge redfish and black drum swim the waters of Louisiana’s saltwater marshes. Best of all, they eat flies!
by Seth Fields
What about this fly?” I asked with a hint of desperation. “Redfish will smash it, but the black drum probably won’t touch it,” guide Paul Ray said. “Sheepshead definitely won’t eat it.”
That was my last fly; Paul had quickly dismissed the others. At least, he said, this final pattern would catch the local redfish. Before my boatmate’s time on the casting deck came to an end, I tied it to the end of my line. What could it hurt? My turn to fish finally arrived. No more than five minutes after stepping onto the platform, Paul hollered, “Fish, eleven o’clock!” With my purple dragon-tailed fly in hand, I scanned the water and found the dark mass facing the boat, its tail waving slowly back and forth as it vacuumed the muddy bottom for food. “It’s a drum,” Paul said with a disheartened tone, but I thought to myself, Hey, it could work.
I placed a cast on the nose of the fish and then waited for the fly to sink. Tick, tick, tick—WHUUUSH! With the swipe of its giant tail, the fish propelled itself forward and away from the monstrous creation I’d so brazenly thrown at it. The mud from the creek bottom plumed up like a great, murky mushroom cloud.
“Hey, Jake,” I groaned to my pal, “mind handing me that other rod?”
I am the kind of angler who never goes on a trip without an arsenal of different patterns. On most trips, fly boxes line the edges and open spaces of my suitcase—and there’s usually more in my carry-on luggage—but on this trip, I was told the guides would have everything I needed. I was instructed to pack only my clothes, a camera, and some ibuprofen for soothing tired arms and sore shoulders, but that didn’t stop me from taking a handful of my own flies. Unfortunately, I quickly learned that patterns for the Louisiana marsh must meet a few criteria often overlooked in other patterns.
FLASH The waters in the marsh can vary greatly in clarity. Gusty winds, tidal changes, and depth all play a part in determining how clear the water is, and it often goes from skinny and crystal to deep and murky. You need flies that perform under all these conditions. Including some flash in your flies is part of the answer.
Flash is a vital component of a successful bayou fly. No matter how murky the water, an ample amount of flash will make or break your fly and win the hearts of the hefty bellycrawlers patrolling the mud flats.
COLOR Above the waterline, the Louisiana marsh is teeming with life and color. Roseate spoonbills and white pelicans fly low against the blue skies and seas of amber-colored reeds. If you look closely, those amber grass fields actually comprise bright greens, maroons, and strips of gold. When it comes to color under the water’s surface, however, you’ll mostly see a monotone shade of brown. This muddy, marshy bottom means that you need flies that pop!
Even though the natural food sources for marsh game fish have colors that of- ten mimic their surroundings, it’s okay to throw flies that will easily get noticed. Capt. Paul’s Orange Crush is a fly tied in more natural colors, but ample flash and a barred Zonker-strip tail get the attention of big redfish. Bissett’s Cajun Crustacean, with its barred purple-and-yellow body, stands out in any type of water, while the Hopedale Crab uses the power of chartreuse to penetrate the murky depths. The fish on the marsh aren’t particularly shy, so just make sure your pattern has a color scheme that gets noticed.
WEIGHT The amount of weight to add to your flies depends upon the species of fish you will pursue. Redfish will eat poppers on top, crabs down low, and everything swimming in between; black drum and sheepshead mostly eat the foods they find on the bottom.
Yes, all fish will eat on the bottom, but throw a heavily weighted pattern at a sheepshead, and watch it disappear into a puff of mud. The same thing occurs with some redfish cruising high in the water column or in only inches of water; a fly landing with a heavy splat might be the end of the road for catching it.
The demands of this particular saltwater arena mean tying each pattern with a variety of weight. That way, when you come to a deep trench where fish appear quickly at close quarters, you can use a fly weighted with heavy dumbbell eyes that sinks quickly; on the other hand, if you’re fishing a skinny-water flat, switch to a pattern tied with lighter bead-chain eyes that will land softer and be less likely to spook fish.
SIZE Patterns for catching redfish and black drum should mimic three-to-five- inch-long crustaceans, while sheepshead flies should imitate smaller crabs and two-to-three-inch-long shrimps. Many anglers even swear by throwing small bonefish-style patterns to sheepshead. Flies like the Swamp Sloth and Baby Blue land softly and are the right size meal for anything from sheepshead to crab-hungry redfish. Just make sure that if you’re fishing on the bottom that your fly rides with the hook point on top to avoid snagging oysters or digging into the mud. Use weed guards if necessary.
Anything can happen on the bayou. While it’s impossible to have a perfect fly that works in all situations, you can tie these tested patterns or make your own following these design principles. Either way, you’ll have fun filling your fly box and enjoy great fishing. But whatever you tie, just be ready: You never know when the fish of a lifetime is just around the corner!
Seth Fields owns and operates the Hatch Outfitters fly shop in Chattanooga, Tennessee. With fly-eating muskies a mere 45 minutes from the shop, it’s a wonder that he ever gets any work done.