Fishing Mangrove Shorelines
Mangroves cover an estimated half a million acres in Florida, and extend from the Florida Keys to St. Augustine on the Atlantic coast, and from Cedar Key southward on the Gulf coast. They serve as feeding, breeding, and nursery grounds for a variety of fish, shellfish, birds, and other wildlife. In addition to the obvious protection they offer, mangroves produce leaf litter which benefits estuarine food chains. An estimated 75% of the game fish and 90% of the commercial species in Florida depend on the mangrove system. There are three main types of mangroves that you will encounter, and sometimes a fourth, the buttonwood, which isn't actually a true mangrove but can grow within the community. For the sake of fishing, I will omit the buttonwood.
Red mangroves are the easiest to identify by their tall arching reddish roots that drop down from the branches, called prop roots, that are often seen in a tangled mess above the water surface. Prop roots supply air to the underlying roots and provide support and stability, and also trap mud and silt, which helps maintain and build a solid foundation. They are found closer to the water than the other mangroves in the community due to their high salt tolerance, and most often on the outside wet edge closest to open water. Red mangroves are found from Cedar Key in the Gulf of Mexico and Daytona Beach in the Atlantic, southward through the Florida Keys. They can grow to 80 feet.
Black mangroves are usually found just behind the Red Mangroves at a slightly higher elevation where tide changes expose the roots to air. They can be identified by their finger-like roots that poke up from the ground away from the trunk, salt crystals that form on their leaves, and dark scaly bark. The black mangrove reaches heights of over 65 feet in some locations, however in Florida they are smaller with heights to 50 feet. They can be found from the Keys north to Cedar Key on the Gulf coast, and St. Augustine southward on the east coast.
White Mangroves are most prominent in high marsh areas, typically growing further inland than black and red mangroves, as they cannot tolerate being submersed in water. They are smaller than red or black mangroves, and reach about 40 feet. They have no visible aerial roots, however, when found in oxygen-depleted sediments or flooded for extended periods of time, it often develops peg roots (roots that sprout out of the ground like snorkels) to survive. White mangroves are the least cold-tolerant of the group and are found from Levy County and Volusia County southward in Florida.
It’s pre-dawn; the early morning dew still adheres to the deck while a light blanket of fog hovers over the glassy smooth water. You take a moment to gaze upon the tranquility of the backcountry and all but forget about fishing for a brief moment. You see the silhouettes of a few raccoons foraging in a nearby shallow pool, while a great white heron stands out like a neon tongue against the mangrove shadowed shoreline. Soon, a picture perfect sunrise abounds and reveals the true serenity of the mangrove forest. Conditions are perfect. All is silent, with the exceptions of your mates push pole occasionally grinding against an oyster on the muddy bottom. You cut that final corner to your honey hole and off in the distance you notice a wrinkle in the water, and further observation reveals a few small wakes rolling slowly toward the oyster bar.
You pull your light action rod from its holder while simultaneously fetching two shrimps. Keeping your composure you briskly toss one shrimp to your mate and attach the other to your hook and give the nod! With the fish in range you and your mate bombardier your little soldiers several feet ahead of the lead fish near the oyster bar, and without warning the water erupts in two locations. “Double play!” You want to shout but keep it in as you set the hook and watch your line unspool. You’ll have to catch one to find out the ending, but I think you see the thrill in it! This is typical backcountry sight fishing and I can tell you that it will be an experience that will keep you coming back for more. Redfish are highly sought after species when it comes to backcountry fishing, especially in the mangroves.
Mangrove shorelines and backcountry are the cool place to hang out. It is an intricate root system that offers a broad spectrum of activities, amenities, and dinning for the fish, while anchoring down the coastline and drawing anglers to it like a secret hide-a-way. From a distance, mangroves look like a mere clump of trees at the edge of the water, but look a bit closer and you'll find a wetland teaming with life; an area of unexpected sights, and entry ways that pop out of nowhere.
Not all mangrove forests are created equally, and this is where inexperienced anglers learn that the sport of inshore fishing isn't as easy as once thought. They indeed need to be fished differently, and knowing this will make you a more productive angler.
Some important features to be aware of are current, clarity, cover, tree depth, water temperature and depth, and activity. As you know, water temperature can take the best location and make it a ghost town, so pay close attention and ensure you're in the right comfort zone for your intended target. The information below assumes the ideal water temperatures are present.
In clear, relatively slow current, with decent overhanging leafy mangroves, fish will use this for cover and comfort. You'll find snook, reds, tarpon, snapper, and others taking advantage of the ideal temperatures, lighting, and protection. I like to throw slow sinking soft plastic jerk baits and keep it under cover as long as possible. Small short pops are the best way to work the bait and keep it under cover for extended times. I also prefer to float a nice live bait along the edge. It's a thrill to toss in a live bait on a float and watch as it hovers outside the edge until it feels comfortable enough to head for the protection of the roots, only to find it made a not so favorable choice!
These systems come in different depths, referring to the depth of the tree overhang back to the shoreline. The more depth you can find usually equates to better fishing. One of my best locations requires that I float up to the edge and toss a weighted bait 15 feet back through the bush and still can't reach the shore. This particular spot held so many keeper plus fish that someone else discovered it a few years after I did, or should I say I discovered that someone discovered it, as I'm sure others fished it as well. Long story short, someone actually cut a small pathway through the mangroves, which is illegal, but they did, just to get a better cast. Once that path was cut and visible to others, it quickly turned to a ghost town and I haven't been back in years.
