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Fly Fishing for tailing Red Fish in the Spartina Grass Flats of the lower Cape Fear saltmarsh
By Joe Guide

Joe Guide flyfishing Spartina grass flats for Redfish Wilmington, NC
(Photo: Scott Loudermilk)

  Black Beard the pirate had seen these same marshes when he sailed the waters off the South Atlantic. The Cape Fear River is a great deal more than just a large river system, and the port city of Wilmington just a few miles from the Cape Fear’s delta has its own unique history and beauty. Legend has it that Black Beard buried treasure near a ancient tree on what is now Bald Head Island, after robbing numerous merchant ships that fell prey to the shallow marl and skinny water of the treacherous Frying Pan Shoals.

  Not far down river from the historic port city, is a extensive estuary system: the lower Cape Fear salt marsh complex. Here you will find miles and miles of shallow flats, deep water cuts, a great number of saltwater ponds that are formed when the great spartina grass flats floods during high tidal periods. This unique estuary system is heaven on earth for the primary food species for the state fish of North Carolina: The Red Drum that is commonly called by its more popular nick name- the "Red Fish". Those primary food sources here are the common fiddler, the mud crab, as well as the red-jointed fiddler crabs.

  A closer look at Google Earth or any satellite map will show a vast creek system wandering throughout this immense ecosystem. It is so large that the majority of its backwater flats and spartina grass flats will flood during the highest of tides during each spring and fall when those primary crab species can be rooted out by redfish. The miles of creeks and deep mud and oyster cuts allow another food source-the mud minnow to develop and grow to maturity along with those various crab species.

  This estuary system is home for hundreds of thousands of juvenile redfish. They grow up through their first four to five years- until they reach sexual maturity and join larger schools of reds leaving their estuary system and join larger schools of Red Drum that moved off the coastline and continue with their own unique circle of life. They will grow between 4 –6 inches each and every year of their first five years eating the bounty from the estuary system.

  Our eyes are searching the water as the sixteen-foot skiff zips along marsh cuts and creeks along the backwaters of the lower Cape Fear salt marsh. The sun has been up for a while, and its angle is well above 45 degrees on the horizon- it’s perfect time for a couple of hours of sight fishing and fly fishing for Red Fish. We are just a mile or so north of Bald Head Island, and across the river from the old shrimp boat community of South Port, NC. The outdoor writer Robert Ruark spent many a day with his maternal grandfather fishing and duck hunting these backcountry waters. Some of those stories were recorded in his lovely book: The Old Man and the Boy.

  Under a hot Carolina sun, it is important to always use sunscreen, and wear polarized sunglasses under a sturdy broad billed cap. You should be wearing a well made, long sleeve fishing shirt, one that has large pockets, and a neutral color such as sky blue, or khaki if you are planning to do any wading in our Spartina grass flats, you certainly do not want to carry a lot of items in this heat- so a good fishing shirt is as important as good fly rod and your selection of the proper floating fly line.

  Fly-fishing for reds in North Carolina’s inshore salt marshes, flats, backcountry bayou’s can be very good indeed whenever water temperatures are between 68 –75 degrees, and the tide is moving. It is quite important to understand that you must have tidal movement, and a tide high enough to bring reds up onto these massive spartina grass flats. Such days will provide exceptional fly-fishing and wading opportunities for reds seeking its primary food species: fiddler and mud crabs, or white shrimp during the prime time- flood tide spring months of April and May and in the fall months of September- October when the white shrimp are on the move.

  These flood tides periods can drive the redfish food crazy! You need to understand that most days each month reds cannot get into the thousands of acres of grass flats where all these saltwater ponds form up- via small feeder creeks and cuts. The spring and fall lunar tides are the greatest tidal periods each year. If Mother Nature is kind, you can take advantage of getting out into this unique redfish habitat you can certainly chase more tailing reds than you will find anywhere else along N.C Coast! The LCFMC can be a mysterious place for many fishermen due to its composition, and all the miles and miles of skinny water and oyster beds protecting it causes a great number of fishermen to ignore this area and only fish the larger bays and deeper creeks with trolling motors or poling their large skiffs.

  No matter what your age may be, you may be nine years old or ninety- there will always be some fishing memories that come to mind. If you live in the South Atlantic or Gulf Coastal states, I am sure that you can recall the very first time you saw a tailing Redfish.

