The Hunt For Red October
Tips for targeting fall redfish.
Redfish, also called red drum, channel bass and a variety of other colorful names, are one of the most popular inshore saltwater species around.
And fortunately, thanks to conservation-minded management of sport and commercial fishing, populations of these great-tasting, hard-fighting sportfish have made a comeback along the Gulf Coast and southern reaches of the Eastern Seaboard.
Named for the “drumming” sound they make during spawning and when plucked from the water, red drum are denizens of near-shore and offshore waters. Often, they segregate by size.
Juvenile redfish favor rivers, passes, tidal creeks, bays and canals up to about four years of age, then are more apt to roam farther from the bank. Mature redfish, including prized “bull” reds topping 30 pounds, are creatures of deeper water. However they often feed in the surf off beaches—especially in the fall, making this one of the year’s best times to target them from small boats, jetties and piers, or by wading into the surf.
In fact, whether you’re looking to land a broad-shouldered brawler that will test your fish-fighting skills and make your forearms beg for mercy, or simply catch a few smaller reds for the grill, there’s no time like the present to make it happen.
The redfish’s autumn itinerary includes migrating to coastal inlets and wind-blown beaches. The spawning period includes late summer and early fall, but congregations of baitfish such as mullet offer feeding opportunities that encourage these bruisers to patrol the shallows a bit longer. As the water temperature continues to cool, the fish often move into deeper waters off the bank to spend the winter, and then surge back into the shallows in spring.
Also worth noting are areas such as Florida’s legendary Mosquito Lagoon and Indian River system, where minimal tides and a relative inaccessibility to the open ocean encourage redfish to spend their entire lives inshore. In such waters, giant bulls commonly cruise in close proximity to schools of 18- to 25-inchers.
Here, too, redfish follow spawning migrations and schools of baitfish. Local experts like longtime guide Capt. Larry Fowler advise targeting schools of mature post-spawn reds in depths of 10 to 20 feet or more. “Keep your distance and fire long casts ‘across the bow’ of a moving school, so you intercept the fish on the retrieve,” he says.
A variety of lures shine for fall redfish. If you’re looking for smaller, eater-sized fish that fall within local slot limits (always check the regulations for the area you’re fishing), a bright-colored, flavor-enhanced softbait such as a 3- to 4-inch Berkley Gulp! Swimming Mullet or PowerBait Mullet on a light jig head weighing up to ¼ ounces is a great choice.
A 7-foot medium-action spinning outfit spooled with 30-pound Trilene Braid tipped with a 20-pound Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon leader rounds out the rig.
Larger, 2- to 3-year-old redfish topping 20 inches will hit similar setups. When they’re following a rising tide into flooded marshes to forage on fiddler crabs and other tasty crustaceans, however, the Gulp! Peeler Crab and Gulp! Shrimp are excellent options.
A 5-inch Gulp! Saltwater Jerk Shad is another fine choice, both for casting to redfish cruising shallow marshes or skipping underneath branches to fish feeding in mangroves. Keep in mind that when fishing around grass, woody cover or other snaggy environs, weedless riggings limit can hang-ups and boost your catch rates.
As the tide begins to fall, you can often extend the action by moving to nearby shellbeds or other prime lies in deeper water and waiting for outgoing redfish to swarm these areas.
Bull redfish hit a variety of offerings as well, but Fowler recommends big, flashy baits to grab their attention. “They can inhale a 10-inch mullet in a heartbeat, so don’t be afraid to go big,” he says.
When mature reds are feeding along shoals, sandbars and riprap jetties, a stout slip-sinker rig with live, cut or artificial bait is a popular option. Faster-moving presentations such as spoons, plugs and double-jig rigs tipped with plastics take fish, too.
While relatively light spinning gear is fine for small to medium-sized redfish, heavier gear is in order for battling bull reds, which can reach lengths of more than 40 inches and weights over 50 pounds. The all-tackle world record, caught off North Carolina in 1984, tipped the scale at a whopping 94 pounds, 2 ounces. Stouter tackle tips the odds in your favor and also shortens the fight, which is easier on the fish.
In the end, fall success depends on targeting the best locations your area has to offer, at peak fishing times, then tailoring your tactics to match. To speed your search, check with local fisheries biologists, tackle shops, fishing guides and online fishing reports and forums.
Finally, if the fish play hard to catch, be prepared to experiment. For example, when fast-paced presentations strike out, particularly in dark water with relatively low visibility, a classic approach like dancing a 3-inch Gulp! Shrimp beneath a popping cork can turn the tide in your favor.