Fishing’s not always about eating and with the recent cool weather, the Big Bend has been overrun with hordes of fish that are fun to catch—and not necessarily good to eat. Of course, I’m referring to ladyfish—also known as “poor man’s tarpon”. These boys and girls have been fattening up all summer, gorging on white bait and whatever prey gets in front of them, and are schooling all over the Big Bend’s deep flats. And sometimes, they’re mixed with tasty Spanish mackerel and even a few slot-sized seatrout, making a “ladyfish” event more than just plain fun.
From many a trout angler’s point-of-view, ladyfish are trash fish that get in the way of a usually productive day. And then when brought boatside, their main goal is to put “brown stains” on the deck. That’s their job! But there are days when fishing’s all about fun and ladyfish are a great way to spend a couple of hours testing your light or fly tackle skills. Yes, there are skills involved in hooking ladyfish and then getting them to the boat. Foremost, realize that ladyfish strike anything that’s shiny and moves fast. And, unlike toothy mackerel, they won’t cut you off. So, the use of 20 to 25-pound fluorocarbon leaders is a good start. And with that tough leader, even if a Spanish mackerel strikes, you may not get cut off (the first time!). As for lures, I prefer small brightly-colored jigs like the Flowering Floreo, D.O.A. TerrorEyz, or what many tackle shops advertise as “pompano jigs”. But knowing that ladyfish will attack most anything, the big trick is to retrieve the lure just as fast as you can. They will dart and dash around your lure, and eventually one will hook up. He may jump a few times, like a genuine tarpon, or he may just strip off yards of line, and more than likely he’ll throw the hook. But that’s OK, as there are never just a few ladyfish around this time of year. Of course, you can increase your chances of a ladyfish hookup by using lures with multiple hooks (like the Gotcha or MirrOlure’s 52M18), but unhooking a ladyfish that’s been stuck with lots of trebles is troublesome and often dangerous. Do you know where your first aid kit is stored? Ladyfish are also fun (and good practice) for fly fishermen. You don’t need to make long casts, but I do recommend a sinking line, as ladyfish seem to congregate in water that’s 6 to 10 feet deep. Use flashy Mylar-skirted flies and just “strip-strip-strip” as fast as you can—and hang on!
While ladyfish are now schooling up all along the Big Bend, you may find that they’ll bite for a few minutes and then move along, getting out of range. To keep them close, anchor your boat and tie a pack a frozen block of Baitmaster’s chum to a cleat. This will keep the ladyfish interested and will often bring other species, like mackerel and bluefish to you.