My connection with Destin, Florida is an interesting story, one to be revealed in a blog post at a later time. For now, let’s just say I have good reason to frequent this sunny Florida panhandle city – part of the beautiful “Emerald Coast”.
I recently wrapped up a week-long visit to Destin, complete with family and “plus ones” in tow. As busy and hectic as the vacation schedule was, I still had time to fish the early hours while the rest of the house snoozed away.
Destin sits on a long peninsula of land between the Gulf of Mexico and Choctawhatchee Bay – a large saltwater bay, 129 square miles in size, that is fed by the gulf tides and estuary rivers to the north.
In addition to an abundance of places to fish in the salt, the area is dotted with ponds and lakes that hold largemouth bass and panfish. So depending on the weather and sea conditions, an angler has a choice of bay fishing, surf fishing, and pond/lake fishing. There’s rarely a time when a line has to sit dry for long.
For most of this visit I chose to fish the surf. I had previously fished Destin in the spring and fall, focusing on the bay. I’d heard summertime had a significant “trash fish” bite, but among that rubble was a gem of a fish that had a reputation as a great adversary on the long rod: the ladyfish…
The ladyfish is a ray-finned fish also referred to as skipjacks, jack-rashes, or tenpounders. They are coastal-dwelling and found throughout the tropical and subtropical regions of the world but occasionally venture into more temperate waters. Ladyfish prey on smaller fish and shrimp. They can grow to over 3 feet in length and may reach 20 pounds in weight. More commonly, they are found to range from 12″ to over 20″. The body of the ladyfish is a tapered spindle shape with an oval cross-section. Their eyes are very large as are their mouths. Their incredible aerial acrobatics in combination with a hard mouth allows them to throw a poorly set hook quite easily. They are largely silver and white in color but their backs are a light olive to sand color with a beautiful band of pink where their color transitions to silver.
After arriving at our place and settling in, I rigged my 9 weight fly rod with a full intermediate line and took a quick golf cart ride to the beach. I walked east beyond the swimming area and began casting a size 2 chartreuse and white clouser minnow. It wasn’t long before I was hooked up and witnessing first-hand, the incredible high-jumps of the ladyfish.
I fished the surf for several days and found varied fishing conditions for these surf-side torpedoes. One day the surf was flat as a mill-pond and I spent much of the day running up and down the beach chasing ladies crashing the beach. Their devastating attacks on glass minnows in the shallows reminded me of bluefish blitzes. On other days the surf was up and the ladies were still biting but were spread out and cruising resulting in a slow but steady bite. One hot afternoon I found them on almost every other cast, though they were not showing themselves as they were on the calmer days.
One group of Mississippi fly fishermen respectfully refer to the ladyfish as the Mississippi tarbone and point out that local anglers can experience much of the thrill of catching tarpon and bonefish without having to leave Mississippi waters.
I found the “ladies” to feed very aggressively and take almost any fly I threw at them. While I didn’t try topwater, I’m sure a large popper thrown into their blitzes would have resulted in regular hook-ups. At times they would feed actively in large schools and could be seen porpoising as they chased bait in the shallows. The most effective flies were shiny, silver, or white. A white clouser with some flash combined with a fast retrieve that imparts plenty of action to the fly is all that is needed to catch these lightening bolts of the salt.
While sometimes difficult to hook, ladyfish will strike again and again on the retrieve. Their mouth is very abrasive; leaders should be checked frequently for fraying. On the advice of the local Orvis fly shop, I used a small bite guard of 30 lb mono as ladyfish are not at all leader shy. And I’d recommend not using expensive or intricate flies because they will get chewed up and stripped to a bare hook in no time! A 1/0 stainless hook tied with a lot of flash and some white hackle or deer hair will do the trick. Don’t spare the glue or epoxy! Simple and bullet-proof will work well.
The fish I caught ranged in size from 12″ to over 24″. Any ladyfish will fight hard but when they get over 18″ you will quickly be grinning ear to ear with their blistering runs and spastic leaps. I caught several larger ones that put a serious bend in my 9 weight and made long reel-screaming runs followed by tarpon-like leaps.
I fished my 9 weight rod because one never knows what will show up in the surf, including redfish, jacks, and sharks, but I could have gone lighter. A 6 – 8 weight rod would work just as well and reduce arm fatigue from casting. A floating line can be used when the fish are in close but I prefer an intermediate or intermediate sink tip to get down in the water column. A simple 30/20 lb mono leader 5 to 8 feet in length is all that is needed on the business end. Flies do not need to be big, but I found that a larger hook helps increase hook-ups.
Ladyfish are sometimes cursed by anglers because they can aggressively interfere with fishing for other species. Redfish anglers, for example, will stalk a flat only to hook up with a ladyfish and spook every red on the flat. But I welcomed the opportunity to waltz with the “ladies”. I could count on them to join me on the floor with every cast. I could delight in their high leaps from the emerald waters of the Gulf straight up to the bright blue Florida sky. And I’ll certainly be back to ask for another dance with them come next summer.