By Capt. Joe Richard
Wade fishing gets you up close and personal with the fish you pursue.
When it comes to fishing, wading is the ultimate contact with nature. Shuffling along through the water, you get a feel for the elements -- current, bottom consistency, water temperature -- and with the local bay's residents. The rewards can be great, but make a mistake out here and you might be punished by nature. More on that later.
Wading has its financial rewards, too. If you're wading, you aren't burning gas. There are perfectly sane people out there who prefer to wade simply because they like a meditative Zen sort of fishing. Or they've refrained from owning or using a boat, which has never been more costly. They watch the regular crowd speed by in their $30,000 bay boats, getting maybe two miles to the gallon, and smile a little.
I got a serious refresher course in wading recently, after spending the day with a Florida guide named Dr. John Leibach of Gainesville, who prowls the Gulf's Big Bend region as Raptor Guide Service. John wade fishes Texas-style, wearing waders all day. He drives an airboat over water too shallow for prop-driven boats, water pocked with oyster reefs and mined with abandoned crab traps that turn rock solid with marine growth -- a true hazard for outboard engines. When John reaches a honeyhole, he anchors and bails out, trudging away with a bait bucket brimming with choice items -- live pinfish, finger mullet and marsh minnows. He also carries a second rod with a trout plug attached, mounted in a rod belt for quick access.
Many anglers jump out of perfectly dry boats to wade fish, sometimes in shoulder-deep water.
We saw few boats that day and no other waders, save for the veterans on our airboat. As John explained, "Most boaters around here make a drift, and then try somewhere else." Meanwhile, we anchored and fished each favorite shell bar or grassy shoreline very thoroughly. Incredibly, we landed 55 slot-sized redfish and five seatrout, one of them the biggest trout in a number of years, caught by Richard Scarborough. Mix in five blacktip sharks and a few gafftop catfish, and it was the best six hours of wading action I've seen in a decade. If I hadn't taken 500 photos, hardly fished, and constantly stopped anglers to pose with their fish, our total would have certainly been higher.
At our first stop on a shell reef bar, I nailed a 26-inch redfish on a Rapala X-Rap plug, using spin gear with only 8-pound line. It was a dicey battle in oyster reef country, but this reef was fairly flat with dead shell and no outcroppings of live shell that so easily cuts lines. Oysters are cruel and patient, and they can be hard on anglers and equipment. But they represent an entire ecosystem and gamefish love hanging around them. With my redfish securely on John's stringer, it was easier to sling the rod over a shoulder and start taking pictures.
These guys had picked a day where the tide was low about 9:20 a.m. and would slowly flood reefs and shorelines until almost 4 p.m. They stocked up the livewell with pinfish from traps set out the night before, and then we castnetted a low-tide beach where baitfish skittered in thin water that couldn't hide them. His big livewell in the boat suitably stocked with bait, we headed out to fish as the tide began pouring in, rising 3.7 feet. We all knew that gamefish ease in close to shore with a rising tide, and that's where we met them, but prowling around on foot. Often we were wading in flooded grass on a shoreline, and that's where most of the fish were.
I didn't have neoprene waders, just the high-top Keds that protect ankles and feet. I also wore a pair of doctor's scrub pants, pulled over shorts. Add a long-sleeve Columbia Wear shirt, fishing hat with earflaps and nylon sun gloves, and I didn't collect a dime's worth of sun the entire day. A little SPF 75 sunscreen on the face certainly helped.
Seatrout and other gamefish ease in close to shore with a rising tide. Flooded grass around the shoreline has excellent wade-fishing potential.
The fish just kept hitting, and sometimes all three guys were hooked up at once. Dr. John reared back on one fish that made a 10-foot wide splash, and then cruised away like a Mack truck. With 100 yards of line out, we began glancing towards the airboat...could we climb aboard and fire it up in the next 30 seconds? At that moment his 30-pound braid line broke. It was a huge critter of some kind, and that episode left us uneasy...but we were safely up in flooded grass with the boat, after all, where it could never reach us.
Wade fishermen are present in Florida, but aside from Atlantic beaches, there are vast stretches where you seldom (if ever) see them. The sport just hasn't caught on in some areas. Or the bottom is too muddy to wade. In my area the bottom is firm, but boaters prefer to drift-fish over grass and sand bottom.
In Texas, it's different. That's where many anglers jump out of perfectly dry boats and wade off, sometimes in shoulder-deep water during summer. Wading is more stealthy and they sneak up on bigger fish, without the telltale slap-slap of a boat hull that warns big trout that danger is near. In fact, most "trophy trout," as they're called in Texas, are caught by waders -- including several state records.
Texas fishermen lead the wading crowd by far compared with other coastal states, and they've evolved over the years. Years ago it was t-shirt, shorts and high-top sneakers, with a Styrofoam pith helmet cluttered with Bingos and Mirrolures and maybe a 30-foot fish stringer to keep sharks at a (semi) safe distance. These guys were pretty salty, their skin often ravaged by the sun. But they caught stringers of trout and redfish that had to be dragged to the car; there were no bag limits in those days.
The wise wader will move towards any sign of baitfish, such as jumping mullet, spraying menhaden and diving seabirds.
Today, serious wade fishermen use neoprene waders
and boots to ward off chilly tides, oyster cuts, stingray wounds, jellyfish stings and the water-borne, rare but dangerous Vibrio organism, which gets inside even small scrapes and abrasions, causing life-threatening tissue loss within 24 hours. You have to be careful out there and treat any scrapes with hydrogen peroxide or rubbing alcohol back at the boat or car -- whichever comes first. Preventive maintenance.
For those getting into the sport, it's a lot easier to fish with a veteran wader and pick up on the subtle cues these guys use to find fish. How to pick a veteran wader? Watch for economy of motion. These guys don't flail around or waste time. They fire a cast out there, hook a fish and land it without making a fuss, either with or without a landing net. Their artificial baits have caught many fish in the past -- so watch what lure brands and colors they reveal. If they're attached with a cord to a floating bait bucket, they're likely skilled at using a castnet for local live bait.
Lots of empty water to wade. The wise wader, if he doesn't have some proven honey hole in front of him, will move towards any sign of baitfish. That usually means jumping mullet, spraying (or at least popping) menhaden, and diving seabirds.
Wading is more work, but catching a good fish in the elements feels far more rewarding than catching a good fish while standing in a dry boat. And, in this age of exploding gas prices, wading and getting exercise means you aren't burning a drop of gas for hours. (Somewhere an oil company CEO is unhappy about that.) Those guys much prefer you buy a big center console with triple outboards, and go racing 50 miles, looking for kingfish or offshore snapper.
Today's reality is that more fishermen are turning to shallow water and wade fishing options -- tactics that use little or no gas at all.
Joe Richard is a Gainesville writer and photographer who owns Seafavorites.com, a stock photo website of outdoor photography.