I don't think I can do this," grunted 6-year-old QuintRogers as he struggled to keep the spinning rod from jerking out ofhis hands and over the bow rail. After helping the grown-ups subduea couple of big redfish, Quint had decided to try one all byhimself. Now he was having second thoughts. Between the up-and-downmotion of the boat and the big fish on the other end of his line,young Mr. Rogers had his hands full. We had timed our morningdeparture last November to catch the first of the rising tide atMiddle Bar, along the beachfront of Little St. Simons Island,Georgia. This particular spot had been producing notable catches ofboth keeper and oversize redfish for the past month. Afterselecting an anchorage atop the shoal and between two sets ofbreakers, we cast out fresh menhaden chunks on circle hooks. Aredfish took the second bait before we could put the rod in aholder. The next bait was eaten just as quickly. My fishing buddyGordon Rogers and I landed, tagged and released both fish. That'swhen Quint decided to take his shot at the title.
After instructing his son in the fine art of threading chunkbait on a circle hook, Gordon cast off the port side and into thecrest of a comber rolling in from the east. Once again, the rod hadbarely settled in the holder before it began to strain under thepull of another big fish.
A moment later that rod was in the hands of the younger Rogers,and the struggle began. The bull red rolled in breakers, stood onits snout in the shallows and then made a dogged run into deeperwater. The fish made Quint pay a precious price for gaining eachinch of line - line that left the Penn spinning reel much quickerthan it returned. "Just pump and reel. You're gaining onhim," Gordon encouraged. "This fish is all yours."Gordon stood a few inches behind his son, poised to avert disasterbut keeping his hands to himself. Realizing that he was truly onhis own, Quint settled into a stubborn silence. Soon the pace ofpumping and reeling increased as the fish began to weaken.
After a 15-minute fight, the big redfish finally surrendered andcame over the gunwale. Quint quickly recovered from his temporaryexhaustion and became a chatterbox. He peppered me with questions:"How much does he weigh? How long is it? How old is that fish?Why does it have all those spots? Can we keep it?"
As I gently laid the fish on the deck and stretched out themeasuring tape, Quint got on his hands and knees to closely studyhis former adversary.
"He'll go about 25 pounds and measures 42 inches," Ianswered. The big red was almost as long as Quint was tall. Nowthere was a fish story for his first-grade buddies!
I answered his questions while pointing out one of the mostdistinguishing features of redfish: "Most only have one spotat the base of the tail, but some have lots of spots all along theside. Nobody really knows why. And guess what? This fish could beas old as me." That last comment drew a doubtful look from theyoung angler.
Then I explained that we had to release the fish both because itwas the right thing to do and it was the law. Having watched theadults release their fish, Quint seemed content with myexplanation. He paid close attention as I inserted the plastic darttag below the dorsal fin. After applying the requisite kiss to hisfirst I-caught-this-one-all-by-myself bull red, Quint helped hisfather hold the fish as I snapped a photo. Then he and Gordon easedthe fish over the side and into the water. When the red waggled itstail and disappeared, Quint looked up and asked his father if hecould fight the next one. Ah, the resilience of youth.
Pushing the Edge
The quest for bragging-sized red drum gives one a great excuse togo to places splendid with the natural beauty of golden sand,foaming white water and flocks of migrating shorebirds. Unique,high-energy environments, sandbars and shoals define the raggededge where land and sea battle for dominion of the earth's surface.Some anglers find this edge a little too intimidating and shy away.Others seek it with a passion for they know it's the place to makeangling memories, especially if they're after trophy redfish.
During autumn, adult redfish find the ragged edge a fertilefeeding ground, an ideal location to recover from the rigors ofspawning before facing the challenges of winter. Striped mullet andmenhaden spill forth from estuaries in vast quantities and stack upagainst these natural roadblocks. Prevailing easterly winds pushmigrating schools of spot and Atlantic croaker into the shallows,creating a bonanza for hungry reds. Crabs, shrimp and othercrustaceans become helpless in the turbulent waters.
Anglers on North Carolina's Outer Banks enjoy the luxury ofdriving trucks or SUVs to productive spots for redfish lurking onthe edge. However, that represents the exception and not the rulethroughout the red drum's range. In my home state of Georgia, wefind the best autumn redfishing near inlets and on the ocean sideof barrier islands. Broad expanses of spartina grass and tidalwaters separate all these islands from the mainland. Similarsituations occur in South Carolina, northeast Florida and manyareas in the Gulf of Mexico.
nly four of Georgia's 13 barrier islands offer access byautomobile. While these urbanized islands have some decent fishingspots along the beaches, islands still spared the insult ofcauseways, blacktop and strip malls hold the most consistentfishing grounds. Locations like Wolf Island Bar, Cabretta Beach andMcQueen's Inlet have become legendary in the folklore of coastalGeorgia angling.
