The Ladyfish (Elops saurus) is a commonly found fish within the family Elopidae. With similar fin structure and shiny scales, they resemble a close relative of theirs - the Tarpon (Megalops antlanticus) - but in a much skinnier form. They have very shiny scales, large eyes, a forked tail, and the pectoral fins are very low behind the gill plate. They also have a similarly shaped mouth to a tarpon, where it is curved upwards for eating fish and other critters off the surface. Ladyfish inhabit a wide range of salinities, and are commonly found in brackish environments within mangrove and salt marsh channels, but also venture offshore in the fall for spawning. Reaching a maximum size of about 39 inches and 15 pounds, ladyfish of all sizes put up a great fight on the end of the line.
The "poor man's tarpon," the ladyfish is a great all-around sport fish for all anglers. Whether you're an avid fly fisherman or a die-hard live bait angler (live ladyfish make excellent baits for other fish), there is a lot of fun to be had catching Ladyfish. Even at small sizes, juvenile ladyfish pack a punch, and full of energy, while the larger adults can be a good five pounds or more and of course, just as energetic.
Throughout most of the year, ladyfish inhabit brackish environments with slow moving water, such as mangrove and salt marsh channels. Here, their favorite food item is fish, such as anchovies, mullet, sardines, menhaden, but will also consume shrimp and other crustaceans when available. Stomach content studies often reveal over 90% of their diet being fish-based. If the fall, adult ladyfish form large aggregations offshore for spawning, where they are often found just off the beaches.
Where to Find Ladyfish
I do not remember catching a ladyfish offshore. It probably happens, but if we have ladyfish on the boat and we're in 60 feet of water, they're usually cut into big chunks and are being lowered to feed to grouper, snapper, or shark we're trying to catch. Ladyfish are live-bait predators, but the open water is likely to be a broad grass flat, the edges of channels, or at times the channels themselves inside the bigger bays. The species has been studied in both Tampa Bay and the Indian Lagoon chain of waterways on the east coast, and they're known to breed and egg and begin their life cycles in the estuaries, where brackish water serves as their early environments.
They are around all year, with the smaller fish closer to the mangroves, inside residential canals, and in general anywhere that speckled trout, snook, redfish, cobia, tripletail, and catfish are caught. They are fast in the water and when they're feeding in schools, easily identifiable by diving birds.
Where to Catch Ladyfish
Throughout most of the year, you will find ladyfish within the estuaries along our coasts. Ladyfish can tolerate a very wide range of salinities, from full salt water to just about full freshwater, and are often found everywhere in between. The juveniles prefer to stick to the more calm backwaters between mangroves or salt marsh grasses, while the adults are often found in the deeper channels, and even offshore during the fall spawning season. The fish do not act much differently in the coldest wintertime than they do in the hot summer months.
They're active feeders around the clock, and you can catch them in a dead slack tide – something you cannot expect from snook or redfish. The bigger fish are on the edges of flats and often in the open channels, where they feed in schools. They're rarely alone, and if you catch one on the flats as it's jumping and running you often see two or three following the action and seeing if any food falls from the mouths of their seemingly excited cousin. If you catch one, there are more of them looking at you even if you are not looking at them.
Tackle for Ladyfish
The biggest ladyfish are beasts and will break you off or shake the lure or bait nine times out of ten. At nighttime, underneath big bay bridges or near sea walls, you can catch them weighing six and eight pounds. The biggest one we ever heard of was almost 40 inches and weighed in at 15 pounds, which we can only imagine. We have caught them at 30-32 inches though, and they fight like a miniature tarpon. Most of the ones you catch will be between a foot and two feet long and weigh a few pounds. They do not run far, but they jump and can definitely strip drag.
The best tackle for them is what you're carrying, which most of the time should be a seven to a seven-foot-six, fast action spinning rod. If you want to fish for them with live baits, make the rod softer – more of a medium action. The extra bend and whip in the rod will keep live baits from getting ripped off when you throw them.
Spinning tackle is easy to use and easy to find in a light or ultralight setup, allowing you to go as low as two-pound test line. Since spinning tackle is easiest to use, it's generally recommended for beginners, but is also easy to use for flipping small live baits or lures under mangrove branches where ladyfish will be lurking, so use them when fishing the backwaters and in tight spaces. Spinning gear is also great for letting the drag loose, so you can avoid tension breaks when a Ladyfish makes several jumps.
Conventional Tackle for Ladyfish
Most of the benefits you'll hear about conventional tackle refer to the amount of leverage you have against the fish -- this helps pull big fish away from structures, and is very useful for fighting big snook, grouper, or anything else that may pull you into a hole. When it comes to ladyfish however, a good light conventional reel will allow you to cast farther lures, so you can cover more ground. Ladyfish like to hit a fast-moving lure, so the farther the cast, the better. Conventional tackle also has better casting accuracy, and thus can really help out when trying to cast far distances into a school of bait being busted by ladyfish.
Fly Tackle for Ladyfish
Fly-fishing is one of the best ways to target ladyfish. These small but aggressive fish will readily hit small silvery streamer flies and popping surface flies, and are a lot of fun to fight on a fly rod, most of the time taking you to the reel. The backwaters can be pretty tight, but are usually protected nicely from the wind, making fly fishing a little easier. Use about a 2-to-4 weight rod for a good balance of “far casting and fun catching.”
Baits for Ladyfish
The main diet of a ladyfish consists of small silvery fish. Juvenile ladyfish eat mostly anchovies (called glass minnows by many), and small menhaden, sardines, and mullet, while the larger adults tend to prefer bigger menhaden, sardines, and mullet. Of course, as these are the natural prey of ladyfish, and usually very abundant in the estuaries, they are all great baits, with the exception of the anchovies, which make great live chum for perking up the fish.
Lures for Ladyfish
Since ladyfish love to eat those small silvery baitfish, there are a lot of good options when it comes to lures. Perhaps one of the best is a small silver spoon. Probably just as good, a small silvery shallow-diving plug that mimics a mullet work very well also. Ladyfish love to eat fast-moving prey, so cast these lures far to cover a lot of distance, and then retrieve fairly fast for solid action.
Ladies: Trash Fish or Great Fun?
You can decide that you hate ladyfish; the nasty gray poop they spray all over your otherwise perfect boat and perfect fashion clothing was just too much. Or you are like us. You love them. You can catch them on a fly-rod, you can use them to teach people a great deal about many aspects of fishing, they jump like little tarpon, and they can be cut into chunks to catch redfish stupid enough to eat them raw. We love ladyfish. And so should you. Try them. Just leave the white starched shirt at home and bring soap and a brush to clean your boat. They're killer fun to catch.