“Fort Pierce is the dividing line for Florida’s best flats fishing, with great red fishing to the north and fantastic snook to the south” says Captain JD DeBula who has fished for over thirty years on the Indian River length of the Intracoastal Waterway that passes through Fort Pierce.
But great snook and redfish are not all that awaits the shallow water angler on the sun-drenched, mangrove-tangled shores of the Indian River. “Fort Pierce is smack dab in the middle of the world’s best trophy sea trout angling. The world record sea trout of seventeen plus pounds was caught off the Little Jim Bridge in Fort Pierce,” says JD.
“March, April and May are the best months for trophy sea trout. Those that top ten pounds are called gator trout,” explains JD.
JD’s particular passion, call it an obsession, is to use big topwater lures to catch the gator trout that haunt the bait-filled mangrove shorelines. “Of course, big snook and reds love topwater too,” smiles JD.
Lures to Use
The SEBILE Bonga Minnow is an ideal topwater for flats fishing. It is beefy in size, shaped just like a mullet, and comes rigged for trophy saltwater fish. Compared to most other topwaters that must be worked fast with frantic action, the Bonga Minnow has a slow “walk-the-dog” action. The slow movement that’s possible with the Bonga Minnow is natural and unalarming to spooky flats predators. It’s the 95mm size that’s the best for the breezy conditions often found in Florida. It casts a long distance with pinpoint accuracy.
For flats fishing, where water depth is better measured in inches rather than feet, topwaters have one key advantage. Since they float and work enticingly on the surface, they have no contact (aside from floating grass) with the dense weed beds, shells, rocks and marine debris that render flats fishing impossible with most other lure types that would get stuck in that stuff.
The colder winter months are the only time when JD doesn’t use topwaters too much. Winter is when JD fishes the flats almost exclusively with soft plastics on lightweight jig heads. Of course, JD uses these soft plastic lures during spring, summer and fall too. The jig and soft plastic dressing is a year-round producer on Florida’s flats.
“The trick is to try different ones until you find a jighead that resists rolling on its side and doesn’t drag the hook point in the dirt when it contacts the bottom. A properly-made jighead will prove surprisingly weedless and snagless – but only when fished by an attentive angler who concentrates on keeping the hook point positioned in an upright posture at all times throughout the retrieve. If you’re sloppy with how you work a jig, it’s going to be a snag-plagued day, and that’s no fun,” says JD.
The SEBILE Flats Jighead is designed exclusively for flats anglers. It’s low center of gravity and high line tie eye help hold the hook upright whenever there’s reeling or just line tension. The flat face is designed to lift the jig when reeled, so it swims even in inches of water. The hook is the strongest on the market, yet easy to set even with 10 lb test line. You never know what is going to grab your jig next on Florida’s flats. That’s why the SEBILE Flats Jighead is built stronger in order to give you the best chance to land the biggest fish on the flats.
In terms of giving action to a jig, JD likes to hold his rod tip high (which helps hold the jig hook upright) while imparting a short yet sharp rod tip stroke about every two seconds throughout the retrieve. On the upstroke, the jig will suddenly dart forward. On the downstroke, the jig tumbles and falters vulnerably for a split-second, but not long enough for the hook point to drag on bottom. This proves to be a great action to use with the SEBILE Magic Swimmer Soft (105mm size) on a 3/8 oz SEBILE Flats Jighead. The supple, triple-segmented body of the Magic Swimmer Soft will wiggle wildly on the snappy upstroke and then flap helplessly as it falters for an instant on the downstroke, only to be snapped forward again! It acts like a baitfish in big trouble.
The SEBILE Stick Shadd Hollow (100mm size) is another soft plastic for flats fishing. It mimics a finger mullet. On a ¼ oz SEBILE Flats Jighead, it will catch many fish when used with the rod held low, making upward draws of the rod from about 9 to 11 o’clock. The fat, mullet-shaped Stick Shadd Hollow will first dart forward to one side, flashing its ample sides and vibrating its tail. Then it will flop feebly toward the other side on the downstroke, flashing the opposite side of its body in distress, resulting in an overall zigzagging action that proves irresistible when these rod movements are repeated throughout the retrieve.
There are some sections of flats where the grass can be too thick even for jigs. That’s where the Magic Swimmer Soft rigged with SEBILE’s Soft Weight System comes into play. Instead of a jig head and exposed hook point, SEBILE’s soft tungsten weights are slid onto the hook shank and the hook point is protected in a recessed slot on the lure’s back. Rigged this way, the swimming action is totally lifelike and the Magic Swimmer Soft is fully weedless. This is the lure to use in the shallowest, weediest spots where jigs can’t go.