These isolated islands, which are privately owned or under thestewardship of the state or federal government, put spontaneoustransit to beachfront fishing areas strictly out of the question.But shallow waters surrounding these coastal islands remain open tothe public, giving boaters unfettered access to prime redfishterritory. Simply put, those with boats and seamanship have adecided advantage and can prowl the ragged edge in places othersonly dream about.
From the Grand Strand of South Carolina to the Space Coast ofFlorida, the twice-a-day tide rises and falls from 4 to 9 feet. Addall this moving water to the energy expended as ocean waves breakagainst the land, and you've got a challenging environment foranglers. However, anyone who has a seaworthy boat at least 17 feetlong and a healthy respect for the unpredictability of Mother Oceancan easily and safely place themselves in the midst of the hometurf of truly big redfish.
Modified V-hulls, such as the new generation of bay boats, makethe best choice for this type of fishing: They cut through chopcomfortably yet maneuver through shallow waters with ease. Larger,deep-V offshore boats work in some spots, but often prove too muchboat for such skinny water. Flats boats, on the other hand, aresuitable for those perfect days but quickly become uncomfortableand often unsafe when a brisk sea breeze stirs up a heavy afternoonchop for the return trip. Fishing near breaking water alwayscarries the threat of a rogue wave rolling into the boat, sovessels should be self-bailing and/or equipped with redundant bilgepumps.
Reds Rule in White Water
Redfish big and small love to prowl the very shallow breaking wateratop sandbars and shoals - areas often no more than 2 feet deep.Novice anglers shirk from tossing baits into the foaming water,finding it hard to believe that reds frequent such a violentenvironment. These anglers don't realize that evolution has madethe red drum uniquely suited to go where other fish can't.
Torpedo-shaped bodies and broad tails give redfish agility andquick propulsion in the breakers, a fact soon evident to an anglerwho tangles with one. A keen sense of smell and a hypersensitivelateral-line system help reds pinpoint forage in murky waters, andthe subterminal (bottom-oriented) mouth lined with hundreds of verysmall teeth seizes prey in a swift and sudden attack. Lastly,copious amounts of slime and heavy scales help protect the skin andgills from the abrasive effects of swirling sand.
Throughout their range, redfish gather near inlets and inshallow offshore waters to spawn from August to October. Eachfemale spawns multiple times. Some fish complete spawning early,while others continue into the autumn. Big redfish normally beginto show in good numbers in the surf about mid-September, drawn tothese areas by the abundance of food and minimal competition fromother species. Here they linger through early November. You'll findredfish on shoals and sandbars as long as surf-water temperaturesstay above the mid-60s.
Driven by habit and an incredibly strong homing instinct,redfish return to the same areas at the same time each year. Forexample, a few years ago I recaptured a 40-inch red that I hadtagged 364 days earlier. Not only was the coincidence of catchingthe fish almost exactly a year later certainly noteworthy, but alsoI caught that red on the same sandbar and within 100 yards of thesame spot! In another case in South Carolina, a tagged redfish wascaught on the same shoal after seven years at large.
Those interested in tangling with hefty redfish can study anautical chart to narrow their choices. However, time spent talkingwith local anglers and other experts can save hours on the water.Better yet, make friends with a passionate redfish angler and learnthe best spots firsthand.
To the untrained eye, all shoals are created equal - justanother piece of sand waiting to spoil a careless boater's day. Thepracticed eye sees a much different scene. Shallow, breaking watersplit by a deeper trough stands out as a potential hot spot forredfish. Crashing pelicans and dipping terns betray the presence ofbaitfish caught in the maelstrom of crashing breakers. A scan tothe east reveals incoming waves losing their peak just close enoughto the sandbar to allow safe anchorage within easy castingdistance.
Unless you're a world-championship caster, you've got to putyour boat close enough to white water to deliver baits to thestrike zone. On some days and in some locations, this may meanparking in the breakers - certainly not an act for the faint ofheart or poorly prepared. On other days and in other places, youmay have success while anchored in calm water alongside breakers.Smart anglers prepare for both situations and make personalflotation devices part of the dress code, especially for kids.
