I love this part. I know that we've discussed this in a previous section. What the
heck, what fish eat is important and this time I promise to put a different twist on the
subject. Let me tell you about the bait fish first and then we will get into the species
and what baits they like to munch on. Also, be sure to add a copy of Lou Tabory's
Guide to Saltwater Baits & Their Imitations to your library.
This is a little book packed with lots of information on fishing the salt. I'm not here
to do a book review. I just wanted to share some of Lou's thoughts and my ideas
with you. Lou is an expert fly-angler of stripped bass in New England. His information
applies to all saltwater fly-fishing. I've read his book so many times that I might have
borrowed his lyrics.
Let's start with understanding what fish eat. Along the east coast of Florida, we have
an abundance of bait for predator fish. Now, you'll hear me talk about predator fish,
like there were no other types. Well there aren't many non-predator fish. All fish must
eat to survive. So I suppose they are all predators. They are constantly on the move to
find food, especially when they can find easy snacks.
Some fish will eat just about anything that gives nourishment - and even things that don't.
Certain fish have a preference for certain foods. Environment and location play a big part
in what fish eat. Red fish for example will eat crabs, shrimp, mullet, and sand eels on the
Atlantic Coast while their cousins in the Gulf of Mexico stick to a diet of crabs.
My favorite bait fish is the Sand Eel also known as the Sand Lance or Atlantic Sand Eel.
Most eels become bait for fish when they reach 2 inches in length. They actually will grow
to 8 inches. Yum, yum.
Eels are important to imitate. Eels spawn like a swarm of worms on the bottom. Their
colorations vary from sandy-brown-orange to black, and they are found in almost every
estuary where there is salty or brackish water. Fish love them. The eels will bury their
bellies into the sand with their heads and tails exposed, waving around in the current.
There are a number of flies that work well in imitating eels including: Cuda Candy,
Tabory Snake Fly, Red Assassin, Orange Blossom, Goddard Sand Eel, Floating
Sand Eel, Eric's Sand Eel and Lefty's Deceiver.
Needlefish are fairly common in our backwaters and Mosquito Lagoon and all the
way to the Florida Keys and Bahamas. They grow to 2 feet in length, but the 8 to
10 inch size is what attracts a hit. Barracuda love needlefish, but so do red fish and
spotted sea trout. Needlefish are very fast and swim near the water's surface. They
are blue to green and swim along the edges of the flat in search of food. Capt.
Denny's Jerk Worm, Red Assassin, Cuda Candy and the eel imitations work well.
The best retrieve is a slow jerky retrieve to imitate a wounded needlefish.
The next group is the silversides. I lump Silversides, Smelt, Sardines, and Anchovy
into the same group. They are similar enough from top, bottom, and tail views that
the difference is small. These fish all have shiny greenish backs and white undersides.
They hold along shorelines and up against the mangroves in shallow water. Most
move in small schools to avoid predators. Fly imitations include Surf Candy, Skipping
Bug, Inverted Hair Bug, Mylar Candlefish, Deceiver, and SeaDucer.
The Herring group includes menhaden, pogy, mossbunker, bunker and bluebacks.
These are the largest of the flat-sided bait fish. The juveniles are two to five inches
long and congregate in large schools. They are a favorite of most predators like
Spotted Sea Trout, Jacks, Sharks, Snook and Mangrove Snapper. The best fly
imitations include variations of large Muddlers, Bunkers, Slab fly and Whistler. A
Half/half Deceiver is also an effective imitation.
Let's not forget Mullet. They are most noticeable jumping out of the water. Finger
mullet, black mullet or white mullet are white on the bottom and green to black on top.
They usually run 6 inches in length and can be found just about everywhere. It is a
common misconception that mullet will jump when being chased. Actually they have
a parasite that is annoying and they jump to try and rid themselves of these pests. Mullet
imitations include the Inverted Mullet, Wool-head Mullet (an ultra hair bug), Sea Rat and
Shrimp are the next most important food of the saltwater estuary. There are different
seasons for shrimp. We have tiger shrimp, snapping shrimp, grass shrimp and lots of
other varieties. They are a major food source for all fish including rays in the lagoon.
Imitations include Bend Back, Blonde, Clouser, Half/half, Borski Fur Shrimp, Manta
Shrimp, and lots more. Tarpon even like shrimp.
Lastly we have to talk about crabs. We have blue crabs, mud crabs, sand fleas (really a
crab), mole crabs, and so on. The most prevalent is the blue crab. Commercial fisherman
use 1 to 2 inch crabs. The best imitations are Lew's Blue Crab, Del Brown's Crab, Merkin,
Bay's Nickel and Dime Crabs, and Bill's Epoxy Crab. There is many other fine crab flies
out there. When red fish are tailing then it is good to assume that they are eating crabs.
Don't forget about Permit. They love crabs and more crabs.
Some fish feed on a wide variety of baits. These foods are alike enough that you should
only need to take a couple of flies. Experiment. You can match flies that work with
different game fish. Here is a list of game fish and what they eat.
See you next time when we talk about the RETRIEVE for each of these species. Now
go out and fool some big fish. ~ Doug
- BARRACUDA. Needlefish, mullet and assorted baitfish.
- BLUEFISH. Sand eels, silversides, anchovies, and small herring.
- REDFISH. Mullet, shrimp, crabs, and menhaden.
- LADYFISH. Shrimp, and assorted baitfish.
- COBIA. Crabs and assorted baitfish.
- PERMIT. Crabs, crabs, and more crabs.
- SEATROUT. Crabs, shrimp, mullet, and assorted baitfish.
- SHARK. Anything that comes their way.
- SNOOK. Mullet, shrimp, crabs, assorted baitfish.
- JACKS. Assorted fast moving baitfish.
- SPANISH MACKERAL. Assorted baitfish.
- TARPON. Mullet, and assorted baitfish.
Doug is a fly fishing guide from New Smyrna Beach, FL and a member of the
Florida Outdoor Writers Association. You can reach him at: 386-679-5814
Special credit for the bait photographs from: A Fly Fisherman's
Guide to Atlantic Baitfish & Other Food Sources published by
Frank Amato Publications Inc.