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November 22, 2006

Bulls Off the Beaches

Northern Gulf Waters Run Red when Winter Drum Swarm

Run 'n' gun for the three B's
"The most important element to success with these fish," he says, "is covering ground and looking." Jones suspects that's one of the reasons almost no other guides here really work over the winter bulls. Most are happy to fish in the bays or around their mouths. Finding the fish some days requires a lot of work and fuel (even though Jones' twin 225 Suzuki four-strokes are pretty frugal). Looking well off the beach is another trick: "I'll see boats working just outside the surf with no result, and I'll find redfish a mile out," he says.

But the fish can be anywhere: Both days I joined Jones, we were into multiple- hookup action within five to 10 minutes of leaving Perdido Pass. At times, reds can be profuse in the breakers (along with some pompano, jacks, bluefish and other species, depending upon time of year), and if the water's clear, Jones' anglers can sight-cast to individual fish in shallow water along the sand.

My experience fishing with Jones drove home the importance of the three B's: bait + birds = bulls. We did come across scattered pods of reds without those other B's, but the best hand-over-fish action, with reds all over the place, came amid bird activity.

That said, an angler or guide who presumes any diving bird will point the way to big fish may be profoundly disappointed. Pelicans: maybe. Seagulls: could be, but not as a rule. Terns: forget it. What Jones really looks for are the gannets that overwinter here. That's because what they look for are not the big balls of "rain minnows" or "red minnows" (tiny glass-minnow-size anchovies) that one often sees, but larger threadfin herring.

In fact, stomach-contents studies have shown blue crabs and mullet to be predominant among northern Gulf bulls - but those studies may not reflect this winter period when herring and other "whitebait" species may be particularly abundant.

Ideal light-line or fly-rod fishery
Though Jones has tackle aboard, many anglers bring their own. It's a great fishery to put gear to the test and give it a workout. Typical of bull reds, these fish are tough customers. Best of all, for those who enjoy fishing lighter gear: (1) you're guaranteed a clean fight, free of obstructions (unless they manage to wrap you around a lower unit), and (2) the fish hold up well after a long fight - usually showing plenty of reserve to dart away strongly.

Jones calls them "bulletproof"; it's rare for him to see a fish on top once it's released. That said, I'm unaware of any mortality studies of big reds released offshore. I can't be certain what any long-term mortality following release might be, but it's hard not to agree that a tough battle doesn't seem to slow these fish down much, even after some quick in-cockpit photos, especially if released properly (see "Drop 'Em Headfirst"). Since the water is seldom much deeper than 20 feet, there's no problem with "redfish inflation" - swim bladder expansion that occurs when reds are caught in 40 or 50 feet of water or more.

Northern Gulf winter bulls average 15 to 25 pounds, with some 30-plus likely any given day. Tackle in the 20-pound range is reasonable, particularly for anglers wanting to rack up numbers of reds. But for sheer spool-spinning, drag-burning fun, try going a little lighter. I used the latter and on day two shared the rig with Mike Todd of Birmingham, Alabama, who had fished winter bull reds with Jones before but never on lighter gear.

"Man, that is fun!" he said to his buddies fishing with us. After an exciting take-no-prisoners battle to whip a 20-pounder on my small Shimano Sahara spinning reel, he said, "We've got to get us some tackle like this!"

Fly-rod enthusiasts can ask Jones for specific recommendations; he's put hundreds of anglers on big Gulf reds - and points out that one of his clients, Robert Cunningham, set the 2-pound tippet IGFA record here with a 15-pounder.