Rods, Reels, Line and Leaders to Use
If you like, you can use pretty light tackle here. Skilled anglers especially seek the challenge of using 10 or 12 pound braid in order to get the most excitement from fighting fish on relatively light tackle. The mangroves in this area mainly rim the shoreline, and anglers are typically casting just in front of the mangroves which is mostly grassy bottom interspersed with weed-free, sandy potholes where the fish wait to ambush baitfish (or your lure). What this means is that there are very few obstacles or risks of break-off once you’re able to move a hooked fish away from the mangrove shoreline. You are fighting the fish in relatively open water where it’s possible to land even large fish on light tackle.
A tough fluorocarbon leader is very important for its abrasion-resistance. First, when using a jig, the knot will be constantly abraded against the bottom. Second, snook have notoriously sharp, line-cutting gill plates. For these two reasons, JD prefers 30 lb test fluorocarbon leader for everyday use. Use a two foot long leader, maybe three foot maximum length.
30 lb test can be plenty strong for sea trout and reds, but days when snook are plentiful, it may be wiser to use 50 lb test leader since snook will jump many times, often cutting lighter leaders in their razor-sharp gill plates.
If you have the luxury of owning three rods and reels for flats fishing, the great thing would be to have:
- Light. A 10-12 lb test outfit with a lighter rod tip for the most fun with lightweight jigs and smaller fish, using a 30 lb test leader.
- Medium. A second rod that’s a little stronger. Say 15-20 lb braid with 50 lb leader for snook, and to work big topwater lures for trophy sea trout.
- Heavy. A heavier rod for tarpon or big jacks with 20-30 lb test braid on the reel but 80 to 100 lb test leader being a better choice for big jacks up to 40 lbs that are common around Fort Pierce as well as tarpon that can run 80-100 pounds found cruising the flats.
If you seek the simplicity and economy of using one rod only, consider that the Shimano Crucial CRS-70MH with a 4000 size reel can serve well for much of the above. With this single rod, you sacrifice some of the thrill of light tackle with smaller fish but gain peace of mind over bigger fish in skinny water, and isn’t that what flats fishing is all about? Make sure the reel comes with a spare spool. Use 15 lb braid on one spool for jigs and topwater lures. Use 20-30 lb braid on the second spool for tarpon, monster jacks or bait fishing. This rod Is useful for bridge, dock and inlet duty too.
The Guide’s Secrets
Predictability is what a guide like JD hopes to develop on the waters he fishes. With predictable conditions and spots comes guiding success. “With winds out of the east, you’ll find me fishing the east shore. Winds out of the west, I’ll fish the west shore. When winds are out of the north or south, the flats fishing is likely to be tougher and slower,” predicts JD.
JD’s most productive times for flats fishing are dawn and dusk. The first and last light of day are when you should be giving it your best shot at your best spots. There is simply more feeding and activity on the flats during these diurnal hours. On days when JD fishes by himself, he’ll be on the water early, have the boat back on the trailer by 9 o’clock in the morning and go out again for a few hours at dusk.
Spoil islands are some of the best fishing spots on the flats. They were formed when the tailings from the Intracoastal Waterway was originally dredged; the tailings were simply deposited along the sides of the dredged channel, resulting in mangrove-ringed “spoil islands” in some cases today. In other cases, the tailings do not emerge above water, which instead results in sand bars or oyster bars. A good GPS or other map will show both the emergent islands and submerged bars that are strung in lines north to south along the sides of the Intracoastal Waterway channel. Fishing these structures, especially wherever underwater grass and baitfish are present will result in good catches. Although no rules apply, it seems that sea trout tend to favor the submerged bars whereas redfish gravitate to the emergent islands. The textbook “sweet spots” on these islands and bars are the north and south tips.
The mangrove-rimmed banks of the Indian River – the east and west shorelines – are choice locations for trophy snook and reds. The sweet spots here are wherever small cuts or bays form indentations back into the shoreline. This often indicates a culvert or natural water drainage may exist in this spot, allowing a small backwater lake, pocket of water, marsh or mosquito ditch to drain out into the river here on the outgoing tide. Casting as far back as possible into these areas is a high percentage ploy for quality reds and snook.
JD’s Indian River Guide Service
Captain JD DeBula
Hobe Sound, Florida
Phone: (772) 708-7226