Saltwater fishing takes on many identities such as deep sea, backcountry, nearshore, offshore and others. But the one that I’m most attracted to is combat fishing. Never heard of it? Let me enlighten you.
This is no holds barred, on your toes, hair-raising fishing usually practiced in close quarters that involves lots of obstacles. These can include, but are not limited to, pilings, dense mangrove shorelines and areas where trees and branches have fallen into the water. It most often involves snook and juvenile tarpon, but crevalle jacks are by no means ignored.
One of my favorite places to practice this craziness is in small rivers and creeks on the far eastern side of the Ten Thousand Islands. There are places there that hold some enormous snook that have rarely seen an angler much less a lure. There’s also an abundance of ‘juvie’ tarpon that average about five pounds.
The water is almost always reddish brown in color from the red mangrove roots and the depth averages about a foot. A shallow water fishing skiff is required to get to the prime locations. A GPS is a good idea too, but you can’t beat local knowledge when it comes to these out-of-the-way places. If that GPS dies, you might too.
Spin fishing is usually the means used to wrestle fish out of this extreme environment, however if you want to up the ante, try fly fishing. More about that in a minute. First, let’s cover spin.
My rod of choice is medium heavy, seven feet long with a very fast action on the tip. Some anglers like to use a heavy rod for this sport, but I like a little bit of bounce in the tip provided by the lighter rod. It sometimes helps when that jumping tarpon is banging and bouncing off the low mangrove branches.
I spool up the reel with 20-pound test braided line and then add a 30-pound test fluorocarbon leader. Going bigger on the leader could be a good thing, but snook and tarpon are both leader shy, and while bigger may help you get that fish out of the bushes it will also lower the rate of hookups. I prefer lots of hookups.
My favorite lure is a white Z-Man DieZel MinnowZ swim-bait on a Z-Man 3/16 ounce jig head with chartreuse eyes. That’s it. It’s my American Express for combat fishing. Don’t leave home without it.
The rest is up to you. Once that hookup happens you have about 15 seconds to get that fish under control. Anglers who participate in combat fishing call it R&P… reeling and praying. Just when you think you have things under control, you don’t. Both snook and tarpon have an uncanny ability to find any and all obstacles in the water and head straight for them. That also includes your boat. Once the fish seems to be caught and is at boat-side, the motor, Power Pole or Stick It Anchor are all fair game. I’m pretty sure more break offs occur at the boat than in the mangroves.
Now let’s up the ante.
Combat fishing with a fly rod is like fighting a fire with a garden hose. You’re probably going to lose, but there’s always hope. I think my combat fishing average lost to landing stat (ALLS) is about eight to one. I’ve been told by other anglers that that’s actually a pretty good number.
I use an 8-weight, 9-foot fly rod, 8-weight fly line, and a 7-foot tapered leader. The tip of the leader is 12-pound test on which is tied a short 30-pound test tippet.
My favorite flies are the Enrico Puglisi Back Country Brown and the Enrico Puglisi Perfect Minnow in black and purple.
My basic fly fishing rule after a hookup while combat fishing is to put as much pressure as possible on the fish and forget all about trying to get the fish on the reel. Just hang on and strip line in when you can and let it go when you have to. The only physical danger is having the line burn your fingers when the fish runs for the bushes. Know your limits and know when to lighten up. However, showing off those burned fingers to other fly fishing folks is a badge of honor.
Want to give combat fishing a go? Contact my friends at 239 Flies in Bonita Springs. They’ve got guides that can take you on the adventure of a lifetime.
Captain Rob Modys is a lifetime Florida outdoorsman and retired spin & fly fishing guide. He is past president and board chairman of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association and serves on the board of the Florida Guides Association.