Captain Hunter Ray on Fly Fishing in Destin (and Why Everyone is Out to Catch a Bull Red)

Destin, Florida is called ‘the world’s luckiest fishing village’ for a reason, but it’s only recently claimed its place in the America’s fly fishing pantheon. Ten years ago, organized fly fishing in the area was a pipe dream at best. Today – just like the Redfish count in the Choctawatchee Bay – it’s blowing up like crazy.

This week the guys from FishingBooker caught up with Hunter Ray from Florida Boy Adventures, one of the captains now running regular fly fishing trips out of Destin. They talked guiding, Bull Reds and the future of fly fishing in the area, and have been nice enough to send us the transcript. Enjoy!

So Captain Hunter, what’s your favorite species to target on the fly in the Destin area?

I’d have to say the Bull Red or the Jack Crevalle. The Jack’s don’t really show up until mid to late July and only stick around until October, but you can find the Bull Reds here year round.

Have you found that one species is more difficult to catch than the other?

Not really, I mean most time if you can find them schooled up you’re gonna catch them.

The Jacks can be a little spookier. They’ll chase the bait and if they’re not wanting to eat it they’ll follow it like they’re gonna bite and then turn away, but the Bull Reds will pretty much eat almost anything. Like this morning, I hadn’t seen any in about two weeks and I was headed back to the ramp with a family I was guiding, when we came across a big school of them. So we probably caught six or seven right there on some little rods, but had I had my big rods we would of caught a bunch of them.

Do you have a favorite stretch of water in the Destin area to guide?

Well, I like to fish the Choctawatchee Bay but I think it’s more about finding the wads of bait out in the middle, and it helps if the wind picks up too. A lot of people go out there when it’s slick calm and see bait everywhere and think they’re gonna catch them, and end up disappointed.

Nailing a Jack on the fly is quickly becoming Destin’s favorite pastime.

Nailing a Jack on the fly is quickly becoming Destin’s favorite pastime.

Are you a fly-tying man?

Actually, I don’t usually tie my own flies, I typically get them from the shop but if you’re chasing fish on the flats I like the shrimp patterns or a shad pattern for Bass. But if you’re out looking for big fish I like the poppers. Something you can cast a long ways and get it out there.

What’s your favorite thing about fly fishing in the Destin area?

I’ve fished in Louisiana and Tampa Bay but the unique thing about Destin is if somebody wants to catch a Bull Red on fly, this is the spot to do it. And for me, there is no better time to do it than in October, because that’s when they’re schooled up the most.

What’s the biggest fish you caught on the fly in Destin?

My biggest catch was about thirty five pounds but my wife caught one that was nearly fifty.

How about one of your clients?

A couple of them in the forties but most of them in the thirties.

You doing catch and release or keeping the fish?

A little bit of both. Today we kept five trout.

Are you optimistic about the future of fly fishing in Destin?

Oh yeah. It was never a thing five or ten years ago. Nobody really targeted the Bull Red because you couldn’t keep them in Florida so nobody really worried about them but now it’s a big deal. I get a few guys every year that wanna cross that Bull Red off their fly fishing bucket list and as long as they get one good one out here they’re happy.

But last October was the first time I’d seen it like that where there was one school of Bull Reds in a bayou and every afternoon you could go there and they would just be floating all over the place. So one or two guides could go in there and catch twenty to thirty fish in a single afternoon.

Why do you think the Reds have become such an interesting species to fish for recently?

It’s just the number of them. For instance, down in Panama City Beach people just aren’t seeing nearly as many of them but for some reason the Choctawatchee Bay has just been holding really big schools of them. I mean, it’s ‘southern Louisiana’ good over here for catching Bull RedS on the fly.

How do the regulations vary from Louisiana to Florida for the Bull Red?

Well, in Louisiana you can keep five Bull Red’s per person and one over the slot and in Florida you can keep one per person that has to be in the slot. Actually, I think that’s one of the things that makes the Choctawatchee Bay so interesting. It’s such a tight bay because there’s only one exit to the gulf and there’s so much bait in here that I think some of these Reds get over the slot and they never leave cause they don’t have to. They’re just eating and eating and getting bigger and bigger, waiting for us to catch them.

catch a Bull Red on fly

“The unique thing about Destin is if somebody wants to catch a Bull Red on fly – this is the spot to do it.”

How has the fly fishing scene changed in the Destin area over the past few years – any trends that stand out?

When I fished the bay ten years ago I could go for a week and not see a single boat. And now, guys are selling their big boats and buying bay boats because you can still go Snapper fishing on a bay boat for the three days out of the week and still use the boat year round so bay fishing has really blown up in the last five years.

What’s the key to being a great fishing guide?

I would say patience. A lot of guides will just go out there and run around but having patience and sticking with a game plan has always been my strategy. It also helps to have experience. I grew up in the Destin area and my great grandad, my grandad, and my father were all commercial fishermen here so it helps a lot to have that local knowledge and experience about the area that you can only acquire from being here for a long time.

I can see how someone who hasn’t tried fly fishing before might get discouraged.

Yea, well you see a lot of guides who will pull up to a really good spot and sit there for five minutes and if the fish aren’t biting they’ll move to another spot. But for me, I try to create a game plan every night for the day ahead and stick to that plan and it pays off. For instance, I’ll usually hit two or three spots a day when everybody else is running around trying to hit ten.

Is there a lot more competition out there now?

Oh yeah, just where I go out of in Santa Rosa Beach there’s probably sixteen guides out there and when I started there were two. But there’s much more tourism in the area and enough people vacationing so I’m doing more business now than I ever have before so think it’s fair to say the industry is doing well.

Any last advice you would give to someone looking to go fly fishing in the Destin area?

I would say pick a good guide. Check the reviews and do your research on the guides. It helps to know exactly what you’re looking for and what your expectations are before booking a trip.

Dean Belmont

Dean has fished on 3 different continents, and doesn't plan on stopping anytime soon. He currently writes and works with fishing captains over at FishingBooker.com

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