Captain Russell Tharin landing BIG RED!

Fly fishing Amelia

photos and article by Bill Byrd

As you drive the southeastern coast, you'll find myriad barrier islands from North Carolina to Mississippi. Most of these islands offer interesting excursion potential and relatively unknown fly fishing opportunities for freshwater and salt species.

Amelia Island, Florida is just such an island with a balance of history, commerce, and natural resources. Located only 6 hours by auto from Atlanta, fly fishers can take their families and enjoy a range of fly fishing opportunities, accommodations, foods, and an island getaway.

On the island you'll find downtown historic Fernandina, Florida with and entire downtown section of mid 1800s victorian buildings. There's the courthouse with its white clock tower, the beautiful churches, and victorian structures, mostly residences, bed and breakfasts, or commercial buildings today. There are more than 27 restaurants within walking distance in the downtown core. Fernandina harbor features a full variety of commercial and pleasure boats, with Brett's Waterway Cafe on South Front Street with a wonderful dining experience in full air conditioned view of the maritime activities. Across Front Street is the picturesque Hampton Inn and suites, Historic Harbor Front Hotel. This beautiful new structure, built in victorian decor fits the ambiance of the historic downtown with elegant, affordable accomodations to suit anyone.

My first visit to Amelia Island occurred in June of 2001 when I went to the island as the guest of Captain Russell Tharin, the only fly fishing specialist on Amelia Island. Russell grew up on the St. Johns River just south of Amelia, and began fly fishing as a child. According to Captain Tharin, "my first fly fishing outfit came with green stamps. I took the little molded plastic insect imitating flies and dropped them on the water. The fish inhaled them." That was all it took to hook him, and he has fly fished ever since. Captain Tharin, now an Orvis endorsed guide, runs his charter service Fly Fishing Amelia Island, and can take you to his favorite water for exciting fly fishing opportunities. Among the favorites are red drum, spotted seatrout. Because of Tharin's close relationship with Amelia Island Plantation, he can guide you for big bass, bluegills, plus juvenile tarpon and snook on light tackle. The opportunities are wide open, the scenery is beautiful, and the island will welcome you.

On this trip, I was in search of my first Amelia Island red drum on the fly. We rose about 5AM, grabbed coffee, and headed to Captain Tharin's flats boat with 8 weights, WF8F line, and size-6 black Clouser minnows in hand to search for big red drum. Out of the marina we idled, and right up the western side of the island on the intercoastal. The sun wasn't over the eastern horizon, but after a short run, we slowed to observe a pod of large red drum feeding on a mud flat adjacent to the waterway. Tharin cut his engine, we observed, and he staked out the boat with his pole. We rigged for wading.

I slipped on chest waders, and Captain Tharin waded in shorts with flats booties. On this day, I needed slides so I carried two cameras rigged for shooting close in with flash fill, and one with zoom telephoto lens. I wanted Tharin to hook up first to ensure slides. He obliged and we carefully waded, one slow step at a time in the mid knee deep brown water toward the feeding red drum. I kept about 60 feet away for the action sequence of casting, stripping, hookup, and fight. He tied on his size-6 black Clouser minnow, pulled out line and made his first cast. He stripped it back, and the school turned slightly toward him. One pick up and cast, and the fly plopped 5 feet in front of the school. 5 strips later, Russell's rod bowed under the strain of the 32 inch red drum headed for Amelia Island!

All the while my camera's motordrive clicked away as frame after frame of 35mm slide film witnessed the action. Finally, the big red drum was at hand, tired, but none the worse for wear. I shot the photos documenting the activities, and a gentle release returned a fine red drum to his pod. We exchanged congratulations, and it was my turn.

Captain Tharin carried one of my cameras, and I took the 8 weight rod. Once all was organized, we SLOWLY moved back across the mud flat toward the still feeding pod of red drum.

The muck was thick, and sucked at our feet. Occasional holes tried to throw us off balance, but we SLOWLY moved within casting range. My first few casts were errant, partly because of the adrenaline in my system, and partly because I spend much more time on light fly tackle. This entire situation presented me with a HUGE adjustment.

Tharin spotted the feeding pod moving from my right to left, so I made a cast which seemed close enough and stripped at a medium pace. I felt immense weight on my line, and smoothly strip-set while raising my rod up and to the side. Once the strong drum ran and took up the loose coils of line lying on the water, I had him on the reel and the battle of wills was on. For about five minutes we gave and took line, then he stubbornly gave up line until I had my bogagrip locked on him. At 10 pounds, 32 inches, this was another natural beauty! My first Amelia Island red drum on the fly was a gorgeous one.

Captain Tharin shot the slides, and I gently released the second fat red drum of the morning to go tell his feeding podmates about his experience. It was fortunate that I had hooked up and landed that fish, because while I was playing it, a large boat cruised not 150 feet away from us heading north on the intercoastal, and his huge wake disturbed the red drum pod and shut down their feeding altogether. As the sun rose higher in the early morning sky, we gathered up our gear, and returned to Amelia.

Contact Captain Russell Tharin by phone at 904-491-4799.

Contact Hampton Inn & Suites Historic Harbor Front Hotel for excellent lodging: 904-491-4911.