Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Wade Fishing: Gear, Bait & Tackle

Not long ago we published a story about bumping into a manatee while wade fishing and mistaking it for a bull shark - not a rare event when wading. It turned out that there was nothing to fear but fear itself (and a BIG shadow in the water where we were fishing). Looking back, it was one of our funnier experiences. Shark are not one tiny bit interested in wading anglers, so fear aside, knowing how to wade fish will dramatically improve your chances of catching; you will find more fish, reach fish that a boat could not reach without having an eight foot fan hooked to its rear end, and you will catch more fish than anybody not willing to walk in the water. Wade fish and be the fish. Be the fish and you will catch more of them.

 Wading is something that can range from ankle deep to chest deep - but puts the angler in touch with the fishies in a way that a boat, pier, or simply standing on the shoreline out of the reach can not do. We're amazed at how many experienced and effective anglers have never gotten into the water with the fish. This short article will talk about the ins, outs, and getting wet.

Wading Gear: Boots to Body Armor

When we were kids (there goes that old experience thing) we used to fish with sneakers, white socks, and tight-legged blue jeans. Bell bottoms were for girls and guys with girl hair. We twisted the ends of the straight-legged and socially conservative jean legs and tucked them into our white socks, which in turn went into tight high top sneakers. You did not want to come out of your shoes on an oyster bar.
We did not carry much in the way of tackle. We used the little bait buckets with the snap-open round tops, and put a dozen or three select shrimp in them, tied them on a string to our waist, and walked into the water. We would have a small plastic box with some hooks, a loop of leader material, nail clippers, and some split shots. A pair of nail clippers served as our sole survival tool. A stringer line held our never-released catch, and we drank water before we walked. We knew where to park and never walked all that far, in reality. A mile away waist-deep in water is a real walk. Softer bottoms are worse than hard bottom, but it still takes a lot of effort to walk in the water.
As far as apparel, you have to consider a few different things:

Shoes or waders

You can pick from three different options (four if you count our blue-jean and sneakers, which still work just fine, thank you very much).
Wading boots: Wading boots make a lot of sense, and a lot of us that fish regularly have a pair. They are made of heavy-duty soft plastic and fabric, and are much like hiking boots but better. There are also soft versions which a lot of anglers find more suitable for sandy and grassy flats wading. They are almost like fishing in your bare feet - something we strongly advise you never do. Even beach anglers should consider these felt footies to protect bare (feet) bottoms.
They do not keep your feet dry. That is not what they were made to do. They are made to keep you from slipping on slimy rock and keep you from getting sliced. Despite the relative absence of slimy rock south of about Aripeka (for those of us fishing the gulf coastal waters), slimy rock or slimy concrete are something a wading angler has to consider. Cutting yourself is easy if you are fishing around oyster bars, and although razor-sharp oysters can probably cut a soft wading boot, you still have a better chance of not getting cut if you're wearing them than you do if you're not wearing them.
Good wading boots like these two are hard to beat. If you are serious about wade fishing like we are they are a great investment in comfort and safety. The ones on the top - from Cabela's - are soft and made of felt. Your alternative to felt boots -- which most of us wear - are more like hiking boots and very well suited for rockier and more slippy conditions. Oyster bars come to mind, but if you spend as much or more time on grassy and gravelly flats, the ones on the top are going to work out better for you and you'll be more comfortable. They do not keep you dry, and you're going to fall into the water at one point or another, so even if you're wearing a space suit you're going to get wet wade fishing. Keep your phone in the car and be prepared to shed your pride once in a while. But you will catch more fish - by far - than the people on the docks, decks, or shorelines. Wading is a consistent, powerful and effective method of doing our thing.
Knee/Thigh waders: If you like the scary thought of walking into the water to better access very fishy locales but are not willing to actually let your private parts enter the deep (30"???) darkness, you can use boots meant to go no higher than said privates. Called thigh boots or crotch-pinching torture devices by those of us who have fished very cold mountain streams for rainbow trout while having just wasted perfectly valid coin at a local tackle shop to own a pair, they are perfect for the two things they are designed for: keeping your feet and legs dry and pinching places on your upper thighs really not meant to be pinched.
All you need to do is step into a slightly deeper space on that grass flat, or have to step over a space between two three-ton-pieces of concrete left in the bay in the nineteen twenties and you will get wet. They will still pinch when it happens, mind you, but will let water into your socks and suddenly get very heavy.
Do we sound like we do not recommend them for fishing Florida waters - or any waters, for that matter? We mean it.
Waterboard me, OK? Although we have to figure there are some fishing conditions - a puddle of muddy water comes to mind - where these thigh-pinching wading boots work perfectly, and are worth the pain we know they impart, we don't recommend them.
Waist/Chest waders: Once again referring to fishing cold, fast streams in cold, fast states, chest deep waders will keep you dry, keep you safe from stepping on hard and sharp things, and will make you swear that you will not know if you are standing in the water or the water is standing in you. Which it is. Along with vegetarian meals and spending time at the tofu bar doing Gulf of Mexico fishy management meetings, we are not big fans of sitting or standing inside a big runner sock. We can hear the fourteen worldwide fans of wearing chest waders under our normal warm-water fishing conditions saying "they are NOT MADE OF RUBBER!" as a weak attempt at self defense. And or "They are great man!!"
A hot rubber sock is exactly what we want when we go fishing. In another universe, maybe, where the water averages forty degrees, the fish are called rainbows, and you might hook a salmon or something. Here? Not a good idea. If you feel like white trash wearing sneakers and tough tight blue jeans with the bottom tucked into white socks so the crabbies cannot crawl into your pants (!!!), you should consider boots made from felt and tough tight blue jeans. Fishing is not a fashion show, although we have had a friend say that they didn't like the color of a $50 microfabric sun-protection shirt. Only girls care about fishing fashion, and even our true friendly fishing babes like Debbie Hanson and the active angling women on our forums are more interested in lure color than blouse color.
What's best? Boots and tight jeans.

