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Redfish are the life of tailgating party

By: By Susan Cocking, McClatchy Newspapers

PUNTA RASSA, Fla. (MCT) - Drifting across the turtle-grass flats of Pine Island Sound just before sunset Friday, captain Rick De Paiva scanned the horizon expectantly.

"It's going to happen anytime," De Paiva assured his friend, captain Paul Hobby, and me. "As soon as the tide gets low enough, the tails will start popping up."

De Paiva was referring to the tails of red drum, which are known to school here in large numbers beginning in the fall. The fish swim up into the shallows from adjacent channels on lower tide stages to feed on abundant small shrimp and crabs that cling to the lush meadows of seagrass. When the water is low enough, their orange-pink tails decorated with black spots poke the surface, providing an easy indicator of where to cast a fly, jerkbait or top-water plug.

"The best tailing fishery in the state," De Paiva said, continuing to monitor the shallows.

The folks in east-central Florida's Indian River Lagoon might not agree because some anglers have managed to bag reds of 30 pounds and up in those brackish shallows. But De Paiva insisted that Pine Island Sound's redfishery is the most consistent, with decorator tails appearing fairly reliably from early fall into June.

I was starting to feel skeptical. Even though De Paiva managed to bag a nice one earlier, when the tide was a bit higher, he lured it from the muddy path of a Southern stingray using a Texas-rigged, plastic DOA Shrimp. The fish never tailed; it followed the ray to scarf up whatever its benefactor happened to dig up.

To De Paiva, that still constituted sight-fishing.

"You'll see the mud. Follow the mud. More often than not, if you've got a mudding ray, there's going to be redfish on him," De Paiva said.

For the most part, Hobby stayed quiet as he poled his 17-foot Maverick HPX skiff along the flats. But occasionally, he offered comments to temper his friend's unfettered optimism.

"Most of our fish don't like a north wind," Hobby said. "They don't tail as much in 25-mile-per-hour winds."

A light breeze was barely blowing Friday, but waters were muddied from recent rains. I began to wonder if we were ever going to see the tailers that De Paiva promised.

"A big herd of them popped up in here the other day," he said, as if reading my mind. "The water just needs to get lower."

My 9-weight fly rod was rigged with a weedless orange-brown crab that De Paiva had tied himself. The fly seemed to be color-coordinated with the orange-pink sun that had begun its alarmingly rapid descent into the horizon. Surely we were going to lose our light before I ever got off a cast,

I grumbled to myself.

And then, just as if the universe arbitrarily decided to throw a switch, small opaque topsails began to pop up around the skiff, waving erratically throughout the shallows.

I was so not ready for this fantasy to come true that I made quite a few bad casts. The fly landed either behind, too far in front of or across the tails, spooking the fish with the vinyl fly line.

In the last hour before the sun finally disappeared into darkness, I got more than 50 shots at happily tailing redfish. Some were feeding so shallow that the boat bumped bottom as Hobby poled close enough for me to make my errant casts.

A couple fish seemed to turn to the fly but didn't eat. Another tapped it, but I failed to strip-set the hook. And when I finally managed to hook one of the tailers, it charged the boat, putting enough slack in my line to free itself.

Then it was dark, the flat was nearly dry and it was time to head back to the boat ramp at Punta Rassa.

De Paiva couldn't help feeling a little bit smug.

"Best tailing fishery in the state," he repeated, smiling.

There was nothing for me to say, except: "I want a rematch."

© 2008, The Miami Herald.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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