Florida is loaded with small, hidden fishing gems from coast to coast, and the nation’s oldest city, St. Augustine, is no different. Red drum thrive along this historic coast in a variety of habitats, from tall grass during flood tides to deep-water structure where they ambush prey from eddies.
“St. Augustine has been inhabited for 400 years. The fish have always occupied this area, but they’ve adapted to feed around man-made infrastructure,” says Capt. Sam Vigneault, 25, who moved to the area to attend Flagler College and found himself targeting docks, bridges and channels to intersect with drum, sheepshead, flounder, seatrout and tarpon whenever time allowed.
I joined Vigneault on a nighttime outing for over-slot reds feeding on juvenile crabs, known locally as “pass crabs.” We timed our launch to target the “flush out,” when the crabs float on the surface during an outgoing tide that coincides with a new or full moon in April and May. The higher the tide, the faster the flow and, subsequently, the farther it carries the bait. Riding the tide is a survival strategy for the crabs, but it also creates a surface-feeding situation for topwater addicts. However, finding an ideal pattern to target the reds was problematic until Logan Godby, an industrial engineer who also ties custom saltwater flies, came up with what can only be described as a saltwater dry fly.
Vigneault reached out to Godby with an idea for a floating crab to cast in front of redfish slurping down pass crabs at night like they’re Skittles. Godby started with a VMC live-bait hook made from thick wire to ensure the fly would land and float with the proper orientation, the idea being to balance the crab in the upright orientation with the hook facing down. He cut the crab body out of foam using a pattern he designed on his computer.
During the flush, the crabs are laden with an egg sack, and to a redfish, a pregnant crab equates to more calories. Godby took this into account and added a touch of fluorescent orange foam on the belly of the crab body so the flies appear to be holding eggs. He used trimmed bead chain eyes for a rattle and a protective coating on the fly for durability and buoyancy. The resulting flies are beautiful, and they swim, move, ride, kick, dive and float like the real thing.
We loaded our gear into Vigneault’s 26-foot Sportsman bay boat and headed out at about 10 p.m. As the night deepened, the slack tide died out, and the outgoing gained momentum. We made a far run into the darkness, the cool, humid air watering our eyes and raising goosebumps on our skin. It was after midnight by the time we arrived at our spot. We waited patiently, all eyes on a single bridge light, when the first pop punctured the surface. In the blink of an eye, groups of redfish from 10 to 25 pounds started rising to chase needlefish, mullet and the pass crabs floating with the current.
“Somebody grab a rod,” Vigneault shouted.
Jake Haselgrove picked up a 10-weight rigged with a black-and-purple Game Changer, made a perfect cast into the light and began his retrieve, keeping the fly back just under the surface using two hands, with the rod under his armpit. Two redfish pursued the fly, competing against one another. One sped ahead, and the fly disappeared into the darkness outside the perimeter of the light. Haselgrove came tight, but the hook-set didn’t keep the fish pinned. We regrouped and let the fish get happy again. The boat drifted below the light. We waited.
The sound of fleeing bait and bust-ups exploded under the light, and Godby stepped up to the casting platform. The longer we let the fish feed, the higher the redfish rose in the water column. We watched reds crush bait and rise up to inhale crabs. As the crab bites increased, Godby laid a long cast far up-current outside the edge of illumination so the fish could see the fly floating in the light. A big redfish rose, turned on a dime and swallowed the fly with zero hesitation. Godby took two big strips to set the hook, and the red dug back down toward the depths.
The first red of the night measured more than 30 inches. The crew was ecstatic.
Next up was Annika Barnes. She struggled to launch a long cast up-current, but when she did, a massive red drum crushed the crab pattern, leaving nothing but a string of bubbles as it dove beneath the surface. Barnes held on, the rod nearly breaking as the fish tried to pull her into barnacle-covered structure. After a long fight, she brought her 37-inch redfish to hand — a personal best.
The bite continued until 3 a.m. We caught and released two more fish on crab flies. Once the tide came to a halt, the fishing turned off, but we will never forget those surface bites on Godby’s saltwater dry fly.