Three key elements hold a boat within redfish range: the rightanchor, the right ground tackle and the right amount of anchorrode. You may anchor in only 3 feet of water, but often the boatsuffers the combined effects of wind, waves and tidal current. Afluke-type anchor with plenty of chain makes the best choice forgripping sand/mud bottoms found in the most productive spots. Aminimum scope of 5-to-1 ensures the anchor won't snatch loose onevery third wave.
Fresh Is Best
Scientific vernacular deems the redfish an opportunistic omnivore,a fancy way of saying they'll eat just about anything. This leadssome anglers to believe that they can offer a surf-run redfishanything short of a smelly sweat sock and the fish will take itwith relish, but nothing could be farther from the truth. When redsgo into a feeding frenzy, frozen bait works as well as fresh. Butday in and day out, fresh bait brings more fish to the boat; mulletand menhaden rank as the bait of choice for bull reds.
I never leave the dock without a cast net, and sometimes devotean annoying amount of time to hunting for bait while in transit tofishing grounds. Larger mullet and menhaden go directly on ice.Smaller baits, like finger mullet, go into the livewell. I knowthat fresh baits stay on the hook longer, but I also believe thescent makes a difference to the highly evolved olfactory sense ofredfish.
Whole finger mullet, fished live or dead, prove particularlyattractive to immature reds often found sharing the breakers withlarger adults. Mullet over 8 inches should be cut into chunks largeenough to cover the hook. Don't discard the head - it's one of thebest baits for big redfish. Menhaden measuring 6 inches or less canbe fished whole, but try cutting off the tail to put extra scent inthe water.
Large blue crabs also make good baits. However, in high-energysurf zones, the flesh quickly washes from the shell, and baits mustbe replaced frequently. I remove the legs and apron before breakingthe body in half and passing the tip of a circle hook through oneof the leg openings in the carapace.
Gear Up for Battle
A 30-pound redfish ripping through crashing breakers tests man andtackle alike. The choice between spinning and casting gear remainspersonal. Just remember that the ability to accurately cast aterminal rig and bait weighing 3 to 5 ounces a distance of 50 yardsor better can make the difference between mediocre days andphenomenal ones.
With an experienced crew, I fish a spread of four rods and favorPenn 555 GS reels mounted on 7-foot medium-/heavy-action Penn PowerSticks. If my anglers feel uncomfortable with casting reels, Ishift to Penn 7500 SS spinning reels mated to a spinning version ofthe 7-foot Power Stick. The fast tip delivers accurate casting andstrength to control fish at the boat; the 7-foot length keeps linesclear of outboard engines and bow pulpits without becoming unwieldyon small boats.
Whatever the choice of tackle, reels should carry a minimum of20-pound-test monofilament. I stick with traditional mono sincesuperbraids have a disturbing tendency to tie themselves in knotswhen fished in the topsy-turvy environment of the surf.High-visibility colors help me keep track of fishing lines bothduring bait deployment and with multiple hookups.
Redfish have a well-deserved reputation as aggressive feedersand usually swallow food in one gulp, especially in the surf.Unlike their brethren tailing in placid grass flats or cruisingsubmerged oyster bars, surf-run reds have no time to be delicatebecause if they miss a feeding opportunity, they rarely have asecond chance. Given this abnormally aggressive behavior, naturalbaits on traditional J-hooks often result in deep-hooked reds withdiminished chances of postrelease survival. Local laws along theAtlantic Coast require the release of large redfish, with maximumsizes varying from 23 to 27 inches, depending upon the state. Whenused properly, circle hooks prove better for fish and angler alike;they reduce gut-hooking while increasing postrelease survival ratesas well as hookup ratios, and several rods can be fished at thesame time.
Regarding terminal tackle, simplicity reigns for reds on theedge. Finish off the main line with a spider hitch or Bimini toform a 36-inch length of double line. Pass the double line througha plastic bead, a nylon sinker slide (commonly called a fishfinder) and another plastic bead, then tie on a 75-pound-testcoastlock snap swivel. A 2- to 4-ounce pyramid sinker clipped tothe fish finder ensures the bait stays in productive waters. Makeleaders from 18 to 24 inches of 80-pound fluorocarbon fitted with acircle hook on one end and a surgeon's loop on the other (to clipin the snap swivel). Reds rarely seem leader shy in the surf, but Istill prefer fluorocarbon because of its abrasion resistance.
Many redfish aficionados will eagerly share a day on the waterwith an enthusiastic novice. People who love to catch big reds alsolove to see others do the same. Plus, more and more guides aretargeting large redfish in the surf and offer their services forthose seeking professional advice.
Next time you grow weary of the daily grind, head for the bar -a sandbar - where you'll find surly reds on the edge looking for afight. Roll up your sleeves, and give it to them.