Tackle for Wade Fishing

We will talk a little bit about the inherent goodness of fly fishing while you are standing in the water, but before we talk about tackle we need to talk about flats caddies. What is a flats caddy? The key comes from the word "Caddy" - the guy or girl who carries golf balls and clubs for a golfer. In a way, that is what a flats caddy is; a non-talking friend who will not bother you while they carry your stuff. They can carry your iPad if you're nuts or have it wrapped or packaged properly, they can carry soda, tackle boxes, bait wells, and more. The coolest ones,we had ever seen were pieced together by forum members - people just like you and me - and were not manufactured on purpose or in volume. There are a definitely a few companies making very cool caddies, and if you love perfection might consider one, but we are still lovers of the homemade variety. You can make them from plastic milk crates, floating tubes designed to keep your children from sinking to the bottom of the pool, and you can make them from a host of plastic and metal things you can either get at Ace Hardware, the liquor store (caddies carry whiskey very efficiently. We know they do) or your garage. You can even get rid of that extra PVC pipe you and your wife are tripping on every year when collecting holiday lighting.
If you are gonna get serious about wade fishing, consider a caddy. This image came from the forums, and is a DIY caddy. There are commercial ones we're gonna see if we can work with a company to get you deals, and if we do we will let you know, but making a homemade fishing tackle shop like this guy did is a fun project that will take an afternoon and give you years of fishy fun.
A lot of time when you wade fish, it is in open, skinny water near structure or in the open. Either way you are very near the fish; you can turn them easier and more effectively unless you're near very deep structure where the advantage of having more leverage if you are higher in the water holds true. That means that you can use anything you want effectively. It is a great place to fish with light tackle, as long as you make sure you do not overplay and thereby over stress the fish. If you go light when you wade, fight harder and try to release the catch gently and as quickly as possible.
We already mentioned long rods - fly rods - when you are wading. Because you can get into the water and easily position yourself with wide-open space behind you, you can deploy a long cast, with plenty of room behind yourself for that most important back cast. There are lots of ways to let a fly line out; do not get us wrong, but in the keys where they catch those huge permit or bonefish, or here on open grass flats fishing for redfish, snook and trout, you can cast the furthest. Get the wind over or behind one of your shoulders and you can throw that weight-forward or torpedo line a long distance. Working those big open grass flats with a fly rod is heavenly.

