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June 26, 2007

Bassin' for Reds

Freshwater tips that trick saltwater spot-tails.

Needing only one more fish to make a limit, the tournament angler cast a snagless spinnerbait toward a log surrounded by thick grass mats. He eased the lure over the log and flicked the spinnerbait slightly, making it jump into the grass. Gingerly, he pulled it across the grass and let it sink at the edge.

Before the spinner fluttered completely to the bottom, something inhaled it. The fish erupted in a huge swirl, spewing grass and froth all over the log before heading for deeper water. After a brief tug of war, the angler subdued the 5-pound fish.

"Nuts! Another largemouth bass," he said. "All we need is one more redfish, and we can weigh our fish in this tournament."

"That's OK," his partner replied. "I think I have a big red on now that might win this tournament for us. I saw the spot on his tail as he nailed my topwater bait. Get the net!"

With the growing popularity of professional redfish tournaments, many former largemouth bass anglers have turned to targeting spot-tails. But instead of spending thousands of dollars retooling their tackle inventory, they put their favorite baits and tactics to work in the new environment. And surprisingly, they work!

"Fishing for redfish is a lot like fishing for bass," says Stephen Browning, a Bassmaster Classic veteran from Hot Springs, Arkansas, who occasionally fishes professional redfish tournaments. "A redfish will hit anything that a bass will hit. I've caught redfish on conventional safety-pin-style spinnerbaits and many other bass lures."

Sometimes called "channel bass," redfish can survive in fresh water, and bass can tolerate some salinity. In brackish estuaries, their ranges regularly overlap. Redfish feed on many of the same forage species that largemouths do, such as shrimp, crawfish, crabs and small fish.

Like habitats, habits also overlap. Both species prefer to ambush prey instead of chasing it through open water, although big reds sometimes herd mullet or menhaden in bays. Largemouths and reds commonly hide in thick cover or stake out pockets along grassy shorelines, waiting to smash anything that swims within range.

Top Temptations
To target bass and reds in shallow water, few baits duplicate the excitement of topwater lures. Making a commotion like a concrete-filled trash can dropping into the water, topwaters incite not just attention, but also demolition from redfish. Topwaters that resemble mullet feeding at the surface - such as Top Dogs and their MirrOlure cousins, She Dogs and He Dogs, along with XCalibur Super Spooks, Rapala Skitter Walks and Berkley Frenzy Walkers - seem to draw particular anger.

These walking topwater baits create scintillating side-to-side action with short pops of the wrist. Be sure to walk such lures all the way back to the boat because sometimes big redfish follow baits for quite long distances.

Many anglers throw topwaters when sight-fishing for tailing redfish in marshy ponds sometimes less than a foot deep.

"We use trolling motors to cruise down the bank and do a lot of sight-casting for tailing redfish," says Allen Welch, a professional redfish angler who guides for Hooked Up Charters near Venice, Louisiana, a state with loads of overlapping bass and redfish habitat. "In the ponds, 90 percent of the time, we see reds before we catch them. If I can get a redfish to hit a topwater bait, that's what I'll use. There are days when they won't hit anything but a topwater bait."

Poppers or chuggers displace water with their concave heads. When jerked, they gurgle with considerable surface disruption. Poppers require slow, deliberate movement. Pop them once and stop, letting them remain motionless until the ripples fade, then repeat. Prime poppers for reds include the Heddon Lucky 13, Rebel Pop-R, Storm Chug Bug, Rapala Skitter Pop, Berkley Frenzy Popper and Bill Lewis SpitFire.

Propbaits thrash the surface, often annoying otherwise lethargic fish into striking. They come equipped with nose or rear propellers or both. The harder an angler jerks the bait, the more noise it makes. Anglers can retrieve them with a steady motion almost like a floating buzzbait or use the stop-and-go approach. To tempt reds, try propbaits such as the Heddon Torpedo and Smithwick Devil's Horse.

Snakes in the Grass
Redfish smash topwater baits, but lures bristling with treble hooks can easily snag in heavy cover. Topwaters simply can't work around the matted vegetation in shallow ponds where reds sometimes lurk. In addition, redfish prowling under thick cover may require a bit more subtlety.

Salt-impregnated, unweighted soft plastics such as the YUM Dinger combine fast topwater action with the fish-finding ability of buzzbaits and the weedless penetration of Texas-rigged worms. Besides the chunky worm-type slug baits, anglers might choose smaller fluke or jerk-shad-type baits. Some of these come with tails that offer increased action; some provide belly slits to accommodate hooks more easily. With hooks hidden in the plastic, these baits can slither over the thickest vegetation like snakes or eels where other baits would hopelessly snag.

In very shallow water or extremely thick weeds, dance these soft plastics over the surface. Keep the rod tip high and move the bait with the rod instead of the reel. Keep the bait moving or hopping in short spurts. As the bait flits from grass clump to grass clump, it excites redfish. Just like bass, redfish may erupt through the grass to attack these baits silhouetted against the sky.

When fishing broken or patchy cover, use the stop-and-go technique. With this method, move the bait a few feet and then stop. Let it "crawl" over matted vegetation and pause briefly. Then, pull it over the grassy edges like a snake slipping into water. At pockets, let the bait sink. As it slowly sinks, the tapered ends wobble and vibrate, driving redfish nuts. After the bait sinks a foot or two, pull it back to the surface and continue the retrieve.

What's the Buzz?
In matted weeds, anglers can also turn to buzzbaits, which churn over the surface. Buzzbaits also make excellent search baits; even if a fish doesn't actually strike at a buzzbait, the lure sometimes startles it into moving. Nothing aggravates a redfish more than a noisy buzzbait sputtering past its nose several times.

If a redfish sits in a shallow pocket surrounded by thick grass, repeatedly toss a buzzbait toward it. Enrage it until it strikes out of pure hatred.

"We often throw buzzbaits in shallow-water duck ponds where there's heavy grass, or fish them through the pockets and along the edges," says Anthony Randazzo, a professional redfish angler who works for Paradise Plus Guide Service, also in Venice. "Redfish in there are not necessarily feeding, but pulling something annoying past their noses provokes a reaction strike. They hit it viciously."

Weedless spoons also work extremely well in matted grass. Throw a spoon over thick grass and skitter it across the surface like a gyrating topwater bait. In pockets, let it fall naturally, wobbling to the bottom, before retrieving it again. Through open water, reel it steadily along the bottom. For added enticement, tip spoons with curly plastic trailers or pork chunks.