MIAMI -- Right now, before South Florida's rainy season peters out, might be the best time to catch and release a back-country grand slam near Flamingo in Everglades National Park. And light-tackle guide captain Jason Sullivan of Pembroke Pines, Fla., is game for tackling tarpon, snook, redfish and sea trout on fly rod, spin tackle or live bait.
"There's so much rain in the Everglades, and it pushes all the baitfish out to Florida Bay," Sullivan said. "It pushes the baby tarpon and snook out. The redfish and trout are always out."
Sullivan's favorite pastime is sight-fishing for all four slam species with fly rod -- 7-, 8-, or 9-weight -- since most of the tarpon found "out front" in Florida Bay in late summer/early fall are fairly small, rendering a broomstick-like 12-weight unnecessary.
A typical slam quest starts just before sunrise when baby tarpon can be found rolling on the surface along mangrove shorelines and points or any shallow areas with clear water. Sullivan looks for snook in the deeper moats around islands, along mangrove shorelines, and in sandy potholes on clear flats. Redfish, which have burgeoned since the extended freeze of early 2010, seem to be just about everywhere in Florida Bay, but one of the most popular spots is the flats of Snake Bight on a falling tide. Sea trout may be the most difficult to sight-fish because they usually lurk in mixed sand and grass bottom in three to five feet of water.
Sullivan's go-to grand-slam fly is the Back Country Sweeper in a tan, white, and pink pattern made with a rabbit fur tail, marabou collar, and red-topped deer hair head for buoyancy, plus a weed guard. It looks sort of like the fly-fishing equivalent of a Zara Spook. He also casts a chartreuse-and-white version.
"You could catch all four on the Back Country Sweeper," he said. "The trout might be a little more difficult in shallow water."
Fishing for trout nestled at the bottom of channels or deeper potholes, Sullivan often uses a green-and-white Clouser minnow, whose lead eyes allow it to drop to where the fish lurk.
For the many anglers who don't fly fish, Sullivan says throwing a weedless jerk bait, such as a Berkley Gulp or a Bass Assassin fluke are effective slam catchers on spinning gear. In waters too murky or deep to sight-fish, he said a variety of spoons and jigs also work.
"You can take someone who's never been on the flats and throw a spoon in those potholes and have a lot of success," he said.
For anglers who insist on live bait, he recommends pilchards and pinfish.
Sullivan, 32, came by his enthusiasm for sight fishing at Flamingo over a lifetime of exploration. Growing up in Cooper City, Fla., he fished in a john boat in the local canals, then graduated to club bass tournaments. Not long afterward, he discovered Everglades back-country fishing.
"When I came down to Flamingo when I was about 14, 15, 16, I wanted to sell all my freshwater stuff," he said.
Sullivan launched his guiding career about two years ago after playing minor league baseball, coaching high school teams, and doing a variety of odd jobs.
"After coaching for a few years, I wanted to do something I'm extremely passionate about in a place I'm extremely passionate about -- the Everglades," he said.
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