  It is almost ten in the morning, and the sun is high. You might notice some "Sooty Terns" hovering over a shallow flat in the distance. As you quietly approach, you look closer and you’ll notice a group of tailing redfish under those terns. Always keep your eye on terns and gulls. They will give you better indication as to feeding redfish. During the spring and fall tidal weeks reds will feeding more aggressively in the lower Cape Fear salt marsh and its adjoining flats like hungry little red pigs. You will see sights like shrimp- "popping out of the water like some type of wild aqua popcorn" trying to escape a redfish rage under that water.

  As you approach that pod of fish you must ensure that your cast is true, and drop that fly in front of that redfish’s nose! You shall be rewarded by an aggressive strike. At the take, ensure that you "strip-strike" that red, and you will soon have an enjoyable fight with North Carolina’s state fish- the Red Fish.

  The Lower Cape Fear Marsh Complex (LCFMC) is comprised of approximately eight thousand acres of flats, skinny bays and backwater estuary system. There is a series of three major skinny water bays separated from the lower Cape Fear River on its south east side by a series of rock "cribbings" which initially were first laid by steam barges as early as 1877, in order to ensure that the ships utilizing the shipping lanes of the lower Cape Fear River do not run aground. In later years it was primarily used to protect the estuary system from wave erosion due to the heavy shipping lanes of the lower Cape Fear River.

Joe Guide with a little Redfish on A Fly
-wading-spartina flats-Lower Cape Fear

  In this unique and beautiful redfish wonderland you can begin your stalk. Sight fishing and fly-fishing in this little piece of heaven on earth is marvelous! Sturdy wade boots, a flood tide, and the wind is at your back. The reds are your prey, you approach them with the wind at your back, and you try not to spook the fish, as you close the distance to your target. It is a unique aspect of fly fishing- sight fishing for reds while wading allows fishermen across the South Atlantic or Gulf Coastal inshore saltwater to stalk tailing fish in areas where wading is safe and wherever reds are plentiful due to its food sources and tides allow them to move onto these skinny water flats.

  In this unique southeastern corner of North Carolina - you can find ample wade fishing for this sports fish. On these flats and deep in the spartina grass ponds during flood tides the red fishing can be excellent whenever water gets above your calf and crabs dominate that world. You will find yourself wading 18 –24 inches of water, and you’ll easily see them tailing. No need to rush yourself. Take your time.

  Reds are there seeking one of their favorites "primary food sources" in the spring through the early fall: fiddler and mud crabs. Smaller reds (under slot) are called "puppy drum" by the locals in North Carolina, and reds are often the most sought after inshore sporting fish, with a close second being the tasty Speckled (Sea) Trout which stay out on the deeper flats and nearer to exit points closer to the river.

  Sight fishing for Redfish along the Southeastern Cape Fear flats can be found along most flats off the ICW however one of the most beautiful fly fishing areas for Red Drum can be found just a few miles down the road from Carolina Beach, NC on Hwy 421 with best public boat landing access at Federal Point boat landing.

  It is the state fish of North Carolina, and is more often referred to across the nine major states as the redfish, however its scientific name is (Sciaenops ocellustus). Looking at the Latin translation: Sciaenops means a perch like fish, and ocellatus means an eye-like spot.


  Wilmington, North Carolina is the largest city in Southeastern North Carolina. It is a popular beach, tourist and retirement community with one major University. It can be reached via I-40 and N.C. Hwy 17. Its airport symbol is: ILM. The best public landing for the lower Cape Fear Marsh Complex is at the end of Hwy. 421, a few miles south of Carolina Beach and just down the road from the Ft. Fisher ferry at the new and improved "Federal Point public boat landing".


  You can find redfish down here throughout every month of the year. During winter months where after a successive number of warm days, reds will feed more aggressively and you could find schools of reds in pods of 8 –20 fish. However, they are feeding primarily on muchmogs (mud minnows) during the winter months, and your flies need to imitate that species. Sometimes winter reds in these inshore waters feed on crushing razor clams when baitfish is not available. The winter months will keep hundreds of thousands of 18" –32" juvenile redfish will move deep in the safety of their salt marsh estuaries, and deeper holes near these skinny water flats, cuts as well as deeper creek drop offs, basically anywhere that dolphins can not get to them. Redfish see flipper, as their greatest enemy, just as we humans fear sharks! During colder months, the reds metabolism slow down tremendously, and they are certainly not as aggressive, and quite often winter reds can be most difficult to catch on the fly, except when water temperatures increase significantly over a successive period of days which prompts more aggressive feeding in this species.


