Sonny is with us today. I don’t always bring him, because he’s often a nuisance on this small skiff. He’s a bird dog, so he naturally gets excited to be in the marsh. But his nails clicking against the fiberglass as he excitedly paces around, jumping from deck to cockpit and back again, can sometimes spook the fish. I really love Sonny, but he’s not a stealthy fishing dog.
Many decades ago, in what is now downtown Jacksonville, Florida, there existed a shallow, narrow spot in the St. Johns River called Cowford, where cattlemen would bring their herd to cross. Like the Mississippi and countless other American rivers, the St. Johns over time was straightened and dredged and developed for commerce. The industrial manipulation wiped out much of the upstream habitat, but the estuary fared better, and the spartina marshes at the mouth of the St. Johns remain mostly intact, providing grassy feeding grounds for redfish and sheepshead, especially during summer and fall flood tides. If you’re unfamiliar with flood-tide fishing, imagine your grassy front yard that your kid was supposed to cut three weeks ago but hasn’t. In the West this might attract crickets or hoppers, but in the coastal Southeast, when the right moons and weather combine, the grass floods, attracting snails. The snails attract fiddler crabs, the crabs attract redfish, and the reds attract us.
To quote a passage from the most literary of sources—the Charleston, South Carolina-based Floodtide Clothing Company website: “Nothin’ makes Fall Fiddlers shimmy up the grass like tailers stalkin’ and grazing in the water down below.” Thing is, many flyfishers mistakenly believe that Charleston is the only place to fish flood tides for redfish. But that’s because many flyfishers have never fished the marshes of Northeast Florida.
Sonny’s up on the bow, his butt wiggling uncontrollably, nose furiously huffing the wind. Every puff of air entering his nostrils brings fresh scents from the marsh, loaded with the reason for his incessant butt-wiggling—he smells the birds. But this isn’t a day for the 12-gauge, because we’re hunting redfish.
Flood tides can happen any time of year. Maybe the wind blows strong from a certain direction, or a king tide shows up larger than expected. An approaching full or new moon is often all it takes to send anglers scrambling for tide charts, scouring for the magic numbers that forecast an impending flood tide. But whenever and wherever it happens, you can bet there’ll be a few boot-wearing anglers close by, toting 8-weights, a handful of redfish flies, and backpacks full of beer.
Like shallow-water bonefishing, carping, or permit-chasing, flood-tide fishing is an extraordinary visual event. You’re looking for upright wiggling tails, and ideally you’ll spot a few. But you’re also searching for any sign of movement through the spartina—nervous grass, if you will—anything zig-zagging and roughly rust-colored (though sheepshead may also appear).
Some days, especially in super-skinny water, redfish are as challenging as wary bones, requiring you to toss your fly in a teacup just inches from its nose, and then strip it just the right way. Other days, they feed with fearless aggression and will scoot several feet to attack, sometimes with half its body out of the water. This is why you want to keep a couple poppers, top-water gurglers, and maybe a Go-Pro in your bag, as these conditions make for an especially visual, ’Gram-friendly bite.
Sonny is still on the bow, now stepping onto coils of fly line, “Off,” I bark at him. He jumps down and curls up in the cockpit, just as I see a redfish shark-up from the grass about 40 feet out.
“Kenny,” I whisper to my friend in the bow, “There’s a fi—”
“I got it,” Kenny says, as focused as Sonny was. I slowly turn the boat as Kenny starts his cast, whipping the #4 fiddler crab out of his left hand and into the air. As he makes his final false cast, the red reappears, and we both see that she is happy and feeding, the iridescent blue on the tip of her tail glowing in the sun.
Editor’s note: Capt. Rami Ashouri is an attorney and newly minted guide, in business barely a year. Yet he’s wasting no time in positively impacting his local fishery. On Oct. 16-17, Ashouri hosted the inaugural Cowford Redfish Tournament, raising over $3K for the St. Johns Riverkeeper. The event aims to “highlight the pristine spartina estuaries of the Lower St. Johns River, now increasingly threatened by needless industrial expansion.” Info: northeastfloridafishing.com