Spinning Tackle...

Spinning tackle is our go-to tackle, however, they are easier to use, can swap between live and and artificials with a simple re-tie of a knot, and can be used to catch anything. We like slightly longer rods - seven or even seven-six or eight footers - with fast action. That means their bend is closer to the rod's tip and not in the middle or near the rod butt and where your hands are holding the rod. A spinning rod that feels "whippy" like a great flyrod is not great as a wade fishing tool. You cannot set the hook well if the rod is too "soft". They are cool if you need to cast a million miles, but if you are wade fishing, you can walk closer and cast shorter.

Shorter casts are fine if you are quiet. And you can never, ever, ever be as quiet floating on glass, plastic, metal, or even standing on a pier. Think about that. At some very deep core level, it is why wading is so very effective. Silence.

Baits and Lures for Wading

Baits and lures for fishing on the flats is the same as fishing from a pier or fishing from a boat or paddle craft. Live baits work better, but artificials have their own magic and will produce fish when worked right and when worked where the fish are. When we are wading we always favor live shrimp. They are easy to get just about anywhere you're likely to be walking into the water to go fishing, they stay alive while you drive them to the spot, and they will stay alive forever in one of wonderful and timeless yellow floating bait buckets. Heck - we call them shrimp buckets and always have for good reason.
If you are fishing live shrimp, tie your leader directly to the line - no terminal tackle, please. You do not need a swivel or clip. Lose them at the car before you get wet. Also, try fishing them without any weight - what we call free-lining - before you try anything else. If the water is really flowing hard, use a split shot to get the baits further down in the water column (an imaginary tube in the water with stratum - lines - where temperatures change). Change their size and get the bait deeper and deeper till the fish eat it.
Carry bobbers. Weighted popping corks increase casting distance, and the splash does not seem to spook fish for too long. Work them sort of like you would a topwater lure, popping them and waiting a minute in between pops to let the rings settle down. They can sometimes attract fish from far away when you are wade fishing.
As far as lures are concerned, the same rules apply here as they do anywhere else; you can fish topwater, you can fish suspension, or swimming lures, and you can fish with our favorite all around artificial lure: the infamous and ubiquitous jig. You can fish them with anything connected; you can put a live shrimp on them, you can put shrimp tails on them, you can put squid on them, you can put strips of smelly organic fake strip baits on them and many, many more types of bait.

A Last Thought on Walking in the Water with the Fishes...

One last thought: consider chumming. You can break a few dead and frozen shrimp from your last trip and put them in a baggy. Granted, they will stink when you open them, but you are standing alone on the water, so who cares if you and your gear stink? Same thing with squid or any smelly baits. Chop some, crush some, and take some with you. You can throw them by hand, or you can do something we learned from a girl named Emma, who you are going to meet one of these days: she throws chum using a slingshot. She does it fishing for carp on the British Isles, but she can throw chum further than anybody we have ever seen. We have to try it. I would work with any solid chum pieces like shrimp or tiny squares of chopped squid strips.

Stay Safe and Don't Wade Alone

And know one thing: if you start wading, get ready to fall into the water. Your phone, your tackle, your fish, your bait, and without question your pride are very, very likely to fall into the water in ways we're not really hoping for as a result of your reading this piece. But you will fall. You will slip, you will get your foot sucked into a bottomless sink hole, you will feel something alive touch you and panic like a seven year old girl, or you will just fall down for no good reason. Because of the surety that you will get into the water when you least expect it, never - ever - wade fish without a friend along for the walk. It's dangerous. You can slip and cut yourself, you can get bit by a bull shark (not really, but why not get your attention before you sign off?) and you can just have a better time with a fishing friend. But never go alone. You might not get home to fry that delicious 29" speckled trout you have tied to a string to attract that bull shark.

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