Often you'll have locations with thin overhangs and short shoreline depths, where the current moves faster and the water clarity is stained or dirty. Though I never pass up the chance to flip a bait under the overhang, a location like this first draws my attention away from the shore where I look for current flow around and close to the shoreline. This is where you'll find troughs, points, and varying bottom structure.
Mangrove systems have a common theme to them, as they have waterways moving through them in the form of main channels, troughs, and many small cuts, and this is what moves food and fish. Between each island you'll find depth changes, cuts, ridges, etc. These areas are excellent during tidal movement and even on slack tides and should be spots of interest.
Here in the Tampa Bay area we have a fairly good selection of mangroves, not only shoreline fringed systems, but also mangrove forests. One particular area is called Weedon Island state preserve, and it covers a perimeter of about 10 miles, encompassing about 4000 acres of mangroves. Within the system are plenty of open water areas, miles upon miles of shallow and narrow passages that meander through this rich ecosystem of over 100 fish species, a great variety of reptiles, hundreds of bird species, all situated around various grasses, oyster bars, mud flats and more.
Fishing back in the mangrove forest requires a few things to be successful. Obviously, a stealth approach with a low-profile will always be the best approach. There is a reason why kayakers have a lot of success here, not only because they can reach very skinny water, but more so that they come in very quietly and have a low-profile to the water. It is not uncommon to see the kayaker get out and wade to skinny water to reach even better locations.
So let's get started and venture into the mangroves. I'll take you step by step, and if you follow these steps you'll get a better feel for how a mangrove system should be fished, and from there, you can start creating your own methods once you have a basic understanding and starting point.
The number one rule is to show up early on low tide if you already have spots from previous visits. Those new to the mangroves may want to wait at the gate for a bit and enjoy the bite as fish move in. More on this later. Yes, the gates will be closed to nearly everyone, including the fish, as the water may be just a few inches deep. This is the time you start getting your gear in order and perhaps eat your breakfast. Once you see the first hint of moving water from the incoming tide, toss in a live bait under cork and let it sit in a trough on the outside shoreline that most likely runs parallel to the islands. Personally, I don't start throwing plastics until I see one of my live baits getting nervous, or better yet, snatched up! From there I will start working any outside overhangs nearest deeper water, preferable a trough with at least a few feet of water in it. Don't forget the sandbars that often form in front of these eco systems, as the troughs around them hold waiting fish too. Many times we get into some great action before the keeper ever opens the doors to the "back country" club.
As the tide begins to push in and the water rises, those with the skinniest draft will make it to the prime spots first, so if you want to be there first, you better find something that floats in 6-8 inches of water or be left waiting. Trust me, back country anglers are serious about getting in first, as I'm sure you'll see some boats getting hung up on the bottom as they were a bit over confident in their boats draft. It rarely ever fails to be a common occurrence in my area. While getting in early is a good thing if you have spots already picked out and wish to wait for the fish to arrive, pushing too close to the edge in skinny water while actually fishing the shoreline is not a good idea. You've got to give the fish time to get some water over their head, and time for the water depth to allow them onto their hunting grounds or you'll be throwing to empty water. These fish aren't bee-lining to the far reaches back in mangroves, but rather meandering the shoreline looking for deeper pockets under root systems where they can ambush or root up prey.
With that being said, don't feel like you are being left behind because all you see from the other boats are faint outlines of their transoms in the distance. Those guys are sitting on their spots waiting for the fish to come to them, and you'll be one of those anglers if you so chose once you get to know the water better. For me, the only time I take a bee-line to the back reaches is when there is an abundance of anglers fishing alongside me, and when I have complete confidence in one of my spots. Even then I may chose to hang back and enjoy stalking the shorelines because I find that exciting and relaxing. I prefer not to push the fish, but to stay a comfortable distance behind. How far this is varies, but in the areas that I fish it's about 1 foot of water under my boat, or 6 inches of water rise, or roughly 45 minutes from the beginning of the tide movement. This changes with the strength of the tide and wind direction, so it'll take some time on the water to get a good feel for not pushing the fish.
Regardless, once the gatekeeper allows you in, you'll want to begin fishing the shore line deeper troughs as mentioned above. The first thing you'll want to do is gauge the water level by looking at the mangrove roots. See how much of the roots are above water. Once you have a clear view of the roots, you'll more than likely see a mess of exposed life attached to the roots that are under water during normal flood periods, such as barnacles, seas squirts, oysters, etc., and above the flood zone you see some variations of color and scale that will distinguish what's normally exposed above flood tide. This will come into play later in the morning. A common mistake is to start casting to the open areas, or under overhangs where the water is still very skinny. Again, it's the deeper troughs you are looking for at this stage in the game. The deeper troughs are good for both summer and winter months as they maintain heat in the winter and stay cooler in the summer, so there's no need to detail that aspect just yet.
Sorry, you'll have have to pay your charter fee to tag along on this trip! Throughout the rest of this book section I'll walk you through fishing through the tides as we did in the salt marsh section. You'll learn some valuable scouting details on how to locate prime spots, more on how the bait and fish move around, and the best methods for staying on top of the fish and moving out with them while staying in the action.