  The very best of all months for sight fishing and fly fishing redfish will certainly be May – June and August – early October as the tides are more conducive to flooding the spartina grass flats, and the reds can pursue crabs and shrimp more aggressively throughout these particular months of the year. The very best fly fishing guides in this area will be booked up these months in advance by repeat customers who know that this are of the Cape Fear Salt marsh can be absolutely amazing fly fishing for the state fish of North Carolina.

  You can of course - sight fish and drift fish, or have your guide pole you during cooler months in pursue of smaller schools of redfish during late fall and very early spring months when the reds will school up. During those months you will notice that they can be found in the skinny water flats near exit points- where they can pursue secondary winter food sources: primarily the mud minnows and other small pelagic fishes like the threadfin herring, the aquatic sea worm and even clams! You need to realize that when this species gets hungry during the colder months, it doesn’t move too fast to pursue its secondary food sources, and can seem quite lethargic at times.

Joe Guide sightfishing tailing redfish
- Lower Cape Fear Spartina grass flats -
(Photo: Scott Loudermilk)


  Red Drum in N.C. are a sport fish, and are regulated via a slot limit: 17" min with a 27" max length (tip of nose to tip of the tail). The daily possession limit is one.


  You may find that 8-wt or 9-wt fly rod- with fast action tip will be to your advantage, however if the winds have laid down, you could use a 7-wt fly rod. You certainly need to use a good solid Saltwater fly line when fly fishing for reds. You have a great number of weight-forward floating fly lines to choose from on today’s market. I prefer to use Royal Wulff’s "Bermuda Triangle Taper- Saltwater Fly line" which will serve you well in our flats and especially in our spartina grass flats where your cast needs to be true, and on the mark. I like 12 pound tapered leader.


  I will use Spoon flies (sz 2 and sz 4 in black, green, blue and gold) such as those found at www.creativefeathers.com, and the popular Boone Spoon flies (www.boonespooneflies.com). In closing, I want to mention that I also enjoy using various colors and sizes of Carl "Bud" Rowland’s Numero Uno, and Mud Minnow flies- which can be found at www.spiritriverflies.com. Bud has established six IFGA world records on these unique flies, and you can’t go wrong with that kind of success.

  My fly-fishing logbook, notes a great number of record-breaking sight fishing trips in the LCFMC where my fellows and I have had many exceptional adventures in catch and release fly-fishing. I have seen some weeks where each day each person had 30 shots or more at tailing redfish, however that very next day – a fly fisher could have just 10- 12 shots at tailing reds, however our very best day sight fishing was 118 shots at tailing redfish in September 2009

  Chasing redfish tailing during these unique flood tide months is something that many guides will not pursue, as they may be tied down to their big, heavy draft fishing boats, and these type of craft are certainly not conducive to back country, skinny water fly fishing opportunities that the lower Cape Fear salt marsh provides.

  The reader should remember that there are a number of guides in the area who will take fly fishers, however many of these fellows tend to throw a lot of bait from their boats, and fly fishing is not their major specialty. Therefore, remember to ask how many days they fly fish this particular area, before you determine the guide you want to book for your next fly fishing adventure.

  GUIDES: You can find a great number of fly fishing guides in this part of North Carolina that fish this unique salt marsh estuary system off the lower Cape Fear, and you can Google: "fly fishing guides in Wilmington, NC" to look for their websites on the WWW.

  • N.C. Author- Joe Guide is the pen name for Walter (Sonny) Dinkins. A member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA), he authored the most scholarly and comprehensive fly-fishing book ever written on the state fish of North Carolina- Red Drum (Sciaenops ocellatus). In researching this innovative fly fishing book on the Red Fish, the author traveled and fly-fished throughout all the nine major red fish states along the South Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of the USA. He is a U.S Navy Veteran, and as a member of the US Armed Forces he has been stationed and lived in a majority of these states.
  • RED FISH ON A FLY can be found on all the major fly-fishing book sites throughout North America, Europe and the Pacific Rim. The books website: www.redfishonafly.com.
  • Would you like to fly fish for Redfish with the author of RED FISH ON A FLY during your next vacation to Wilmington, North Carolina? Visit his website: www.joeguideoutfitters.com for more details.

  Good luck on your next trip to the lower Cape Fear of North Carolina and I hope you will get the opportunity to cast to the Redfish of your dreams!

By Joe Guide © 2010



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