Fly Fishing the Surf for Ladyfish

One of the more encouraging trends to emerge from fly fishing has undeniably been the rediscovering of fishing for species not included in the lexicon of traditional fly-casters. This space has been no stranger to the inclusion of the putrid players of gar and common carp. Heavens, I think one of my posts even showcased myself hooking copious* numbers of pinfish off of the jetties at East Pass in Destin, Florida.

Having re-read the first paragraph I realize that this post isn’t about rediscovering anything. Hell, nobody wanted to catch these fish, to begin with. It’s about discovering an exciting method of catching something you never knew you wanted to in the first place. Having now re-read the first two sentences of this paragraph I realize that carp and gar fit better in the latter description while bass, bluegill, and the like fit best in the former description.

I’m not thinking too hard about this, obviously.

Ladyfish are often called a poor man’s tarpon and for good reason. They look very similar to the silver kings and behave similarly as well. This is perhaps due to the fact that they are indeed related both being members of the Elopiformes order. In fact, the only non-extinct Elopiformes are tarpon and ladyfish.

My experience fly fishing for ladyfish in the Gulf of Mexico began like anyone else’s would have. I just tossed a fly around in the surf to see what would happen…

First ladyfish on a fly rod

I thought it was a skipjack. I wasn’t totally wrong, but even though ladyfish are called “skipjack” they aren’t any type of Herring.

In the waters of the Gulf of Mexico around the Florida panhandle, ladyfish like to feed just beyond where the waves break. The Gulf can be either very forgiving or absolutely merciless on this front. It’s up to you to decide if you can wade that far and still manage to cast.

The good news is that if you aren’t getting bit then the fish aren’t there. Go ahead and move somewhere else. Don’t get your brains beat out by the wind and waves without so much as seeing a fish chase your fly back in or others crashing on the surface. In fact, the best way to begin is to walk. Go left or right on the beach and look for cuts in the sand under the surf. Still, I would keep walking until a fish somewhere gives itself up by hitting the surface. If the surf is rough and hard to read then look for birds.

As far as fly choice goes I’d argue for starting up top and working your way down. Chances are if they aren’t hitting on top then they aren’t there anyway. Any baitfish imitation will do.

If you see them taking shots at your fly but you don’t hook up then be patient. Where there’s one fish there are usually a hundred. And if you let the fly that one just missed fall a little way then there’s likely another ladyfish ready to pick it up and run. Once hooked they’ll spend more of the fight out of the water than in the water. It’s impossible not to smile when that’s happening.

My buddy Paul postulates that if you could only catch ladyfish in the surf in an exotic locale then they’d be thought of as more than a bait thief or trash-fish. I tend to agree with him especially when it comes to hooking one on a fly rod.

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